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The Island of St. John

text and photographs by Chris Hellier

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Long before I arrived on the Greek island of Patmos it was clear that I was in for an inspiring experience. Although there were a few wealthy Athenians and foreign backpackers making the 10-hour ferry-trip from Athens, most passengers were ordinary Greeks, dressed in traditional garb.

A group of middle-aged women, their heads draped in dark scarves, frequently crossed themselves as they read their prayers and other religious texts. Another group sang hymns of praise; as they began to drift into sleep, a third group eagerly took over. These good people were not off to a holiday hot-spot; they were on pilgrimage to Greece’s most holy isle.

Approaching tiny, arid Patmos, one of the 12 islands of the Dodecanese, one could already see, atop a hill, the fortified Monastery of St. John, looking more like a castle than a religious retreat. Nevertheless, it is the most celebrated Greek Orthodox monastery outside the mainland and Patmos’s principal claim to fame.

The ferry cruised gently into the harbor. Pilgrims and tourists rushed to the bus connecting Skala, the port, with the upper town and the monastery, but I preferred to take my time. After dropping my bags at a guesthouse, I followed the traditional route to St. John’s: an old, cobbled mule track that wound gently up the hillside.

Twenty minutes later and about halfway to the monastery, I paused at the small Convent of the Apocalypse where, according to local tradition, St. John had his prophetic vision. Beyond narrow, white-washed, flower-bedecked courtyards, steps led down to St. Anne’s Chapel, founded in 1090 and built around a small grotto. A monk, quietly cleaning the iconostasis – a screen of icons dividing the nave from the sanctuary – pointed to a rock that is believed to have served as St. John’s desk. There were three fissures in the rock, said to be cracked by the voice of God.

St. John, traditionally regarded as the author of The Book of Revelation, was banished to Patmos in 95 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Domitian for preaching the Gospel in the Roman city of Ephesus. Parts of the biblical letters of St. John, a series of moral admonitions addressed to the seven Christian churches of Asia Minor, may well have been penned on that stone desk.

Leaving Patmos almost deserted, St. John returned to Ephesus following Domitian’s death in 97 A.D. When the Roman Empire embraced Christianity 250 years later, a small basilica was built in Patmos on the site of a pagan temple. The islanders, however, were forced to flee following Saracen raids during the early medieval period. For half a millennium the island was again all but deserted until, in 1088, Emperor Alexis I Comnenus ceded it, free of taxes, to Christodoulos, an abbot from Asia Minor now revered as a saint.

Throughout the Byzantine period, the monastery, while autonomous, maintained close contacts with the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, employing artists and craftsmen from that city. Patmos fulfilled its role as an important Shrine and pilgrimage center and produced several notable abbots such as Leontius II, who later became Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1176 until his death around 1190.

In the early 13th century Latin Crusaders, lured by the wealth and beauty of Byzantium, attacked, looted and occupied Byzantine cities, including Constantinople. Interestingly, however, they respected the autonomy of Patmos.

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Tags: Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Art Greece Orthodox Church of Greece