Patmos: Why this year is special

Religious leaders from the world over will go to the Greek isle of Patmos Sept. 22-27 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of a monastery erected on the site where St. John is believed to have received the revelation recorded in the Bible. The observance will be accompanied by celebrations and exhibits in Athens and other parts of Greece over the next few months. Today a Monitor travel writer reports on a recent visit to the island. FOR its religious significance as well as its scenic beauty, we looked forward to the tour of Patmos as one of the highlights of our Mediterranean cruise. Our first sight of the island was at sunrise from the deck of the Epirotiki cruise ship Oceanos.

My husband and I stood at the rail and watched as the rosy glow of sunrise changed into bright yellow sunlight. We were immediately impressed with the dramatic hill on the port side of the ship and the massive gray stone monastery/fortress perched on top. Directly ahead was the small port of Skala - a perfect Greek village of whitewashed houses with blue-domed churches sprinkled in.

A flotilla of native boats was tied up to the piers, and local tenders waited to take us ashore. The short trip gave us time to study the island's arid, rocky hills. Buses were lined up to take us up to Patmos's two most famous sites.

The first, the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, dominates the island. Our bus stopped in the village of Chora below, and we climbed an ancient zig-zag stone path up to the gates in the wall. Once there, and a bit out of breath, we had a spectacular view of white stuccoed houses, terraced with tiny garden plots, stretching down to the sea. The steep climb was already worth the effort.

Inside the massive wall was a paved stone courtyard, surrounded by numerous arches leading into the monastery. The church, rich with frescoes, could be entered from one side. Opposite were doorways leading to the still active friary. We greeted two of the monks who live and work here as they arrived for the day. Custom allows the monks to stay overnight and eat with relatives outside the walls.

The monastery was founded by an abbot, Christodoulos, who came to Patmos in the 11th century intending to build on the spot where St. John received his vision. However, once Christodoulos saw the spot identified with the revelation - a cave on the side of a steep hill - he realized it wasn't a suitable location. So he built the Byzantine abbey on top of the hill, where an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Artemis had stood.

Christodoulos was given not only the consent and money (by the Emperor Alexius I Commenus) to build a monastery dedicated to St. John, but also title to the whole island of Patmos. So, since its inception, the monastery has held important documents.

It also houses a museum that looks primitive, having an enormous beehive brick oven in its main gallery. However, it now has special atmospheric controls to protect one of the most valuable Greek collections of early Christian manuscripts.

Among the treasures are: 13 pages of the oldest known copy of the Gospel of St. Mark, from the 5th or 6th century. (Other pages are in the Leningrad Library and the British Museum.) Also the document giving the island to Christodoulos, signed by the Emperor in 1088, and some 267 codices on parchment, typical of work done by 12th-century monks.

Other objects on display are early icons; silver and brass altar pieces; highly decorated crosses and jewelry once owned by Catherine the Great; and exquisitely embroidered religious vestments, some made of petit point adorned with gold and silver threads and seed pearls.

The church itself has Byzantine frescoes from the 18th century. The interior is quite dark, since the church is still used and smoke from the many oil lamps continues to coat the walls and domed ceilings during services.

Restoration work in the tiny side Chapel of the Virgin has included taking some of the 18th-century plaster off by a special process and uncovering unusual 12th-century frescoes underneath.

As interesting as the monastery was, we were anxious to get to the second site, the cave where St. John lived and worked, located part way down to the sea.

The guide warned us that there were 40 steep steps down to the grotto. But it sounded worse than it was, because the steps were divided into sets of 8 to 10 by turns through gates and around the buildings.

There, as in almost every religious site in this part of the world, a later building sits on top of the original spot. A convent surrounds the cave, and a school was built in back of it, undoubtedly contributing to its protection through the years.

Inside the cave, a religious service was in progress for a small group seated on benches facing the altar built on one rock wall. When the service was over, we moved in close to the stone where St. John is said to have knelt in prayer; another place where he supposedly laid his head for rest; then the cleft in the rock where he heard, ``a great voice, as of a trumpet'' (Rev. 1: 10); and the rock protrusion where his student, Prochoros, dutifully wrote down the words describing the vision.

When we went back outside, the sun was sparkling on the panoramic scene below. The quiet simplicity of life even now, combined with the scent of the pine trees gave a hint of an idyllic place that could have been the setting for a profound religious experience.

A number of Bible scholars conclude that the book of Revelation resulted from a succession of visions, which were carefully written down in a conscious literary form. How long St. John stayed on Patmos isn't known. It is possible that he, as an old man, was either exiled to the island by Emperor Domitan (A.D. 81-91) for teaching a new religion in Ephesus, about 60 miles away on the mainland - now Turkey. Or, that St. John fled to Patmos on his own. Guidebooks state that after Domitan's death, St. John left Patmos and never came back.

Practical information

It's doubtful that tourists will be able to find accommodations on Patmos during the anniversary celebration week. However, throughout the year several cruise lines include Patmos on their itineraries in the Greek islands. Contact your travel agent for details.

Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.

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