August 25, 2010

The Church and Relics of the Apostle Titus in Heraklion, Crete

The Holy Apostle Titus (Feast Day - August 25)

The pedestrian-only 25th of August Street in Heraklion is directly opposite the Old Harbor and extends to Lion Square. 25th of August Street may have been first cut by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century. It has always been the main thoroughfare of Heraklion, linking the town centre to the harbor. During the Venetian period (13th-17th century) it was called the Ruga Maistra (Main Street), while in Ottoman times it was known as Vezir Tsarsi (Vizier's Market) after the Vezir Mosque. The street takes its name from a massacre of 'ethno-martyrs' which occurred in 1898 on the feast of St. Titus. This involved the killing of many Cretans and, crucially, 17 British soldiers and the British Consul Lysimachos Kalokairinos, by the Turks, finally forcing the ‘Great Powers' (Britain, France and Russia) to recognize Crete's struggle. These events led eventually to the declaration of a Cretan State and, finally, unification with Greece in 1913. Old and modern buildings compete for space now on the street named to commemorate the 25th of August.

Walking up the short hill, passing the shops and tourist offices, we reach St. Titus' Cathedral, an impressive sight. Saint Titus, a fellow traveler of Saint Paul, preached the gospel in Crete during Roman rule and was martyred in Gortynos, where a seventh century basilica stands in his memory. Titus was one of the Seventy Apostles and was born in Crete and educated in Greek philosophy and poetry. St. Titus today is the patron saint of Heraklion and all Crete. His church in Heraklion was built in 961, when Emperor Nikephoros Phokas drove the Arabs from Crete, bringing the island back under the wing of the powerful Roman Empire, and it first served as the city's cathedral. During Venetian rule, it housed the seat of the Catholic archbishop and was renovated in 1466, only to be ruined in a fire in 1544. During the Turkish Occupation it served as a mosque and was called Vizier Tzami, when a minaret was added. The present-day structure is the result of further renovations by architect Athanasios Moussis, who also designed the Orthodox cathedral of Saint Menas and the barracks in Eleftherias Square, after its almost entire destruction by a strong earthquake in 1856, and later work which followed in 1922 after the Muslims left Heraklion in the exchange and during which time the minaret was removed. The skull of St. Titus was transferred here from Venice in 1966 and has since been kept in the church.

The first church dedicated to St. Titus was that in the old capital Gortynos, which also housed the see of the Archdiocese of the island until its destruction by earthquake and the Arab transfer of the capital from Gortyn os to Chandax (Heraklion) in 828 AD. The skull of St. Titus, the miraculous icon of Panagia Mesopanditissa and other sacred relics from Gortynos were moved to the new church when it was built in the tenth century. At the fall of Heraklion to the Turks all relics were removed to Venice in the Basilica of Saint Mark, where they still remain today. The single exception is the skull of St. Titus, which was returned to Heraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in the church.

The skull of the Saint was returned to Crete following a series of negotiations with the representatives of the Catholic Church which lasted from 1957 to 1966. On the morning of May 15, 1966 hundreds of devout Christians gathered at the port of Heraklion to honor the arrival of the holy relics. It was an extraordinary experience for all Christians. The Church celebrated the event with a stately Liturgy at the Cathedral. The memorable Archbishop of Crete, Evgenios (pictured above), eulogized the Saint's skull as a "much honored treasure". Since then the relics have been a blessing for the Church of Crete.

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
O Holy Apostle Titus, intercede to our merciful God, that He may grant our souls forgiveness of sins.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
O yoke-mate of Paul, together with him, thou didst preach the tidings to us of saving grace bestowed of God, O Apostle Titus, blest and elect revealer of mysteries; for which cause we cry out to thee: Cease not to entreat Christ God for all of us.