Monastery Toplou is a 15th-century monastery located in the northeastern part of Crete, 10km east of Sitia, in the centre of an open rugged plateau at the base of the Cavo-Sidero peninsula, 6km away from Palekastron and on the way to the palm forest of Vai. The monastrey has had a long history which played a significant role in the struggles of the Cretan people for freedom. The people in East Crete also refer to Toplou Monastery as the “Great Monastery”. Its official designation is however Panagia Akrotiriani, meaning ‘Our Lady of the Peninsula’, while the contemporary name Toplou emerged during Turkish rule. The name actually means “Monastery with the gun” or “the one that has a cannon” in Turkish. Toplou has been repeatedly plundered by pirates, as well as by the Knights of Malta in 1530. It was destroyed in an earthquake before finally taking its current form during the 17th century.
Toplou Monastery is an impressive building, a true bastion looking like a small fortress surrounded by a natural Venetian stone wall. Details of its foundation remain unknown but the monastery’s oldest frescoes, in the Catholic section, have been dated to the 14th century. The main building of 800 square metres has three floors, which are divided into cells, guest houses, kitchens, the abbot' s residence and warehouses. The Catholic section is a two-aisled church where the northern aisle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the southern posterior aisle, to Saint John the Theologian. The monastery' s characteristic bell tower bears relief crowns and crosses with inscriptions and the date 1558. The monastery was already flourishing in the 15th century, as is evidenced by a number of icons from that period. Today it is one of the most significant and historic monasteries in Crete.
Within the building complex of the Toplou monastery, there are two very important museums with a standing exhibition of Byzantine icons, books and documents, and a collection of artefacts, that reflects the events that have affected Cretan history over the past centuries. It houses 15th-century icons along with other items such as Gospels, Patriarchal Sigils, Sultan’s Decrees and revolutionary banners. 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 one of the highlights. A stunning composition of 4 central and 57 other units, it depicts the Epiphany. Today the monastery is operated by the charismatic Abbot Philotheos Spanoudakis and 3 monks.
Toplou Monastery has experienced many attacks throughout its history. It was looted and destroyed by pirates in 1498, by the Knights of Malta in 1530 and by the Turks later on. In the 16th century, in spite of constant raids, the monastery acquired a great deal of property, founding churches in Crete and annexing many smaller monasteries in Sitia, such as Kapsa Monastery. It suffered serious earthquake damage in 1612, when the Venetians pledged 200 ducats for its repair. A few years before the Turkish invasion of Crete in 1645, the Venetians accorded the Cretans more privileges and helped them build new churches and monasteries. This was because they wanted them on their side, building up their religious sentiment so that they would be allies in the approaching war with the Muslim Turks. The abbot, Gabriel Pantogalos, decided it would be best to demolish the old, earthquake-damaged buildings and built a new, fortress-type monastery which would offer better protection from the enemy. The full name of the monastery is actually the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani and Agios Ioannis Theologos. Pantogallos’s additions and restorations led to the impressive result we see today - the lovely church with its tall Renaissance belfry.
As with medieval castles, over the main gate of the monastery there is a “murder-hole”, through which the monks could pour boiling oil on any besiegers or intruders. Toplou Monastery continued to flourish and was recorded as having 40 monks in 1639. Unfortunately this prosperity was rudely interrupted by the Turkish invasion of Crete in 1645. In 1648, a few years after its restoration, the monastery was looted by the Turks once more. In 1798, the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory V declared the monastery property free and undisturbed, and forbade its sequestration by the Turks without the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The greatest disaster came with the Greek revolution of 1821, when the monks of Toplou were “pre-emptively” slaughtered by the Turks. Although Sitia did not participate in the 1821 Revolution, the Turks killed all those they believed might provoke and support a rising. Toplou Monastery lay empty from 1821 to 1830, when new monks arrived. Many of the monastery relics were looted when abandoned, especially the gold and silver items. In 1840 a school was established for the children of this remote part of Crete.
It may have operated illegally at an earlier date, Unfortunately the recovery of the monastery was not to last. In 1866 a new rising broke out in Crete, and this time the monks seem to have played an active role in support of the revolutionaries. The Turks found out and the monastery was abandoned again, any monks arrested were tortured to death. Once the Turkish troops had left, the surviving monks returned to continue their work, but they were impoverished. During the German Occupation, Toplou Monastery played a leading part in the Resistance, as a wireless base in communication with the Allied HQ in Cairo and as a refuge for resistance operatives. When the Germans discovered the monastery’s activity, they arrested Abbot Gennadios Syllignakis, the monks and any resistance fighters they found there. They were taken to Agia Prison and executed. Although the Germans originally planned to blow up the monastery, they eventually limited themselves to confiscating its property.
Source: Bibliography of Nikos Psilakis Monasteries and Hermitages of Crete.
History Toplou Monastery
TOPLOU OLIVE OIL
Toplou Monastery has a wine tradition that spans over five centuries. Their wine collection is fully organic and there is no use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers or additives. As the largest landowner in the East of Crete they have always been making wine, olive oil and honey for the needs of the church for social and religious purposes. The abbot of the Monastery, Filotheos Spanoudakis is well known for his commitment for this biological agriculture of the property. He restored and put into value the old vines of the monastery in the nineties. He’s very active in both clerical and economical business and has lead the products of the Toplou Monastery to be sold all over Greece, Europe and further. The Toplou renowned dry white wine offers a blend of the two indigenous grape varieties, Thrapsathiri and Vilana. The wine has a delicate aroma, a full body balanced acidity, with a long aftertaste. Toplou Chardonnay is grown in a unique microclimate, to produce a pleasant dry white wine with exotic fruit aromas, a rich body and a unique aftertaste making it the best available Chardonnay from Crete. Liatiko Mandilari is the renowned dry red wine.
Its a blend of two indigenous grape varieties. The fruity character of Liatiko, combined with the aggressiveness of Mantilari, gives a balanced wine with forest fruits aromas and a long aftertaste. Toplou Merlot-Syrah is an excellent dry red wine with a deep red color and Toplou Syrah is a dry red wine made of Syrah from the eastern part of Crete. There is also and organic Rosé wine and a red award winning sweet wine made from sun-dried red Liatikos grapes, ligthly pressed and fermented for a few months. Tsikoudia is a famous Cretan alcoholic beverage, commonly known as Raki produced by Toplou. Toplou Organic Honey is a limited production of high standard organic processing. This honey is collected in a wild area with thyme and aromatic plants from the coastal region of the Monastery in East Crete. The combination of soil and microclimate gives a unique honey with superior taste. Toplou Extra award-winning standard Virgin Olive Oil is taken from fresh and healthy Koroneiki olives from Sitia area in East Crete, known for the cultivation of some of the Worlds finest olives caves.
Toplou has been a pioneer securing superior quality in the region, and collaborates with local farmers to meet the global demand. The olive oil is characterized by its golden-green color and intricate fresh aromas, produced solely by physical and mechanical methods. Finally the Toplou Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil follows strict guidelines for organic farming and ecological balance on their land, and their extra virgin olive oil is fully organic. No chemical pesticides or artificial additives are used, and they produce their own organic compost by byproducts from the production as fertiliser for the soil. The olives are planted and harvested, and the olive oil are produced and bottled at the facilities owned by Toplou Monastery. During the holiday season there are guided tours in the winemaking area, where you can taste the wines and spirits in combination with traditional delicacies like, cheese, olives and rusks with tomato. All the wines for taste are also for sale at the monastery. Toplou Monastery and its museum are open to the public daily from 09:00 - 18:00 hour.