Symi Island, Greece.
William Travis, Bus Stop Symi, Readers Union, Newton Ab bot, 1973.
Symi Travel Guide
Just beyond the Chames/Kampiotissa junction, the road reaches its summit (12km) and then slowly descends. At 13km, an alluvial dip in the rocky landscape forms a tiny fertile circular plain for cultivation, appropriately called Xerolimnia (‘dry lake’). Here a track (signed) to the right leads towards the isolated church of Aghios Prokopios with 15th century wall-paintings, set in a densely wooded valley full of birdsong. On the south side of the valley, and visible on the crest of the hill from below, are two small monasteries reached by means of a delightful and shaded walk that climbs up through the woods. The nearest, dedicated to the Koimisis tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin), is a walled enclosure with two parallel churches inside, not visible from the outside. The church to the north is recent; the other is of the 16th or 17th century, with an inlaid stone floor and amply decorated with wall paintings in the upper area that maintain much colour and clear definition. These have been subjected to over cleaning which has left the colour-tone without depth, but they give a clear idea of the vivacity and narrative strength of the school of Symiot painters of the 18th century, to whom these should be attributed. Even the rib of the vault has been beautifully decorated on all three of its facets. The enclosure is marked externally to east and to west by two monumental ilex trees, which have managed in this rocky terrain to find sufficient water to grow to a remarkable size. By the western tree, a steep path leads on up to the west towards the monastery of Aghii Konstantinos and Eleni, sitting on a ridge which commands unbeatable views of the east and north of the island, and of the Cnidos peninsula across the water in Turkey. To the east below the main enclosure, is the older chapel of the Aghii Anargyri. Continuing on the main road in the direction of Panormiis, after 200m from the Aghios Prokopios turn is the wayside chapel of the Panaghia which has a small mural of the Madonna and Child Enthroned. A further 200m on is Aghia Marina, also to the right of the road but more hidden in the trees, where an unexpectedly imposing and wide-eyed Christ Pantocrator fills the tiny apse of the church, and paintings cover the vault. These are substantially earlier (15th/16th century) and have a more dramatic style than the urbane murals at the church of the Koimisis, mentioned above. Another 200m further south on the road is the monastery of the Megalos Soter (the Saviour). This is an 18th century foundation with contemporaneous wall-paintings by artists of the local school. To the east of here (across the road from the Megalos Soter), a broad and moderately fertile valley slopes down into a ring of hills. On the eastern peak are visible the remains of a mediaeval castle; the valley is criss-crossed with walls and terraces which have been constantly rebuilt, but whose material and lines are Byzantine in origin; in the centre of the lower level of the valley a tiny church—now mostly whitewashed inside—still preserves a small, 15th century painted fragment of the Madonna and Child Enthroned of surprising beauty and elegance. The area is known as ‘Kourkouniotis’, and by virtue of being hidden from the sea and more fertile than most of the island, it appears to have been lived in and cultivated since Neolithic times. It is uninhabited now and most of what is visible today dates from the 11th to 17th centuries. The most remarkable remains here are of a large number of Byzantine stone wine-presses scattered all over the southern slopes of the valley amongst the cypress and fir trees. (Take the path which follows the contour of the hill, just below the level of the asphalt road for about 700–800m. On a leisurely reconnaissance, at least two dozen can be seen.) Byzantine stone wine-presses These are different from the rock-cut wine-presses found on Kastellorizo which are ancient and more than a thousand years older: but the habit of cultivating and pressing wine on Symi in Byzantine times probably follows directly on from ancient cultivation and wine-production in the same places before. Unlike the presses of Kastellorizo these Byzantine presses are built up from the ground, and although most were open cylindrical structures, some were closed by a corbelled roof. A few have been partially restored. The site of a press was determined first by locating a natural, sloping patch of limestone in the ground, which had a smooth and eroded surface. On this base a ring of large vertical stone-slabs was built which created an impermeable circle (generally a little over 2m in diameter) which contained the harvested grapes, and allowed two people to tread and press them, working face to face and holding one another’s shoulders. Around this circle a small tower was raised in smaller stones which took the overall height up further—generally to about 1.5m, but sometimes to as much as 2m if the press were roofed. At the lowest point of the sloping stone floor is an emissary to allow the juice to drain out into a stone basin or channel outside the press. The emissary probably had a simple improvised filter, woven from dried broom. At Kourkouniotis, the presses are built high up on a steep incline above the area where the vines grew. This must have been inconvenient for the transportation of both the grapes and the wine produced; but the natural rocks that formed the floors had to dictate the whereabouts of the presses. Although such presses are found in greatest concentration in the area of Kourkouniotis, they occur in several other locations on the island, and different areas present different styles of construction. A number of early visitors to Symi particularly praise the quality of its white wine, amongst them Cristo foro Buondelmonti who visited in 1420 and noted that ‘the island produces exceptional wine’. Symi’s commerce in wine was obviously significant in Byzantine times: then came the Islamic, Turkish occupation of the Asia Minor mainland, and her market rapidly diminished. By 1600 production was virtu ally only for local consumption, and the presses fell into disuse. The final stretch of the road to Panormiis, descends dramatically down to sea-level again, with sweeping views of the southern tip of the island and towards Tilos, Chalki and Rhodes . Below, the almost perfect ellipse of the cove of Panormiis with the monastery on the south shore, comes into view. At 22km a turning to the east (left) leads down to the pebble beach of Marathounda in a peaceful and enclosed bay and creek. At 24km, the road ends at the -monastery of the Taxiarchis Michai―l Panormiis whose extensive buildings stretch along the protected and em bracing waterfront with the pine-clad hills behind. (Open 7–2 & 4–8, every day. Appropriate dress required. Simple accommodation (T. 22460 71354) can be obtained in the monastery buildings, although reservation is advisable from July–Sept. There are direct boat connections from here to Rhodes in summer.) The long block of 19th/20th century buildings which overwhelm the small church at their centre, are designed to accommodate the large numbers of pilgrims and sojourners who gather here in the summer months and for the saint’s festival (7–9 November). There is a shop, bakery and taverna. The surprising size of the complex can be explained by the profound importance of the cult of the Archangel Michael both in the islands in general and on Symi. The Archangel Michael In the Eastern Orthodox Church, St Michael is wide ly accorded greater importance and veneration than he is in the Western Church. For several reasons, in the Greek Islands his protection is especially invoked: and in few places more than here on the island of Symi, of which he is the patron saint. The American Negro spiritual song, ‘Michael, row the boat ashore!’, is a reminiscence of the ancient tradition that he was the receiver of the souls of the dead: in many icons (as here in this monastery) he holds a tiny swathed human soul in his left hand and his drawn sword in his right hand. But the ‘rowing of the boat’, also records his solidarity with, and special protection of, all sailors and ships: hence his particular importance in the sea-girt world of the Greek Islands. Always seen armed and ready for action, he is more generally the captain of the Heavenly Host (Revelation, XII, 7), and patron of the Christian militant cause and of its soldiers. Again this gave him further importance on Christianity’s frontier with Islam in the Aegean during the late Middle Ages and after. For all the above reasons, the choice of St Michael as the supreme protector of Symi is not a surprise. In the Eastern Church, Michael is also the protector of the sick, and for this reason his shrines are crowded with votive gifts not just from mariners and soldiers but also from the cured and the sick. Here, as ‘Panormiis’ (‘of the place where there is always anchorage’), his veneration replaces an earlier pagan cult of Poseidon, the ancient protector of mariners, over whose temple the monastery’s church is allegedly built. Mariners in Antiquity took care to honour the divinity of Poseidon before undertaking any voyage. Here, on Symi, the sponge-fishing fleets would always come round from Gialos harbour to Panormiis for special blessing before they left for their often dangerous months at sea in the Eastern Mediterranean. The improbable three-tier bell-tower built in 1905 over the central gate, complete with affixed terracotta eagles and acroteria, gives onto an arcaded courtyard paved with abstract pebble mosaics which surrounds the plain exterior of the catholicon in the centre. The latter was re built completely in 1783 (inscription on façade) by Anastasis Karnavas from Rhodes , replacing an earlier monastery here of which there are notices only as far back as 1460, but which may well have been a 5th or 6th century foundation in origin. The interior of the catholicon is dark and impressively decorated. It is a single nave, with ‘gothic’ cross-vaulting in a typical Dodecanesian style, entirely decorated with wall-paintings by the Symiot brothers Nikitas and Michail Karakostides (inscription over entrance) in 1792. They are in relatively good condition, best preserved on the north side. Allowing even for cleaning, it appears that the blue used here is not the dark indigo blue of Constantinopolitan painting but a locally preferred, paler hue. The massive, walnut-wood iconostasis by Maestro Diakos Tagliaduro of Kos (whose two other known works are in Jerusalem and Russia) is a monument of virtuoso carving. Note, for example, the twisted Solomonic columns which have vines carved all around them in relief and delicately wrought birds which stand out even from the vines. To the right-hand side is the icon of the Archangel (1724), armed in silver and precious stones, and surrounded by an ever-renewing mass of ex votos. The monastery has two museums (combined entrance ticket)—an Ecclesiastical Museum and a Folklore Museum—as well as a library and picture gallery. Between them these contain a remarkably varied range of ecclesiastical objects, icons, furniture and votive gifts—amongst them ceramics, ivory, stuffed animals, fine models of ships, and countless bottles containing donations or prayers to Saint Michael, which were launched on the waves in different parts of Greece and by one route or another have found there way here to Panormiis. There are memorabilia also to the brave and ultimately tragic resistance organised from the monastery during the Sec ond World War when Allied soldiers were given sanctuary here and a radio-signal transmitter was set up: these acts cost the abbot, Fr. Chrysanthos Maroudakis, and two of his local helpers, their lives when they were executed in front of the monastery in February 1944 by German forces. A room in the museum and a monument on the promenade, commemorate this. In 1945 the monastery was a staging post for refugees returning from Turkey. After the war ended, it was in parlous state and virtually abandoned: for the next three decades, it was laboriously taken in hand and rebuilt under the organisation of a sin gle monk who, having made a vow to St Michael when the ship in which he and his family were travelling was torpedoed and sunk, dutifully gave the rest of his life and energy to the monastery in gratitude to the Archangel for his miraculous survival.
Symi Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.
Symi Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.