One of the bloodiest events in modern Greek history took place at the historic Monastery of Arkadi in central Crete when rebels and almost 1,000 men, women and children were hunkered down within the monastery walls and surrounded by 15,000 Ottoman Turkish soldiers sent to stop a regional revolt.
The monastery walls were manned by only 259 armed men — Cretan revolutionaries, including 45 monks — and inside its walls were almost 700 women and children from nearby villages seeking refuge from the encroaching Turks.
The Turkish commander demanded surrender at the monastery walls. The Cretans responded with gun fire.
The bloody battle was on, and soon the monastery gates were stormed as a violent battle ensued.
Eventually overwhelmed by the Turk’s superior numbers, all the Cretan rebels were killed, leaving about 700 helpless women and children holed up in the monastery compound’s storage room, which was usually for food but since the revolt had been repurposed for gun powder and explosives.
Soon the Turkish soldiers surrounded the massive warehouse filled with people, and at the most opportune moment a rebel named Konstantinos Giaboudakis gathered the consensus of all inside to do the unthinkable — ignite the gun powder and die, en masse, as free Greeks.
The ensuing explosion also killed more than 1,500 Ottoman soldiers.
The desire of the Cretan villagers to die as free Greeks and the actions of the Turks shocked the world and brought focus on the Cretan struggle for independence.
So moved by the freedom-yearning Cretans’ struggle, philhellenic volunteers began arriving on Crete from countries such as Serbia, Hungary, Italy and France.
A Frenchman named Gustave Glouren enlisted in the rebel army and organized a small group of foreign fighters including three other Frenchmen, an Englishman, American, Italian and Hungarian.
This group published a brochure on “The question of the Orient and the Cretan Renaissance,” contacted French politicians and organized conferences in both France and Athens.
Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi wrote letters praising the patriotism of the Cretans and their desire for independence. Moved by ardent philhellenism, numerous Garibaldians came to Crete and participated in several battles.
Letters written by Victor Hugo were published in the newspaper Kleio in Trieste, which contributed to the worldwide reaction. The letters gave encouragement to the Cretans and told them that their cause would succeed.
Not finding the necessary solution from the big European powers, the Cretans sought aid from the United States. The American public became sympathetic toward the Cretans’ efforts and many American philhellenes joined the cause of Cretan independence.
In 1868 a question of whether to recognize Cretan independence was addressed in the House of Representatives, but the majority ultimately voted not to intervene in Ottoman affairs.
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