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June 9, 2018

Church of the Holy Five Canonical Virgins in Crete

The Church of the Holy Five Canonical Virgins in ancient Lappa, now Argyroupoli of Rethymno, is one of the most important shrines of western Crete, with a long tradition of worship. The church is dedicated to the Holy Five Canonical Virgins Thekla, Mariamna, Martha, Maria and Ennatha, who are believed to have lived and died there.

According to local tradition, long ago five virgins from ancient Lappa took refuge in hewn tombs in an ancient cemetery. They lived there (ca. 330 A.D.), died and were buried in old graves. During their lifetime they had gained great reputations and many pilgrims arrived at the caves asking their blessing.

The archaeologist Dr. Doefner says the caves are a “pagan family tomb” of the Greco-Roman period, which functioned as the pilgrimage site for five female Christian martyrs. The church is built in the ancient Roman burial ground of Lappa, which are carved into the soft sandstone rocks. The area was most likely used for funerals in the period from 50 BC until the end of the first century AD.

During his stay on Mount Athos in northern Greece at the end of the 19th century, a monk from Argyroupoli heard of a similar story about five holy virgins who were martyred in Persia. Subsequently the church tried to connect the two stories and went so far as to claim that Crete was under Persian domination at that time. There is, however, absolutely no historical evidence of this! Nevertheless, the story about the Holy Five Canonical Virgins is indeed set in a Persian ruled society, though the story likely has nothing to do with Crete. Yet locals say they lived here and were martyred here. Christian inhabitants of Argyroupoli collected the mortal remains of the Holy Five Virgins, anointed them with myrrh and buried them in five stone coffins carved into the rock behind the church which was later erected in their memory. Perhaps though in reality it was five other holy virgins who lived and died here, whose identity is lost to us, yet their remains seem to be lost as well.

The Holy Five Canonical Virgins are commemorated by the Church on September 26 and June 9, but their church in Crete is celebrated on May 7th.