The Monasteries of Mount Palouki

Article by Maria Broadley
The steep mountain opposite to Skopelos Town, Palouki, (meaning the Finger) has several of Skopelos’ most interesting monasteries, the predominance of which has given rise to the epithet the holy mountain: it is forbidden to hunt here, so it is a paradise for small animals and birds.

Evangelistria

The one which is visible from the waterfront is called Evangelismos. 4 kilometres from Skopelos town, on the far side of the bay, this 18th century monastery is located in a very beautiful place, offering one of the most magnificent views of the Town nestling in the bay and the hills opposite, with Mount Delphi towering over all. It is one of the most outstanding Byzantine monuments in Skopelos.

The monastery was built in 1712 by Stephanos Dhapontes, the English ambassador, on the site of an older monastery, founded by monks from Mount Athos. The earlier monastery was related to Constantinople, where a holy cross with a portrait of ‘Panagia Pamakaristos’ (Virgin Mary) was implanted. According to the tradition this was brought to the island by two monks who came from Constantinople during the reign of Nikiforos Fokas (963-969).
Dhapontes decided to restore the monastery at his own expense, because of a miracle of Panagia (Virgin Mary) which saved him when he was sent to the island’s Turkish ruler, the Aga, to be put to death. It now belongs to the Monastery of Xiropotamos of Athos.

Visitors can see the defensive walls of the monastery and the church, showing the cross-in-square plan and the dome, typical features of this architecture style. it boasts an impressive gold plated 14th century altar screen from Constantinople, as well as very interesting and valuable icons, including one of the Virgin Mary showing the date 1866. Two registers (catalogues) of 1829 and 1841 respectively are also housed here, telling about the heirlooms and elements relevant to the monasteries property, including a patriarch’s bull (edict) of 1804, with two leaden seals of the monastery. There is also a list of abbots from 1786, such as Gerasimos from Skopelos; and bishops, among them Zitounios Meletios and Thoumakos Seraphim. Of great importance to devout Skopelitans was the presence of the holy monk Prokopiou, living an ascetic life with meekness and humility.

Only one monk is in residence now, and he is looked after by several ancient nuns. The nuns make and sell textiles and other handicrafts in a small shop beside the church. Inside the monastery precinct there is also a small chapel dedicated to the protector of sailors, Saint Nikolaos. The whole complex now belongs to the Monastery of Xiropotamos of Athos.

You can get to the monastery by foot or by taxi, but as with all the monasteries, go in the morning, up until 13:00, or the evening from 17:00 as it is closed mid day. There is a dress code for visiting: for both men and women, shoulders and knees should be covered.

The name Evangelistria means Annunciation and the monastery commemorates the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary or Annunciation of the Lord: the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God, thus marking his Incarnation. Gabriel told Mary to name her son Jesus, meaning ‘Saviour’. Many Christians observe this event with the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March, nine full months before Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.

The Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated at the monastery by a panagiri (festival) on March 25th, a day which is a religious holiday, and a Greek National Day commemorating the revolution against the Turks and Greece’s victory and freedom after 400 years of occupation. The date was actually the day Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the flag of national rebellion at the monastery of Agia Lavra in the northern Peleponisos. For Greece, the 25th of March is the equivalent to the 4th of July to Americans and the day is celebrated with marches and celebrations throughout the country: consequently, all archaeological sites and museums are closed. In the larger towns and cities there are military parades, but Greek National Day is a big day for the children of Skopelos. Here,as in every town and village throughout Greece, there is a school flag parade. All the schools take part and march along the paralea, with the chosen honour student carrying the flag.

The day is commemorated with pride not just in Greece itself, but in every Greek community around the world: it is a time of the affirmation of the Greek, as well as reinforcing aspects such as dance, food, community and religion which play an important part in Greek culture. This passing on of Greek traditions to the next generation is an important responsibility for most Greek families.

March 25 is the name-day for Vangelis or Evangelos and Vangelio or Evangelia or Eva. On this day it is the custom to eat fried bakaliaro (cod) and skordalia (garlic sauce).

On the other side of the valley You can walk up the mountain to some of the beautiful monasteries in the Palouki area. The first visit is made to Sotiris monastery which is approx. 7km from town – mainly uphill, but with a lovely view. There follow Aghia Varvara, Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, Metamorphosis and lastly, the two monasteries of Ag. Taxiarchon and Ag. Anna. They latter are both very well hidden in the hillsides above the sea and are uninhabited today. This is one of the most peaceful spots on the entire island, with the only sounds the freshwater spring and the birds. On your way up from the monasteries, the magnificent view of the sea, Alonissos and the deserted islands of the Marine park will make you forget all about sore muscles.

If you walk or drive, the first visit is made to Sotiris monastery, derived from Greek Soteria meaning salvation, which is approx. 7km from town – mainly uphill – but with the reward of a lovely view.

This monastery was built in the 16th century. Surrounded by a clutch of pines, it has a beautiful small chapel standing in a flowered courtyard. The suntrap courtyard gives off pulses of heat and it’s a relief to enter the Church itself, stiff with white linen, icons shimmering in front of the 16th-century carved wooden screen. The monastery is manned by a solitary monk and is opened on its feast day, on the 6th of August, during which one of the biggest festivals of the island takes place.

The monastery was founded in accordance with the doctrine of Soteriology – that is, the doctrine of deliverance or salvation. The Sotiris monastery is therefore connected with the point in the beginnings of human existence when man was faced with a choice: to learn the difference between good and evil through observation or through participation. ‘Salvation’ is the means by which Orthodox Christians will reach the ultimate goal of theosis – a close union with God.

The monastery of Sotiris is situated below the monastery of Metamorphosis because it signifies the start of the journey of change that leads to Salvation.

Name days are August 6 for Sotiris and August 7 for Sotiria. Sotirios features a few nicknames and diminutives, such as Sotiris, Sotirakis, Sotos, Akis, Sakis, Sotis.

The Monastery of Aghia Varvara is found about 9km to the North of Skopelos Town, close to the Monastery of Agios Ioannis. It used to have an important role for the island till some decades ago, but has been deconsecrated. It now belongs to the Local Authority of Skopelos and is used on occasion for public performances. A caretaker is employed to open the monastery to visitors in the summer.

The Monastery was founded in 1648 and it was reformed in 1697. The architecture of this Monastery looks like a fortress: a tall, stone wall surrounds the church and the yard, while its location actually overlooks the sea, so it may have been used as a lookout post for enemies and pirates in previous centuries. The wall is made of huge dressed granite blocks and has Christian symbols, such as crosses and monograms, carved on itl in various places. Until the 20th century, access was through a door high in the outer walls, now reached by steps. A continual supply of fresh water is provided to the monastery by a spring.

The main body of the monastery surrounds a small courtyard. Around it are the cells of the monks, constructed along the inner faces of the defensive walls; the kitchen and the store-room. The abbey, with dome, vestibule and chapels has a different ground plan from that of others on Skopelos: It belongs in the cruciate (cross) registered type but the proportions of the cupola are heavy. That and the segregation of the sanctuary of the church into three, leads to the conclusion that the church is much older than its surroundings. The fretworked, gold-filled chancel that adorns the church is also much older than the reported chronology found elsewhere in the monastery.

Varvara (Barbara) was a young and beautiful woman who lived and suffered during the reign of the emperor Maximian (305-311). She was required by the emperor to renounce her Christian faith and marry a pagan. When she refused, she was whipped unmercifully, her face was branded with hot irons and hooks were skewered into her body. She was led naked through the city amidst derision and jeers, and finally decapitated.

Many pious Orthodox Christians are in the habit of chanting the Troparion of Agia Varvara each day, recalling the Saviour’s promise to her that those who remember her and her sufferings will be preserved from a sudden, unexpected death, and will not depart this life without benefit of the Holy Mysteries of Christ.

Ag. Varvara is commemorated on December 4th, when a panagirii takes place at the monastery. The day is especially celebrated by the Artillery Corps of the Greek Army and the Cypriot National Guard. The Artillery camps throughout the two countries host celebrations in honour of the saint, where the traditional sweet of loukoumades (honey balls) are offered to soldiers and visitors, allegedly because they resemble cannonballs.

The monastery of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, is only 300 metres from that of Ag. Varvara. It is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and was rebuilt during the 18th century, on the top of older foundations. It was renovated by the monk Filaretos, according to the inscription at the entrance. In the monastery’s dining room is a wall painting relating to the founding of the monastery: The painting shows an illustrated prayer in a conch, with Ag. Haralampos and Ag. Filaretos the founder on either side.

The church of the Monastery of Prodromos is of the cross shaped type with four pillars, but following the style of Mt. Athos, from whence it was founded, it has two choirs on the sides. There is a gilded altar screen of woodcarvings with rich decorations of vine leaves, birds, animals and fifteen illustrations of the main orthodox celebrations. Also of importance are the icons, which date back to the 16th, 17th and 18th century AD. The Monastery is also the custodian of many documents dating back to the Turkish occupation.

Originally male, in the 1920’s the monastery was taken over by women. It is now inhabited by a few female monks and only opened during its feast day. As the monastery is inhabited, visitors must remember to cover shoulders and knees. Tourists who arrive indecently dressed to enter the house of God can borrow baggy trousers and skirts hanging on pegs in a small room by the entrance gate to wear.

According to Sacred Tradition, John the Baptist appears at the time of death to those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ, and preaches the Good News to them, that all may have the opportunity to be saved. Most Orthodox churches have an icon of Ag. Ioannis on the iconostasis: his name is also mentioned during the Divine Services: All the Tuesdays of the year are dedicated to his memory.

Ag. Ioannis also has six separate feast days that are dedicated to him. They are:

September 23 – Conception of St. John the Forerunner
January 7 – The Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner (It is the main feast day, immediately after Theophany, on January 6. The day also stands for the transfer of the relic of the right hand of John the Baptist, from Antioch to Constantinople, in 956)
February 24 – First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner
May 25 – Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner
June 24 – Nativity of St. John the Forerunner
August 29 – Beheading of St. John the Forerunner
September 5 is the Commemoration of Zechariah and Elisabeth, St. John’s parents.

Ioannis and Ioanna celebrate their name days on January 7. Nicknames for Ioanna are Giannoula, Giannitsa, Nitsa, Giangoula, Vana, Ivana and Giannio; the most common one is Gianna.

Further up the hillside, at the top of a ravine amid cypresses, is Metamorphosis Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries on the island. The setting is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal. Surrounded by a clutch of pines, the site is a symbol for the mountainous place where Christ experienced the Transfiguration.

The terms Tranfiguration and Metamorphisis refer to the event where Jesus first learned of his identity as the Son of God. According to the story, Jesus was atop a mountain, where his face and body became radiant, and spoke with Moses and Elijah. He heard the voice of God, and for the first time was referred to by God as ‘Son’. The Metamorphisis refers to the change that Jesus went through during the Transfiguration.

The monastery was built in the 15th and 16th centuries and is a glebe (property which was assigned to support the priest) of the Monastery of Xenofondas on Mount Athos, reflecting the architecture of its founding monastery. It has two wings comprising guest quarters, guest rooms, kitchen and the cells of the female monks. In the castellated northern wing, two chapels, one of them to Ag. Ioannis the Theologian, are to be found. On the Eastern side is the tower of the monastery, which was used as an observatory and protected the monks in times of raids from pirates.

The church stands in the flowered courtyard and within it are the obligatory beautiful iconostasis, old vestments, rare books and holy relics: The iconostasis was carved in the 16th century, without rolled gold or colorations. The icons are of the same period and some of them are work of the eminent Byzantine hagiographer Agorastos of Crete, mentioned above.

On feast days and on each Sunday the Divine Service is held here (the only monastery on Skopelos where this is so), while during the period of 15th August the Appealing Rule is chanted in honour of the Virgin Mary. On 6th August the monastery celebrates the Metamorphosis of the Saviour. It begins on the eve of 5th August with a vigil – the Great Evening –attended by the people of Skopelos: The following day a benediction is spoken for the grape harvest , and grapes are given to the pilgrims. For Orthodoxy, the blessing of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables on this day is the symbol of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ, signifying the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God.

Transfiguration is considered a major feast, numbered among the twelve Great Feasts in Orthodoxy: If the feast falls on a Sunday, its liturgy is not combined with the Sunday liturgy, but completely replaces it.

The monastery of Metamorphosis is open from April up to the ends of November, from 9.00 until 12.00 and 17.00 until 21.00 hours, as well as on its feast days.

The Taxiarches Monastery is located opposite the monastery of Ag. Anna. Both monasteries are now abandoned. The Monastery of Taxiarches, referring to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, because they lead the heavenly host, is out of sight of the main path, well hidden by overgrown plane and walnut trees.

Tradition states that on the east side of Palouki mountain, the people of Skopelos began to build the monastery of Taxiarches, in a place called Vatos, some 200 years ago. But when the walls reached the first meter in height, the construction could not be completed. The builders would still build, but in a strange way the walls would not get any higher. As if this wasn’t enough, every night the walls would move by themselves, and would set themselves in another place that was southeast and half an hour further away. Finally the builders gave in and managed to finish the monastery on its new site, leaving the first building half finished.

The nearby mountain caves are used as goat pens and there is a spring. During the Second World War, the partisans hid British, New Zealand and Greek soldiers here in the monastery, before helping them to escape to Turkey and the Middle East.

Saint Anne (also Ann or Anna, from Hebrew Hannah, meaning favour or grace), of David’s house and line, was the mother of the Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus Christ according to Christian and Islamic tradition. The name Anne is the Greek rendering of her Hebrew name Hannah. She is regarded as a great mystic.

In iconography, Anne may be recognised by her depiction in red robe and green mantle, often holding a book. Images may also be found depicting Anne holding a small Mary who in turn holds an infant Christ. The sister of Saint Anne was Sobe, who was the mother of Saint Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.

The feast day of Anne is 25 July. She is the Patron Saint of housewives, grandmothers, cabinet makers, unmarried women, and women in labour.

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