the monastery of toplou
The Toplou Monastery is one of Crete’s largest, most historic and richest monasteries. Details of its foundation remain unknown but the monastery’s oldest frescoes, in the Catholic section, have been dated to the 14th century.
The area’s oldest monastery, however, was destroyed in July 1498 by Turkish pirates. The monastery began to re-emerge in the 16th century, and in the process, was looted by the Knights of Malta in 1530.
The monastery’s current structure was built following a massive earthquake in 1612, whose devastating effects were even felt in Venice. During that period, with the Ottoman invasion appearing likely, the Venetians helped construct fortresses in remote parts of the island to bolster its defenses. Within the framework of this scheme, the Monastery of Akrotiriani (Toplou) received a generous supply of funds that were used to restore and fortify the building.
The monastery’s contemporary name, Toplou, emerged during Turkish rule. The derivation of the name Toplou has most commonly been attributed to the Turkish word top, which means bullet or cannon-ball, and refers to the monastery’s cannons installed by the Venetians. The monastery continued to develop throughout the 18th century during which it also acquired stravropegiac status. But plenty of blood was shed there during the revolutions of 1821 and 1866. During the German occupation in World War II, monks as well as guerilla fighters hiding out at the monastery were all executed.
Besides its religious and economic importance to the region, the Toplou Monastery was also culturally active, as the icons adorning the monastery demonstrate. An icon titled Megas ei Kyrie by a major Cretan artist, Ioannis Kornaros, which is possibly his most representative work, is the highlight. A stunning composition of 4 central and 57 other units, it depicts the Epiphany.
From an architectural perspective, the monastery exemplifies the classic model of a fortified monastery. The walls, 10 metres high, are typically Venetian. The main gate is equipped with a hidden katachystra for monks through where they could pour hot oil or lead onto intruders. The northern aisle at the monastery’s Catholic section is part of the original monastery. It is adorned with 14th century frescoes.
Despite having been repeatedly pillaged throughout its long history, the monastery contains numerous relics, including a 2nd-century BC inscription set in a wall that contains the first 80 lines of a treaty signed by the cities of Itanos and Ierapytna with the Asia Minor city of Magnesia as the mediator. The old engraving was discovered by the English travel writer Robert Pashley serving as an altar at the monastery chapel. He persuaded the monks to put it in its present position.
The monastery also houses an ecclesiastical Museum.