Patmos: Island of the Apocalypse for a Plague Year
The highlight of my summer 2020 was a visit to Patmos island (well, more of late summer/early fall because the pandemic necessitated my coming to Greece in September). This was my first time visiting an island of the Dodecanese, an archipelago I rarely visit because my roots are in the Cyclades. I chose to visit Patmos as an obscure cave served as the sanctuary, more like jail, for St. John the Theologian, the prophetic apostle who penned the awe-inspiring last volume of the Bible, the Apocalypse. I thought it would be a fitting destination to visit for our troubled times, what with under the grip of a global pandemic, the rumors of war, the throes of ecological disaster, what with floods and wildfires, I thought what better a place to contemplate the end of the world than where the end of the world was recorded—in the cave of the Apocalypse.
As a traveler and a pilgrim, my first entrance into the island felt like a magical crossing into a supernatural realm, into a holy dimension covered by a protective forcefield that has kept out commercialism, excessive merry making, and the all-too-many boisterous holiday seekers that the Greek islands are famed for. Perhaps because the bulk of its visitors tend to come for religious reasons, Patmos has kept an aura of sanctity that has preserved its traditional unspoiled self. Another reason for its relative seclusion has to do with the fact that it is not an easy place to get to, at least for those tourists who want it easy. The voyage takes from 7 to 8 hours from Pireaus, at inconvenient hours. The Theologos and Blue Star ferries (at least in September and October) leave Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at midnight and arrive in the wee hours of the early morning.
By the time the Theologos docked into the serene port of Skala, it was 3:30 in the morning and pitch dark. From inside the muster station of the ferry, we shifted on tired feet itching to hit the ground running. The only things visible were that luminous cross on the dark hill of the Holy Kathisma of Panagia Koumanas (a lone nun keeps it lit for the benefit of pilgrims arriving in the night) and the awning of the hotel I was supposed to stay in the Byzance. Once on shore in the hallowed light of the moon it felt like I had entered a fairy tale: the silver full moon cast a white halo over the dome of the church on the port. The water in the bay looked like a piece of glass with slivers of silver fish meandering and breaking the surface like a flurry of fireworks. The bay stood lovingly calm and inviting its two arms outstretched hugging the open sea. It was so quiet I felt like a princess stealing back to my tower from a secret rendezvous.
The Byzance Hotel we stayed in was splendid. Artfully designed with white marble and birds of paradise no doubt evoking its Byzantine inspiration. Due to coronavirus, it was kept immaculately clean; in fact it was sanitized and organized every single day of our stay. A breakfast buffet of staple eggs, cereals, yogurt and an assortment of breads could be taken across the many bright seating areas. The main dining room felt like an aunt’s salon, a refined aunt at that. For the price I received and the discount for the off-season, it was a bargain for a 9.5 rated hotel. I highly recommend it for anyone.
I started my exploration from the port of Skala, as the port is the main gathering hole for both locals and visitors alike. Easily walkable and lined with a plethora of tavernas, restaurants and a few jazz bars, it is a welcome alternative to the loud, rambunctious ports of call of my native Cyclades. In general, Patmos is for those who have grown up and are tired of the skanky night life they were drawn to in their youth. It appeals to the spiritual, the artful, the refined.
My favorite restaurant was Tzivaeri, a Cretan- inspired meze place that you can gaze out into the Aegean from its verandah on the second floor. The food was impeccable! I tried the fish and some eggplant stuffed with goat cheese I can’t remember the name of. A close second was Tsipouradiko, whose chairs and tables are literally on the shore in the sand so that the waves nip your ankles (that is, if there are any waves because the bay is so serene schools of fish torque and waltz through it.) So idyllic is the bay that the cats wait at the tip of the shore waiting for the fish to literally jump into their claws. The waiter mentioned these as being the laziest cats he has ever seen, “They can’t bother with getting their paws yet,” he said, “and wait for the fish to stop wiggling before they eat them.” I have never seen this sort of thing; it seemed right out of a chapter of the Chronicles of Eden, where fish somersault in front of you, cats do not need to hunt, and you eat a fine dinner of fried minnow and smelt drizzled in olive oil under the full moon. Of course, I opted for the drama of the saganaki pin flames that sizzled blue and orange. It was after all my birthday and I had to celebrate.
The rest of my stay included sightseeing and proskinima, prayer at the holy places. Patmos is a UNESCO World Heritage site not only because of the cave of the Apocalypse, but also its accompanying monastery. I visited the cave early the next morning. It is approximately 4 kilometers from the port town of Skala in a village aptly named Apocalypse. In the crags and folded flukes of the granite cave alone with the lone very laconic monk who was overseeing it, I read in whispers the prophetic chapter of The Revelation, the most cryptic and most portentous of all the books of the Bible. It reads like a blueprint for the end, the total end of life and time as we know it. I stumbled upon the verse, “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Could it be it is describing the pandemic we are living through? The horse is yellow as it comes from the East from China, the land of yellow men. The plague is close to taking 42 million while not a third of the population by Biblical standards it would qualify.
I stood in the cave barefoot in reverence of the Spirit that resides there. Where else can you ponder the essential questions of humankind’s existence and its fears of total global annihilation than in the cave of the Apocalypse? In the womb-like quiet of the place the wisdom of God’s truth descended on my musings: humans are their own source of destruction. The events foretold are what we are living through this very second. While the early Christians probably thought the same at the turn of the 2nd century, the difference is that now we know we are living through the end. The planet is melting, fires in California in Australia, floods in India, the immanent transformation of the world as we have known as the technocratic shift to a digital age is accelerating at a pace faster than we as humans can handle. It does feel like the end of the world. Even as the monk arose to tell us “at 1:30 we close,” I wanted to stay in the warm glow of the cave it’s iconostasis painted with the famous Cretan school icon of St. John crouching on his back flabbergasted with the pronouncement of the visions that shattered his inner peace with the sound and the fury of God’s ultimatum, heralded by the shrill blowing of the angel’s trumpet. What can puny man do in the totality of God’s universal plan?
The Chora or main town of Patmos is fortified within the walls of a fortalezza constructed by the Knights Templar on their third Crusade. The serrated dark walls of the city contrast with the milky white traditional houses within it. The monastery that sprang up to support the Cave if the Apocalypse dates from the 13th century. Inside in the museum I wowed at the incredible icons of the Cretan School a whole wall of Damaskinos icons even better than the ones I saw at the Byzantine museum in Chania Crete. The museum is a rare gem filled with manuscripts that tell of the history of the monastery even the rare chrysoboula, the official decrees of the Byzantine emperors stamped in gold with their signet rings.
Yet by far the most incredible possession in its collection was the mosaic icon of St Nicholas finely constructed of almost microscopic tesserae. A young art preserver with red hair who was working on maintaining the icon frescoes told me it is one of only nine other examples of this sort of icon in the world. In my life I have never seen something so exquisitely refined as this icon in minute tesserae. You would need a magnifying glass to be able to distinguish the fine detail of each square marble piece so tightly placed next to one another there is no need or space for glue to bind them together.
The town itself is so immaculately preserved it feels as if you have walked back a century at least. In early October the main town feels abandoned. I was one of the only humans walking around. Patmos has become the haunt of the elite who visit during the summer months in their yachts. One of the only houses open was undergoing restoration. An older gentleman in overalls painting a wall told me it belonged to the family of princes from India or Afghanistan the Ashfa Khans whose palace blew up during the blast in Beirut. A traditional house runs around a million and change. So much for buying a summer home there.
The island is known as the “Jerusalem of the Aegean.” Here’s a short history compliments of Greeka.com:
The island of Patmos is inhabited since 3,000 BC, but the identity of its first inhabitants is still unknown. Some believe that the Kares, the Leleges and the Pelasgous were the first settlers while some think that the Dorians were the first inhabitants, followed by the Ionians. Finds have excavated various buildings, cemeteries, fortresses, and evidence of an ancient acropolis, testifying the existence of a densely populated area in the past. During the Peloponnesian Wars, the Lacedemonians came to the island to escape from the Athenians. Ruins testify about the flourishing of the island during this period.
However, the island of Patmos declined when the Romans conquered it. It was used as a place of exile for convicts. This is how Apostle John came to Patmos, exiled by the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus in 95 AC. In Patmos, Apostle John conveyed the inhabitants to Christianity and wrote the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse. Patmos then became a place of worshipping and pilgrimage and actually, the culture and history of Patmos are strongly connected to the Apocalypse of Saint John.
Byzantine times: Construction of the Monastery
After the division of the Roman Empire in 284 AC, Christianity was officially recognized and the Byzantine Empire flourished. During the Byzantine times, the inhabitants of Patmos built a Grand Royal Basilica in honor of Saint John, where the monastery stands today. The island suffered from the Arab raids from the 6th to the 9th century AC, a period during which the Grand Basilica of Saint John was destroyed. In 1085, the Reverend Father Christodoulos was forced by the Turks to abandon its temple in Asia Minor and went to the island of Kos where he founded a monastery. There, he met the monk Arsenios Skinouris who asked him his help to build the Monastery of Saint John in Patmos.
The construction of the monastery started in 1101, after the permission of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komninos the 1st, who gave to Christodoulos the complete authority over the island of Patmos. The fame of the monastery grew and a settlement started to expend around it. During the end of the 12th century, the island of Patmos was transformed into a large commercial center. The monastery acquired a second commercial vessel.
In 1207, the Venetians conquered Patmos and the reign was given to the Duke of Naxos. Supported by the Duke of Naxos, the island became a semi-autonomous monastic state and gained great wealth and influence. In 1340, the Knights of Saint John who had seized Rhodes conquered the island of Patmos. In 1522, the Turks came to the island and appointed a representative on the island. After a while, they left the island, which they just forced to pay some taxes.
When the Turkish-Venetian Wars ended, tranquillity returned to Patmos and the island flourished, becoming once again an important commercial center. Massive fortifications were built around the monastery as a protection from the pirates. In 1655, Patmos was governed by the monks and prospered again. Its growth stopped in 1659, when Francesco Morosini, the leader of the Venetians, conquered and destroyed the island of Patmos. With shipping, commerce and the efforts of the inhabitants, Patmos regained its lost nobility, glamour and prosperity.
During the early 18th century, the island’s wealth was separated into secular and monastic entities. The Patmian School was founded by Makarios Kalogeras in 1713 near the cave of the Apocalypse. The Russians conquered the island in 1770, after the Turkish-Venetian War. The Greek Revolution started in 1821 and managed to gain the independence of Greece in 1832. Nevertheless, the treaty signed in London did not include the islands of the Dodecanese as part of the newly built Greek State and therefore fell again under Turkish occupation. One of the founders of Filiki Etaireia which took part in the Greek Revolution was Emmanuel Xanthos who was from Patmos.
The Italians occupied all the islands of the Dodecanese in 1912, with of course Patmos, and remained there until 1943, when the Germans took over the island. In 1945, the Germans left and the island of Patmos remained autonomous until 1948 when it joined the rest of independent Greece with the rest of the Dodecanese Islands.
The two monasteries I visited made quite an impression on me. The first outside of Chora, the monastery of the Annunciation, built on the cliffs of the sea, is run by 30 odd nuns who keep its grounds immaculately manicured. The central church is onioned inside the fortifications and was not open to pilgrims due to the Coronavirus. But its central church was still impressive.
The second monastery, also a convent, is within the Chora itself. A German nun who had converted to Orthodoxy and quite a celebrity thanks to a documentary produced by ERT featuring her became our guide. “How did you find yourself here?” I asked her. “I came by ship,” she chuckled in her crisp blue eyes and porcelain complexion. This monastery featured frescoes dating from the 11th or 12th century. The main one is of the Virgin Mary with Christ Child and it peculiar in that on her forehead she carries a third eye. The story of the miracle goes something like this: a woman from Patmos living in the United States had a daughter who became ill with cancer. The doctors informed the mother that she was a hopeless case, that she should prepare for the worst. But the mother remembered the icon of the Virgin from her island. She prayed so deeply for the cure of her daughter that the Theotokos heard her. It so happened that one day when the nuns came for matins they saw that the entire icon had disappeared! It was dark black. In her dreams the mother saw a woman dressed in black telling her that her daughter would get well. The child was cured. The mother sent word to the monastery and fulfilled her tama. When the nuns asked when the mother had made the vow, the answer was no other than the day the icon went missing. To this day, the miraculous healing of the child is attributed to the visitation of the Theotokos from the island to her in America. The third eye appeared afterwards.
Patmos has an assortment of decent beaches. I swam in the warm water even in October at the beach of Agriolivadi, north of Skala, protected in a bay against turbulent waves. It is what’s called an “organized” beach where you can rent umbrellas and beach chairs get a frappe at the local taverna and just enjoy the sun. But there are other beaches including Kambos, Geranou, Petra, Grikos, and Meloi, Psilis Ammos. For those not into the religious scene, there are enough good beaches to make it an enjoyable summer retreat.
Whatever you do, Patmos is worth the trip. It was the best birthday gift I could have been given thanks to the Grace of God who allowed me a safe passage even during the plague year of 2020.
VERY RESPECTFUL AND THOUGHTFUL STORY ABOUT THE ISLAND OF PATMOS. i want to move to this island for faith reasons. I currently live in the United States Of America. When I acquire enough financial resources, I will apply to move to the country of Greece. THANKS FOR WRITING THIS INSIGHTFUL ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!