The fight for Cretan independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which occupied the island for more than 250 years, was long and bloody. It was fought out over more than a century and resulted in numerous massacres, particularly in the 19th century.
In 1866 at the Arkadi Monastery, in the hills above Rethimno, 943 Cretans, mostly women and children, and the monastery’s Abbot martyred themselves after a Turkish assault on the holy site. Instead of surrendering they blew themselves up in the monastery’s munitions block. The monastery including its Venetian built church, with its unique Renaissance inspired facade constructed in 1567, can still be visited today.
The monastery is now a national sanctuary and November 8 its commemorative day. The explosion did not end the Cretan insurrection, but it attracted the attention of the rest of the world.
At the nearby Melidoni Cave forty years earlier, in 1824, 340 Cretan men, women and children were asphyxiated after Turkish troops lit a fire at the cave’s entrance when they refused to surrender after a three month siege.
There is a plaque here commemorating these lives lost in along with a communal tomb in the cave.
Four years later, in 1828, at Frangocastello Fortress on the island’s south coast, hundreds of partisans were cornered and lost their lives in a subsequent Turkish attack.
According to tradition, around the anniversary of the battle each May, shadows of the armed Cretan soldiers who lost their lives here seem to march towards the fortress around dawn.