Friday, February 9, 2018

PATMOS: The Island of the St. John

"Do you have a cigarette?” Ninety-three-year-old Mrs. Simandiris said in Italian after we'd climbed a shaded lane to her home for a taste of local life. The ancient woman, sitting in an arm chair surrounded by nick-knacks and an overflowing ashtray, presided over our visit, smiling and laughing while she showed our small group photos of her family, great-great  grandchildren and all. In between cadging cigarettes, she asked people to take her photo for a euro. 

Never without words, she prattled on in Italian, the language she was forced to communicate in when the Italians dominated the island between 1912 and 1943. Her home has been inhabited by the same family for centuries after it was built by an ancestral merchant trader, who to judge by the furnishings, traveled far around the eastern Mediterranean and into Russia. After her talk we toured the home with typical embroidered curtains shading rooms crammed with memorabilia, samovars, oil lamps, a treadle sewing machine, a daybed covered with exotic fabrics. 

I was particularly enchanted with an old family portrait placed under an oil lamp. 

And an old mirror, the silvering gone.

Who was this family and what could their lives have been on this tiny island dominated by the Holy Monastery of Saint John? Of course, I’ll never know and must content myself visualizing our lively hostess having a breakfast of thick Greek yogurt, fragrant honey, coffee in a tiny cup half-filled with sludge, and the first cigarette of the day. Perhaps that’s why island Greeks are famous for their long lives.

Our small ship had approached what appeared to be a white and gold mound suspended in blue an hour earlier. It was the small island of Patmos with drought-yellow vegetation and Greek-white buildings resting between impossibly Mediterranean blue sky and sapphire sea. 

There’s no dock other than that for the local ferry. A mustachioed man with leathery brown skin and a Greek fisherman’s cap steered the launch owned by the Port Authority to the inner harbor. We’d boarded a shuttle and wound up to the major town at the summit to meet Mrs. Simandiris before visiting the island’s two famous sacred sites. After we’d all said ciao and arrivederci to our hostess, it was time for more serious thoughts as we wandered down the narrow streets lined with shops, curtained windows, and old doors, one with a braceleted and ringed hand door knocker. Who lived there?

The first holy site was a cave just below the town of Chora where in AD 95, St. John dictated the last book of the Bible: The Book of Revelations. 

Scholars are not exactly sure who John was. Some think he was the Disciple John, but most now believe he was a different person, frequently called John the Theologian or St. John the Divine. He'd been living in sophisticated Ephesus when he was hauled off to Rome to face accusations of prophesy. After he miraculously survived being boiled in oil and managed to convert all the on-lookers with the feat, he was banished to barren Patmos to get him out of the way. 

Revelation is also known as The Apocalypse from its original Greek title. The word "apocalypse,"  literally "revealing,"has come to be associated with cataclysmic disaster, judgment day or the end of the world, and is of course famous in books, film, and commentary about current world affairs, the stock market, and the weather. 

It seemed to me to have little relevance to life on this idyllic island on the day I was there, but the island’s history like most of the Middle East has been painful over the millenia. 

Whatever the intent of the author, he apparently lived in a cave open to the weather for a year dictating his work to a scribe. Fortunately, the persecuting emperor, Domitian, was assassinated and John returned to Ephesus where he faded from history. His writings remain.

After the Edict of Constantine, establishing Christianity in the 4th century, the cave became a place of pilgrimage.

Probably no different from the past, we joined long lines of day-trippers standing next to white walls cut with sharp shadows.

When our turn came we filed in for a minute or so to look at the icons, touch the walls, and wonder about the past before returning to the sunshine. But as in pagan Delphi, the constant tramp of footsteps detracted from our consideration of the tenor of John’s times and the meaning of Revelations and its message for today.
The Holy Monastery of St. John towers above the small white-washed town of Chora and the entire island. Founded in 1088, the massive building in the form of a crusader castle, housed holiness and protected the island against depredation from Muslims and pirates. As with so many religious sites, it was built over the ruins of an ancient church which in turn was built over a temple to Artemis the Huntress. Both the entrance and the interior are covered with stunning frescoes, many from the 1600s. The beautiful gold-leaf dome, the hanging lamps, and icons combine to present an atmosphere to make even the most determined non-believer marvel at the profound sentiment it expresses.

The museum is a treasure trove of ancient codices, documents, illuminated manuscripts and early printing. The most astounding to my mind is the Purple Codex, the section owned by the monastery composed of 33 leaves of parchment  dyed purple, the color of emperors. Dating to the 6th century, it is an extract from the Gospel of Mark written in gold Greek capital letters all run together. Other marvels fill the rooms, including an icon by know to us as El Greco, later famous for his dramatic elongated figures now seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid where he lived after leaving Greece. Other treasures on display are jewelry and church furnishings, but it was the fragment of the New Testament that moved me the most. I couldn’t help thinking if it wasn’t for these monasteries even more would have been lost to us and we would be much the poorer in spirit and knowledge than we are.

Still contemplating the religious aspects of the island we found our way down to the tiny port following lanes lined with more shops, white houses with pots of purple Greek basil on doorsteps, laden pomegranate trees, and views of the sea around every turn.

The café, shaded by a gigantic fig tree  was buzzing with locals and a few stray tourists. We joined them for an iced coffee before strolling by the few shops with their stylish linen summer clothes still hanging on racks stirred by a faint breeze. 

But it was mid-October and life was slowing. Mrs. Simandiris was probably contemplating her winter cigarette supply, and we needed to return to our ship.

All photos copyright Judith Works except for the following:
 Illustration from Medieval Book of Revelations are from Wikipedia commons
 Interior photos and artwork in The Holy Monastery of St. John are from Google Cultural Institute

Friday, January 5, 2018

More on Meteora

For those of you who are interested in knowing more about Meteora and its rock formations and monasteries, here's a link to a website called Mapping Europe. It contains drone photos that capture some of the wonders of the area.

Thanks to Martha Bakerjian for the find!

Friday, December 29, 2017



Meteora is a five-hour bus ride from the ancient and pagan holy site of Delphi, and a world away in religious beliefs. Glenn and I and the others on the tour lurched around steep roads over a mountain pass marked by small memorials at every curve to those who met with accidents. It was a relief to descend to the plains of Thessaly to reach Meteora and its astounding pillars that abruptly rise skyward as high as 1800 feet above the plain. Neanderthals and our earliest ancestors sheltered in caves here some 50,000 years ago. The surrounding area was known in ancient times, mentioned by Homer and Herodotus, and was the home of the most famous doctor of antiquity, Asclepius, who founded a healing center here. Then, like Delphi, its fame receded into the mists of time until the 9th century when Greek Orthodox hermits settled in caves to lead solitary lives of contemplation and prayer.

Whether from the desire for closeness with others who shared the same beliefs or a change in religious philosophy, the first of twenty-four monasteries was founded sometime before 1200 AD, although sources differ on dates. The first monks drove wedges into crevices to ascend the pillars. Reaching the top, they wove rope ladders which could be drawn up in case of attacks from the Turks, and baskets for building materials and later arrivals. Ladders and baskets were replaced “when the Lord let them break,” which I suspect was quite often.

Some of the building complexes were built on pillars large-enough to support a small church, terraces, lodges and refectories. Others rested on pinnacles so small there was only room for one tiny building.

Now, only six of these religious monuments continue to function while the ruins of the others lie lonely and desolate. Even those that remain are barely populated with dwindling numbers of ascetics desiring the isolated life: about 15 monks and 40 nuns.

We had the opportunity to visit two of the monasteries: 

   St. Stephen is relatively easy to visit because there is a wooden foot bridge from land to pillar although it’s not a good idea to look down if you suffer from vertigo. Monks were living a common life here by the 1300s. Despite the designation, the complex was deserted by 1960, and converted into a nunnery in 1961. We were welcomed by a smiling apple-cheeked elderly woman in black. Hanging on pegs were neat black and white wraps which those of us women who wore slacks had to wind around our waists before we joined Sunday crowds of every age.

Doubly covered, I began to look around. There are two churches, the oldest built in 1545, was heavily damaged by Germans in WWII. The second church, built in 1798, has relatively modern frescoes, some done in 1915, and while lovely, they don’t hold the same fascination for me as other-worldly Byzantine era masterpieces.

The monastery reportedly has a piece of the True Cross and relics of John the Baptist although they weren’t on view, but the refectory holds marvels: icons, embroidery, silver and ancient parchments. The most interesting icon was done by a painter from Crete, later known as El Greco when he moved to Spain to produce the elongated and luridly-colored paintings for which he is famous.

  Varlaam or All Saints Monastery, 1200 feet above the plain, began as a cluster of cave-dwelling monks about 1350 and transformed into a church and cluster of outbuildings in 1518. Stairs were cut in 1923 and we began the long walk and then climb what seemed to be a thousand steps to visit the church, said to have been built in twenty days after collecting the materials for 22 years.

Some creatures took a break on the way up.

As I looked at the winch and rope net used for humans and materials I wondered how many monks and visitors fell to their death as they reached for heaven. The thought of swinging out over the abyss was terrifying. Now a small cable car does the job safely.

The interior of the small church with brilliant gold, red and blue icons; lamps; and furnishings glowed in the dim light, a truly holy atmosphere. Many of the chairs and tables in the church were of inlaid wood in the Syrian style. When I inquired why our guide reminded me that the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church remains in Istanbul the former capital of the late Roman Empire known as Constantinople. I wished to take photos but unsurprisingly none were allowed

What were these men’s lives really like divorced from the world and its cares? It seemed to me it would have been a short life of privation, freezing cold and snowy in the long winters, with chilblains and arthritis wracking their bodies in an unremitting struggle to reach a state of holiness through ritual and prayer as flickering candles lit the golden icons.

A life I could not imagine for myself but admire anyway. The world could use more holiness.

All photos copyright Judith Works

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Hooray! It's Panettone season around here.

Actually, it’s the holiday season. In the US this means from Thanksgiving to New Year’s day. So I have about five weeks to indulge in my favorite treat: panettone, that traditional sweet and oh-so-delicious Italian Christmas bread. About the first of November the stores, even in my corner of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, begin stacking up the colorful boxes in windows and shelves and I begin loading up the shopping cart. The bread is distinctive – tall and domed and nestled in a paper cuff. The height comes from letting the dough rise three times over a period of 20 hours. It usually weighs a kilo (just over 2 lbs.) and is sturdy enough to last for days without going stale tho' probably not as long as my mother's fruit cake that was tough enough to survive a dogsled trek to the North Pole.  The packaging, which gets ever-more elaborate, almost always features a ribbon handle or bow all the better to carry it home. During our time in Italy, I often crowded into a jammed car on the Metro to share what little space there was with others toting their own panetonne.

Ideal for hostess gifts, I also use it for non-traditional recipes like bread pudding and French toast (I should call it Italian toast) although there’s nothing better than a simple wedge toasted and served with orange juice and coffee on a Christmas morning in front of the fireplace.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bread: The current iteration originated in Milan in the early 20th century but it has ancient origins, possibly back to Roman times when the aristocrats dined on a leavened bread sweetened with honey. A slightly more plausible origin is a story about a cake flavored with lime zest and raisins served at the Duke of Milan’s table in the 15th century. Attesting to its popularity, it soon began to be depicted in paintings, and in the 18th century a “Pane di Tono” or luxury cake was mentioned by an Italian writer, Pietro Verri. Whatever the earlier varieties contained, modern bakers can’t resist experimenting with additions beyond raisins such as chocolate, dried figs, pears, orange or citron peel, mascarpone, or sweet liqueur to tempt the shopper.

How could anyone resist?  Not me!

All photos copyrighted by Judith Works

Sunday, November 12, 2017


What makes a site sacred? The atmosphere, the setting, the priests who declared it so, or the pilgrims who trek from far away to experience a oneness with their god or gods? Maybe all of the above.

My husband and I set out from Athens for a two-day trip first to visit sacred Delphi, once considered the center of the world. The following day we would visit another sacred site, Meteora, deep in the mountains of mainland Greece. The country’s economic woes were in full view, not only in the city with its empty store fronts, but even more so in the countryside where miles of abandoned buildings, some half-built, were everywhere that cotton fields weren't. Fluffy cotton balls from the harvest drifted alongside the road to somewhat soften the scene on the fertile Plains of Thessaly before we began a climb into the mountains where, sadly, the roadways were lined in trash.

But religious sentiment was everywhere evident with dozens of tiny models of Orthodox churches, often painted the blue and white colors of Greece, placed near dangerous roadway curves where some unfortunate motorist met with disaster, or perhaps was saved from death by a miracle. We stopped for a coffee at a roadside stop where I slipped into a nearby chapel built for travelers who paused for a prayer before continuing their journeys. I lit a tall beeswax taper to join others casting glowing light on the icons painted in rich gold, red and blue.

We’d been to Delphi some years earlier. Set high on a steep slope not far from Mt. Olympus, it had been a quiet, mystical and enchanting experience with the ancient ruins overlooking groves of olive trees sweeping down to the bright blue sea. It was easy to imagine pilgrims coming to worship Apollo or wait in trepidation for the enigmatic prophecies of the fearsome Delphic Oracle who chewed on bay leaves and inhaled gases from a cleft in the rock for inspiration.

But would she have ever dreamed of today’s mass tourism with buses lined up to disgorge passengers who only wished to climb the marble-paved path to spend five minutes taking selfies before lunch? Perhaps she did, but we were too distracted by the noise and shoving to continue beyond the pillars of the Temple of Athena to climb the top of the hill where we’d previously sat to contemplate the mysteries of the past.

Giving up, we retreated to the quiet museum where we could marvel at the fragments of the treasures that have survived invasions and looting over nearly three millenia. The wonderfully-named chryselephantine heads made of ivory and gold depicting Apollo and and a haughty-looking Artemis brought to mind how religion has informed art until recently. The ivory is blackened by burning in one of the periodic desecrations by marauders or natural disasters, giving the gods an African appearance. I wondered if Picasso had seen them. 

Nearby, is another treasure: pieces of a gold and silver life-size bull. Other rooms hold statuary, building fragments, curious egg-shaped pieces that represent the navel or center of the Greek world, and a gigantic sphinx.

And no one who has ever seen The Charioteer can forget the perfect serenity of the slender young man as he holds the reins to guide his horses to victory.

But my favorite is the small bowl finely painted with a scene of Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, music, and poetry, holding his lyre and pouring a libation while a sacred raven perched on a branch listens. What ancient tune did the god play? If we could hear it now, would we feel close to a sacred state?

All photos copyright Judith Works

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


It was easy to see where the term “ritzy” came from when the liveried doorman opened the portal for my daughter and me to enter the Ritz Hotel in London. She had arranged for tea at the hallowed hotel as a special treat. The lobby, filled with stylishly-dressed people who looked like they belonged there, was overwhelming with its marble floors, heavy silk draperies, enormous flower arrangements, and discreet shops filled with expensive jewelry. Anyone fond of minimalist décor would cover their eyes as they gasped in anguish. I loved it!

We were ushered to our table in the Palm Court by a tail-coated maître d’ with an iPad. The atmosphere was even more sumptuous than the lobby with a glittering chandelier hanging from the skylight, gold-framed mirrors, a gold-painted sculpture of cherubs with scaly legs and fish-fin feet holding up a heraldic shield (presumably with the Ritz insignia) while a half-naked woman below gazes upward in wonder.

A gigantic flower arrangement on a pedestal, potted palms and a grand piano completed the scene. The pianist played show tunes to provide a background to the tinkling of china cups and saucers and light conversations.

I glanced at other guests seated at tables nearby. All were middle-aged, the men wore suits and ties and the women were dressed for afternoon tea, like us. Our waiter introduced himself, and would we like him to bring a glass of Champagne when he returned with the menu. Yes, we would.

As we took the first sip the maître d’ escorted a young couple to their table directly behind ours. My eyes and those of guests seated at the neighboring tables followed the couple; conversations paused. He wore a skinny suit and a skinny tie, someone from the design or fashion world I surmised. She must have been a model: nearly six feet tall with long straight black hair and bangs brushing her eyes, a low cut blouse and a skirt cut up to – well, you can imagine. But my eyes focused on her shoes: Red suede, backless with four-inch heels. I sighed in envy even though my feet hurt just imagining wearing them.

Our waiter returned with the Champagne and handed us a menu with all the tea selections: Eighteen different varieties selected by the hotel tea sommelier, including such exotics as Rose Congou, Dragon Pearls and Russian Caravan. We decided on the house special: Ritz Royal Blend. When he brought the tea and a stand filled with sandwiches and cakes, he asked if we’d like a photo to remember the event. Indeed, yes, even though it marked us as tourists.

The little sandwiches were quintessentially English: cucumber with cream cheese and chives, Scottish smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise with shallots and watercress; the pastries were French and divine. The last act was scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry preserves. It was impossible to finish everything. Our waiter asked if we wanted a little box.

After the last drip was poured from the teapot and final sip of Champagne was taken we picked up our box with the Ritz insignia and reluctantly gathered our raincoats – the nearby National Gallery would be an ideal place to walk off the indulgence. The pianist began his rendition of Puttin on the Ritz. As we descended the several stairs back to the main lobby I turned to take one last glance. A man supported an ancient woman as they too departed. He wore the standard suit. She wore a wreath of flowers on her sparse gray hair, a house dress, and UGG boots.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Time hasn’t been kind to the Mission of Tumacacori that stands in partial ruin three miles south of the flourishing artist’s town of Tubac in southern Arizona. Dreary weather added to the melancholy atmosphere surrounding the abandoned church when my husband and I visited. Although it is part of a National Historic Monument managed by the Park Service, other than a group of hikers who briefly stopped to use the facilities before they headed out on a birdwatching expedition, the grounds were empty of visitors.

Glenn and I wandered around the dispiriting buildings, feeling the passage of time bending our shoulders downward as we looked at what weathering, looting and vandalism can do. Half or more of the bell tower has fallen; the entrance and nave have lost their statues, plaster, and paint to expose the bare bricks as if construction had only begun. A few lonely gravestone remain outside the mortuary chapel.

Only the newly painted white dome of the church gives a beacon of hope. Although restoration work is on-going and a small museum is available, it seems fitting that the ruins remain a monument to the fraught history of the area. The past remains part of the present with border wars now involving refugees, economic migrants, and drug runners. Phillip Caputo’s novel, Crossers, brilliantly depicts the area and its fraught recent history.
The Jesuit missionary, Padre Kino, arrived in the area in January 1691, and established a mission to convert the local tribes living in the vast land the Spanish called “pima,” a word that meant “nothing.” What is now the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona and Northwestern Mexico was christened Pimeria Alta. The padres found Tumacacori and the surrounding area populated by the O’odhams, peaceful farmers who grew corn, beans, squash, and long-staple cotton that we now call Supima.

At first all went well as the Jesuits distributed cattle, tools, and seeds along with their teachings and baptisms. But like everywhere else, the Eden wasn’t to last when Spanish ranchers and miners moved in and enslaved the local population. Apache raiders, pushed out of their own lands by Comanches, began their depredations. Contagious diseases swept the missionary compounds, revolts broke out, churches burned. The time of the Jesuits came to an end in 1767 when King Charles III of Spain suppressed the order, favoring the Franciscans instead. The remaining Jesuit priests of the Pimeria Alta were led in a death march to Vera Cruz, the survivors transported to Spain. Legends of lost mines and buried treasure were born. The old movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” came to my mind.

The Spanish made treaties with some tribes and captured many of the Apaches, who were shipped in chains to the Caribbean plantations or to reservations. It was 1801 and an auspicious time to rebuild the small church into something fitting for the importance of the mission. But the Mexican wars for independence and a decree by the new government forced all Spanish-born residents out of the country. The mission and the partially-built church was abandoned. A few native people held on as the Apaches began to attack again. Finally, they packed the holy statues, chalices and vestments and headed north bent with their burden baskets to San Xavier del Bac, never to return. The ruination began.

Our view of the state of the universe changed dramatically the following day when we visited San Xavier del Bac, a white-washed glory standing proud in the brilliant morning sun. The good padre, Kino, first arrived in the settlement of Bac in 1692 and returned to the site, now not far from Tucson, in 1700 to found a mission. He was interested in saving souls and also curious about the blue shells the local tribes traded. They were abalone shells and came from California, proving that California wasn’t an island and could be reached by an overland route. The door to further Spanish expansion was opened leading to construction of the beautiful string of missions on El Camino Real.

Work began in 1783 on the Mexican Baroque wonder that stands today. Against the odds, with the continuing turmoil of Apache raids, the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 when the area became the Territory of Arizona, Indian Agency interference, an earthquake, and the inevitable depredations of time and weather, the church miraculously survived and thrived.

We joined a few tourists and worshippers to enter the church. Colorful frescoes, baroque carvings that look like draperies, painted wooden statues, gold leaf, pillars and niches, fill the nave, side chapels and high altar, dome and choir loft.

Human-sized angels guard the pillars where the transept supports the dome, painted angels adorn the space where columns meet the dome.

Geometric designs contrast with the swirling decor elsewhere. Banks of votive candles flicker in the dim light.

The theatrics were a contrast to a few quiet worshippers: a man in white, his cowboy hat hung on the post by the pew; a women bent in prayer, her long braid of jet-black hair hanging down her back, along with others who reverently gazed at the blanket covering the effigy of San Xavier with its pinned photos, hospital wrist bands and milagros placed by pilgrims as prayers for intercession for themselves or loved ones.

We sat at the back of the church for many minutes in contemplation. When it was time to move on I lit a candle for the men and women who labored to build this monument to faith, survival, and continuity.

All photos copyright Judith Works