We have been going to the Greek Dodecanese Islands of Kos and Kalymnos since 1999 and in that time we are fortunate to have met people on the islands we count as friends and to have an insight into the real life of the Dodecanese Islands.
So we are very fortunate that our friends take the time to show us their places away from the well trod tourist tracks and allow us to share in their everyday lives. So with them we sometimes head up to the district of Agios Nektarios on the slopes of the Mount Dikeos range just behind Kos Town. Here on the slopes you get a fine view of the town and harbour and 3 miles across the water the Bodrum Peninsular in Turkey and the town of Bodrum itself which in antiquity was Hallincarnassus, the birthplace of the historian Herodotus, known as “The Father of History”, and site of the Tomb of Mausulos, one of the Seven wonders of the ancient world.
Here we visit the Monastery of Saint Nektarios which our friends support and help along with many of the locals. This supports a small community of nuns (In the Orthodox tradition there are male or female monasteries) and we have always been warmly welcomed by the nuns, who include a mother and daughter. In the Orthodox tradition monastic life is esteemed and valued within the communities. Within the Monastery you find three chapels – the chapel of the Resurrection, the chapel of St. Raphael and the chapel of St. Irene Chrysovalantou. It also contains the tomb of Gerasimos, a nineteenth century Archbishop of Kos and his mother. The Monastery is located on a panoramic view-point and although it is situated out of town, it is visited every week for the traditional Sunday service. But to understand how an Orthodox Convent (Monastery) is different you must realise that whilst religious keep to a code there are no Monastic Orders like in the West with Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.
Rather in the Orthodox world a community is set up with the permission of the local Bishop and with a priest assigned to them as a spiritual mentor but often they are otherwise on a small scale supported by the local community. So at Agios Nektarios the community uses the churches for their life events of Baptism’s, Marriages and Deaths but also visit for the Sunday service or just for quiet contemplation in the peaceful grounds or prayer in the churches. They also visit for their Saints Days. In Orthodox tradition children generally take the name of the saint whose feast day they were born or baptised on and this day is commemorated as their birthday. On the day we called to the convent there was a baptism due to take place and a church was decked out with flowers, garlands and gifts for the children attending of toys and bags of homemade sweets. These are always large family events in Greece and around 100 were expected to attend.
The nun insisted we take some sweets as a sign of friendship. The relationship between the “Latins” and the “Greeks” has at times been bitter and fraught but (even though I’m a non-believer) I have only ever been welcomed with considerable courtesy when visiting Orthodox sites and at Agios Nektarios we are welcomed like old friends for the tradition of monastic hospitality runs deep.
The Fall of Byzantium
There are three branches of the early Christian Churches which have shaped Christianity ever since. There were the two “official” churches of the Roman Empire. The Patriarchate of Rome which claims apostolic succession from Saints Peter and Paul (people don’t realise that the second largest Basillica in Rome after St. Peter’s is St. Paul without the Walls which also contains the grave of the saint) and which was the official church of the Western Empire. Then there is The Patriarchate of Constantinople which was the official church of the Eastern Roman Empire and then of Byzantium and which claims apostolic succession from St. Andrew. But these were the “official” churches with all the trapping and baggage being a Church of the State entails.
There was a third strand that rebelled against Christianity being used as a political instrument and is in many ways more interesting. This was the Church of the East which at one stage reached as far as Western China and adopted local languages and customs in its devotional practice. This was the church most reduced by the rise of Islam but its residue and rich traditions can be seen in the Maronites, The Armenian church, The Copts, the Chaldean Christians in Iraq and the Assyrian Christians who can also be found in India and who claim apostolic succession from St. Thomas the Apostle.
But today the world seemed much simpler as we wandered through the churches with their rich frescos in the Orthodox tradition. Like many of the “visuals” and music associated with the Christian tradition they were designed to convey the teachings of the Bible to what would have originally been mainly illiterate congregations but are now part of the artistic patrimony of the church. The gardens of the monastery are peaceful and enclosed with ponds (for the Persian word which gives us “Paradise” meant a water garden, the greatest luxury in a desert) and like the gardens of Marrakesh it is designed to be productive with many fruit and olive trees. As well as the three churches and the archbishop’s grave there is the living quarters of the nuns in a large but simple house. All of this is set in a peaceful and verdant setting which helps sustain their contemplative life.
The Saint after whom the monastery is named, Nektarios of Aegina (1846-1920), (Greek: Άγιος Νεκτάριος Αιγίνης,) Metropolitan of Pentapolis and Wonderworker of Aegina, was officially recognised as a Saint by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1961. His Feast Day is celebrated every year on 9th November. There are reasons why this place is special to our friends. She is called Irene and one of the churches is dedicated to her saint, Irene Chrysovalantou and she visits to commemorate her saint day.
But there is also another reason. She is a Kalymnian and their patron is Agios Savvas who inspires great devotion amongst Kalymnians, the hardy and industrious inhabitants of the island north of Kos, famed for sponge fishing. Before coming to Kalymnos Savvas stayed with Nektarios on Aegina and was with him when he died, or reposed in the Orthodox lexicon when speaking about a saint.
Portrait of Pothia, Kalymnos
Her husband is Cypriot but went to school in Alexandria which is one of the 14 cities named after Alexander the Great and once had a large Greek community. Here too there is a connection with Nektarios for he started his priestly mission in that great city but after a bitter row with the Patriarch of Alexandria he was expelled in some ignominy.
Oath of Alexander the Great
So we took our leave of the Abbess and nuns of Agios Nektarios (In Greek names Agios = Saint, Agia= Saintess, Agias = Saints) and headed further up the side of the hill to near where the road runs out and we come to a small double church dedicated to Agias Stelios and Maria Magdalene. Once again this points out a difference between Western and Eastern practice for in Greece there are many churches not used for regular services built either by individuals or communities. So for instance in the grounds of the hotel where we always stay in Kos, The Continental Palace, there is a small church dedicated to Agios Gerasimos built by the owner to honour his father who is named after Gerasimos, Patron and Protector of Kephalonia (as seen in captain Corelli’s Mandolin).
Around Kos Town
This church at the crest of Agios Nektarios was built and maintained by the rural community around here and is used for saints days, baptisms and marriages and village ceremonies. It is also used for private prayer as today when our friend was commemorating the anniversary of his mother’s funeral. The key to the church was found under a nearby rock and incense and an urn were found and the incense lit. Then the icons in the two churches were venerated with the incense. Separating the Nave from the Sanctuary in every Orthodox Church you find the iconostasis, a screen with a door in the centre containing 5 or 7 icons.
Icons are part of the eastern tradition even if they were a source of controversy and division in the east. To Muslims, any kind of picture, statue, or representation of the human form is an abominable idol. In the controversy in the Eastern Church there are two empresses, Irene the great proponent of icons and Theodora who saw their use as idolatry and a barrier to the conversion of Jews and Muslims. Theodora is known as Iconclastis – the destroyer of icons. They still divide with Calvinists seeing these images as a corrupt distraction replacing the many gods of the pagan religion with a similar pantheon in a Christian guise.
But for the Orthodox today icons are venerated as they represent people of great piety who had a greater understanding of God. For the Orthodox they are venerated not for the image on them but as windows into Heaven. And so our friend’s mother was remembered today by burning incense and venerating the icons. It may seem strange for a non-believer to attach such importance to this but religion is rooted both in belief and in culture. You can, for instance, consider yourself Jewish without being observant. To understand why Greeks are Greeks you need to understand that as they chaffed under the yolks of many conquerors two things kept them Greek, their religion and their language.
Today in Kos you would not think yourself as being anywhere other than Greece but this place was never part of a country of that name until 1948. They endured 700 years of occupation by Crusader Knights of St. John, The Ottoman Turks, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and more benignly the British before they were finally unified with Greece in 1948. And before that again in antiquity they were Byzantine, Roman and at various time allied with or controlled by Carians, Persians, Dorians, Athenian League and Ptolemies to name a few.
Then as we leave Agias Stelios and Maria Magdalene to head to Platani (Kermetes) and a Turkish Restaurant
Yes, a Turkish restaurant!
to belatedly celebrate my birthday there is a moment of pure Greek magic! Suddenly the air is filled with the sound of bells. We look around over a hundred goats are heading in single file without any human guidance along the path and the road to new pastures. However somebody called Lord Byron summed up the special sense of time, place, history and people in the Greek Islands better than I ever could;
THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,—
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse;
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ “Islands of the Blest.”