Thursday, September 09, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #17: Winding-down in Greece

On an overcast and drizzly Wednesday prior to my Friday departure, I set out to visit two monasteries--that of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian, and the new Soumela Monastery. Both destinations represented a bit of unfinished business from earlier trips. Soon after my chrismation in 2005, my priest suggested I read the biography of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian by Elder Paisios. I found his story a compelling one and have since recommended the book to others. St. Arsenios labored for decades in Farasa, his remote village of the far fringes of Cappadocia. In the population exchange of 1923, they were all deported to Greece. St. Arsenios shepherded his flock safely there, but prophesied that he would die 40 days after their arrival, which in fact did occur. Interestingly, St. Arsenios was the spiritual advisor to the family of Elder Paisios, and baptized him as an infant.

In 2006, I traveled in central Turkey, and sought out the old village of St. Arsenios. This took some doing, as Farasa was quite remote. My account of that visit can be found here. In recent years, a monastery has been constructed about 60 miles east of Thessaloniki, and the relics of St. Arsenios have been moved there. I located the site without undue difficulty, but discovered it to be locked-up, with no entry within the walls possible. And so, I had to turn around and retrace my steps. I was disappointed, to be sure, but thought no more of it. Monasteries are not, or should not be, tourist attractions. If one is locked, I am sure there are good reasons for that.

My other destination was the new Soumela Monastery, located past Veria, in the opposite direction from Thessaloniki. The original Soumela Monastery is in the mountains of Pontus, southeast of Trabzon (old Trebizon.) I visited there in 2006. The old monastery is truly one of the wonders of Turkey, or anywhere else, for that matter. The buildings seem to hang to the side of the cliff and appear to float in the low-lying clouds so characteristic of the region. Sumela was founded in the late 4th-century and enjoyed a continuous existence up until the population exchange of 1923, when the Turkish government closed the site and banished the monks to Greece. Through the years, old Sumela suffered mightily from neglect and vandalism. But in the last decade or so, Turkey has awakened to the tourist potential of these ancient Christian sites. Now a national park, Sumela receives a steady stream of visitors--Muslim and Christian alike--who work their way up the misty trail to the monastery.

Sumela has recently been in the news. The Turkish government permitted the Ecumenical Patriarch to celebrate a Litury at the monastery on August 15th. Clearly done with an eye towards public opinion in the West, this is a small bone indeed to be thrown to the put-upon Orthodox Christian remnant in Turkey. But, Christian worship has been permitted in a few other old churches in Anatolia within the last year. The list of grievances is still lengthy, Halki is still closed, and the long-standing problems with the government are still unresolved. This may, however, signal a glacial softening of attitudes, both officially and within Turkish society in general. We shall see. (The best and most comprehensive coverage I have seen of the event is John's post at Mystogogy blog, here.)

Before they left in 1923, the Sumela monks buried their most prized relic--an icon of the Mother of God, the icon of the Panagia Soumela. Traditionally, this was one of those painted by St. Luke himself. There had been a continuous record of the icon at the monastery from its very founding. In 1931, some monks received permission to return to Sumela and retrieve some of the liturgical items they had buried. At this time, the silver-encased icon was recovered and transported safely to Greece. In 1952, the icon was given to the recently constructed Monastery of the Panagia Soumela in Macedonian Greece.

The new Soumela Monastery is high in the mountains, just like the original. A large parking area, several cafes, and an abundance of souvenir kiosks outside the gates indicate that this site receives many pilgrims. But I was alone the day I visited. The church itself is quite beautiful. I have since learned that though this is classified as a monastery, there are no monks or nuns in residence here. I was able to light some candles and venerate the Icon of the Panagia Soumela alone. I was glad I came.

Leaving here, I made my way back down out of the mountains, and before returning to Thessaloniki, I drove over to Veronia to visit King Philip's tomb. This was my one and only nod towards visiting any sites relating to Greek antiquity. The exhibit halls and excavations are all located underneath the tumulus. The artifacts were certainly impressive. Reading the explanations of the exhibits, I was amused to see the great pains taken to ensure every visitor knew that Macedonian=Greek.

My last full day in Greece started out with an interesting twist. I was stuck in the elevator at the Makedonia Palace Hotel. I was there about 20 minutes before a technician could arrive to extract me. I had something to read, so I was not particularly put out by it all. By this time, I was just ready to get home, and was not particularly interested in seeing anything between Thessaloniki and the Athens airport. But I had a day, and was loathe to waste it. I contemplated trying again to find the Monastery of St. Ephrem the New in Nea Makri. I decided instead to visit the Monastery of Ossias Loukas, said to have some of the most sublime mosaics in Greece. Along the way, I passed by Mount Olympus. It is easy to see what the big deal was with this mountain and the ancient Greeks. Low-lying coastal clouds completely obscured the upper reaches of Mount Olympus. I stopped along the highway and had lunch at one of the ubiquitous food vans one sees in Greece. The proprietor fixed me a sandwich, with the french fries between the buns as well. Nice. I should not be too critical of Ossias Loukas. I was tired and ready to go home. But I was not as impressed as I was with others. The institution seemed more of a tourist destination. There were no candles burning, nor any place to purchase them. The mosaics were beautiful, but I was more attracted to those of a more primitive nature, located in a side chapel. I guess you could say that by this time I was about monasteried-out.

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