The Monastery of Ypsilos and Sigri

The last stretch of road (9.5km) from Eresos to the junction west of Antissa is scenic and dramatic, culminating in the sudden appearance of the monastery of Aghios Ioannis Theologos, generally called ‘Ypsilos’ (‘lofty’), perched improbably on a peak (often strafed with low cloud) which rises into view over the top of an upland plateau. The views from the monastery, which sits at over 500m of altitude, are magnificent. Although the forbid ding buildings which are seen today date from the 19th century, the foundation goes back to the 12th century, and there is evidence of a still earlier presence. Immured into the entrance-porch and lying inside the courtyard are spolia mostly of Early Christian, but some of ancient, origin—small architectural elements, capitals of all orders, a fluted pagan altar, fragments of templon, frieze and architrave; there are also more spolia in the monastery’s small museum, which is dedicated principally to Late Byzantine icons and liturgical objects. Some of this ancient material may have been brought here for a variety of reasons from ancient settlements at Eresos, Antissa and elsewhere; but some belongs to the place itself, since this prominent and panoramic site will probably have served successively as mountain-peak sanctuary, ancient look out tower, anchorite’s hermitage, Byzantine fortress, and now as a monastery, during its long history. Themonastery’s intimate courtyard is built around a cistern-well, which must be of considerable antiquity and have served throughout all these phases. On the outside of the west front of the catholicon, fragments of 17th century Iznik ceramic tiles have been immured at scattered points in the façade.
   The Ypsilos Monastery looks out over a wide treeless succession of glens and peaks which could pass for somewhere in the West Highlands of Scotland. These now bare slopes were densely forested with a variety of subtropical sequoia and cypress trees 20 million years ago. At some point they were buried in volcanic ash from an eruption; they were not incinerated, but petrified instead by the action of hot waters containing silicic acid and iron pyrites. It is this unusual coupling of two distinct geological processes which has given rise to the Petrified Forest (70km), which is reached by a branch road to the south, from a junction 4.5km west of Ypsilos (open daily 15 May–15 Oct 8–8, in winter 8.30–4.30). The name, together with the assiduous signposting from all points of the island, perhaps creates expectations beyond what the site delivers visually, but the area’s scientific importance is considerable for the information it has contributed to our knowledge of the palaeo-botany and the climatic conditions in the Aegean 20–30 million years ago. There are petrified trees in many parts of Europe, but rarely has there been such an optimal congruence of circumstances for such perfect petrification, leaving fruits, leaves, branches and fibre clearly pre served and readable—often in beautiful agate colours with fantastic glassy striations. What the visitor sees is a couple of dozen of the best-preserved trunks of massive proportions, some standing to a height of seven metres, others— three times as long—fallen and revealing parts their massive root complexes. The museum/park occupies only the area of greatest interest; but the phenomenon occurs all over the surrounding valley, and petrified trunks can be seen at many points in the terrain crossed by the unmade track west from Eresos to Si­gri, at Si­gri itself, on the west shores of the island of Nisiopi facing Si­gri, and in the area further to the north. Even beside the principal roads of the area occasional fossilised tree stumps can be seen.
   The site is linked to the Natural History Museum (same hours of opening) just south of the centre of Si­gri (72km), where the fossil finds are set in the wider context of the Mediterranean’s early palaeontological history. Exhibits show that the forest was also home to precursors of our palm, poplar, lime, cinnamon, beech and plane trees; of these there are petrified leaves, fruits and roots displayed. The second area of the interior is dedicated to a presentation of the geological history of the Aegean; in the park adjacent is another area of fossilised forest consisting mainly of trees that are the fore-runners of our pine-trees today.
   The small port of Si­gri was mostly an Ottoman creation and conserves several remains from the period of Turkish rule—an inscribed marble fountain-front in the centre of the village, the ruins of an Ottoman hamam, and the church of Aghia Triada above the harbour whose wide four-square form and orientation show it clearly to be a converted mosque. The once open-arched porch of the mosque on the west side was probably filled in when the building was turned into a church. The town’s finest monument is its sombre, pentagonal castle, guarding the harbour, with an imposing Osmanli inscription and the Imperial tugra of Mustafa III, carved on a well-preserved marble plaque over the gateway. The gates themselves are a rare example of surviving wooden doors revetted in iron, dating from the 18th century. The castle is entered through a procession of arches—the outer ones conceived in different colours of local stone. The building dates from 1757, a time when the Ottoman administration favoured the development of this remote port as a trading entrepot on the open-sea route from the southern Aegean to the Dardanelles and the capital.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
The Monastery of Ypsilos and Sigri. Petrified forest.

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