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Exploring the five churches of Samaria

Isabella Zambetaki visited the Samaria National Park in August 2022, recording her impressions of the journey to the churches as part of her overall experience of crossing the gorge.

The landscape of the Samaria Gorge is so magnificent that the route is, in a way, a pilgrimage to nature itself. Perhaps it is precisely this sense of reverence that the people who built their churches at five different points along the gorge in centuries past were trying to express.

Nature Through

The Churches

The first church I come to descending from Xyloskalo, the northern entrance of the Samaria Gorge, is that of Agios Nikolaos (St Nicholas). Clay votive offerings have been found here, and it is believed that in ancient times there was an altar of the goddess Artemis on this spot. I examine the small, oblong chapel and am impressed by the degree to which it forms an element of nature. The stones of its masonry come from the surrounding area, as do the stone slabs covering its roof. It makes sense that people in times past could not bring materials from elsewhere, but had to make do with what they found in the gorge. Even today, during the restoration work on the churches of Samaria, a project completed in 2023, transporting the materials needed for repair was the most difficult part of the process. Mules were used to carry the materials up from the southern entrance of the gorge at Agia Roumeli to the five churches. In the case of Agios Georgios (St George), the second church along the route, the disused old path leading to it had to be reopened. However, those who manage the steep climb are rewarded with a panoramic view of the village of Samaria, which was abandoned in the 1960s. The village looks more impressive from above and the stone houses, together with the terraces around the small orchards, are reminiscent of earlier times when the village was still inhabited.


The Heart

Of Samaria

A few hundred meters after the church of St George, I cross the wooden bridge leading to the old village of Samaria, where the National Park rangers are now based. I can hear them communicating with each other by two-way radio and I realise that they are monitoring every step of the hikers along the 13 kilometres of the trail, so they can help if necessary. I fill my canteen with cool water from the fountain and admire the olive trees that once supplied the inhabitants of the old village with olive oil. It seems incredible that whole families lived in the gorge and managed to secure the means to survive here. They cultivated olive trees, grapevines, grain crops and vegetables, and also worked as shepherds and beekeepers. Once the rest of the hikers have moved away, the village abruptly descends into complete silence. I feel, however, that someone’s still there. I turn my head and see a small wild goat watching me curiously. I’m tempted to share my bread with it, to make it come closer, but I respect the fact that it is part of the wildlife of the gorge and resist. The footsteps of the next group of hikers arriving at Samaria make the wild goat vanish quietly into the trees.
I follow the rangers’ instructions, too, and cross the bridge over the river again, looking for the church of the Metamorphosis tou Sotiros (Transfiguration of the Saviour) on the opposite bank. The white chapel is built up against a huge crag and is so simple that it seems an extension of the natural landscape. Its courtyard used to be the cemetery of the village of Samaria, and the mules taking a break for hay and fresh water a few metres away strike a pleasantly lively note. I continue along the main path, looking for the most special of the five chapels of Samaria.

The Treasure

Of Hosia Maria ( St Mary Of Egypt)

The church of St Mary stands out among the churches of the gorge, both for its elaborate decoration and for the legends associated with it. According to some people, this church gave the gorge its name, through the corruption of the words “Hosia Maria”. According to others, the legendary Chrysomallousa (“Golden-haired Maiden”), a beautiful Sfakian girl of Venetian times, was buried here. I open the small door and enter the church, all its walls decorated with 14th-century frescoes. From the wooden icon screen emerge sculpted hands from which the candelabra hang, while in one of the contemporary portable icons St Marina strikes a demon with a hammer.
Many once sought the mythical treasures of Chrysomallousa here, but it is probably the story of the blonde maiden herself that is a valuable part of Samaria’s heritage. Chrysomallousa was the daughter of Lord Skordylis of Sfakia. Legend has it that, on her way to the fountain to get water one day, she met a Venetian garrison commander. Dazzled by her beauty, he tried to kiss her by force, but Chrysomallousa slapped him in the face. The commander drew his dagger and cut off her golden tresses, leading to a great war between the Sfakians and the Venetians. Chrysomallousa’s family sought refuge in the gorge to defend themselves, and she never got over the killings caused by her beauty. Even once the war had ended, she decided to remain in Samaria as a nun. Her brothers, in an attempt to ease her pain, made her a golden loom to weave on, but she never regained the will to live and eventually withered away and died. She was buried with the loom and her jewellery in the church of St Mary.
Although no one ever managed to find the treasure, it is said that centuries later, when the tombs of the church were excavated, a woman’s skull was uncovered along with her hair. The hair was cut short and dyed black, just as Chrysomalloussa wore it in the final years of her life, so as never to attract men’s interest again.

The Sweet Coda

of Agia Roumeli

The “coda” of the churches of Samaria is the chapel of Afentis Christos (Christ the Lord). Surrounded by pines and cypress trees, this is a beautiful resting-place for a drink of cool water from the nearby fountain. A few hundred metres further on, the gorge narrows so much that the cliffs on either side form an imposing “gate” over a thousand metres high. On the final kilometres of the route, I encounter many wooden bridges across the riverbed and see some of the most impressive geological formations in the Samaria Gorge. Among them is the “Footprint of Digenes”, the medieval hero who is said to have stopped a huge rock falling from the cliff with his foot, leaving his footprint on it. There is also a point where cool, fresh air is forcefully released through the cracks in the rocks. These spots certainly reward those who choose the “lazy” alternative route of Samaria, a short hike from and back to the forest outpost of Agia Roumeli, avoiding the long, steep descent from Xyloskalo.
An even more engaging alternative way for visitors to experience the area, however, is to spend the night in the small village at the end of the gorge. Agia Roumeli is located on the site of the ancient city of Tarra, which was famed for its glassworks and the cypress wood it exported to other ancient cities of Crete. Agia Roumeli has its own Byzantine churches, a hilltop fortress overlooking the village, and tasteful tavernas serving traditional Cretan dishes. In one of these, I met the descendant of one of the families that used to live in Samaria and asked him about the role the churches played in the daily lives of the villagers. He surprised me by telling me that the harsh living conditions made people rather hard and that, although they feared the saints, they were not particularly religious. And he surprised me even more when he shared with me his own view on spirituality: ‘Religion is entering a church and listening to the feelings of all the people who have gone before you.’
Small and humble as they may be, the chapels of Samaria are a very important part of the gorge, places in which to fully experience its essence and its deeper truth. They are part of man’s silent dialogue with the forces that transcend him.”


Κάθε χρόνο, κατά κανόνα, το φαράγγι της Σαμαριάς ανοίγει από την 1η Μαΐου μέχρι την 15η Οκτωβρίου από τις δύο εισόδους στο Ξυλόσκαλο και στην Αγία Ρουμέλη. Εάν το επιτρέπει ο καιρός, η περίοδος λειτουργίας του δρυμού μπορεί να παραταθεί έως 31 Οκτωβρίου ή να ξεκινήσει λίγο νωρίτερα. Δεν υπάρχει συγκεκριμένο όριο ηλικίας για την είσοδο στο φαράγγι, ωστόσο θα πρέπει κανείς να λαμβάνει υπόψη τη μεγάλη απόσταση (~16 χλμ) και το βραχώδες, στο μεγαλύτερο τμήμα του, έδαφος. Οι επισκέπτες, πριν ξεκινήσουν την εκδρομή τους, είναι χρήσιμο να ελέγχουν τυχόν ανακοινώσεις για έκτακτο κλείσιμο του πάρκου σε μέρες με υψηλό κίνδυνο πυρκαγιάς, επικείμενα επικίνδυνα καιρικά/φυσικά φαινόμενα κ.α.

Επίσης μπορείτε να καλείτε στα Φυλάκια Εθνικού Δρυμού Σαμαριάς:
Τηλ.: + 30 28237 70046, +30 28250 91254 ( καθημερινά, 7:00 – 16:00 )


Every year, as a rule, the Samaria Gorge is open from 1 May to 15 October via the two entrances at Xyloskalo and Agia Roumeli. Weather permitting, the opening period of the park may be extended until 31 October or start a little earlier. There is no specific age limit for entering the gorge, but please be aware of the long distance (~16 km) and the largely rocky terrain. Before setting out, it is recommended you check any announcements about emergency closures of the park on days with a high fire risk, impending dangerous weather or natural phenomena, etc.

You can also call the Samaria National Park Forest Outposts:
Tel.: + 30 28237 70046, +30 28250 91254 (7:00 – 16:00 daily)

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