Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Give me a break!

After a series of posts regarding the true joy of practicing the medical profession in Greece, I guess it is time for a short break. Of course, my description of the ideal circumstances in which doctors work every single day will continue, but for now, enough is enough. (At this point, I realised I sound a lot like Karen's Not me! posts, so I'll give it up and start being literal). Anyway, a big part of my everyday life is the amazing island of Lesvos, and it's a shame I haven't got a chance to talk about it yet.
As I have written before, Lesvos is the 3rd biggest island of Greece. It is part of the North Aegean district (sometimes referred to as North-Eastern Aegean district) and it is really close to Turkey. Its capital city is Mytilene (that's where I'm living right now), and its population is estimated at 30,000 people.

But because Mytilene definitely deserves a post or two of its own, and I still haven't gotten to photograph all its beauties, today I will write about a place I visited on Sunday - the village Mantamados and its legendary Taxiarhes Monastery.

Now, I am by no means a religious person. However, I sometimes like to visit different places of worship, and get to feel the atmosphere. Most of them are peaceful and relaxing, others are imposing and awe-inspiring.

Mantamados is a small village on the northern part of the island, 37 kms off Mytilene. It is traditional and picturesque. Its cobbled streets and its well-preserved stone houses make you feel like you have travelled back in time. Its inhabitants are either craftsmen, well-known for their pottery skills, or farmers, producing the famous Mantamados yoghurt.

But the area is better known for the Taxiarhes Monastery. A miraculous icon of Taxiarhis, patron Saint of the entire island, is kept there, and people from all over the world travel to the site, to see and worship it.

Before we continue, a quick introduction to Orthodox religion. I am not sure what Catholics do (please be so kind to fill me in on this matter), but the Orthodox draw pictures, known as hagiographies, of Jesus Christ, Holly Mary and their Saints. Every church has its own and, as each temple is dedicated to a Saint, icons of that particular Saint mostly prevail. When the Orthodox go to church, they usually kneel before an icon, pray in front of it, or simply do the cross sign and then kiss it. I fail to describe it properly and it may all sound a bit weird. The main idea is that, through the picture, you communicate with the Saint depicted on it, and ask for his/her forgiveness, help, etc. These icons are considered to be holly items, and in some circumstances, they are even believed to perform miracles.

Of course, I get that you may be skeptical to all this. It's ok, I am too. Every now and then, icons are supposed to "bleed", or "shed tears", "heal" or "appear at unexpected places". Most of these "miracles" end up to be scams. But whether miracles trully take place is not really the point of this post. The point is, all of them are sacred to believers, and thousands of people come to see them for themselves every year. And the icon of Taxiarhis in particular is not only famous, but also unique.

Why? Because, unlike every other Orthodox icon there is, this one is not painted. Instead, it is carved. Normally, the Orthodox religion wouldn't allow that. But due to the fact that the icon is considered to be miraculous, and there is a great story about how it was made, it has been preserved through the years.

Before I tell you that story, I have to point out that Taxiarhis, or Michael, often depicted carrying a sword and wearing metal shoes, is one of the three Angels bearing the message of God (also known as Archangels). The other two are Gabriel, the one that presented in front of Mary to announce that She would give birth to Jesus Christ, and Raphael. All three of them are celebrated on November 8th, when it is a public holiday here in Lesvos. A grand parade is held in the centre of Mytilene, while churches that are dedicated to these 3 Saints celebrate and organise fairs for the pilgrims.

So, our story begins between the 9th and 10th century AC, when Muslim pirates often came to this island, to attack, burn, destroy and slaughter. At that time, the fortress - like Taxiarhes monastery was dedicated to the Archangels and was famous for its greatness and wealth. What a better target for the pirates then, right? So, one night, they used ropes to climb over the walls, surprised the monks during Mass, and slaughtered them all with their swords.

All but one, in fact. Because a 17-year old trainee, young Gabriel, managed to escape through the window and climbed the roof, trying to get away. Unfortunately, after taking all the monastery's property, the pirates saw him, and tried to capture him. After all, they didn't want to leave any witnesses behind, as young Gabriel could alarm the inhabitants of nearby villages of the presence of pirates. The villagers, in turn, could block the pirates' way to the sea and fight them. As you see, it was necessary that nobody was left alive.

But as the pirates approached Gabriel with the swords drawn, a miracle is believed to have taken place. The roof suddenly transformed into a windy sea, and in the middle rose Taxiarhis, mighty and furious, his sword in hand, ready to attack.

Having seen him, naturally the pirates panicked and fled to the sea, while leaving all their loot behind. The monastery was saved. But wait, there's more to it: The next day, all of the pirates were found dead at the shore, killed with a great stab wound, starting from the forehead and ending at the belly button. And as no man could have been so powerful to inflict such a blow, Taxiarhis was thought to have caused it with his sword.

When Gabriel realised that he was safe, he returned to the monastery to help the other monks. But when he saw all of them dead, a divine inspiration came upon him: He collected their blood, mixed it with clay, and, out of great awe and gratitude, tried to create an icon of the Saint, recreating the shape he saw on the roof. Unfortunately, the clay was not enough to make the Saint's whole body - and that's why his head is disproportionately large, compared to the rest of it.

So that is the story of Taxiarhis, protector of the Monastery and the whole island. And no matter if you believe in all this or not, this place is a must-see if you're ever visiting Lesvos. Because there, in an opening surrounded by olive groves and a pine forest, you may come in touch with your true self and spirituality. And feel like a tiny particle of the universe, but unique and important at the same time too.

After going to the Monastery, we visited another village, Skala Sykamnias, and had lunch at a Greek tavern by the sea. And there, eating grilled sardines, octopus, traditional grilled cheese "ladotyri", drinking the trademark ouzo (well, I opted for wine, but still), while watching the Turkish coast at the horizon, I realised, once again, that I live in a beautiful country. It's not obvious all the time, but it's nice to feel it every now and then.

All in all, it was a great day...


  1. What a great history lesson!

    I have a friend who wants to go to Greece, and I was telling her all about your blog.

  2. Phenomenal story! Loved it. Never doubt in miracles. The more you practice medicine, the more you will be witness to! Again...great post and great legend!

  3. What a beautiful island! But the story of the miracle stretches my credibility a bit since this is clearly a case of future time travelers coming back in time to the rescue.

  4. Wonderful post! I have to share this one with my hubby...he'll love it!!!

  5. Great post, Gracey! Wonderful story and gorgeous pictures. I wish I could come and visit!

  6. Thanks for your comments, everybody. I wish you could all come and visit too.

    PS: honeypiehorse, I would have never thought of that angle! :P

  7. I would love to visit Greece! Beautiful pictures!! :)

  8. You have taught me a lot today! Great photos. You have to love a miracle story.

  9. Two things: First, what beautiful pictures! I have always wanted to go to Greece! Second: I have an award for you at my blog...

  10. Wow. I can't believe I didn't comment on this. First, awesome post. I read it on my phone and a lot of blogs don't allow for comments via phone. Anyway, first, I left you an award on my blog. Secondly, this was a great post and awesome pictures. I've always heard Greece was pretty but those islands such as yours are beautiful and have such history that I couldn't help but to feel overwhelmed by it all if I ever go there. I kinda felt like that in Montreal since out here in Cali we have no buildings older than 100 years or something, well, maybe 150 years, but in Montreal it's like 200-300 year-old buildings, but Greece... you're talking thousands of years of history. Awesome!

  11. I loved learning about this little aspect of the Orthodox faith. I am a recovering Catholic, so probably wouldn't explain the Catholic way of doing things quite right, as my perspective is that of a young teenager and child (which may or may not be more accurate!) I'm also reading your posts about the healthcare system with great interest. My mother is an internal medicine doctor, and though our system in the US is quite different, I am amazed by the seemingly universal problems we share, i.e. nurse shortage, long waits, etc...People may be paying under the table to get to the front of the line there, but here it is legal and in the open for the better off to get priority treatment! There has got to be a better way!!!!