The Saints, known as the Four Martyrs, were born and lived in Melambes of the Agioi Vassilios district towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. They were farmers, virtuous, humble and with a great heart and spirit. They were all married with children and all were related to each other through families that all had the surname Vlatakis.
Emmanuel and Aggelis were brothers, sons of Giannis Vlatakis. George was the son of Constantine Vlatakis and Nikolaos was the son of another Giannis Vlatakis. The last two, were cousins and also first cousins with Emmanuel and Aggelis. The four Saints were Crypto-Christians. These were the years of Turkish occupation. Since 1669 Crete was suffering under the Turkish yoke.
The area of Melambes, as well as the eparchias (sub-districts) of Agios Vassilios, Amari, as far as Messara, was plagued with the predatory raids by the bloodthirsty Turks of the Amari eparchia with their base in Vathiako. Under those conditions the local people had three options: Remaining a Christian and having a miserable life or even death, conversion to Islam or becoming Crypto-Christians, i.e. pretending conversion to Islam but in reality maintaining their Orthodox Christian faith.
So the Four Martyrs were Crypto-Christians. It appears that a grandfather of the Saints, not being able to withstand the difficulties of life (under the Turkish yoke) chose the conversion to Islam (while still maintaining his Christian beliefs) and so his descendants followed the same avenue.
The phenomenon of Crypto-Christianity was something that one came across in Crete, Pontus, Cyprus and other areas. The Four martyrs as Crypto-Christians were obliged by the Orthodox Church to fulfill their religious obligations (confession, Holy Communion, marriage, baptism, etc) secretly, with great care and discretion. The churches of Agios Georgios (St George), Prophet Elias, Sotiras Christos (Christ the Savior) and Agios Phanourios, which are today country chapels in the Melambes area, were all locations where the Saints prayed. It was the middle of 1821. The enslaved Greek nation had taken the big decision to start a new struggle for freedom. The Four Martyrs Saints took a leading role in this struggle.
The battle of Melambes at the location Kako Ryaki (Bad Stream) against the Turks found the Four Martyrs at the front line. They participated also at other battles at Kali Sykia, Agios Giannis Kamenos and later on at Vathiako and at the Monasteraki together with the other brave men of Melambes. Freedom had appeared in the horizon. Now they could pray to the true God freely, they could confess, take Holy Communion, baptize in the Christian way. They were not any more Crypto-Christians.
The morale of the other Christians who thought of them as Moslems and were seeing them now as true Christians were very happy. All together they could see a brighter future now. They were assisted by the panoramic location of the village but most of all by their belief in God and his will. The struggle continued into the next year, 1822, with many difficulties but also with many hopes.
In the middle of 1822 the Turks received reinforcements of Egyptian troops. Things became very difficult, their strength weakened and the revolution on 1824 eventually was drowned in blood. Despite their failure in achieving their big objective, the Four Martyrs Saints were happy. They had been freed from the tyranny of being Crypto-Christians. They had confessed in front of God and the people, they had shown their true faith, their faith in Christ. The Saints remained permanently at Melambes and they were living now openly as Christians their decision was big and firm. Big also was the rage of the Turks that saw their Christian faith as betrayal to Islam and affront to the Sultan. And for that reason Mehmed Pasha of Rethymnon, who learned about the treason of the four from Melambes organized for their arrest and punishment.
Turkish detachments that were sent by the Pasha arrived at Melambes and met the president of the village, Katergaris. Katergaris and his sister who was the wife of the Martyr Nikolaos, sent Mathios Katergaris to tell the Martyrs who were hiding at the location Santali to come down to Melambes as the Turks were promising that nothing would happen to them. The Martyrs believed them and came down to the village. The Turks immediately arrested and tied them up. The president of the village protested about the Turks not keeping their promises but the detachment with the Martyrs left for Rethymnon.
The big farewell and separation from their petrified relatives and fellow villagers took place at the location called Klonari, where today’s church stands. Aggelis seeing his godson Simantirogianni, called him over to help him remove his boots which he left with him as a last present. He knew that he has no need for them any more. They all knew what was going happen to them.
The imprisonment and death of the Four Martyrs
The detachment arrived at Rethymnon and the Martyrs were jailed in the prison that existed in the old Venetian harbor where today’s Customs house of the city is located. The prison building and the sign on the door of the prison that read, “Here the Four Martyrs were imprisoned” existed until 1940. Mehmet Pasha tried initially to convince them to convert to Islam promising them high offices, honors and valuable presents. But all in vain because the four heroes insistently were refusing any discussion saying firmly that “Christians we were born, Christians we want to die” Their firm refusal enraged the Turkish governor and he ordered for them strict isolation and severe torture hoping to break their firm determination. Four months, from July to October, the Martyrs endured all sorts of torture they in prison . Every day the Pasha had for them a new and harder ordeal. Mehmed Pasha had finally exhausted all ways and ordeals without any result
The faith in Christ of those four brave men proved to be of steel, unyielding. So Mehmed Pasha convened a special court martial to try the big “denouncers and insolents of Islam” The decision was the death sentence. The execution was to take place on 28 October. The records of the trial which were at the Nomarchia (Prefecture building) of Rethymnon together with other valuable documents unfortunately were destroyed in a fire by the German occupiers after 1940.
The four brave men heard the decision with Christian calm and pride because they were rewarded to suffer like the ancient martyrs did for Christ. Their last night they passed it peacefully, according to the tradition as maintained in a rhymed form by the Melambian Giorgis Avgoustakis.
“In their sweet dreams they saw a big miracle four bright Angels were flying above them they were holding golden crowns in their hands they said to them, Christ has sent us to be with you because for his love you are giving your lives”
The punishment of the 4 Martyrs who betrayed their faith, according to the Turkish custom it was required that all citizens of Rethymnon become aware of and see the event to ensure that they understood that insolence against Muhammad meant death. So, the day before the execution they had a messenger announcing in the streets the forthcoming event. All the narrow streets and neighborhoods of Rethymnon heard the following: “Tomorrow at 8 o’clock in the morning four infidels will be executed at the Big Gate. Here will be also other strange and funny events taking place. All shops will be closed so all Turks and Greeks can come to the event.”
In the morning of the 28th of October, 1824 started the big procession. The procession towards martyrdom was starting from the Turkish prison, going through the main street of Rethymnon, finishing at the Big Gate, outside the walls of the city, where the big plane trees were (where today, in 2006, stands their beautiful church) in the open space, for all to congregate to see the punishment. This was the place where executions were taking place and where those executed were buried.
Here, the four brave men, without fear and with their heads high responded to the executioner, when asked for the last time to convert to Islam and save their lives. “Christians we were born, Christians we want to die.” The sword of the executioner came down four times and beheaded the four brave men, who until their last moment they were praising God chanting: “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy)”.
The martyrdom had reached its completion. Their salvation came through the shedding of their blood. Sainthood settled on the holly mortal remains of the new Martyrs of our Church. The four candles that were burning every night next to their remains was the evidence of Gods will. God will that the four Saint Martyrs received and which we also through them receive today.
For three days the Saints’ remains remained unburied but during all this time a unique fragrant smell prevailed all around. On the fourth day some courageous Christians with Antonis Pourdounis and George Lagos in charge, assisted by Emmanuel Papadakis, Pasha’s translator, collected the remains and with due respect for the Saints, buried the remains at the Church of Saint George at the Perivolia village, east of Rethymnon, which was property of the Monastery of Arkadi. A year later the bishop of Rethymnon, Ioannikios, exhumed the holy remains and the holy craniums of the Saints he brought to the Metropolitan Church of Rethymnon, the rest of the remains were kept at the holy Monastery of Arcadi.
The families of the 4 Martyrs
As with all conquerors, old and new, after they satisfy their criminal barbaric urges against their innocent victims, they then turn against their families, their homes and the place where they were born, Malambes. Tradition says that the homes of the four Martyrs were demolished by the Turks, enraged for their insult to Islam. That’s why none of the homes of the Saints survives today. But the locations where the homes were built are well known. As for their birthplace, they soon burned Melambes also, one more time.
What about their families?
It is rather difficult to provide precise details about the fate of the families of all the martyrs. In general we can say that, based on the way that the Turks operated in similar circumstances, the families of Nikolaos , of George and Aggelis, some of their members would have been killed while others would have been sold as slaves either in Crete or in the East.
But details about the fate of the family of the Martyr Emmanuel we have from Mr. George Maragakis from the village Kouses of Prefecture of Heraklion, who heard them from his father Giannis Maragakis (1889 – 1976) who was the great grand son of the Martyr Emmanuel. According to this information from Giannis Maragakis the Martyr Emmanuel and his wife had 4 children. They were Nikolaos, Giannis, a girl named Kroustallenia and an other son whose name he did not know.
After the death of the Martyr Emmanuel, his wife and two of his sons found shelter with an Italian widower in Rethymnon. From there one of the sons moved later on to Chromonastiri (village outside Rethymnon) where he had a family with 3 children. They were Stylianos (who later became archimandrite Sofronios), Maria and Anastasia. The other son (who became a shoemaker) returned to Melambes and had a family there with one son, Antonios Vlatakis, who was to become a lawyer in Rethymnon.
The other son, Nikolaos, was taken under protection by an influential Turk. He was Mirolai Pasha from Tymbaki in the Messara district. Nikolaos, when he grew up, learned the trade of a carpenter. The Turk did not force him to convert to Islam, he remain a faithful Christian. Kroustallenia was taken by another Turk who intended her for his harem. He forced her to convert to Islam and named her Fatme. Her brother with the help of Mirolai Pasha freed his sister Kroustallenia, who converted back to Christianity, had a child whom she named Emmanuel, but he died before reaching 30. A few years later his mother Kroustallenia died also. Nikolaos got married later to Maria Kolatsidakis from the village Kouse from the Messara district where he settled, practicing his carpentry. He had 4 children who became known as the (“Maragakia” – “Little carpenters” – after their father occupation) and so their surname eventually changed to “Maragakis, instead of Vlatakis which was the correct surname. One of those 4 children, Emmanuel, later returned to Melambes, where he reverted to the original surname Vlatakis but he was also known by the nickname “Letzomanolis” (a combination of his mother surname and his own forename). He had a family with 3 children. Descendants of that family still exists in Melambes. That of Manolis Vlatakis or Letzakis, (died at the age of 94 in 2001), and his sisters Anastasia, Vasiliki, Maria, Chrysi and Sophia and their children. This long circular family march of the descendants of the Martyr Emmanuel away and back to Melambes is undoubtedly witness to the birthplace of the Saint Martyrs, of Melambes.