February 10, 2022

Saint Haralambos and the Twelve Year Plague of Crete in the 19th Century

In Crete the plague is likened to an ugly old woman. The folklorist Nikolaos Politis describes her as follows: "She is a blind woman, running through the cities from house to house and killing those she touches, but because as a blind woman she touches the walls of the houses, she is unable to touch those in the middle of the rooms."

In 1817 an endemic took place in Crete that lasted for 12 years. It is believed the plague was brought by 22 Egyptian soldiers. Many families took refuge in the countryside (caves and elsewhere) to avoid being infected. Other times the sick resorted to the caves to prevent the transmission of the disease.

Legend has it that the now ruined settlement of Armeni in Sitia known as Prinaria was destroyed by the plague of 1817 that killed everyone, except a woman who upon fleeing met on the street a woman of awful shape in a blue suit holding in her hands iron sandals. It was the plague. When the woman asked her where she was going, the plague replied: "I am going to Prinaria to take off my shoes."

Procession of the Icon of St. Haralambos in Krousona

Saint Haralambos in the consciousness of the faithful is the protector from the plague.

During the years when the plague decimated the population, the Orthodox built churches dedicated to the Saint at the entrances of cities and villages, near ports and on roads near settlements to stop the plague right where the church is located. Many churches added the name of Saint Haralambos to their already existing name.

Where they could not build a church, they built a small iconostasis, a shrine, put inside the icon of the Saint and never let his lamp go out.

In case there was neither a church nor an iconostasis in the village, they made sure that there was an icon of the Saint in a church.

In the old days, they used to form protective circles around the villages, believing that in this way they made the settlement invulnerable to the disease. If there was a church or an iconostasis in the village, they used to start from either one. They tied a thread to the door which they had made taking all the necessary protection measures. They unrolled the tangle and circled all the houses. In the end, they tied the thread to the door of Saint Haralambos again and left the village surrounded like this for as long as it took, usually forty days, at the same time quarantining the village from outsiders.

Church of Saint Haralambos in Krousona

Saint Haralambos is the patron saint of the village of Krousona in the Prefecture of Heraklion. Back in 1815, six years before the Greek Revolution, the inhabitants of the Turkish-occupied Krousona asked and got permission to repair the Church of Jesus Christ, which was later renamed Saint Haralambos. This was done with the permission of the Turkish Governor of the Hali Aga region, under certain conditions. According to local tradition, the project had to start and be completed within three months. However, this time was insufficient and did not allow for the masonry to reach the desired height, so it was necessarily limited to a low height as we see today. Along with the renovation of the church, they also ordered new icons in Heraklion, giving the old ones for preservation.

As they passed through the Turkish neighborhood of the village with the new icons, the Turks became furious and attacked them. Only one Turk tried to calm their spirits by telling them not to bother them, but he did not succeed. A Turk even threateningly raised his scythe over the icon of Saint Haralambos. But before he could strike it, tradition says that he fell dead. When they saw this miracle, the Turks were frightened, while the Greeks praised their patron saint.

When later, in 1817, the terrible plague reaped Crete, all the Turks died in Krousona except the one who had defended the Christians in the procession. In fact, in other appearances of the disease, no resident from Krousona suffered anything. With all these events, Saint Haralambos passed into the consciousness of the people as a warrior against the Turks and protector of Christians. For this reason, one aisle of the Church of Jesus Christ was dedicated to Saint Haralambos, who was depicted in the icons stepping on an old woman in black, the personification of the terrible plague.