The 26 Holy Zographou Martyrs were burned alive in 1282 on Mount Athos by a Latin army serving the Roman Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos. Their memory is celebrated on October 10th and September 22nd.
In 1274 Michael VIII Paleologos entered into union with the Pope of Rome with the infamous Union of Lyons during the Council of Lyons, in the hope that an alliance would strengthen his empire from the encroaching presence of the Bulgars and the Serbs. The union was not popularly received and the Emperor threatened to enforce the treaty by force if necessary, issuing a 1278 edict to that affect.
The monks of Mount Athos were solidly opposed to the union and sent a letter to the Emperor enumerating the heresies of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. They urged the Emperor to put aside the union, reject heresy and return to Orthodoxy. They specifically pointed out that the primacy of the Pope, his commemoration in the churches, celebrating the Eucharist with unleavened bread, and the insertion of the "filioque" ["and from the Son"] into the Creed, could not be accepted by Orthodox, and they asked the emperor to change his mind. "We clearly see," the letter said, "that you are becoming a heretic, but we implore you to forsake all this and abide in the teachings that were handed down to you.... Reject the unholy and novel teachings of a false knowledge, speculations, and additions to the Faith."
The emperor despised the monks of Mt. Athos for their opposition. Since he did not want to provoke the Greeks, he decided to vent his spite upon the Athonite Slavs. Crusaders, who had been expelled from Palestine and had found refuge in Romania, declared to the Emperor their readiness to establish the authority of the pope by fire and the sword. Michael employed Turks and Tatars as well. And exactly because some monks did yield under the pressure of promises and tortures, two monasteries were lost to the Latins: Lavra and Xeropotamou. The monks in these two monasteries accepted the Latin intrusion with a subservient fear. The army attacked and killed monks in many of the Slavic monasteries. They hanged the Protaton, and having killed many monks in Vatopaidi, Iveron and other monasteries (some were hanged, others drowned, others beheaded at Karyes on Mt. Athos), the Latins attacked Zographou. When Abbot Thomas of Zographou learned of the impending attack by inspiration, he told the population that those who wished to save themselves should flee, and that those who wished for martyrdom should stay in the monastery. The majority of the Zographou monks left the monastery, but the most steadfast, twenty-six in number, remained within the monastery tower. The twenty-six men who remained and locked themselves in the monastery tower were: Abbot Thomas, monks Barsanuphius, Cyril, Michaeas, Cosmas, Hilarion, James, Job, Cyprian, Sabbas, James, Martinian, Cosmas, Sergius, Minas, Joasaph, Ioannikios, Paul, Anthony, Euthymios, Dometian Parthenios and four laymen.
The Latins were soon outside the Monastery. Initially they motioned to the monks to have the gates opened to let them in: if they acknowledged the Primacy of the Pope they would have nothing to fear but his mercy plus a lot of gold. The monks replied to them from the top of the tower: "And who told you that your Pope is Head of the Church? From where does this teaching of yours come? For us, Head of the Church is only Christ! It is easier for us to choose death rather than give in and defile this holy place by your violence and tyranny; we shall not open the gates of the Monastery! Leave now!" The Latins replied with rage: "Die then!"; and gathering wood around the tower lit a large fire to burn them alive.
The holy martyrs sang hymns to the Mother of God while the tower burned, and gave their souls to God on October 10th, 1282. In December of the same year, the dishonorable Emperor Michael died in poverty, when the Serbian King Milutin rose up against him in defense of Orthodoxy.
The Miraculous Icon of the Theotokos and the Abbots Revelation
By God's providence, the greatest number of miracles and heavenly manifestations occur during the martyrdom of His servants. On the day that the Latins set out for the Monastery of Zographou, an old monk had an obedience in a vineyard half an hour's distance from the monastery. At the prescribed time, he read the Akathist before the icon of the Mother of God. However, when he began to pronounce the word `Rejoice!' a voice came to him from the icon: `Do thou also rejoice, O elder! Flee from here now, or misfortune will befall thee; go and tell the brethren of the monastery to lock themselves in, for the God-opposing Latins have attacked this, my chosen Mountain, and are already near.' The frightened elder fell to his knees and cried out in fear: `How can I leave thee here, my Queen and Intercessor?' At this he again heard the voice: `Do not worry about me, but go quickly!' The elder went to the monastery immediately to warn the brethren (which is the meaning of the name “Proangellomeni” that is given to this icon). But when he reached the monastery gates he beheld that same icon of the Mother of God. In a miraculous manner, the icon had preceded him to the monastery. The amazed elder related all that had been revealed to him to the abbot and the brethren. At that, all of them glorified God and the Mother of God. The miraculous icon of the Virgin which they had with them was found unharmed in the ruins of the tower and was placed on the sanctuary screen of the Chapel of the Dormition of the Theotokos (on top of the Katapetasma, where the Despotic Icons (i.e. of Christ) are normally placed) , where, though painted over due to restoration work, it still is today. The Bulgarians monks of Zographou called it “Chairovo”, that is, “Our Lady of the Hail”, and in the Liturgies in the chapel, the Salutations are read instead of a communion hymn. The place where the miraculous revelation to the elder took place is known till today by the name Cherovo.
The Miracle of October 10, 1873
Once, during the celebration of the Feast of the 26 Martyrs of Zographou, on October 10, 1873, there was an all-night vigil. It was a moonless night. In the middle of the night, while the monks were chanting and reading the lives of the holy martyrs in the church, a noise was suddenly heard, and over the church a fiery pillar appeared, extending from earth to heaven. It was so bright that things at a distance could be seen as though it were midday. This wondrous manifestation lasted for about a quarter of an hour and then disappeared.
HYMN OF PRAISE: The Holy Martyrs of Zographou
By St. Nikolai Velimirovich
Heroes of Zographou, knights of truth,
Sacrificed themselves for the Orthodox Faith,
And shamed the proud, shameless Latins,
As their souls rose up to the Kingdom of God.
The tower's flames mounted up to heaven,
As the monks in the fire sent up praise to God!
Heaven with its angels beheld that spectacle,
As the criminals crawled about like worms below the tower.
In the flames, Abbot Thomas, a true parent,
Encouraged his brethren, and began the Psalms:
He who glorifies the Lord does not fear death,
And he who dies for God will not perish.
The sacrifice is offered, and the altar of oblation remains:
The bodies were burned, the souls flew off,
And by that sacrifice, Zographou increased in glory
With magnificence eternal and true.
St. George the knight, cherishes his knights
As the Mother of God cherishes all heavenly citizens.
In these knights of righteousness, the Church rejoices:
They are her children, her fruitful branches.