The history of Greece is inextricably tied to the history of its monasteries. For most of the monasteries the date of their foundation is lost in time. A monk who during his wandering found this place or a Byzantine lord who dedicated the monastery to his patron saint is among the stories you could hear about their origin. But above all they are places of faith and devotion. Most of them are prime examples of traditional architecture and cause awe with the way they are constructed. During our travels around Greece, we have visited many monasteries and we will try here to present the ones that caused our admiration.
Rousanou Monastery (Μονή Ρουσάνου) : The Monastery of Rousanou is one of the six monasteries in Meteora that are still operating and were listed in 1988 by UNESCO, as a World Heritage Site. The origin of its name is not known and the date of its establishment is not clear. The main church (catholikon) was built in 1545 and the whole monastery was restored during the 1980s and has been operating since then as a nunnery. The monastery occupies the entire plateau at the top of the rock where it is located. It is a three-storey building, with the catholicon, the mansion and the cells on the ground floor and auxiliary spaces on the other floors. In order to reach the monastery you have to go up a staircase and cross two bridges, built in 1930 on the site of an older wooden one. The view from the monastery is breathtaking.
Timios Stavros Monastery (Μονή Τιμίου Σταυρού) : None of the geographers and travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who visited the mountains of South Pindos referred to this monastery near the village Krania. The only written documents related to the place have been found in the archives of a monastery at Meteora and they give information about the renovation of the church in 1839. The monastery was abandoned in 1924 but the last monk left the place in 1943, when the Nazis destroyed it and the only thing that survived was the church (the remains of the rest of the monastery could be seen a few meters from here). The style of the church with 12 domes, very small windows which barely left the natural light to enter inside and the whole setup of the interior with no wall paintings, classify it as a very rare monument (see also our related article about a road trip in the Greek Alps).
Kipinas Monastery (Μονή Κηπίνας) : The monastery of Kipina, on the Tzoumerka Mountains, is dedicated to Virgin Mary. It is one of the least known and at the same time most spectacular monasteries in Greece. The monastery was built originally in 1212 and took its name from the gardens (kipoi in Greek), the monks used to cultivate in the valley below. Its buildings are actually carved inside a rock slit above the valley of Kalarritiotikos River (a tributary of the Arachthos River). Every inch of the rock was used in order to form the main church and its dome, which is in fact a cave. The access to the monastery is a narrow path, carved also on the rock and a small bridge. At first the bridge was wooden and could be lifted from the monks in order to protect themselves from the intruders. The monastery is no longer used but could be visited.
Monastery of Agia Paraskevi Monodendriou (Μονή Αγίας Παρασκευής Μονοδενδρίου) : The abandoned monastery of Agia Paraskevi is located in the wonderful village of Monodendri in Zagorochoria. It is built on the edge of a cliff overlooking Vikos Gorge. Its buildings are excellent examples of the work of the great stone builders of Epirus, who were famous all over the Balkans. The monastery was established in 1412 and renovated in 1799. All the buildings, including the church, were constructed along a narrow path that leads to caves above the Gorge. Next to the church, a stone tank was used to collect the rainwater and a small door next to it leads to a balcony with a breathtaking view of the Gorge. This wonderful view could be as well the sole reason to visit the unique monastery.
Molyvdoskepastos Monastery (Μονή Μολυβδοσκέπαστου) : Located 400 meters from the Greek-Albanian borders at the junction of two rivers, Aoos and Sarantaporos, this monastery dedicated to the Sleeping of Virgin Mary is one of the oldest in Northern Greece. It is known as Molyvdoskepastos due to the lead (molydvos in Greek) plates on its roof during the previous decades (nowadays they have been replaced). According to the local tradition, the monastery was founded in the 7th century by Emperor Constantine Pogonato (668-685). However, the typological and morphological elements of the original tricochar section date to the 11th century. Apart from the building itself, what will amaze you is its perfect location in the valley of Mpourazani and the wonderful view of the rivers’ junction.
Monastery of Panagia Kosmosoteira Feron (Μονή Κοσμοσώτειρα Φερών) : This monastery, 30 km from Alexandroupoli, at the centre of Feres, is the most sacred place for the people of Thraki all over the world. It is also one of the most important Byzantine monuments of Greece. The monastery of Panagia Kosmosoteira (Our Lady, Savior of the World) includes a fortress wall with defensive towers and the main church (catholicon). The iconographic decoration is a characteristic specimen of high-quality painting of the School of Constantinople, dated to the 12th century. The monastery was founded in 1152 by the Byzantine lord Isaakios Komnenos, who was buried here. Two hundred years later, the main church was converted into a mosque and five and a half centuries later was again converted into a church.
Monastery of Timios Prodromos Stemnitsas (Μονή Τιμίου Προδρόμου Στεμνίτσας) : Perched on a cliff above Lousios River, the Monastery of Timios Prodromos will leave you breathless. The monastery was founded in the 16th century and was used as a shelter for the inhabitants of the nearby village Stemnitsa during a Turkish invasion in the 18th century. Also, it was used by rebels as a station of replenishment during the Greek Revolution of 1821. The main church is located in a cave under the mountain rock, while the wooden balconies are hovering over the cliff. The walls of the monastery are covered with unique paintings dated to the early 17th century which have been attributed to the Cretan School (see also our related article about the nearby site of Ancient Gortyna).
Monastery of Panagia Chozoviotissa (Μονή Παναγίας Χοζοβιώτισσας) : The image of the Monastery of Panagia Chozoviotissa in Amorgos Island is probably one of the most recognizable icons of Kyklades. The monastery was built in 1088 and can only be seen from the sea. Its complex has a total height of 40 meters but it is only 5 meters wide. It has eight floors, which are connected with narrow staircases. Its name originates from the town of Choziva in the Middle East where its holy icon of the Virgin Mary was made according to the tradition. The icon was brought here by a noble woman who rescued it from the menace of the iconoclasts. The icon and the monastery nowadays are considered the protectors of the island and play a significant role in the life of its inhabitants.
Kechrovouniou Monastery (Μονή Κεχροβουνίου) : The monastery of Kechrovouni in Tinos is probably one of the most significant Greek monasteries. It was built during the 10th and 11th centuries. The monastery has great cultural and religious importance, because the nun Agia Pelagia, who lived here, was the one who discovered the Holy Icon of the Virgin Mary, which is now housed in the Church of Virgin Mary in Chora. The monastery is built as a fortified village with many buildings, streets, alleys and arcades. Apart from the main church and the cell of Agia Pelagia, in the monastery you could visit an excellent ecclesiastical museum and a library with over 2000 rare editions. Come here, feel the calmness of the place and learn its history. For the inhabitants of the island is their most sacred place (see also our related article about Tinos Island).
Arkadiou Monastery (Μονή Αρκαδίου) : On the mountain, a few kilometres from the town of Rethymno in Crete, the Arkadiou monastery is an imposing fortress-type complex. It has its own unique and tragic story known as “The Holocaust of Arkadi”. During the uprising of Crete against the Turks in 1866, after a strong battle and the siege that followed, the abbot of the monastery along with its defenders put fire in the gunpowder storeroom and blew the place to the ground, in order not to get caught alive. It is not clear when the monastery was built but it is certain that it was founded by a monk named Arkadios. The main church was rebuilt during the Venetian domination of the island, as is evident from the abundance of Renaissance architecture that the visitor can identify.
There are many more unique, historic, spectacular and holy monasteries all over Greece and their history is tied to the history and the fate of each place. This is just a small sample from our travels.
*[Photos 1,3,4,5,8 & 10 are from iStock]