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Greek Monasteries Abound in History, Beauty

Greek monasteries
From the well-preserved Byzantine era churches to the countless monasteries, Greece has a vast of sacred places dedicated to the divine. Credit: L. Richard Martin, Jr.,  CC BY 2.0.

Greek monasteries are an important element of Greek Orthodox Christian heritage and have a long history. These monasteries have played a significant role in preserving religious, cultural, and architectural heritage throughout the centuries.

Religious tourism is one of the oldest forms of traveling and Greece has inspired travelers, whether for religious purposes or mere self-exploring, throughout the years with its rich tradition in religious sites.

From the well-preserved Byzantine era churches to the countless monasteries and metochia, the country is vast of sacred places dedicated to the divine. The islands and the mainland can offer a cultural tour to various sites and buildings while enjoying the Greek nature at its most.

Going on a religious journey in Greece is like traveling back in time and exploring religion through the eyes of the believers of the past.

However, it does not matter if you believe in a particular dogma or not. Simply visiting these awe-inspiring sites will allow you to see a different side of Greece that combines history, architecture, nature and religion in one single cultural experience.

The Monasteries of Mount Athos

Greek monasteries
The monastery of Saint Dionysios at Mount Athos. Credit: Fingalo, CC BY-SA 2.0 de/Wikipedia commons

A World Heritage Site and autonomous polity in the Hellenic Republic, the Athos peninsula of the largest Halkidiki peninsula is home to 20 stavropegial Eastern Orthodox monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople.

Today Greeks commonly refer to Mount Athos as the “Holy Mountain” as Aghion Oros, and laymen must follow a certain entering procedure before visiting one of the monasteries, sketes or cells. There is a prohibition on entry for women, called avaton, which means only men can access these monasteries and appreciate the history, art and way of life of the monks living there.

Formally founded in 963, when monk Athanasios established the monastery of Great Lavra, Athos’ current population numbers around 1,400 monks.

Today monks from Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania live in the lush peninsula that has not only architectural masterpieces and an ascetic way of life to present, but vast green natural beauty as well. Mount Athos is one of the oldest surviving monastic communities in the world.

The Meteora Monasteries

Greek monasteries
Monastery of the Holy Trinity. Credit: Harshil.Shah,  CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Metéora (Greek: Μετέωρα, lit. “middle of the sky”, “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above” — etymologically related to “Meteorite”) is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries set in Kalambaka, central Greece.

Built upon high rocks and accessible by staircases cut into the rock formations, the complex was once chosen to protect the monks from political upheavals and later on from the expanding Turkish occupation in the 14th century.

The sky-scraping monasteries of Greece include many abandoned monasteries not open to to the public and six intact ones operating to date with two of them being inhabited by nuns.

As early as the 11th century AD hermit monks were believed to be living among the caves and cutouts in the rocks. In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Metéora.

From 1356 to 1372, he founded the great Meteoron monastery on Broad Rock and is said to be the founder of the first monastery. Legend has it that he did not scale the rock but was carried there by an eagle.

The monasteries of Meteora are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and has been featured in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” and in the Angelina Jolie film “Tomb Raider – Cradle of Life”.

The Monastery of Mega Spileo

Greek monasteries
The Monastery of Mega Spileo is considered to be the oldest in Greece. Credit: Spyros Salamouras, CC BY-SA 3.0.

An impressive monastery near the small town of Kalavryta in the Peloponnese, this monastery is built on slopes on the side of a rocky hill. This monastery is considered to be the oldest in Greece built in 362 AD and survived through four different fires, the last in 1934.

The eight-storey construction is built right at the opening of a cave and above the Voraikos River, which adds to it breathtaking views and a sense of wilderness completely in sync with the surrounding nature.

The monastery was built by two brothers and monks from Thessaloniki, who visited the area on a quest to discover the holy icon of Virgin Mary created by Apostle Luke, which is considered to date to be a holy relic after surviving various disastrous events.

The monastery played an important role during the Greek War of Independence in 1821 against the Ottomans. It features important relics from that time, as well as valuable Byzantine icons, frescoes, copper plates, manuscripts and other unique treasures, such as its library featuring more than 3,000 books and old scripts.

Monastery of Hosios Loukas

Greek Monasteries
Monastery of Hosios Loukas. Public Domain

Hosios Loukas is an historic walled monastery situated near the town of Distomo, in Boeotia, Greece. It is one of the most important monuments of Middle Byzantine architecture and art, and has been listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, along with the monasteries of Nea Moni and Daphnion.

The monastery of Hosios Loukas is situated at a scenic site on the slopes of Mount Helicon. It was founded in the early 10th century by the hermit, Venerable (Greek: Hosios) St. Luke (Greek: Lukas), whose relics are kept in the monastery to this day.

The monastery is said to have been reputed all over Byzantium during its heyday for its lavish decoration including carving, gold and silver plates, murals, and mosaics (especially imposing on curving surfaces), icons, chandeliers, silk curtains and altar cloths. Only a fraction of these items are still in situ, most notably colored marble facings and window grilles.

Monastery of Saint John

Greek Island Patmos , John's Revelation
Holy Monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos on the Greek island of Patmos. Credit: Valeria Casali / Wikimedia commons CC BY 3.0

The Monastery of Saint John the Theologian (also called Monastery of Saint John the Divine) is a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in 1088 in Chora on the Dodecanese island of Patmos. UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage site.

It is built near a spot venerated by both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as the cave where St. John of Patmos had his divine revelations about the Apocalypse. In 2012, 40 monks resided there. Τhe monastery was founded in 1088 by soldier-priest John Christodoulos.

The greater part of the monastery was completed by Christodoulos three years later. He heavily fortified the exterior because of the threats of piracy and Seljuk Turks. Featuring an impressive collection of religious relics, books and other treasures dating back to the earliest days of Christianity, the monastery is on top of a hill that allows panoramic views of the island.

Consisting of courtyards, chapels, stairways, arcades, galleries and roof terraces, the monastery is one of the most praised sites on the island and is worth visiting.

The Arkadi Monastery, Crete

Greek monasteries
Arkadi Monastery. Credit: Wikipedia/Olaf Tausch/CC-BY-3.0

This monastery, which is located in Rethymno, Crete, has played many important roles on the island over the last eight centuries since it was founded.

The monastery has been the center point for everything from producing needlework embroidered with gold during the 17th and 18th centuries to participating in the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

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