CHRISTIANITY IN GREECE
Many religious pilgrims visit Greece because St. Paul came to Greece, preaching the Holy Gospel and teaching people about Jesus. In addition, the monuments of Greece include churches and monasteries, many dating back to the early centuries of Christianity and containing impressive mosaics and rare murals and icons.
The religion of Greek people is an important aspect of the Greek culture. The Greek population in mainland Greece and the Greek islands is 98% Christian Orthodox. According to the history of Orthodoxy, after Paul came into the Greek territory to preach Christianity in 49 AD, many people converted to Christianity in the centuries that followed. This didn't become an official religion until the Emperor Constantine the Great established Christianity as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. The Schism In 1054 AD divided the Church into the Eastern and Western Church, the Orthodox and the Catholics. This division was the result of long disputes between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople.
FOOTSTEPS OF ST. PAUL
When Paul traveled through Samothrace, he landed at a port city, now called Paleopolis. An early Christian church was constructed using architectural pieces from ancient buildings. The island is important for its priceless archeological findings, which includes the statue of Nike (Victory) now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
In the winter of the year 49, Paul landed on European land for the first time after a dream about a Macedonian man who stood before him and begged him to come to Macedonia and help them. The first place he came to after traveling for two days was Neapolis (now called Kavala). There, accompanied by Silas, Timothy and Luke, he began his relationship with the Greeks.
People in Philippi were the first in Europe to hear Paul preach. Lydia, a noble woman from Thyateira of Asia Minor, was the first to be baptized and helped spread the word of God. Paul kept a close relationship with the Philippians. He returned seven years after his first visit, and then visited again three more times. Today an extensive archeological site and early Christian temples can be found there.
When Paul reached Thessalonica, he preached in the synagogue there and some people became students of himself and Silas. A church was established in Thessalonica, but soon problems began to arise because of Paul's preaching. During the night, Paul and Silas left the city at a point where Vlatades Monastery was later established. There used to be a spring next to the monastery where Paul is said to have stopped to drink some water. Every year people used to honor Paul at this spring known as "Apostle Paul's Holy Water." Today visitors to Thessalonica can see early Christian churches of important historical value.
When Paul and Silas got to Veria, they were well-received as they preached in the city's synagogue. However, before long their enemies from Thessalonica provoked trouble for Paul in Veria. Paul left Veria, leaving Silas and Timothy to continue preaching there. A monument, called "Apostle Paul's Podium" in Veria marks the spot where it is said that Paul preached.
In 51 AD, Paul arrived in Athens at a time when the Romans had deserted the city and its ideals were in decline. His teaching on the death of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection impressed some of the city's philosophers. Paul was never chased from Athens; rather he was taken to High Court (Areopagus) to preach more formally in greater detail. It is said that he preached in front of the High Court's Body as one of its members. There are many early Christian churches in the city and a church dedicated to St. Paul was built in the heart of Athens in 1887 AD.
When he left Athens, Paul went to Corinth. There he developed a friendship with Akylas and Priscilla and stayed with them while he preached to the Jews and Greeks. Later he stayed with Titus Justus who lived close to the synagogue. Among those he converted was Crispus, chief priest of the synagogue, who was baptized together with all his family. However, most Jews were not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and many of them united against Paul and dragged him to court, accusing him of illegally trying to get people to follow his teachings. Soon afterward, Paul left Corinth for Ephesus. Ancient monuments, churches and monasteries of the Byzantine era attract many visitors to the Corinth area every year.
Patmos is a landmark in the history of Christianity. In 95 AD, John the Apostle, who had been an eyewitness to the life and words of Jesus, lived in Ephesus. He was exiled to Patmos and lived in a cave where he wrote the Book of Revelation. Today the cave is visited by pilgrims who wish to pray and meditate there.
The island is also home to the beautiful Monastery of John the Evangelist. In its library, one can find the following:
* The "Purple Codex" of the 6th century, made up of leaves of fine parchment on which extracts from the Gospel of St. Mark are written in silver writing..
* More than 1000 manuscripts including Gospels and theological writings of St. Vasillios, St. John Chrysostom, and of St. John the Evangelist
* The golden stamps of the Byzantine emperors and the documents sent by the Ecumenical Patriarchs to the Monastery.
MOUNT ATHOS: THE HOLY MOUNTAIN
Mount Athos, the oldest monastic republic in existence, is situated on the Athos peninsula of Chalkidiki in the Greek part of Macedonia. It is the only place in Greece that is completely dedicated to prayer and worship of God. For this reason, it is called the Holy Mount.
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary with John the Evangelist, or their way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, encountered a stormy sea that forced them to temporarily seek refuge in the port which is now the Holy Monastery of Ivira. The Virgin Mary, admiring the wild beauty of the place, asked God to give her the mountain as a present. Then the voice of our Lord was heard saying: "Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation". Since then, Mount Athos is considered as "The Garden of the Virgin Mary".
In the 5th century AD, the first monks came to Mount Athos. Today Athos includes 20 monasteries, 12 smaller communities known as sketae and about 700 houses, cells or hermitages. Over 1000 monks live there in communities or alone. It is a unique monastic republic. Although it is part of Greece, it is ruled by its own local administration. The conditions for admission to Mount Athos are defined in an edict issued by Constantine Monomahos in 1060 AD. It decrees that women are never admitted to Mount Athos; a permit is required for anyone entering the territory; and overnight stay is prohibited, except for those who have proven religious or scientific interests and are over 18 years old.
The monasteries and churches on Mount Athos contain many unique treasures. One can find religious frescoes; rare mosaics; ancient publications and manuscripts; numerous icons, some of which are said to be miraculous; ecclesiastical items covered in gold and precious stones; presents from various Byzantine Emperors; the remains of many saints and the largest piece of the Holy Cross.
Meteora is the second largest complex of monasteries in Greece. It is located on the north-western edge of the Plain of Thessaly. The name given to this region means "suspended in the air" and this perfectly describes its main feature, as the monasteries are placed on great natural stone pillars. The monasteries look as if they were suspended in the air. They were built here purposely during the 14th century in order to protect the hermit monks during the Ottoman Occupation. By the 15th century, there were 26 monasteries functioning, six of which are still occupied. Five of them are male and one is female. Each one of these monasteries has less than 10 inhabitants, although they are visited by large numbers of tourists.
The ancient monks used ladders lashed together and large nets for descending the pillars. However, in the 1920s, 200 steps were carved into the rocks, making the monasteries accessible to tourists. Once inside the monasteries, visitors can see many Byzantine relics and great frescoes. The monasteries in Meteora are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Based on their religious significance and their role in preserving the Greek language, art and tradition, monasteries are important in Greece. Visits to the monasteries of Greece provide pilgrims with unique experiences.
At St. Mary of Soumela in Macedonia pilgrims pay homage to the miraculous icon which, according to tradition, was carved on wood by St. Luke and found in Athens.
Visitors to the Monastery of Saint Nikolaos of Philanthropdenoi in Epirus see its famous frescoes depicting the great Greek philosophers and symbolizing the union between the ancient Greek spirit and Christianity.
The Monastery of Panagia Olympiotissa in Thessaly, founded in the 13th century, is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The monastery suffered destruction during the Turkish Occupation and Nazi raids. However, frescoes painted by Manuel Panselinos, the great master of the Macedonian Icon Painting School, remain to be seen.
The Monastery of Hosios Loukas Steriotis in Beotia is home to two important religious monuments in Greece dating back to Byzantine times: the Church of the Virgin Mary (10th century) and the monastery's main building (11th century). The structures are included in UNESCO's World Heritage List.
The historic Great Cave of Kalavrita is built on a rugged cliff. It was the hub of revolutionary activities during the Greek War of Independence and fought off the armies of Ibrahim Pasha in 1827. The monastery houses an icon of Our Lady holding the Holy Infant that is thought to have been painted by St. Luke, relics of many saints and a museum with objects from the Greek War of Independence.
Panagia Hozoviotissa on the island of Amorgos is built on eight successive levels on the vertical face of a cliff formation and it is no more than five meters wide. The monastery was founded during the 8th or 9th century when tradition says an icon of the Virgin Mary miraculously arrived at Amorgos from Palestine. The monastery is home to the icon.
The Monastery of Panagia Archangeliotissa in Thrace, built in the 14th century, was a refuge for Christians during the Turkish Occupation. It was heavily damaged during an earthquake in 1829, but has been restored and contains religious treasures.
Nea Moni (New Monastery), founded in the middle of the 11th century by the Byzantine emperor, is the most significant religious monument of Chios. It is elaborately decorated with trompe l'oeil marble finishes, mosaics and precious materials. It is included in UNESCO's World Heritage List.
The Monastery of Archangel Michael on the Gulf of Panormos in Symi is a major pilgrimage site in Greece. It was founded in the 14th century and rebuilt after damage it sustained in the mid-18th century. During the Greek War of Independence, the monastery provided money and supplies and it engaged in educational activities during the 19th century. The walls of the monastery are lavishly decorated with frescoes and it holds a silver-plated icon of St. Michael the Archangel that is said to be miraculous.
One of the most historic monasteries in Crete is the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani Toplou, built in the 14th century. The monastery's museum houses an extensive collection of icons, church vestments and vessels, rare manuscripts and copper engravings.
The Monastery of Panagia Vlachemon is an impressive site on the island of Corfu. Boats leave from the monastery to go to the famous Mouse Island with a 13th century church that is a favorite of many artists worldwide.
The Monastery of Daphne in Athens is one of the most significant Greek religious monuments. Built at the end of the 11th century, it is intricately designed and decorated. It houses unique mosaics of from the Middle Byzantine Period. The monastery has been included in UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Churches are a characteristic element of the Greek landscape. The following are some of the churches of interest to pilgrims.
The Church of Panagia Kosmosoterira (Our Lady, Savior of the World), and parts of the fortified enclosure that once surrounded the monastery by the same name, are located in the small town of Feres, Evros. The church, established in 1151 AD, is a two-pilaster, domed, cross-in-square building with strong influences from Constantinople. It contains dramatic frescoes depicting a celestial world.
The Church of Saint Dimitrios is dedicated to the patron saint of Thessaloniki. It was built in the 5th century AD as a three-aisled basilica and is richly decorated with Byzantine sculptures and paintings. The church was badly damaged in a fire in 1917; however, it was restored and resumed services in 1948.
Panagia Paregoritissa in Epirus is dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. The church, built at the end of the 13th century, is in the unique Byzantine octagon, cross-in-square style. The basilica's dome, which bears a magnificent mosaic of Christ, is famous for the unique method used in structural support.
On the slopes of Mount Taygetos, Mystras (known as the "Byzantine Pompeii”), became the cradle of cultural renaissance in the Late-Byzantine period; and its numerous churches and monasteries are impressive. In 1990 Mystras was included in UNESCO's World Heritage List of cultural monuments.
The Church of Panagia Evangelistria, made of white marble in 1823 on the island of Tinos, is among the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Greece. An icon of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was discovered after a nun on the island had a vision about its location. Now an annual pilgrimage takes place on August 15 to honor the Virgin Mary of Tinos.
The great Basilica of St. Dionnysios in Zakynthos is home to the reliquary of St. Dionysios, who is known for forgiving the murderer of his brother. It is also known for its beautiful icons.
The Church of Panagia Kera, built in the 13th century, is one of the most significant monuments of Crete. One of its distinguishing features is that it has three aisles, each one dedicated to a different religious figure. The Central aisle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The northern and southern aisles were built later and are dedicated to St. Anthony and St. Anne, respectively.
Evangelismos tis Theotokou (The Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary), situated near the area of Mandraki in Rhodes, was built in 1925. The church's interior is decorated with frescoes painted by Fotis Kontoglou. It was intended for the interment of the sarcophagi containing the remains of the Grand Knights Templar.
The Church of Evangelismos tis Theotokou (Athens Cathedral), dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, is situated in the city's historical center and was built 1842-1862. The work of successive architects resulted in the church being a blend of Byzantine tradition and European neoclassical elements.