Toplou Monastery is located, about 10 km east of Sitia and 6 km from Agathias-Palekastro, on the way to the palm forest of Vai.
Toplou monastery is one of the most significant monasteries in Crete, dedicated to Panagia (Virgin Mary). It was founded around the mid 15th century, probably on the ruins of an earlier convent. The monastery was plundered by the knights of Malta in 1530 and shattered in 1612 by a strong earthquake. Due to its strategic position, the senate of the Republic of Venice, then ruler of Crete, decided to financially aid in rebuilding it. The monastery flourished until the surrender of eastern Crete to the Turks in 1646, after which it was abandoned for a long time. In 1704, it acquired special protection privileges from the Patriarch (i.e., stauropegic) and was re-inhabited.
After its monks were slaughtered by Turks in 1821 during the Greek Revolution of Independence, Toplou was again deserted until 1828. In 1866, during the massive Cretan revolt against the Turks, it was once again devastated. During the German occupation of 1941-44, Toplou was providing shelter to resistance fighters and housed their wireless radio. When this was discovered by the Germans, the abbot and two monks were tortured and executed.
Having to defend itself from pirates and invaders, Toplou monastery is heavily fortified, being laid out around a courtyard paved with sea pebbles and surrounded by strong, 10 m (33 ft) high square walls. In its present form it extends to about 800 square meters in three floors, divided into cells, guest houses, kitchens and warehouses. The main church (katholikon) is built as a two-nave basilica and the belltower dates back to 1558.
Despite its turbulent history, Toplou has many works of art to its possession. Today, it hosts an interesting exhibition of Byzantine icons, books and documents, a display of ancient engravings and a collection of artefacts which reflect its role in the historical events that influenced Crete during the last centuries. The monastery possesses a series of about 20 portraits of monks, despotes and igoumens painted by the famous portraitist Thomas Papadoperakis. Many of them have written the recent tragical history of the place. The walls of the monks’ dining hall, the “trapezaria”, are also adorned with remarkable fresco paintings by the icon painter Manolis Betinakis.
There are the following collections:
– Collection of Cretan icons,
– Collection of engravings.
The most important exhibits of the Museum are:
– Theotokos the Immaculate, 15th century. Portable icon,
– Christ Pantocrator, 15th century. Portable icon, painted by Andreas Ritzos(?),
– St John the Precursor with scenes of his life, 17th century. Portable icon painted by F. Kavertzas,
– The Dormition of the Virgin, 15th century. Portable icon,
– Virgin of the Passion and St Nicolas, 1642. Portable icon,
– Sts Theodoroi, 1723. Portable icon by the painter Niketas,
– Holy Trinity, 17th century. Portable icon,
– Sts Ignatius and Savas, 17th century. Portable icon,
– Sts Athanasius, Cyril and John the Merciful, 17th century. Portable icon.
The Canyon of the Monastery of Toplou
Its entrance is in the west of the Monastery of Toplou. The landscape is astonishing not only because of its flora and the existence of a cluster of the palm tree Theophrastos Phoenix theophrasti, clusters of locust Ceratonia siliqua, oleander Nerium oleander, shinos Pistacia lentiscus, oleaster Olea europea ssp silvestris, but also its fauna which due to the existence of water in many parts gives shelter to the turtle Mauremis caspica.
The turtle is usually found in the ponds formed within the canyon throughout the year. The geological formations in the canyon are very interesting because they are made up of steep rocks and impressive caves as well as erosional forms called “Tafoni”.
At the end of the canyon to its exit to the sea the landscape changes becoming wilder and unique for the arid environment of East Crete. Although we expect to find water only in the entrance, all of a sudden we see it again in the lakes which are formed in a climax way at the exit of the canyon. It is a rare place with aquatic vegetation, running water all year round and rare reptiles.
The region is called Apoloustres which in the local dialect means small-sized lakes with source water animals drink water from. The journey is cyclical and the journey back goes through the smaller canyon towards the Monastery of Toplou.