Worship and Wonder - Greek Style

Church in Fira in Santorini Having initially come to Greece to study its flora my visits rapidly became a diversion into many other things. And in a country littered with places of worship, where every mountain top, every promontory, every gorge, every rocky cliff face is marked by some sort of religious presence, it was little wonder that my interest was piqued.

Greece's tangled history has driven an abundance of architectural styles and one is spoilt for choice between Venetian mission-style , squat Romanesque and circular-domed Byzantine churches, simple, white-washed chapels or tiny hermitage nooks where one is forced on hands and knees to enter. I fell in love with the curvy, slightly organic shapes of the byzantine style. I rejoiced in their gingerbread house stonework and cookie cutter tiles. I was intrigued by their dimpled, over-blinged interiors, the candlesticks, the candelabras and their shiny metal-encased icons. But what interested me most were the worshippers. Or more correctly their worshipping. Religion turns faith into an art, but it also turns need into devotion and it was this, in its bewildering range of expression, which caught my imagination.

Beautiful 12thC Agios Athanassios, Geraki The very exotic Agios Niikolaos, Samos Aging Gracefully 10thC Saint Sofia, Nafplion

Naturally the large churches have a continual stream of congregants, yet even tiny isolated chapels in the most inaccessible of places are attended regularly by the local people. While older women are the mainstay, men and women of all ages are represented amongst the worshippers. Each has their own routine of but essentially it involves a considerable amount of signing of the cross and kissing of icons. These are usually paintings of saints or representations of Christ or the Virgin Mary, but more interestingly, relilequary items, such as the body parts of saints held in glass or intricately carved wooden caskets.

Wonderful Holy Monastery of Gouvernito, Crete Tiny Chapel, Summit of Mt Ambelos, Samos Great Byzantine Metropolis of Mystras

Many worshippers light small tapered candles and place them on a broad circular candle stands in the narthex of the church. Whether this is an act of devotion or in memory of someone dear to them I am unsure but it does carry important meaning. Even in tiny mountain top hermitages one encounters the vestiges of these offerings along with a cigarette lighter and a supply of fresh tapers or perhaps lumps of incense to burn.

The Holy Cathedral of Agios Triada, Piraeus

The church of Agios Triada by the port at Piraeus has an immense number of daily visitors and this has created its own logistics problems. A solution has been found in the form of a small, balding, very busy man, not unlike the Norman Gunston character from Australian tv series  in the 70s.

He was more whirling dervish in a grey dust coat than staid church official. Darting this way and that, cloth in one hand, Eaux de Cologne in the other, he sprayed and wiped clean the glass surfaces of the icons where devotees had pressed their lips. He rearranged the lit tapers into neatly balanced circles and when there were too many he threw them out. And after each frenzy foray he retreated to his own small hermitage nook behind the prayer box and barked orders at a man cleaning the brass candlesticks.

There were a number of old people on the church steps and sitting in the narthex, or entrance area, and while not actively begging they looked wretched and beseeching. No-one took the slightest notice of them except for an occasional tourist who pressed a small coin into their hands. I did see, however, many people writing prayer notes and slipping them, along with a few coins, into the prayer box.

A Saint's Day Church halfway to Nowhere, Samos

Despite their casual affectations Greek people generally appear quite religious or maybe that should read superstious? The writing of personal notes to God accompanied by a small donation looks a bit like insurance. But perhaps I am being a unkind. . . although it was explained to me by a Greek, that the sheer number of churches in Greece, some in the most out of the way places, many used only once a year on Saints Day, were built and donated by rich people attempting " to pass through the eye of a needle". But I guess none of this is exclusive to the Greek Orthodoxy nor does it explain everything.

Certainly the Church is much more highly visible in the Greek community than my own. Priests live alongside their fellow Greeks as the public face of their faith and they are many things to them, but most importantly they are experts in the art of worship. Whether it's singing the liturgy or leading the procession of sacred iconry, they are the bridge between the sacred and the profane for a people still alive to the pomp and ritual of their orthodoxy. And they are entertainers, showmen in the biggest show in town ... and it doesn't get any bigger than the battle of good against evil, and the triumph of eternal life over death and damnation.Then there's the whole choreography of worship: the to and fro of the service, the elaborate intricacies of the liturgy, the patterned singing, the incredibly ornate vestments ... and who among us doesn't love a bit of colour and movement?

Procession of Saint's Relics Church Bling, PiraeusManouali Candle Holders

And what of the Turks? They were Muslims and ruled the area we now know as Greece and the Balkans for 400 years. Over that time they completely changed the society, the culture and the power relationships that previously existed. It was not that they overturned a fully formed Greek nation. The inhabitants were christians but for the most part already under the yoke of Venetian rule, and all were bound by the Double Headed Eagle of the Byzantine Kings and the Holy Roman Empire. The Ottomans overturned the Byzantine legacy, destroyed the existing power elites and sublimated the dominance of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

During their occupation there were periods of religious tolerance and acceptance of Christian practices but the Turks played a clever (and dangerous) game. They understood the threat that the Orthodox Church presented to their rule but they also recognized its importance in maintaining civil order and preventing outbreaks of insurrection. Hence there was a propensity towards its favourable accomodation but attitudes and responses waxed and waned over the centuries following the general pattern of uprisings and rebellion of the Greeks.

Ottoman Library at Ioannina

The upshot was that the Greeks were never going to accept occupation by a foreign power and especially a heathen one. So when they finally forced the Ottoman regime out, with the help of other Christian powers like Great Britain, they set about destroying every last vestige of their presence in their country. So thorough was this "cleansing" that a visitor could be forgiven in believing that the preceding four hundred years never took place!

Of course they are traces of the story if one cares to look: museums, galleries and some archaeological sites will give you the victor's version; there are incredible examples of churches, having been converted to mosques, being returned once again to their original purpose;and there are other tantalising fragments scattered across the landscape, an old moslem cemetery, a little bookshop tucked in a side alley, a converted Hamam, or Turkish bathhouse, and of course the Turkish language lingering in the names that mark and give meaning to the land. These of course hint at an earlier time but it seemed to me that all the large scale structures from that era had, as they say, been consigned to "the dustbin of history". So imagine our surprise when Susan and I literally stumbled upon the fortified Castro Ioannina in Epirus.

Fethiye Minaret at Ioannina Citadel Turkish Tiles at Ioannina Citadel Aslan Mosque at Ioannina Citadel

The fortified castle, which dates back to Byzantine times, includes two mosques, and has been been constructed,  renovated and reconstructed over the centuries on a rocky promotory by various invading forces, the best known of which were the Ottomans under Aslan Pasha, and then under the Albanian warlord, Ali Pasha. It's a large site and has substantial remains, although a huge number of buildings have been lost in the century following 1822. The mosques have been restored and the most substantial now houses a museum which the traces the history of the three main religious communities, Jews, Christians and Muslims, that were present in Ioaninna.The Muslim population were shipped out in the great population exchange of 1922-23 following Greece's ill advised endeavour to reclaim areas of Western Turkey that were historically once theirs. It came as no surprise that members of the Jewish faith were shipped out later by the Nazis; sadly, the conservative leaders of the Jewish community failed to realise the danger in time. 

The mosques are modest buildings and have nothing of the majesty and style of many the Turkish ones but they are there in Greece and it was such a surprise to see a minaret piercing up into the sky. We speculated on why this site had escaped the Greek purge and came up with an explanation that had to do with boundaries. Up until 1913 Ioannina was not part of modern Greece. It was part of Albania and joined Greece after the Balkan Wars. By that time sentiments obviously had changed and they were given another life as historical monuments.

Mosque of the Rural Turks, Thrace Ehinos Mosque Xanthi, Thrace A Winter's Tale, Rhodope, Thrace

There is another place in Greece where one can see mosques ... lots of them, and they provide a surreal backdrop to yet another strange part of the puzzle of recent Greek history. In Thrace and Eastern Greek Macedonia there are 50,000 Turkish people living as they have done since the Ottomans moved in there in the mid 1300s. The authorites never refer directly to them as Turks but rather lump them into a broader category called Muslim Greeks but they are Turks and they have mosques, wear scarves, and practise their religion. They live along the fertile river valleys and farm tobacco. My abiding image of them are big mummas in headscarves riding shotgun on their tractors, while the others on board crouch on a tray being pulled slowly behind planting seedlings, lots of pocket handkerchief paddocks, and every corner utilised. Their forefathers managed to escape the brutal exchange of Turkish and Greek populations after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1922. It is said that their exemption was part of a deal the Greeks did to keep the Grand Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (Istanbul) thereby maintaining the spiritual home of their faith. It is indeed a queer world when the fate of so many hangs of the fate of one. The quid pro quo was that Turkey maintain and protect the substantial Greek minority in Istanbul and enshrine their fundamental rights in their constitution, just as the Greeks have done for the tobacco-growing Turks. They have not adhered to this part of the bargain and consequently Greek numbers have dwindled to a handful. 

Young Monk at Akardi Monastery, a Rare Sight These Days

 No traveller to Greece could fail to be enthralled by its monasteries. They sprout from the tops of mountains, cling like bird's nests from sheer cliffs and have taken root deep in seaside caverns, transforming the primordial landscape irrevocably to one bound with man's spirit and that of his gods. In days past they were the cultural, social, as well as religious heart of their people, and, in the four hundred years of Ottoman rule they maintained a sense of Greek cohesiveness and resistence.

These days, many have fallen out of active use while others in more favourable sites have flourished and become major tourist attractions. The best example of these are at Meteora, where they perch high up on natural sandstone pillars, in fact the word meteora means "suspended in the air". Also at Mount Athos, where a holy mountain and an entire peninsula has been devoted to a thousand years monastic life, women excluded of course.

Meteora Monasteries Reliquary of Skulls, Meteora Agios Triadas, Meteora

Monasteries that hold special historical importance are another category that have maintained a powerful presence and the tragically famous Moni Akardi in Central Crete is one such place. It played an active role in the Cretan resistance of Ottoman rule during the Cretan uprising in 1866. Over 900 people, mostly women and children, sought shelter there during the worst of the fighting and on the third day under orders from the Abbot the Cretans chose to blow up the monastery's gunpowder store and sacrifice themselves rather than surrender. It is now a monument of national significance.

Setting for Tragedy, Monastery of Akardi, Crete Flowery Walk behind the Church, Akardi Monastery

The beautiful Moni Prevelli is another site famous for its resistance of enemy invaders and its warrior monks, including the Bishop himself, who fought against the Nazi occupation.. Moni Preveli, or the Monastery of St John the Apostle, is a huge complex built on a headland overlooking the Libyan sea, and is reknown for providing shelter and aid to allied soldiers that were being evacuated through the mountain ranges and gorges after the Battle of Crete. The gratitude of the allied forces is made apparent in the inscripted stone monuments inside the monastery and just outside its walls is erected a very powerful monument to peace on a steep hillside overlooking the sea in 2002 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

Compound Inside Preveli Monastery Venetian-Style Bell Tower, Preveli Monastery Monument to the Warriors For Peace

On a recent trip there we observed a most intriguing incident at the beautiful church inside this Monastry. Two youngish monks were sitting by the entrance plucking bay leaves into baskets from a pile of branches when a number of visitors entered together. After a brief exchange one of the priests went over to the side, exchanged his black cap for a cream embroidered vestment, opened the glass door of an ornate cabinet, removed a delicately carved and bejewelled cross and proceeded to bless a couple of the group with a beautiful sing songy prayer. In return those blessed made a full preambulation of the church, kissing icons, bowing in front of tapestries, crossing themselves at every opportunity, and dropping, what seemed to us, very large donations into the collection box. Over the next half an hour a slow trickle of people joined the queue, and the monk, undaunted, blessed all and sundry, while we sat and  watched and enjoyed the lilt of his invocations.

On our way out across the main courtyard we caught the unmistakable sound of a thick Russian accent and then realised that those blessed by the young monk were from a gaggle of Russian tour buses parked outside the complex. The Greek and the Russian Orthodox Church have much in common so it is of little wonder that these people would be attracted to the goings on inside a monastery but this looked more like a sort religious tourism!

 I guess entrepreneurship is where one finds it and it can pop up in the strangest places and in the strangest forms.

St Nikolaus of Filanthropinou, Lake Pamvotis Tourist Honey Pot, Moni Agios Triada, Crete

My favourite instance of individual enterprise was at the abandoned Monastery of Filanthropinou on the island in the centre of Lake Pamvotis, around which nestles Ioannina, the capital of Epirus. There, in the darkness, the most amazing collection of frescos lay hidden and crumbling to dust. Panel after panel of gaunt-faced saints and desert fathers line every wall, each one haloed and primped in the pom and finery of their vestments. Above them, painted with all the monstrous, gruesome chaos of a Breugel, are scenes from the Old Testament, the weighing of souls, the raising of the dead, the horrors of purgatory and the suffering of martyrdom. The frescos are all supposed to be protected and developed as a cultural asset under a joint EU/Greek conservation program but there is absolutely nothing in place to suggest this. There isn't even an electric light! The only person we saw there was a little guy sitting at a card table, in the shade, enjoying a smoke. He lent us one of his torches to take a look around. I think he has seized upon a little business opportunity. We gave him 2 euro for his troubles.











A fascinating look at "modern" Greek history. Most of us know a little about Ancient Greece, and many of us have learnt a little about Greece under the Romans, very few know much about Byzantium, but - beyond Lord Byron and the (later) transfer of populations between Turkey and Greece, most of us are blank about modern Greek history. And the fascinating architecture ... ! All this and beautifully written, too. Keep 'em coming, Marcus. Don.

Dear Don,

Thank you very much for your comments.  They are always welcome and insightful. I do these stories with luv and great interest so is great to have them read. 

I will be posting another on the Southern Zagori and on to Metsovo. That will be the last on this region.  I simply got to move on! 

Cheers,  M

Hi Marcus, what a picturesque and entertaining detour from the flora of Greece. I really enjoy the colour and clarity you convey - along with the particular mixture of contemplation, appreciation and irreverence that is your wont. Certainly it reads as a journey of reflection and denouement. You seem to have found a comfortable balance on your travels, interspersing the historical and cultural countenance of Greece with seeking out the birds and butterflies in their natural habitat. Thanks once more for the diversion and for firing the imagination. Wonderful photos.

Hi Jacqui,

Thanks very much for your great comments!  

I am grateful to all who read these posts and if I can fire imagination then I am extremely glad. 

Maybe in the future we can both go together to the source.

Cheers,  M

Hi Pat,

Thanks for reading them.  I always appreciated your comments and your vote of support. 

Great to have you on board.

Cheers, M

Very interesting and beautifully written Mark. I remember well the little chapel on the summit of Mt Ambelos, Samos, looking out over the Eastern Coast of Turkey, a lonely sentinel to keep an eye on the infidels. On a chilly autumn day in Tasmania, I wish we were back there now on our hands and knees in search of those tiny seeds!

Hi Linda,

So glad we could all go together to the mountains.  That little jiminey lurched and stuttered, even threatened to lose its roof,  but we made it up and back TWICE! 

It is always a revelation to stand there on that summit and look across the short distance to Turkey and speculate how two so different cultures have  lived cheek by jowl without reconciling their differences.  

Oh to back there today with the snowdrops and the anemones! 

Love, Bro x

As a keen iconographer, my visits to Meteora and other monasteries reflects your observations where we were warmly welcomed despite us not being Orthodox Christians. Marcus you again highlighted what we encountered at the Ioannina Citadel that people of three major faiths lived in that community. Like you we were surprised that a few things of the Ottoman period remain as a reminder of that period of history. Your story and photos rekindle my memories.

Hi Judy,

Thanks for your comments.  Yes as you point out the country seems wiped clean!  Did you get to Thrace? That's where things really get surreal. 

Your comments re the three groups living together are poignant. Nationalism trumps all in the end If it is allowed to grow unchecked and then it becomes an ugly beast. 

Cheers,  Marcus