Patmos – The island of the Revelation

Posted by admin | August 11, 2010 1

To Greeks and Orthodox Christians Patmos is a holy island, a place apart for it is here they believe that the disciple of Jesus of Nazareth known as the “Beloved Disciple” (ον εφιλει ο Ιησους)

the Apostle John received his “Revelation” from God when he was exiled here from Ephesus. The Greeks refer to the Island as the “Jerusalem of the Aegean” from a 5th century inscription and look upon it as a place which directly connects them to the Bible. It was here that St. John the Theologian was exiled between 95 and 97 A.D. and was inspired to write the Book of Revelation.

The Island of Patmos is famous in history as the place of St. John’s exile:

“I, John . . . was in the island, which is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9);

there according to general belief the Beloved Disciple received the Revelation from God or The Apocalypse from the Greek word for revelation, the imagery of which was in part inspired by the scenery of the island. The spot where St. John is reputed to have received this revelation is a cave on the slope of the hill, half way between the shore and the modern town of Patmos. Today it is known as the Cave of the Apocalypse and is a place of pilgrimage surrounded by the Monastery of the Apocalypse. Indeed, in Byzantine times the island dominated by the fortified monastery of St. John at its highest point was under the control of the church which continued in Ottoman times when it was largely autonomous.

Icon of St. John Theologian
The traditional tomb of St. John at Ephesus, Turkey

John the Divine, also known as John the Beloved Disciple, (c. 6 – c. 100) was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. He was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of James also the son of Zebedee, another of the Twelve Apostles. Christian tradition holds he was the last surviving of the Twelve Apostles, the only one to die a natural death and died around the age of 94 “in great old age near Ephesus”. He is invariably called Ioannis Theologos in Greek, John the Theologian.

According to the Gospels and Christian tradition he followed Jesus after the miraculous draught of fishes on the Sea of Galilee and was with him at the most important moments. At the foot of the Cross he supported the failing Mary, Jesus’ mother. After the Apostles scattered, he travelled to Asia and settled in Ephesus with Mary. Under the Emperor Dominitian he was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he is reputed, in the company of an eagle, to have written the Book of Revelation. After an amnesty when Dominitian was assasinated in 96 AD he returned to Ephesus,where he was Bishop and where he completed his Gospel which he had largely written earlier before his exile. He is the patron saint of booksellers. In fine arts he is often depicted with an Eagle, book (Gospel or Revelation), snake or dragon emerging from a cup or chalice.

Christian tradition identifies him as the author of several New Testament works: the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation. Some modern scholars believe that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos were three separate individuals. Certain lines of evidence suggest that John of Patmos wrote only Revelation, neither the Gospel of John nor the Epistles of John. For one, the author of Revelation identifies himself as “John” several times, but the author of the Gospel of John never identifies himself directly. Roman Catholic scholars state that “vocabulary, grammar, and style make it doubtful that the book could have been put into its present form by the same person(s) responsible for the fourth gospel.” The John of Revelation does not claim to be one of the disciples or to have known Jesus. It is suggested John the Apostle, a native speaker of Hebrew (and Aramaic), who in old age had failing sight and couldn’t write himself, dictated his vision in Hebrew so fast that his Greek Jewish disciple Prochorus could only manage to write it down in Greek as the language whose script he knew best. As a result, Revelation Greek was unavoidably Hebraized, hence the stylistic differences from “John’s” other writings.

Entrance to the Monastery of St. John

Because of this association with the Bible and the fact that it has no airport there is no large scale tourism development on Patmos and the island has a distinct feel and atmosphere which sets it out as a place apart. It is a charming, picturesque and tranquil island with a pleasant dry climate and a clear atmosphere. Vegetation is rather limited but this in no way diminishes the attractiveness of the island with its lacy coastline, its charming bays and its surrounding islets. The island has 3,000 inhabitants, who are divided among Chorá, Skala, which is also the main port and Kampos. Away from the flow of mass – tourism, Patmos is ideal for those looking for alternatives. The simultaneous presence of spirituality, wild untouched nature and low key tourism make it a unique place, making many visitors return again and again.

In 1088 when the emperor Alexios Komninos had taken control of Byzantium back from the Crusaders who had profaned Christianity with the Rape of Constantinople he ordered the monk Christodoulos Letrinos to found a monastery in honour of the Apostle.

Christodoulos had been richly patronised on Kos and had founded a great monastery there, but seeking more solitude he travelled to Constantinople to ask the Emperor Alexios Komninos if he could exchange his rich and fertile monastery on Kos for the deserted island of Patmos. In 1088 Patmos was bestowed on him as a royal gift. Thus the holy monastery of Patmos was built, the most important landmark on the island. In September 1995 it was celebrated the anniversary of the 1900 years from the date that the Book of Revelation was written. The majestic fortress – monastery crowns the hill above the port, surrounded by dazzling white, cube like houses which spill down its flanks. Interspersed among them are minuscule churches and grand sea captains’ mansions, separated from each other by narrow lanes, high walls and small squares opening onto breath – catching views over the Aegean.

Skala seen from Chorá
A yacht leaving the harbour of Skala
The harbour front at Skala

Ships arriving at Patmos dock in the island’s harbour, Skala, a lively place with its white houses, flowered courtyards, fish tavernas, hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops. Today we retraced the voyage of Blessed Christodoulos from Kos to Patmos but did it in somewhat different style but also experienced a bit of history.

For we travelled in just an hour and a half in MV Christos, a “Flying Dolphin,” or Soviet built hydrofoil built by Cometa from the 1960’s. These transformed inter- island travel but are now being superseded by more economical fast ferries and catamarans. They are high maintenance and expensive to run, their gas turbines use large quantities of expensive Avgas. So this may the last year we have the FAB Thunderbirds experience of travelling on these retro hydrofoils which elegantly lift out of the water on their skis and travel at 30/ 40 miles per hour. In truth they are noisy and uncomfortable to travel on, with the interiors getting too hot and often smelling of diesel H/F Christos is operated by a Kos firm, Laumzis which has been a family firm since 1924 and judging by the evidence on board, encourages inbreeding. Still these charming examples of transport history will be missed as after this year Christos is going off to the great hydrofoil scrap yard.

F.A.B. – Thunderbirds are go!

H/F Christos

The open air viewing platform above 
the engine room

Skala is a small, sleepy and relaxing with the harbour dominated by the handsome Italian administration building. It was not always so peaceful; a plaque on the side records the liberation of the island on the 10th February 1944 by Captain Terence Bruce Mitford of the British Special Boat Service. Above Skala the white cubes of the town of Chorá huddle up against the walls of the fortified monastery of St. John where the inhabitants would shelter during raids.

Plaque commemorating the liberation of Patmos in 1944.
It was united with Greece in 1948

The town of Chorá on the island of Pátmos is one of the few settlements in Greece that have evolved uninterruptedly since the 12th century. There are few other places in the world where religious ceremonies that date back to the early Christian times are still being practised unchanged. The Monastery of St. John and Chorá along with the Monastery of the Revelation have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site; this is the citation;

Criterion (iv): The Monastery of Hagios Ioannis Theologos (Saint John the Theologian) and the Cave of the Apocalypse on the island of Pátmos, together with the associated medieval settlement of Chorá, constitute an exceptional example of a traditional Greek Orthodox pilgrimage centre of outstanding architectural interest. Criterion (vi): The Monastery of Hagios Ioannis Theologos and the Cave of the Apocalypse commemorate the site where St John the Theologian (Divine), the “Beloved Disciple”, composed two of the most sacred Christian works, his Gospel and the Apocalypse.

One of the original 12, or Dodecanese, Greek islands, Patmos is rich in both history and natural beauty. The small, hilly island (34.6 square kilometres) was populated from as early as 500 BC by Dorian’s, next the Ionian’s, and then the Romans from the 2nd century BC. The earliest known temples on the island were the 4th century BC sanctuary of Diana and it is suspected that the name Patmos may derive from Latmos or Mt. Latmos of Turkey, where the goddess Diana was worshipped.

The Monastery and Cave of the Apocalypse

Icon in the cave of John dictating his revelation to his disciple Prochorus

During the period of Roman rule the island fell into decline, the population decreased, and the island was used as a place of banishment for criminals and political and religious troublemakers. In 95 AD, St. John the Theologian – one of the twelve disciples of Jesus -was sent into exile on the island. St. John remained on the island for 18 months during which time he lived in a cave below the hilltop temple of Diana. In this cave exists a fissure, or small hole in the rock wall, from which issued a collection of oracular messages that St. John transcribed as the Biblical chapter of Revelations. During his time in the sacred cave, now known as the Holy Grotto of the Revelation, St. John also composed the Fourth Gospel.

In 313 AD, Christianity was officially recognized as the religion of the Roman Empire and from this time the new faith spread rapidly throughout the Greek islands. The eastern Christian empire of Byzantium exercised control over the isle of Patmos and in the 4th century the ancient shrine of Diana was torn down. Directly upon its foundations was erected a church dedicated to St. John but this church was itself destroyed sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries when the island was subjected to frequent raids by the Arabs.

John the Apostle Ἰωάννης

Byzantine illumination depicting John
dictating to his disciple, Prochorus (c. 1100)


Left deserted after these raids, Patmos next entered history in 1088 when the Byzantine emperor granted the island to the monk Christodolous, whose intention it was to establish a monastery. Built upon the remains of the old church and the older shrine of Diana, the monastery of St. John has been in continuous operation for over 900 years. Subjected to raids by Saracens and Norman pirates during the 11th and 12th centuries, the monastery was frequently enlarged and fortified, giving it the castle-like appearance it retains today.

The small town of Chorá surrounding the monastery dates mostly from the mid 17th century and its labyrinthine street arrangement was purposefully designed to confuse pirates’ intent on raiding the town and monastery.

Monastery of Hagios Ioannis Theologos 

Inside the monastery the architecture is somewhat free and organic, with the building built on different levels and at different times with many features from the traditional architecture of the island incorporated. The Monastery, as it looks today, is the result of additions and rearranging over the years. The first thing seen by the visitors, is the courtyard, which is laid with pebbles and is decorated with aches which serve also as supports of the adjacent buildings. In the centre of the courtyard, we see an old earthen jar which communicates with the reservoir which is underneath the courtyard. Around the courtyard, there are four of the ten chapels of the Monastery. A large icon of the Revelation, of 1625, that covers, at the northern wall, the entrance to the sacristy was a gift of the bishop of Laodicea, Nikiforos. Nikiforos himself built the outer sacristy to keep the books and other sacred objects of the Monastery. The altar of the Monastery is believed to be made up of remains from the Temple of Diana.


The treasury of the monastery contains many items, both hugely rich and rare, including gold vessels and gifts from the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. If the contents were sold it could probably solve Greece’s current financial woes. Among the library documents there is the document by which Emperor Alexios Komnenos I gave in 1088 to Holy Christodoulos the island of Patmos. The Monastery can be visited usually in the morning from 8:30 to 13:00 and some days in the afternoon from 16:00 to 18:00 (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday).









The Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, has fascinated and puzzled Christians for centuries. With its vivid imagery of disaster and suffering – the Battle of Armageddon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the hideous Beast whose number is 666 – many have seen it as a map to the end of the world. The Book of Revelation certainly contains some vivid and disturbing imagery and many have called it an angry text. John’s anger has traditionally been understood to be directed at the Romans for their persecution of the early Christians.

Rome was a society that worshiped many gods and goddesses, each with their own temples. In the first century BCE people began to worship the Roman emperors and temples were built in their honour. This was blasphemy to Jews and the early Christians, who believed there was only one God and saw worship of other gods as idolatry. Academics believe that the development of this Imperial Cult made John angry and the Book of Revelation is a polemic against it and a warning to the Christians not to engage with it. The imagery shows that good triumphs over evil, that faithfulness will be rewarded and justice will be done.

Location of the Seven Churches to whom the Book of Revelation is addressed

In terms of structure, the book is built around four successive groups of seven: the messages to the seven churches, the seven seal judgments, the seven trumpet judgments, and finally, the seven bowl judgments. There are also introductory and concluding passages, and additional passages which are inserted between the main structural elements in various places throughout the book.

The number of the Beast – 666 – has always puzzled Christians and led to many speculations about who this could be. Scholars now believe that this was a matter of numerology, a popular puzzle in ancient times. The letters of a name were ascribed numerical value and added up to give a number.

Four horsemen of the Apocalypse 

The image of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is borrowed and updated from the Hebrew Prophet, Zachariah. The red horse symbolises war and destruction; the black horse symbolises famine; the pale horse symbolises death; the white horse symbolises vengeance and salvation.

The word Armageddon is taken from al-Megiddo, a place on the Jazreel Plain north of Jerusalem in modern-day Israel. By John’s time many famous battles had been fought there and in the first century it was the site of the camp of the brutal Roman Ironsides. To John’s mind this would have been the perfect place for the final battle between good and evil. So it seems that the Book of Revelation is not prophesising the end of the world but is a polemic against the Roman Empire.


John frames his attack in a way that parallels other religious writings of the time and which would have made sense to early Christians. John was telling first century Christians to galvanise themselves against compromising with Rome, and that their faithfulness would be rewarded.

Greek icon of the Revelation unto John

Revelation appears to be the last of the books accepted into the New Testament canon by the two synods held for the purpose of reaching universal agreement on which documents to include. Revelation’s place in the canon was not guaranteed, with doubts raised as far back as the second century about its character, symbolism, and apostolic authorship. Second century Christians in Syria rejected it because Montanism, a sect which was deemed to be heretical by the mainstream church, relied heavily on it. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus and other bishops argued against including Revelation because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the risk of abuse. It was accepted into the canon at the Council of Carthage of 397 AD.

There is a great deal of speculation as to the meaning and import of the Book of Revelation not to mention fundamentalist nutters on the internet reading what they want into it. As always the truth is more prosaic. It does not really matter if John the Apostle, John the Evangelist and John of Patmos were the same or different people as the case cannot be proved one way or the other. For all we know they could be the same “John.” What is important is the text which has been left where the enemy of the fledgling Christian religion was the Roman Empire and the Apocalypse predicted is the Fall of that Empire, an event which was in prospect when Revelation became part of the Church’s bible in 397 AD. The Western Roman Empire had been a decline since 190 AD but this was crystallised with the death of Theodosius I in 395, the last time the Roman Empire was politically unified; the crossing of the Rhine in 406 by Germanic tribes after the withdrawal of the troops in order to defend Italy against Alaric I and the eventual Sack of Rome (410), the first time in 800 years the city had fallen to a foreign army.

The Revelation to John was written at a time when Christians were being widely persecuted. The writer’s main concern is to give his readers hope and encouragement, and to urge them to remain faithful during these times of suffering and persecution. For the most part the book consists of series of revelations and visions presented in allegorical language that would have been understood by Christians of that time, but would have remained a mystery to others. As with the themes of a symphony or a Homeric Tale, the themes are repeated in different ways through the series of visions. Despite differences of interpretation the central theme is clear: Christians need to believe that through Christ (Christos – Greek for the anointed one) God will finally and totally defeat all his enemies, including Satan, and will reward his faithful people with the blessings of a new heaven and a new earth when this victory is complete.

Two lizards revealing themselves

For believers the Revelation to John was an important clarion call to keep and persevere with the faith. For others the allegorical imagery and symbolism still remains vivid and informs the popular imagination. It is very much a document of the Eastern Church to who’s Patriarchs it is addressed associating the current oppressors, The Romans with the immorality of Babylon. Here and in its misogyny there are echoes of Jewish themes and attitudes to the Romans who they equated after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and their expulsion from Palestine with their exile in Babylon. What is clear to believers and unbelievers alike is that it is a seminal polemic work whose forcefulness and imagery resonates to this day.

Nowhere does it resonate more than here on the Island of Patmos, the “Jerusalem of the Aegean.” The place is leant a special aura by being the Island of the Revelation, by the holiness to the Orthodox and other Christians of the Cave of the Apocalypse and the Monastery of St. John which are places of pilgrimage and contemplation. And for the casual visitor by preserving Patmos from mass tourism and keeping it a place apart it has maintained it as a very special and rewarding Greek Island to visit whose scenery inspired the vivid imagery of the Book of Revelation.

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