PATMOS: The Island of the St. John

“Do you have a cigarette?” Ninety-three-year-old Mrs. Simandiris said in Italian after we’d climbed a shaded lane to her home for a taste of local life. The ancient woman, sitting in an arm chair surrounded by nick-knacks and an overflowing ashtray, presided over our visit, smiling and laughing while she showed our small group photos of her family, great-great  grandchildren and all. In between cadging cigarettes, she asked people to take her photo for a euro. 

Never without words, she prattled on in Italian, the language she was forced to communicate in when the Italians dominated the island between 1912 and 1943. Her home has been inhabited by the same family for centuries after it was built by an ancestral merchant trader, who to judge by the furnishings, traveled far around the eastern Mediterranean and into Russia. After her talk we toured the home with typical embroidered curtains shading rooms crammed with memorabilia, samovars, oil lamps, a treadle sewing machine, a daybed covered with exotic fabrics. 

I was particularly enchanted with an old family portrait placed under an oil lamp. 

And an old mirror, the silvering gone.

Who was this family and what could their lives have been on this tiny island dominated by the Holy Monastery of Saint John? Of course, I’ll never know and must content myself visualizing our lively hostess having a breakfast of thick Greek yogurt, fragrant honey, coffee in a tiny cup half-filled with sludge, and the first cigarette of the day. Perhaps that’s why island Greeks are famous for their long lives.

Our small ship had approached what appeared to be a white and gold mound suspended in blue an hour earlier. It was the small island of Patmos with drought-yellow vegetation and Greek-white buildings resting between impossibly Mediterranean blue sky and sapphire sea. 

There’s no dock other than that for the local ferry. A mustachioed man with leathery brown skin and a Greek fisherman’s cap steered the launch owned by the Port Authority to the inner harbor. We’d boarded a shuttle and wound up to the major town at the summit to meet Mrs. Simandiris before visiting the island’s two famous sacred sites. After we’d all said ciao and arrivederci to our hostess, it was time for more serious thoughts as we wandered down the narrow streets lined with shops, curtained windows, and old doors, one with a braceleted and ringed hand door knocker. Who lived there?

The first holy site was a cave just below the town of Chora where in AD 95, St. John dictated the last book of the Bible: The Book of Revelations. 

Scholars are not exactly sure who John was. Some think he was the Disciple John, but most now believe he was a different person, frequently called John the Theologian or St. John the Divine. He’d been living in sophisticated Ephesus when he was hauled off to Rome to face accusations of prophesy. After he miraculously survived being boiled in oil and managed to convert all the on-lookers with the feat, he was banished to barren Patmos to get him out of the way. 

Revelation is also known as The Apocalypsefrom its original Greek title. The word “apocalypse,”  literally “revealing,”has come to be associated with cataclysmic disaster, judgment day or the end of the world, and is of course famous in books, film, and commentary about current world affairs, the stock market, and the weather. 

It seemed to me to have little relevance to life on this idyllic island on the day I was there, but the island’s history like most of the Middle East has been painful over the millenia. 

Whatever the intent of the author, he apparently lived in a cave open to the weather for a year dictating his work to a scribe. Fortunately, the persecuting emperor, Domitian, was assassinated and John returned to Ephesus where he faded from history. His writings remain.

After the Edict of Constantine, establishing Christianity in the 4th century, the cave became a place of pilgrimage.

Probably no different from the past, we joined long lines of day-trippers standing next to white walls cut with sharp shadows.

When our turn came we filed in for a minute or so to look at the icons, touch the walls, and wonder about the past before returning to the sunshine. But as in pagan Delphi, the constant tramp of footsteps detracted from our consideration of the tenor of John’s times and the meaning of Revelations and its message for today.

The Holy Monastery of St. John towers above the small white-washed town of Chora and the entire island. Founded in 1088, the massive building in the form of a crusader castle, housed holiness and protected the island against depredation from Muslims and pirates. As with so many religious sites, it was built over the ruins of an ancient church which in turn was built over a temple to Artemis the Huntress. Both the entrance and the interior are covered with stunning frescoes, many from the 1600s. The beautiful gold-leaf dome, the hanging lamps, and icons combine to present an atmosphere to make even the most determined non-believer marvel at the profound sentiment it expresses.

The museum is a treasure trove of ancient codices, documents, illuminated manuscripts and early printing. The most astounding to my mind is the Purple Codex, the section owned by the monastery composed of 33 leaves of parchment  dyed purple, the color of emperors. Dating to the 6th century, it is an extract from the Gospel of Mark written in gold Greek capital letters all run together. Other marvels fill the rooms, including an icon by know to us as El Greco, later famous for his dramatic elongated figures now seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid where he lived after leaving Greece. Other treasures on display are jewelry and church furnishings, but it was the fragment of the New Testament that moved me the most. I couldn’t help thinking if it wasn’t for these monasteries even more would have been lost to us and we would be much the poorer in spirit and knowledge than we are.

Still contemplating the religious aspects of the island we found our way down to the tiny port following lanes lined with more shops, white houses with pots of purple Greek basil on doorsteps, laden pomegranate trees, and views of the sea around every turn.

The café, shaded by a gigantic fig tree  was buzzing with locals and a few stray tourists. We joined them for an iced coffee before strolling by the few shops with their stylish linen summer clothes still hanging on racks stirred by a faint breeze. 

But it was mid-October and life was slowing. Mrs. Simandiris was probably contemplating her winter cigarette supply, and we needed to return to our ship.


All photos copyright Judith Works except for the following:
 Illustration from Medieval Book of Revelations are from Wikipedia commons
 Interior photos and artwork in The Holy Monastery of St. John are from Google Cultural Institute
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Meteora is a five-hour bus ride from the ancient and pagan holy site of Delphi, and a world away in religious beliefs. Glenn and I and the others on the tour lurched around steep roads over a mountain pass marked by small memorials at every curve to those who met with accidents. It was a relief to descend to the plains of Thessaly to reach Meteora and its astounding pillars that abruptly rise skyward as high as 1800 feet above the plain. Neanderthals and our earliest ancestors sheltered in caves here some 50,000 years ago. The surrounding area was known in ancient times, mentioned by Homer and Herodotus, and was the home of the most famous doctor of antiquity, Asclepius, who founded a healing center here. Then, like Delphi, its fame receded into the mists of time until the 9th century when Greek Orthodox hermits settled in caves to lead solitary lives of contemplation and prayer.

Whether from the desire for closeness with others who shared the same beliefs or a change in religious philosophy, the first of twenty-four monasteries was founded sometime before 1200 AD, although sources differ on dates. The first monks drove wedges into crevices to ascend the pillars. Reaching the top, they wove rope ladders which could be drawn up in case of attacks from the Turks, and baskets for building materials and later arrivals. Ladders and baskets were replaced “when the Lord let them break,” which I suspect was quite often.

Some of the building complexes were built on pillars large-enough to support a small church, terraces, lodges and refectories. Others rested on pinnacles so small there was only room for one tiny building.

Now, only six of these religious monuments continue to function while the ruins of the others lie lonely and desolate. Even those that remain are barely populated with dwindling numbers of ascetics desiring the isolated life: about 15 monks and 40 nuns.

We had the opportunity to visit two of the monasteries: 

   St. Stephen is relatively easy to visit because there is a wooden foot bridge from land to pillar although it’s not a good idea to look down if you suffer from vertigo. Monks were living a common life here by the 1300s. Despite the designation, the complex was deserted by 1960, and converted into a nunnery in 1961. We were welcomed by a smiling apple-cheeked elderly woman in black. Hanging on pegs were neat black and white wraps which those of us women who wore slacks had to wind around our waists before we joined Sunday crowds of every age.

Doubly covered, I began to look around. There are two churches, the oldest built in 1545, was heavily damaged by Germans in WWII. The second church, built in 1798, has relatively modern frescoes, some done in 1915, and while lovely, they don’t hold the same fascination for me as other-worldly Byzantine era masterpieces.

The monastery reportedly has a piece of the True Cross and relics of John the Baptist although they weren’t on view, but the refectory holds marvels: icons, embroidery, silver and ancient parchments. The most interesting icon was done by a painter from Crete, later known as El Greco when he moved to Spain to produce the elongated and luridly-colored paintings for which he is famous.

  Varlaam or All Saints Monastery, 1200 feet above the plain, began as a cluster of cave-dwelling monks about 1350 and transformed into a church and cluster of outbuildings in 1518. Stairs were cut in 1923 and we began the long walk and then climb what seemed to be a thousand steps to visit the church, said to have been built in twenty days after collecting the materials for 22 years.

Some creatures took a break on the way up.

As I looked at the winch and rope net used for humans and materials I wondered how many monks and visitors fell to their death as they reached for heaven. The thought of swinging out over the abyss was terrifying. Now a small cable car does the job safely.

The interior of the small church with brilliant gold, red and blue icons; lamps; and furnishings glowed in the dim light, a truly holy atmosphere. Many of the chairs and tables in the church were of inlaid wood in the Syrian style. When I inquired why our guide reminded me that the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church remains in Istanbul the former capital of the late Roman Empire known as Constantinople. I wished to take photos but unsurprisingly none were allowed

What were these men’s lives really like divorced from the world and its cares? It seemed to me it would have been a short life of privation, freezing cold and snowy in the long winters, with chilblains and arthritis wracking their bodies in an unremitting struggle to reach a state of holiness through ritual and prayer as flickering candles lit the golden icons.

A life I could not imagine for myself but admire anyway. The world could use more holiness.

All photos copyright Judith Works

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What makes a site sacred? The atmosphere, the setting, the priests who declared it so, or the pilgrims who trek from far away to experience a oneness with their god or gods? Maybe all of the above.

My husband and I set out from Athens for a two-day trip first to visit sacred Delphi, once considered the center of the world. The following day we would visit another sacred site, Meteora, deep in the mountains of mainland Greece. The country’s economic woes were in full view, not only in the city with its empty store fronts, but even more so in the countryside where miles of abandoned buildings, some half-built, were everywhere that cotton fields weren’t. Fluffy cotton balls from the harvest drifted alongside the road to somewhat soften the scene on the fertile Plains of Thessaly before we began a climb into the mountains where, sadly, the roadways were lined in trash.

But religious sentiment was everywhere evident with dozens of tiny models of Orthodox churches, often painted the blue and white colors of Greece, placed near dangerous roadway curves where some unfortunate motorist met with disaster, or perhaps was saved from death by a miracle. We stopped for a coffee at a roadside stop where I slipped into a nearby chapel built for travelers who paused for a prayer before continuing their journeys. I lit a tall beeswax taper to join others casting glowing light on the icons painted in rich gold, red and blue.

We’d been to Delphi some years earlier. Set high on a steep slope not far from Mt. Olympus, it had been a quiet, mystical and enchanting experience with the ancient ruins overlooking groves of olive trees sweeping down to the bright blue sea. It was easy to imagine pilgrims coming to worship Apollo or wait in trepidation for the enigmatic prophecies of the fearsome Delphic Oracle who chewed on bay leaves and inhaled gases from a cleft in the rock for inspiration.

But would she have ever dreamed of today’s mass tourism with buses lined up to disgorge passengers who only wished to climb the marble-paved path to spend five minutes taking selfies before lunch? Perhaps she did, but we were too distracted by the noise and shoving to continue beyond the pillars of the Temple of Athena to climb the top of the hill where we’d previously sat to contemplate the mysteries of the past.

Giving up, we retreated to the quiet museum where we could marvel at the fragments of the treasures that have survived invasions and looting over nearly three millenia. The wonderfully-named chryselephantine heads made of ivory and gold depicting Apollo and and a haughty-looking Artemis brought to mind how religion has informed art until recently. The ivory is blackened by burning in one of the periodic desecrations by marauders or natural disasters, giving the gods an African appearance. I wondered if Picasso had seen them. 

Nearby, is another treasure: pieces of a gold and silver life-size bull. Other rooms hold statuary, building fragments, curious egg-shaped pieces that represent the navel or center of the Greek world, and a gigantic sphinx.

And no one who has ever seen The Charioteer can forget the perfect serenity of the slender young man as he holds the reins to guide his horses to victory.

But my favorite is the small bowl finely painted with a scene of Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, music, and poetry, holding his lyre and pouring a libation while a sacred raven perched on a branch listens. What ancient tune did the god play? If we could hear it now, would we feel close to a sacred state?

All photos copyright Judith Works

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An Easter Holiday

One Easter I went on a voyage to bring a friend’s boat, the Virginia, to Corfu, Greece from Bodrum, Turkey where she had been resting in dry storage for the winter. Not being much of a sailor, I needed encouragement before agreeing to serve as third mate. A tour of Cappadocia and the chance to check out carpets were the enticements. I helped pack up food stores and a new rubber life raft. My husband and I flew with the owners to Athens and on to the island of Kos where we had booked a hotel unfortunately populated with drunken and naked Finns desperate for sun. Alongside their more shapely grandchildren, aged and fat grandmothers lay by the pool without clothes or concern, looking like basking sea lions. We tried hard to look the other way but we couldn’t resist surreptitiously staring as each movement redistributed their jiggling flesh.

It was Orthodox Easter. We attended a midnight service and afterward watched as the populace took their beeswax candles home where the smoke from the burning wick was used to make the sign of the cross on door lintels. The following day we enjoyed a lamb barbecue at the port before we took the ferry to Bodrum, leaving the Christian world for that of the Moslem. The departure timing was fortuitous because the next day the ferry caught fire coming into port. No one was injured but the thought of a choice between roasting and drowning wasn’t one I wanted to contemplate.

Before the Virginia was returned to her natural element we rented a car to tour Cappadocia in central Turkey. Our route led us past gas stations with a small mosques attached and towns with groves of poplar trees shooting their fresh green leaves high in the sky. Crumbling caravansaries served as picnic sites where  children begged for money calling out, “pourboire,” French for a tip. Heavily guarded opium poppy fields, grown for pharmaceutical purposes we assumed, colored the landscape with their purple flowers. At one stop when Glenn gave a candy to a little girl her friend came rushing up to remind her that it was Ramadan. She quickly spit it out and put it in her pocket to savor after sundown.

We arrived in Isparta seeking shelter for the night. Looking as confused as only tourists can we were rescued by two men in a car who pulled up beside us to say hello. We said, “want hotel” while I held up my four fingers to illustrate that we wanted something nice. The driver smiled and waved us to follow him. He drove up to a brand new otel and pointed before he drove off with a wave.

It was luxurious. As we checked in local army officers arrived in their staff cars with flags flying from front fenders. They were gathering for a Rotary Club meeting, Americana in an unlikely location. The hotel restaurant was taken over by the Rotary. The hotel staff pointed us to a restaurant several blocks away. All eyes turned in our direction when we entered. Smiles followed and the cook invited us into his kitchen where we pointed at what looked good. Various tasty combinations made with tomatoes, eggplant and lamb soon filled our plates. The restaurant was crowded with the local soccer team. A man motioned to us to sit with him at the only table with space. He was an engineering professor with good English and was happy to talk about his view of the challenges and opportunities for the country. Returning to the hotel we fell asleep to the sounds of a Stravinsky concert on the radio and awoke to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

Photos and statues of Kemal Attaturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, watched us as we drove through towns. Veiled women on tiny donkeys rode by. In the countryside we passed arched Ottoman-era stone bridges, tractors heading for the tobacco fields with women in flower-patterned bloomers sitting on the wheel covers, and packed buses and trucks speeding down the roads on the way to who knows where. The roadside was dotted with nomads pursuing their never ending travel. Some were camped in black goat hair tents with their caravan camels tied up and babies slung in cradles hung from tripods, a scene unchanged for millennia.

Cappadocia was like an ancient Disneyland with strange rock spires, rock-carved churches where the sides had fallen away leaving the 9th and 10th century Byzantine frescoes open to the elements, and luxury hotels set among and even within the soft rocks. Some of the tall rocks, called fairy chimneys, were topped with what looked like a boulder, making them look somewhat obscene. We entered one of the underground cities, this one eight stories deep; some are said to have eighteen stories sheltering up to 20,000 households from pagans in the troubled times when the Roman Empire was collapsing. How they and their animals could have survived such conditions was incomprehensible. The layers  of caves and air shafts remain monuments to an indomitable will to live despite the odds.

We returned to Bodrum, where a Crusader castle overlooks the harbor. Once the city was the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, long lost to time.  My sense of history’s weight was sharpened even more when I learned that the Greek, Herodotus, the Western world’s first recorded historian, was born there in about 484 BC. His History is unrivaled for his humane view of “barbarians,” non-Greeks, and his belief that the gods can warn mortals but do not prevent their follies and the punishment that follows, a concept that seems to have been forgotten.

Our boat owners had a Turkish friend who sold carpets, always a temptation since we both suffer from carpet lust. We were mesmerized and soon succumbed when he dramatically snapped open carpet after carpet, rolling them out one on top of the other for our inspection while we sipped mint tea. His feminine-appearing brother, willowy in shape and missing the ubiquitous thick Turkish mustache, brought out other treasures: a heavy Kurdish copper teapot decorated with round knobs, fancy skewers and embroidered camel harnesses. Without putting up any resistance we bought everything we could carry and stowed our treasures as ship’s stores well out of sight of Italian customs officials.  

When we walked along the harbor we could see the traditional two-masted wooden sailing boats, gulets, rocking at their moorings while their captains awaited customers for day sails or a week along the inlet-dotted coastline. Some idly smoked on the awning-shaded sterns strewn with carpets and cushions. The red Turkish flags with their white crescent and star flag fluttered in the faint breeze.

The Virginia was lowered back into the water and it was time to cast off. We slowly sailed toward Italy in choppy waters. Needing to get back to work, I walked the plank at Paros, an island famous for its quarries containing pure white semi-transparent marble used by ancient Greeks for their sculptures. Standing on the dock and watching my shipmates sail off made me feel like I’d been shipwrecked, even though I would fly home the next day from the tiny airfield via Athens. The owner of the small hotel where I stayed kept his eye on me. What he thought I was doing alone was unclear, but whatever he thought it was, he didn’t approve, scowling every time he saw me. I was shopping and visiting the Byzantine Church of the Hundred Doors, said to have been founded by that great traveler, Constantine’s mother, St. Helena. She stopped on the island on her way to the Holy Land in search of the True Cross, pieces of which are in reliquaries throughout Europe.

Italy’s boot appeared far below as I flew back to Rome. Two weeks later Glenn returned home via a rust-bucket Greek ferry from Igoumenitsa to Brindisi and then by overnight train. His watchcap was worn on a rakish angle, he needed a shave and his seabag was filled with dirty laundry. My first mate was home.

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Oracles & Sibyls

Oracles & sibyls, those fascinating forecasters, were popular with ancient Greeks and Romans who wanted to learn their fates. I’m never quite clear on the difference between the two but my classical dictionary says that an oracle transmits the response of a god to a question asked by a worshipper. A sibyl was a female prophet who  didn’t need a god to get involved in the process.

One of the most memorable days I ever spent immersed in the ancient world was a visit to Delphi, dedicated to Apollo and home of the Delphic Oracle, called Pythia, by tradition a local woman over age 50. The area was a center of worship before the first millennium BC and was still in operation in 385 AD when Emperor Theodosius abolished it. The site, not far from Athens, retains an aura of mystery because of the beauty of its surroundings and the evocative ruins of temples in the Sacred Precinct.  This most famous shrine to Apollo rests on Mount Parnassus’ steep slopes. The location was considered to be the center of the earth and was therefore sacred to the god as well as home to the muses, personifications of poetry, music and learning.

After wandering around the ruins filled with temples, a theatre, gymnasium, and a museum where the exquisite bronze statue of a charioteer stares solemnly into the distance with his glass eyes, I sat among the ruins in warm, hazy air gazing on endless silver-green olive groves punctuated with whorled cypress trees all sloping down the hills. The age of Apollo seemed to return and it was easy to visualize the streams of worshippers bringing gifts, watching plays and cheering athletic competitions. But perhaps I was only breathing the faint fumes still wafting in the breeze from a chasm where the oracle sat on a tripod speaking in Apollo’s name. It is said that she chewed on laurel leaves and breathed the fumes from the rotting corpse of a giant snake, the Python, for inspiration. More prosaically, the fumes are thought to be ethylene which is known to produce out of body experiences. Whatever the genesis of her trance she provided devotees with answers to religious, moral and political problems. Ever curious about the future, I asked what my fate would be. But there was no response to my entreaties.

* * *

Cumae, an ancient temple complex similar to Delphi but only a couple of hours south of Rome, was established by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC. Not much remains except the cave where the Cumaen Sibyl spun out her prophecies. She must have been a fearful sight if we can believe Michelangelo. Of the five sibyls depicted in the Sistine Chapel, she’s the ugly one, rendered with aged and masculine features and upper body and arms like those of a weightlifter. The sibyl was reputed to have shunned sex – thus Michelangelo painted her legs and feet primly poised together as she intently studies her book. Her fame rests on offering nine books of prophecies to an Etruscan king of Rome in the sixth century BC. He declined to buy them because of the cost. She burned three and offered the remainder to the king at the same price. He refused again whereupon she burnt three more. He gave in and purchased the last three at full original price. They were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome to be consulted in emergencies, not that in the end they did any good as both they and the Roman Empire were destroyed.

When she was “alive” she sat at the end of a 145 foot long trapezoidal tunnel cut through solid rock. The tunnel and the surrounding remains are located not far from the volcanic and sulfurous Phlegrean Fields as well as Lake Avernus, considered by the ancients to be an entrance to Hades.

Virgil described the sybil’s fearsome power: “Through the amplification of her hollow vaults, the sibyl cast her warnings, riddles confused with truth.” Despite her powers she came to a peculiar end. She asked Apollo to let her live as long as the number of grains of sand she held in her hand. Apollo granted her wish but because she forgot to ask for enduring youth she slowly withered away, ending up in a small jar. In the end only her voice was left, and that, too, is long gone thus preventing me from asking her any questions either.

The tunnel had a few openings for light cut into the cliff facing the sea. My husband and I stumbled along in the dimness. By the time we reached her cave at the end it was easy to think of the ancients quivering while awaiting some word on the future as she wrote their destiny in riddles confused with truth. The mood was unsettling and we didn’t linger, anxious to return to the emotionally cleansing sunlight.

When we emerged into the brilliance after one visit we were suddenly transported to a relic of the 18th   century. A funeral cortege was passing by. In the lead was an enormous ornately carved Baroque black wooden coach drawn by six black horses with black plumes on their bridles. The coach was glass sided with two gold and silver lanterns, each at least six feet tall, a gold railing across the glass and a gold cockle shell adorning each of the lower sides. The wheel spokes were as elaborately carved as the coach body. On top were two screened domes to dispel the odor of decay. A coffin heaped with flowers rested on a red velvet bier inside the coach. Incongruously, the driver and his helper sitting on the carved and painted high seat were wearing ordinary slacks and windbreakers. No bewigged footman in sight. A dozen cars followed the coach as it slowly made its way along the road. The cars were hung with funeral wreaths so big that they were nearly buried in flowers. Were they headed to the cemetery or to Lake Avernus and the underworld to see the deceased off on his journey to an unknown destiny?

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