The monastery of ‘Toplou’ or of the Virgin Mary of the Cape ‘Panagia Akrotiriani’ constitutes the most important fortified monastic complex of northeastern Crete, with an imposing bell-tower decorated in renaissance style rising on its western side, above the main gate.
This impressive monastic complex – which up to this day operates as a male monastery – was developed gradually from the 14th century onwards and, as confirmed by archival sources, gradually developed into a vibrant convent of great spiritual radiance from the 15th century onwards. The monastery is built around a courtyard on three floors with ramparts, covering an area of approximately 800 square meters. Its construction took place in the last years of Venetian rule, when the upcoming Turkish threat was obvious.
The facade has a pediment of Renaissance style, and bears an engraved founding inscription of Abbot Gabriel Pantogalos written in elegiac couplets. The altar-screen of the catholicon is also notable, housing remarkable Byzantine icons. The monastery has two successive entrance gates. Passing through the great outer gate one reaches the outer courtyard. The places for the activities that needed to be carried out in a fortified space can be seen there. The outer gate was at the end of a vaulted gallery. The second gate leading to the main monastery building is called ‘gate of the wheel’. It was very heavy and not easily opened. It took its name from one wheel which was there to facilitate the monk who was responsible for opening and closing it. Just above this gate is the ‘katachytra’ or ‘murderer’s hole’, which was used to throw hot oil or lead on the pirates and raiders who would try to break the gate.
The construction of the monastery in this fortified form has been associated with the Cretan-Venetian families of Kornaros and Mezzo in Sitia. Even to this day the southern wing is called the Kornaros wing and the northern one is called the Mezzo wing, names indicating the sponsors of the monastery.
The monastery was at its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries, judging by the large number of important Byzantine icons of that period, closely reflecting the evolution of Constantinople style in icon painting. This style was gradually introduced to Crete from the fall of Constantinople onwards. The high artistic value of the icons is also indicative of the high level of education of this monastic community, which played an important role in raising the cultural level of Crete during the Renaissance. This period of prosperity continued undisturbed until 1612, when it was halted by a devastating earthquake that struck eastern Crete. During the Ottoman rule the monastery was frequently the subject of looting and slaughter by the Turks, but it managed to survive and help enslaved Greeks. Indeed, from 1856 onwards, a secret school was organized in the monastery complex, which taught literacy through religious texts under the auspices of the Dimogerontia (Community Elders’ Board). Candidate monks as well as the children of the people who lived in the area went to school there and learned to read and write.
The catholicon of the monastery, which is dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin, was originally a small single-nave barrel-vaulted church. A second sizable vaulted space was later annexed on the West. The original chapel now serves as sanctuary. In the pointed arch of the extension, which is divided by a transverse reinforcing arch, high-quality frescoes dated to the second half of the 14th century survive in poor condition (Borboudakis 2004). All the scenes which have been recognized come from a wider Christological cycle of at least sixteen scenes. In a third construction phase, the single-nave barrel-vaulted church of St. John the Evangelist was erected, attached to the southern side of the catholicon. A very important collection of pictures, manuscripts, incunabula, prints, etchings and church relics is kept and exhibited in the monastery, making it an important cultural destination in eastern Crete.