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April 6, 2020

A Village in Crete Named After St. Mary of Egypt

One of the many reasons people come to Chania and Western Crete is to hike down the Samaria Gorge, an 18 kilometer crack that cuts through the White Mountains and ends at the Libyan Sea. The entire hike takes around 6 hours. The number of people who do this trek is getting close to 200,000 a year which is even more amazing when you consider that it is closed from November to May to limit the number of people washed away by the torrent which rages through it during those months. Despite the crowds it is something everyone must experience. It will be one of the major experiences of your life.

Around halfway into this gorge, shortly before the 7km marker, lies the deserted village of Samaria, which can be reached by a bridge crossing over a stream. The village of Samaria, slowly eroding with time, used to be inhabited by the Skordilis family, descendants of one of the 12 aristocratic Byzantine families. When this region was officially classified as having national park status in 1962, all of the residents had to be relocated to other parts of the island. The main occupation of the inhabitants living here before the village was closed in 1962 was wood cutting and bee keeping. You can still find traces of previous life here as some of the old houses have been restored to house modern facilities such as the doctors office and guard point. The old olive mill is now used as an information desk where visitors can admire old pictures and folk art exhibits.

The Church of Osia Maria at the edge of town was built by the Venetians in 1379 and dedicated to St. Mary of Egypt. Over the years, local tongues corrupted St. Mary's Italian name, Santa Maria, into "Samaria", which became the name first of the village and subsequently the name of the entire gorge. The small single-aisle nave arched Church of Saint Mary of Egypt still is covered inside with frescoes from the 14th century, which are the work of a folk-style iconographer. The iconographic program includes scenes from the life of Christ (Betrayal, Transfiguration, Ascension, Resurrection, Descent to Hades, Crucifixion, Birth, Escape to Egypt, Secret Supper, Lazarus Rising), horse-riding saints and other saints in lower zones, as well as Mary of Egypt and Saint Zosimas of Palestine in the desert.

The village of Samaria was first inhabited during the Byzantine period. In the 14th century members of the Skordilis family from Hora Sfakion moved to the village. Legend has it that the reason for this move was that the commander of the Venetian guard at Sfakia had tried to kiss the beautiful Chryssomaloussa, and when she resisted he hacked off one of her tresses with his sword. To avenge the insult, the Skordilis family wiped out the entire Venetian garrison and their commander. The Venetians tried to force their way in the gorge to punish the Skordilis family, but in vain. In the end, they had to make an uneasy peace and the beautiful Chryssomaloussa became a nun in the convent of the Blessed Mary of Egypt (Osia Maria) in Samaria. Throughout the period of Venetian rule the gorge was a haunt for freedom fighters.

Saint Mary of Egypt is celebrated in this church on the 1st of April, however the Orthodox Church also commemorates the Saint on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. For those who do find themselves here on the first weekend of April they can participate in a two day festival which is held in her honor.