How Arkadi became a universal symbol of sacrifice for freedom

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“The Holocaust of Arkadi” by Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri. Credit: SiriusParsec / CC-BY-SA-4.0

To this day, the “Arkadi Holocaust” remains a universal symbol of self-sacrifice for freedom in the face of barbarism, while also filling another page in the glorious history of Greece.

It was November 9, 1866 when more than a thousand brave Cretans gave their lives to make their struggle one of the most moving chapters in Greek history – choosing to blow themselves up in an explosion of ammunition rather than fall into the hands of the Turks.

In November 1866, the Cretans made a new effort to get rid of their Ottoman overlords and unite with the rest of Greece, liberated since the late 1820s. There were several freedom uprisings in Crete before 1866, but the revolt of the Arkadi monastery was the most crucial.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Ottoman oppression had forced the Pancretan Assembly to meet in Chania in May 1866 and to draw up a list of requests to be addressed to the Sultan. The Cretans demanded a fairer tax system, respect for the Christian religion, recognition of the population for freely electing their own elders and the freedom to improve the economic development of the island.

At the same time, the Assembly sent a secret message to the monarchs of England, France and Russia, urging them to act on behalf of the union of Crete with Greece. The rally was also attended by Gabriel Marinakis, Abbot of Arkadi Monastery, in the revolutionary center of Rethymno.

Arkadi Monastery, just outside of Rethymno, was the seat of the region’s revolutionaries. There, in November 1866, about 1,000 men gathered and armed, of whom 250 were ready to fight, while the rest were women and children.

The Siege of Arkadi

The siege began on the morning of November 8. Despite fierce attacks from the Ottomans, they failed to retake the monastery on the first day. In the evening, they called for help, bringing a large cannon from Rethymno.

The next day, November 9, the second wave of the attack began. In the early afternoon, the western wall of the monastery was destroyed by cannon fire. The attackers then invade the monastery and begin to massacre the inhabitants.

The last act of the bloody drama – constituting another glorious page in Greek history – was written that day. Kostis Yambodakis, (or Emmanuel Skoulas, according to other versions of the story), blew up the ammunition storage room, killing all the Greeks and many soldiers of the Ottoman army.

Immediately afterwards, the Ottomans and Albanians again advanced and slaughtered the survivors, then burned down the church and looted and desecrated the many sacred objects therein.

Only three or four Greeks managed to escape, while a hundred were captured. Father Gabriel Marinakis had been killed before the explosion. The Pasha’s dead and wounded amounted to 1,500 (or 3,000, according to later calculations).

The Arkadi Holocaust had a great emotional impact in the Christian world and a new wave of philhellenism was generated in Europe. Important figures of the time such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor Hugo took a stand in favor of the Cretan struggle, and foreign volunteers rushed to strengthen the revolution. Financial contributions from Russia and the United States were added to the rebel war fund.

Soon after, under pressure from the great powers, the Sultan was forced to draft a type of constitution granting privileges to Christians and semi-autonomous status for the island. However, the union of Crete with Greece did not become a reality until 1912.

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