Saturday, January 24, 2015

Magical Hosios Loukas

Tomorrow, all of Greece goes to the polls to elect a new Parliament, but I’ve said all I intend to say about that here last week except for one thing: kali tihi. 

Today, I want to take you to a place that represents the sort of inspirational magic that perpetually draws me home to Greece.  

It’s perched on a western foothill of Mount Helicon, twenty miles east of Delphi, a mile and a half from any sign of modern times—aside from the narrow paved road that winds through hillsides covered in fir, cedar, myrtle, arbutus and pine; high above a broad green valley filled with cultivated olives, almonds, and patches of grape, all running off toward distant limestone mountain slopes.

Mythology describes this place as a favorite haunt of antiquities’ Muses, and from the way it still looks today, who am I to disagree?

1743 Woodcut of Monastery

Hosios Loukas
But the history that drew me to this place is of more recent vintage, only eleven centuries ago.  In the early 10th Century, a holy and pious hermit (osios in Greek) Loukas (896-953), born in what is today modern Delphi, endured a life marked by raids by Slavs, Arabs, Saracens, and Bulgarians, before finding his way into this valley of awe-inspiring natural beauty.  There he began construction of the only church built on mainland Greece in the tenth-century. That Church of Panaghia (the Virgin Mary) still stands today within the walls of Greece’s largest extant monastery from Byzantium’s second golden age, and adjacent to Greece’s oldest existing dome-octagon church, the Katholikon (big church) of Hosios Loukas.

Courtyard with front of Church and Katholikon to right

Front (west side) Katholikon

Rear (east side) Katholion (left) and Church

Beneath the Katholicon is the Crypt of Saint Barbara, the monastery’s oldest church and a place of massive stone pillars erected to support the domes of the Katholikon above—and to which it is said monks once chained psychopaths until cured of their madness.  Here, too, lay the tomb of Hosios Loukas (sainted as Luke of Steiris) beneath an oil lamp kept burning for ten centuries by monks devoted to him.  But don’t take for granted the answer to, “Who’s buried in Hosios Loukas’ tomb?” for in 1011 his remains were removed, and now reside in a glass-enclosed reliquary beneath its own perpetually burning oil lamp in a place of honor off a passageway between the naves of the Church and Katholikon. 

Crypt of Saint Barbara

Crypt of Saint Barbara and Tomb of Hosios Loukas

Saint Barbara
In keeping with the teachings of Greece’s ancient temple builders, the monastery sits in harmony with its natural surroundings. Terra cotta roof tiles, above classical Byzantine cloisonné-style masonry walls of marble, brick, and limestone, enclosed frescos and mosaic masterpieces set upon backgrounds of gold.  But only a fraction of the monastery’s legendary lavish decoration remains, the balance of the place’s precious gold and silver plate, murals, icons, and furnishings lost to time and plunderers.

Come here at sunset, when shadows are long and light practices its magic upon the monastery’s rusty earth-tone architectural jags and juts, contours and edges.  You’ll soon lose track not only of time, but of centuries.  A thousand years old, the Monastery of Hosios Loukas remains an isolated sanctuary of tranquility, one of the Mediterranean’s most impressive monuments, and a World Heritage Site.

A wave from another saintly Barbara

Perhaps because I’m a mystery writer, each time I visit places of such sustaining great beauty, I can’t help but think of what haunting secret intrigues, betrayals, bloodshed, and accommodations to the times through which they passed allowed them to flourish while others vanished from the earth.  Sure, there’s a bit of luck involved in averting disaster, for in 1943 Nazi planes tried to destroy the monastery but failed. Or maybe it was answered prayers.

But to me, Hosios Loukas brings a very specific memory of unanswered prayers to mind, one that I and many Greeks will never forget.  To reach the Monastery, you first pass through the farming villages of Distomo and Steiri.  Distomo is a name known to every Greek of a certain age.  A place of execution, of massacre, where for two hours on June 10, 1944, Nazi SS troops went door-to-door, murdering 214 civilians, bayonetting babies in their cribs, beheading the local priest.  Slaughter haunted this place…and is remembered—as it should be—so that no one forgets how brutal can be the results of unchecked political myopic madness. 

And so, permit me to close with a translation of the two Greek words I used to open, “Good luck.”



  1. Beautiful! Thanks for the words, Jeff, and thanks for the pictures, Barbara! Maybe the two of you should become the "Poke Rafferty" of Greece and write a travel book! :-) But, no, that would impact the delivery of the further adventures of Kaldis and friends, and we can't have THAT! Nosireeeeee!

  2. Thanks, EvKa. But as much as I adore Tim's Poke Rafferty--which reminds me to say that I can't wait to see you in March in Portland when we gather to honor Mr. Hallinan as Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime--I must agree with you that any attempt on my part to turn into a Greek version of Poke would very likely cost me my I. :)

  3. Breathtaking, and a good reminder of what is good and wonderful and the cruelty that man can unleash.

  4. Yes, Lil, it is an area of conflicting vibes, but breathtakingly beautiful and serene at the monastery.

  5. Beautiful photos! They reminded me of my visits to Delphi, where I looked down at stunning landscapes, although the ride to Delphi was the scariest I was ever on, not made easier by the shrines at the side of the road where cars had plunged into the abyss.

    Have we got a hint here of Kaldis #7? The skulls in the monastery are quite contrast to the Capuchin monastery in Rome, where bones are made into elaborate designs. Beautiful ones. A reminder by the monks that however beautiful what the world offers, we should all "memento mori." Some orders of monks put skulls on their dining table for the same reason. But these skulls tell a far more frightening story. What monster could bayonet a baby? (Not that killing adults isn't also monstrous.)

    1. Well, Barbara, Kaldis #7 is called "Devil of Delphi" so it's only natural for the beauty of the entire region to play some part. :)

      As for the sadness looming all about those memorials, standing there before them does bring some understanding to the anger so many Greeks feel over Germany's role in Greece's current financial suffering. After all, it's been 70 years since this horrific war crimes' massacre and yet the German government persists in resisting legal efforts by families of the slain villagers seeking reparations.