Toplou Monastery

The Holy Monastery of the All-Holy Virgin Akrotiriani and St. John the Theologian of Toplou Sitias belongs to the Holy Metropolis of Ierapetra and Sitia of the Church of Crete. It was founded during the 14th C. and it is built at the northeastern end of Crete, between the beautiful town of Sitia and the famous Palm Forest of Vai, next to the “Samonion” cape, which is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27,7), and where the Apostle Paul sailed by during his journey to Rome.

It is the largest and most impressive fortification-type Monastery of Eastern Crete, with its elaborate bell-tower dominating from afar. It was a secure fortress for the inhabitants of the surrounding area during the difficult years of successive pirate raids in the Middle Ages but also during the period of Turkish occupation which followed. For this reason, the Monastery had the privilege of owning a canon (top) for purely defensive purposes. And this is why the Monastery was named “Toplou” after the occupation of Sitia by the Turks.

The Monastery was a cultural and artistic centre and reached its peak during the 14th and 15th C. This is evident from the large number of important Byzantine icons of this period which it preserves. The high visual value of the icons is representative of the high level of the education of the monks of the Monastery, who played an important role in the raising of the cultural level of Renaissance Crete during the years of Venetian occupation.

The Monastery was completely destroyed during the disastrous earthquake of 1612 and was quickly rebuilt in its present form, thanks to the donations of the Venetian Senate with the help of two of the important Venetian families of the province of Sitia, the Cornari and the Mezzi, and the supervision of the efficient and skillful administrator, Abbot Gabriel Pantogalos. It remained the bastion for the defence of all Eastern Crete and it was endowed with many lands to fulfill its military defensive purpose in the area. The estate of the Monastery was maintained and expanded, with main cultures of olives, vineyards, and grain for the needs of the monks and the many workers.

During the difficult years of the Turkish occupation which followed, after the occupation of Sitia in 1646, the Monastery always remained at the epicentre of the struggles for freedom and it developed a significant national, social, and educational work. It was one of the most important ecclesiastical and spiritual centres of Crete. In 1704, it was proclaimed a Stavropegic Monastery, through a decree (Sygillion) of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Gabriel, and its massive estate was considered un-enslaved and inalienable. Despite this, in June of 1821, the Monastery was looted by the Turks, its treasures were seized, and 12 monks and 12 laymen were murdered. The Monastery was a revolutionary centre during the new Great Cretan Revolution of 1866, with Abbot Meletios as leader.

From 1856, an organised School operated in the grounds of the Monastery, under the responsibility of the Council of Elders, while from 1870, a Self-Teaching School was set up. In a census of 1874, the Monastery of Toplou was considered the most populous in number of monks and farmers of the lands, which were located around the Monastery, but also in many Dependencies that it maintained throughout Eastern Crete and all the way to the city of Heraklion.

In the years of the Cretan Polity and, later, after the union of Crete with Greece in 1913, the Monastery continued to perform a unique social, philanthropic, and national mission in the surrounding area. During the period of the German occupation, the Monastery hosted a wireless radio and hid partisans of the allied forces. It paid a heavy blood price though since the Abbot Gennadios Syllignakis, two monks, and many lay fighters were arrested by the Germans and executed in Agyia of Chania.

Today, the Holy Monastery of Toplou, completely renovated and restored, thanks to the unceasing efforts of the Abbot, Philotheos Spanoudakis, is one of the most important cultural monuments of our Country. Its treasures (collections of portable icons and heirlooms, manuscripts and rare books, engravings and copper engravings, etc.), of immense cultural value, are preserved and displayed in specially configured areas and attract many pilgrims – visitors, not only from Greece, but also from abroad.  

The Monastery, following the tradition of many centuries and with the agricultural experience of the Fathers, leads in the organic farming of vineyards and olives, thus contributing to the protection of nature and the preservation of the natural environment as our Orthodox Church teaches. The monastic complex is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves and whatever is produced is organic without the use of chemical pesticides, dangerous for both men and the environment. After all, the diet of the monks is based exclusively on non-processed food and drink, which help with daily healthy nutrition, particularly during the days of the fasts.

Wine and olive oil are products which are used for the devotional needs of the Orthodox Church and the Holy Mysteries, from the years of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they have a particular symbolism. Our own Christ transmitted to us the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, eating bread and drinking wine during the Last Supper, which represents His Precious Body and Blood respectively. Also, before the Crucifixion, he withdrew to the Mount of Olives to pray under the blessed olive tree.

The Monastery is renowned throughout the world for its famous organic products, the wine and olive oil with the historic brand “Toplou.” It has a modern winery and distillery which processes the organic grapes of its own vineyards and produces its famous wines and traditional tsikoudia (raki).  In parallel, for many years, it leads the efforts for the organic cultivation of the olive and the production, standardisation, and marketing of the only international award-winning olive oil of Sitia, Protected Designation of Origin, preserving this unique product and giving it a high-quality value.