Edward Lear – the British artist, travel writer and nonsense versifier – visited the island of Crete in 1864, long before its Minoan palaces were unearthed. Even though Greek was the most widely spoken language, at that time it was part of the Turkish Empire.
Edward Lear could read and speak Greek reasonably well. He enjoyed playing with the language, making up Greek poems and nonsense words and even attempting a translation of Tennyson’s poem “Will”. He was also aware of political tensions on the island. The Turks had wrested it from Venice in 1669, but the 19th century had seen several rebellions and the Revolution of 1866-69 was on the horizon.
Lear’s primary interest was not the people, although he found them hospitable and polite, but the island’s landscape. Lear kept a journal that comments on birds, flowers and food, and notes a general vagueness about distances, incessant questions, and a fierce manifestation of patriotism.
Lear visited the Arkadi Monastery, whose abbot, Gabriel Marinakis, is described as “a very jolly man and hearty”. Generally, the lodgings in Crete appear to have been poor, with an abundance of fleas, but the monastery turned out to be very hospitable:
“The Gabriel, who is a man of the world, was very jolly and pleasant and apologized, unnecessarily, for the supper, owing to its late coming: stewed pigeons, three sorts of salad, a dish of honey, cherries, beans, cheese, etc. etc. and with very good wine, though a little too sweet. Everything was orderly and hearty. Healths, Cretan fashion, abundant. Afterwards, coffee and smoking.”
The following day the abbot and monks bid Lear farewell as he set off for the nearby town of Rethymnon:
“Rose before four, having slept tolerably, thanks to lots of flea powder. Up and dressed 4.50. Coffee: see church – oldish (leave 24 piastres) – then draw on the outside. [Mt.] Ida would be lovely, and the whole scene delightful, but clouds stopped all. Then I went up a hill, Gabriel and all the monx too, and I drew again, on bits of paper, having put up my large book. Then, at 6.10, we were off. I like Gabriel.”
Two years after Lear’s visit to the Arkadi Monastery, the Cretan Revolt began. On 8 November 1866, an army of Turks arrived on the hills overlooking the monastery, where Cretan rebels and many of their families had taken shelter. In a letter to the newspapers, the French writer Victor Hugo graphically told a horrified world what happened next:
“Six thousand Turks attacked 197 men and 343 women and children. The Turks had 26 canons and two howitzers; the Greeks had 240 rifles. The battle lasted two days and two nights; the convent had 1,200 holes found in it from canon fire; one wall crumbled, the Turks entered, the Greeks continued the fight, 150 rifles were down and out and yet the struggle continued for another six hours in the cells and the stairways, and at the end there were 2,000 corpses in the courtyard. Finally the last resistance was broken through; the masses of the Turks took the convent. There only remained one barricaded room that held the powder and, in this room, next to the altar, at the centre of a group of children and mothers, a man of 80 years, a priest, the abbot Gabriel, in prayer… the door, battered by axes, gave and fell. The old man put a candle on the altar, took a look at the children and the women and lit the powder and spared them. A terrible intervention, the explosion, rescued the defeated… and this heroic monastery, that had been defended like a fortress, ended like a volcano.”
In fact, it may not have been the abbot who set off the gunpowder, but he was still killed in the battle. Three years later, Lear sailed past the island on his way home from a journey up the Nile. His diary of the period notes: “What miseries now are in that sad island!” He never went back. The monastery still stands.