The making of Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia

Great documentary on the making of Cappella Romana’s groundbreaking attempt to create the lost sound world of Hagia Sophia, first posted on Tom Sawford’s excellent Byzantine Blog.

Byzantine Blog

Join Cappella Romana and the documentary of the making of their Billboard Chart-topping recording, #TheLostVoicesOfHagiaSophia. A full look at the story and the technology behind the music, as well as interviews with Cappella Romana members Alexander Lingas, John Michael Boyer, Catherine van der Salm, and more.

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A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 8 – Dionysiou

Leaving Karyes we pick up the rough road to the port of Dafni and after a brief wait climb aboard the boat to travel on to the monastery of Dionysiou. On the way we pass the monastery of Kheiropotamou; Simonopetra perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea; and several cells scattered along the cliffs.


Dionysiou is close to the Holy Mountain

and has a very dramatic setting, hanging off the cliff  high above the sea.

Once on land again I realise just high up it is as the road zigzags steeply up to the main gate. It’s a tough climb in this heat, but inside it’s a Byzantine jewel. The outer walls and the main gates are very solid: I don’t think I have ever seen such thick ones.

We are welcomed with a shot of 44% pure ouzo, lokhoumi and ice cold water – a perfect combination. Then we are shown into the very modern guest house that has a fine wooden interior.

This time I am allocated to a room of my own that I later find out is normally used by senior visiting clergy.

I collapse on the bed and, after a refershing cold shower, fall into a deep sleep for a couple of hours before venturing out to explore, camera and voice recorder in hand.

Signs forbid the taking of photographs inside the monastery and the inner area is actually quite small. So here is my problem. Nikolaos and Argyrios have warned me to keep my camera on me at all times in case it gets stolen. I don’t have a small backpack to put it in, so the only way to keep it with me is to carry it around with me. It is not however a small camera. Far from it. It’s a great chunk of Nikon DSLR and there’s no way to disguise the fact that I have a camera in my hand. The main courtyard is very beautiful . I sit in its calm atmosphere on the low wall of a portico taking it all in. In front of me is the mid 16th century katholikon. To my left under the portico hangs a large metal semantron. To my left at the end of the courtyard is a beautifully decorated three storey building. At ground level it has 2 Byzantine arches. Levels 2 and 3 have balconies with semantra and talanta hanging on them. At the top of the building is a bell and a clock surrounded by a colourful fresco which strangely doesn’t seem to be of a religious nature..

The temptation is too strong and I take a few shots.

About 5 minutes later a monk approaches me and asks if I speak Greek. He then tells me not to take photographs. A few minutes later I hear a monk striking a wooden talanton somewhere in the depths of the monastery, so I grab my recorder and press record.

Nikolaos shows me the series of frescoes depicting the Revelation of St John under the portico leading from the refectory to the katholikon. He points out how modern-looking some of the frescoes are: one shows what appears to be a bombardment, another a mushroom cloud, and yet another flying machines. As we admire them, one of our fellow pilgrims approaches and tell Nikolaos that a monk has informed him that we must not take photographs or make recordings. I was hoping to be able to record the Liturgy and, sensing my disappointment, Nikolaos promises to have a word with the Igoumenos (Abbot) before tomorrow.

Vespers seemed shorter this evening, either that or I am getting more used to Orthodox services. I notice that the clock in the church seems to be 4 hours ahead, so perhaps here is tangible evidence that we are on Byzantine time.

Dinner at Dionysiou is not as formal as at Iviron and is good: gigantes, rice, bread, red wine and water. After dinner the monastery sets out its main relics in the katholikon for us pilgrims to venerate. I tag along at the end, bowing out of respect at each relic as I pass along the line of them.

Out on a balcony overlooking the sea, an Elder is giving a teaching to any pilgrims who wish to listen. He’s talking about St Stephen, the first saint and martyr. Argyrios points out to me that as the Elder is speaking he continues to pray, moving the prayer rope (komposkoini) in his left hand. The continual telling of the prayer rope wears the nail on the thumb down. Unceasing prayer whatever you’re doing, specifically the constant repetition of petition ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is the Heychast practice of Athos.

Time for a walk, so I leave the monastery to follow a cliff path and watch the sun go down over the Aegean (or is it the Thracian Sea?) this beautiful evening. It is so peaceful, calm and still.

On my way back into the monastery I meet Nikolaos who tells me that he has spoken to the Igoumenos who confirms that he doesn’t want me to take photographs or make recordings in the monastery. By way of an apology, the Igoumenos has given me a personal gift of an icon of the Mother of God. Feeling lost for words, as I should be the one to apologise for breaking the monastery’s rules.

In my room it’s still very warm as I look out through the mosquito screen on my window, listening to the waves lapping at the beach below.

Later I find it hard to sleep as my head buzzes with everything I have seen and heard over the past couple of days.




A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 7 – Karyes

Mt Athos from Karyes

From the arsenas at Iviron we are taken by bus to Karyes, the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain, to get a connecting minibus down to the port of Dafni. Taking advantage of the wait for transport at Karyes, we set off to explore the small town, leaving backpacks in a café garden.

It’s an opportunity to visit the main Church, the Protaton, to venerate one of the most important icons on the Holy Mountain. It is the church of the Protos, the head of the monastic community on Athos. The painting is dark and covered in silver cladding, so it’s hard to make it out clearly. Its position doesn’t help, set on an altar against the wall and approached by climbing 3 narrow stone steps with no hand rail. It feels a bit precarious climbing up to see it.

The Church is over 1,000 years old and has been restored probably several times. Outside the church Argyrios shows me a stone block protected by an iron railing where Frankish invaders beheaded 1,000 monks in 1282, during an attack on the Holy Mountain when they also killed the Protos and sacked his church. The monks are now celebrated as martyrs by the Orthodox Church..

A bit of an awkward pause follows as I feel my fellow pilgrims’ eye on me, the token representative of the Latin West. I am not sure what to say that is equal to the scale of this barbaric butchery by fellow Christians. I mumble something about what a terrible thing to have happened and we move off.

Opposite the Protaton are the offices of the Administrative Centre of the Holy Mountain (the Epastasia). Representatives selected annually from each of the monasteries are responsible for the administration of Mt Athos.

Nikolaos leads me off to the far side of the small town to see the Monastery of St Andrew the First Called. This used to be a Russian monastery, but is now Greek. Before the Revolution there were many Russian monks on the Holy Mountain and the Greeks feared they were trying to take over. The flow of Russian monks dried up after the Revolution, but since Putin came to power, the Russian presence has increased again. When he comes to Greece on official visits, Putin visits the Russian monastery of Pantaleimon; the last time was about 2 years ago.

Argyrios tells me that the Holy Mountain has refused to invite Tsipras to visit officially because he is a self-confessed atheist, although they would welcome him as a private individual.

The monastery has seen better days and in some parts there are signs of restoration work going on. In the first courtyard near the katholikon are some wonderful old Russian bells dating back to the 1860s.

Nikolaos wants to show me some modern frescoes, rich in gold decoration, in the katholikon . The main fresco depicting the Panagia is said to be so well executed that her eyes appear to be looking at you wherever you stand in the church. Unfortunately it’s closed.

As I am taking some pictures I encounter one of the monks. He asks me where I am from. When I ask him in turn where he’s from he says ‘ Here’, but originally from Finland. He asks me if I’m Orthodox and when I reply ‘Buddhist’, he says with a broad smile ‘Well, we can make you Orthodox, if you want’.

Going back into Karyes we pass the police station. Nikolaos tells me that the police do tours of duty, 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. I can’t imagine that they have much to do, but a lot of pilgrims pass through and there are problems with theft from the monasteries employing non-monastic workers.

On the walk back into town I tell Nikolaos that I feel my ear is starting to become more attuned to Greek and it’s becoming a little bit easier to speak it without quite as much effort. Nikolaos is an ex-Army officer and used to speak English fluently as he had to liaise with officers from NATO countries, but now he has no practice and is forgetting it.

In passing he tells me that last night one of our party had a vascular stroke and had to be taken to Karyes hospital. It’s quite a shock.


The Martyrdom of St Edmund – myth, propaganda and pandemics

I have often admired the simplicity and beautiful symmetry of the arch on the north porch of Wells Cathedral. It wasn’t until I did a guided tour of the Cathedral though that my attention was drawn to an odd feature of this arch. Looking at it again now I can see quite clearly it’s not symmetrical and what throws it out of balance are the extra bits at the top of the second tier of column on the left. What these illustrate is a story that was already popular around the time the Cathedral was being built: the martyrdom of St Edmund.

So, who was St Edmund and why was his martyrdom depicted in stone on a cathedral several hundred years after his death?

St Edmund was King of East Anglia from 855 until his death in 869 fighting against the invading Danes. He’s mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and that’s about all the factual information that is known about him. His body was moved to a church in Bury St Edmunds in 1095 and the site became a cult centre and place of pilgrimage. It was eventually destroyed in 1539 during the Reformation.

An alternative legend says that he refused to fight the Danes but preferred instead to die a martyr’s death. In this version he was tied to a tree and shot at with arrows (like St Sebastian) or impaled with spears – and this is what the Wells carvings depict:

But because he still refused to abjure his faith, he was beheaded and his head thrown into a wood.

When his followers came looking for him asking where he was, his head answered “Here, here, here” and it was found in the wood between the paws of a wolf and was miraculously re-attached to his body. I rather like the odd wolf who protected the king’s head and mysteriously disappeared shortly after.

According to the guide on my tour it was a piece of Anglo Saxon defiance to the Norman overlords. The clergy processing in to the cathedral would have passed it daily on their way to services. Was it aimed at them as a reminder of the survival in the face of invasion or was it aimed at the Norman bishops? A sort of ‘two fingers’ to you lot.  If not, did master masons really have the licence to do their own thing in defiance of their paymasters?

But there may be a simpler answer. One of the apocryphal books about St Edmund was ‘On the childhood of St Edmund’ (Liber de infantia Sancti Eadmundi) written in the middle of the twelfth century by one Geoffrey of Wells, a supposed canon of the Cathedral. This predates the beginning of the construction of the new Cathedral, but the legend and Geoffrey’s association with it may have inspired its depiction on the arch of the north porch. We may never know the real reason.

Oh, by the way there is a bit of a contemporary resonance in this story. As well as being the patron saint of kings, St Edmund the Martyr is also the patron saint of pandemics.