“Cruising the Dodecanese” is Peter Sommer Travels’ last scheduled cruise in Greece in 2017. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
I am writing this on Samos, but most of today was devoted to Patmos, which is the the holy island of the Apocalypse, at least as seen from the Greek Orthodox tradition.
Patmos is the site of the Revelation (that is the literal meaning of the Greek word apokalypsi), the place where Saint John the Divine's famous vision - set down in one of the most mysterious and most controversial of the Early Christian texts - is stated to have taken place. (Maybe we will write about it some other time, but it is worth noting that the Revelation has had an extraordinary strong and lasting influence on Western thought, imagination and literature, but most especially on art). In any case, as a result of this tradition, Patmos is home to a major Christian pilgrimage, namely the Cave of the Apocalypse, as well as to one of Greece's most significant monasteries, that of Agios Ioannis Theologos, founded in 1088 and set atop of the island's old capital village, the Chora. The monastery is recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage.
On all our visits to Patmos, we include the cave and the monastery in our tour, but today was very special, as it was the Feast Day of the Assumption of Saint John (i.e. his departure from the world of the living). For the people of Patmos, this is one of the three most important annual religious festivals, the others being Easter, a moveable feast, and the Assumption/Dormition of the Virgin Mary on August 15th, both of them major holidays in all of Greece. As a result, our visits today were a little different.
Today, both the cave church and the monastery were busy, not with the tourist groups or cruise-ship crowds we dread from time to time, but with local Patmians and with Greeks of Patmian descent living in Athens or further afield, having returned for their island's special celebration. We arrived at the monastery while a festive service was held in its main church, both celebratory and funerary in nature, with all the monastery's monks present, as well as the island's priests, the regional bishop, and various visiting clergy - apparently including the Greek Orthodox bishop of New Zealand. (Our image shows priests leaving the monastery church after the service).
What this meant for our guests was, technically, a moderate delay to our tour of the monastery's museum with its manuscripts, icons and archaeological artefacts (all of them of major interest) and to the monastery's main church and side chapels with their superb frescoes and elaborate decorations. I say technically, because what it really meant was a unique opportunity to listen to beautiful Byzantine-style chant and to observe the locals of all ages in their own observance, to taste the sweetened blessed bread after the service, in short to be part of an event that defines the islands' collective identity and that has certainly been celebrated there annually for 929 years (less certainly, some claim for over 1,900 years).
For us at Peter Sommer Travels, a local festival or any event of that kind, even if it brings crowds and restricts access to sites, is never a nuisance but always an opportunity, always a bonus. It gives us a chance to not just describe a location's life and traditions and beliefs, but to participate in them along with our guests, to make them come to life by seeing them live. We are certainly not in the business of selling "participation" as a prearranged feature of our tours or cruises, because some experiences can simply not be prearranged - but we are most certainly in the habit of participating alongside our guests when and where we can - making sure that the experience is a real one.
Tomorrow will bring us close to long-forgotten feasts for different gods...