Rethymno Guide Blog

The Cretan revolt of 1866: the dynamics of the revolution that inspired and motivated Europeans


"Why did Crete revolt? Because God made it the most beautiful country in the world, and the Turks the most miserable; because it has products and no trade, towns and no roads, villages and no paths, gates and no holds, rivers and no bridges, children and no schools, rights and no laws, the sun and no light. "

                                                                                                      Victor Hugo, Open Letters, 1875 

From May 1866, Arkadi was officially the revolutionary center of the Rethymno section, the residence of combatants but also the target of the Turkish administration.

 The group sacrifice of the imprisoned defenders of Arkadi was the most significant event in the monastery's long history and established it as the sacred symbol of Cretan liberation. In 1992, the European Communities paying homage to Arcadi’s struggle and sacrifice declared the monastery a Monument of European Freedom.

 Victor Hugo, in his Open Letters (December 2, 1866, and February 18, 1867) describes the framework of the revolt: discriminatory status of Christians, the venality of judges, the arbitrariness of Turkish officials, the continual invention of taxes and absence of investment. That year, in May, a Cretan assembly addressed to the Sultan a deferential petition (Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, February 22, 1867) asking for respect for individual rights and religious freedoms. 

 It also calls for the abolition of taxes, the construction of schools and hospitals, the creation of a credit bank, the modernization of ports, or the construction of a road network worthy of the name… The answer is long overdue until July: it will be repression.

 Despite the support of the Western opinion, the revolt was again crushed in blood: on November 8, 1866, the last of the 300 resistance fighters who defended the Arkadi monastery, where 600 women and children fleeing the massacres took refuge, blew up in the powder keg rather than surrender, taking with them 1,500 of the 16,000 Turkish assailants, and making Arkadi one of the major places of memory of contemporary Greece.

 “There only remained one barricaded room that held the powder and, in this room, next to the altar, at the center of a group of children and mothers, a man of eighty years, a priest, the hegumen Gabriel, in prayer...the door, battered by axes, gave and fell. The old man put a candle on the altar, took a look at the children and the women and lit the powder, and spared them. A terrible intervention, the explosion, rescued the defeated...and this heroic monastery, that had been defended like a fortress, ended like a volcano”

                                                                                                      Victor Hugo, Correspondance, t.3, 1867. 

The tragedy of Arkadi turned world opinion on the conflict. The event evoked the Third Siege of Missolonghi and the numerous Philhellenists of the world were in favor of Crete. Volunteers from Serbia, Hungary, and Italy arrived on the island. Gustave Glourens, a teacher at the Collège de France, enlisted and arrived in Crete by the end of 1866. He formed a small group of philhellenists with three other Frenchmen, an Englishman, an American, an Italian, and a Hungarian. This group published a brochure on The question of the Orient and the Cretan Renaissance, contacted French politicians, and organized conferences in France and in Athens. The Cretans named him a deputy at the assembly, but he turned the position down.

 Missolonghi had played a decisive role in the rise of early Philhellenism; Arkadi will attract a new generation of Philhellenes to Crete. Those of the 1820s were romantics who came to defend the sons of Leonidas and Themistocles; those who go to Crete are revolutionaries who want to fight against despotism. In the end, the Cretan revolt was a revolutionary act that influenced and motivated Europeans, giving at the same time a refreshing and interesting meaning to the idea of resistance.  


Sources: (Fraggakis, Marios (1996, University of Crete), Study and Assessment of Skull Injuries of Holocaust Victims at Arkadi Monastery in Crete– 1866)

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Tuesday, 31 January 2023

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