A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 9 – leaving Dionysiou

Awoke early this morning at about 5.00. Nikolaos said he would wake me up but didn”t say at what time. He knocks on the door about 6.00 and comes in fully dressed, ready to attend the Liturgy. After washing, dressing and packing I set off to join my fellow pilgrims at the Liturgy and, passing the kitchen, I hear a murmurring of voices and pop in to find out what’s going on.

A group of pilgrims are sitting around listening to one of the Elders speaking and answering questions. Nikolaos invites me to join them and have some Khalkidiki olives, brown bread and a very subtle mountain tea., our simple breakfast today. As I dip in and out of the conversation, it seems a bit random. At one point the Elder is asking about hydration and health to which the answer is to drink more water and judge it by the colour of the urine. Someone asks him whether it’s possible for someone who is dying to come and die on the Holy Mountain. I can’t make out the answer, but the Elder then into a story about someone who after a meal dropped down dead after walking about 10 steps from the Refectory.

At some point the conversation turns to Archbishop Kallistos and the Elder asks me if I know him. I say that I knew him slightly at university when he was a parish priest, Father Kallistos. He asks me the correct English translation of the Jesus prayer. He finishes many of  his sentences with the phrase: ‘Glory to God’.

After a while I slip out on to the balcony overlooking the sea and watch the sky lighten, feeling very calm and peaceful, and enjoying the fresh morning air

After more tea, bread and olives I go and sit in the courtyard whose stillness and peace is wonderful to experience. Of course, I am still carrying my camera and am conscious that it must look as if I have no intention of keeping the rule of not taking pictures in the monastery.  The truth is I have nowhere else to keep it and have strict instructions from Nikolaos to keep it on me rather than in my bag.

While waiting for the Abbot to appear so that I can say a personal thank you to him for the gift of the icon, I take another look at the the frescoes depicting the Revelation. To the right of the entrance to the katholikon is a fresco with the Virgin and Child with St John and St Pakhomios (one of the founders of monasticism). According to Argyrios, this is one of the finest sequences of frescoes on Mt Athos. The detail is extraordinary: plagues of locust; the 7 trumpets; a wonderful four horsemen of the apocalypse; the angel who fell from heaven out of pride; the final battle of Armageddon; a scene with stars falling out of the sky looking like a battlefield of the First World War; Christ in judgement; and the Beast of Babylon, with multiple heads like roaring lions on long necks.

Argyrios points out that some of the eyes have been gouged out of the frescoes: the Crusaders and the Turks, thinking that the eyes in frescoes had magic properties, cut them out to make a potion to treat eye problems.

To the right of the entrance to the Refectory sits a superb porphyry throne. The Refectory itself is decorated with frescoes of the saints and has a beautifully wooden pulpit decorated in gold and red stripes. I could easily spend half a day just looking at the frescoes – though doing it without being able to take any pictures would be quite a trial. The pronaos to the church has many depictions of martyrdom, including the decapitation of St George.

Suddenly I am alerted to the imminent arrival of the Abbot, a tallish, thin man with a wispy beard, carrying a leather briefcase. He’s in a hurry to catch the fast water taxi to Karyes. I manage to express my thanks to him and then he’s off down to the arsenas in a pick up truck and offers to take all our bags down with him and leave them on the jetty.

The final visit of our pilgrimage at Dionysiou is to what the monks call the ‘School of Philosophy’, the monastic cemetery which dates back to 1375.

The quote is from the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 1, verse 1: ‘Love righteousness, you judges of the earth, think of the Lord with good and seek him in heart’.

The entrance and the pathways round the cemetery have been made by the monks using black and white pebbles stood on end, in simple but patterns. Inside, to the left of the cemetery porch, is a small extension with gold painted doors. This contains the tomb of St Niphon, Patriarch of Constantinople, who retired to the monastery in the mid 15th century to live as a simple monk.The tomb is covered in glass enclosing a full length icon of the saint.

To the right of this extension is a most incredible sight: a grill about 3ft x 21/2ft behind which you can see the skulls of all the monks who have died at the monastery, each with their name written on them. The piled up skulls stretch back into the depths of the building. The rest of the bones are contained in an open stone building half way along the cemetery on the left hand side, looking as if they have just been tossed in there at random. The bones are a reminder to the monks of death – hence the reference to the cemetery as the school of philosophy. At the far end of the cemetery are the graves of four monks who died within the past 3 years or so, all of good ages (the oldest was 94 and the youngest 76). The 94 year old was a celebrated writer on spiritual matters.

On the way back down to the arsenas, Argyrios points out a medieval loo and its shoot on the side of the cliff face. The old pathway up to the monastery with its lethal deep steps is still visible.This is the path that Argyrios and Nikos used to take when they started coming to Athos: it must have been very tough and dangerous to climb up it even without hand luggage or backpacks.

After a 15 minute wait our ferry arrives to take us to the port of Dafni where we will catch another ferry to take us back to Ouranoupoli.

Autumn colours at Stourhead

I’ve just got round to reviewing and processing photographs I took at Stourhead Gardens in October. The gardens were planned and built over a 40 year period in the mid-late 18th century by the Hoare family and are arranged around an artificial lake. Neoclassical buildings a grotto and follies are carefully located in this fascinating landscape. As you walk around the lake the vista is constantly changing, as you see the landscape from new angles, and of course so is the light. For photographers, it is endlessly challenging to try and capture it. But the best time of year to visit is the autumn when the colours of the trees are at their best. My visit didn’t quite coincide with peak autumn, but it wasn’t far off.

I have photographed this stand of trees many times and they always appear different: in some light conditions they just glow.

I really liked the dappled light beneath this old tree, but I couldn’t quite capture that elusive soft quality of the light filtering through the leaves:

I liked the circular pattern in this bush, implied by its reflection in the water.

Temple of Apollo in the background next to some of the most stunning tree colours and framed by the dark trunks in the foreground.

 

The tree on the left in the picture is a Tulip tree that was planted in 1791 and is probably my favourite tree in the gardens. I am always amazed that the people who were responsible  for planting the tree never saw it in its full glory, but they did it anyway, almost as a gift for future generations to enjoy. What beautiful legacies are we leaving for future generations?

Close up of the trunk of the above Tulip tree:

Looking across towards the Pantheon through the branches of the Tulip tree:

And finally a semi-abstract shot looking through the branches at the lake:

Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

The Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) near Agrigento is a stunning series of monuments built by the Ancient Greek colony in Sicily. ‘Valley’ is a bit of a misnomer though as the temple complex is spread along a ridge and connected by a sacred way.

The first temple you come across was thought at one time to be dedicated to Hera (Giunone), but that’s probably not the case. It is a massive temple, with an enormous 10 step altar in front of it. It was built like most of the temples on the site in the 5th century BC from the loot taken from the Carthaginians following their defeat in 480 BC.

Along the sacred way are the remains of the settlement’s protective walls. At some point in the Christian era rock tombs were hollowed out of these walls.

The next major site along the sacred way is one of the most complete Greek temples in the world, the so-called Temple of Concordia. An inscription was found nearby with the word Concordia and this was taken to be the name of the Temple. Judging by its size it looks more like a Temple of Zeus (although there is another huge temple to Zeus at the end of the sacred way). It is in incredible condition and gives a real sense of what the temples would have looked like to their original builders.

In the 4th-5th century AD, the temple was turned into a Christian basilica by a local bishop, a common practice to Christianise pagan sites in places where the newly converted were used to gathering when they practised their old religion. Another very good example of this practice is the church dedicated to St George that was built in the Temple of Ifaistos in the Ancient Agora in Athens which is similarly extremely very well-preserved (see my earlier blog post on the Agora here).

The stone looks very crumbly and in places you can still see some of the original stucco that has helped to preserve it over the centuries.

The third temple on the site, the oldest, is dedicated to Ercole (Hercules) and dates back to the 6th century BC. Apart from a few remaining columns however, the site is just a jumble of massive stones.

The final temple we visited is dedicated to Zeus It’s on a massive scale, but  again it’s very hard to get a sense of what it looked like originally as it is totally in ruins.

The temperature on site on the day we visited was 30 C and there is virtually no shade. In addition, the sacred way is about 3-4 kms long, so we were very glad to hop on a shuttle bus to get back to the entrance to the site at the end of our visit.

Later that evening we dined at the nearby Re di Grigenti restaurant, the terrace of which has a spectacular view out over the Valley of the Temples.

In Montalbano country

Outside the city of Agrigento in southern Sicily, you’re in Montalbano territory. This is the area where the writer of the Montalbano stories lived and some of the local landmarks feature in the TV series. The Scala dei Turchi (Cliff of the Turks), for example, is a brilliant white, stepped basalt outcrop pictured above.

It’s a beautiful and relaxing spot: the place in the television series where Montalbano met his informer. A few miles down the road and the coastline flattens out to a sandy beach at Torre di Salsa. Further along the coast, the working port town of Porta d’Empedocle also features in the TV series, as does Agrigento police station.

As it happens, we didn’t manage to see much of central Agrigento. But our adventures in Sicilian traffic will have to wait for another post.

 

 

 

Roman mosaics of the Villa Romana Del Casale in Sicily (1)

The Villa Romana del Casale is about 5km south west of Piazza Armerina in eastern Sicily and is the site of a 4th century AD Roman estate. It was inhabited until about the 12th century when it was covered by a mudslide and was not rediscovered until the mid 20th century.

The villa has some of the most extensive and high quality mosaics in Italy. Originally, the site was the main centre of a latifundium (a large estate). It is not known who the owner/builder of the villa was, though whoever it was may have had Imperial connections. They certainly had pots of money, as it is estimated that it took 50-60 years to complete the mosaics. I’m sure we’ve all known builders like that…

At the entrance to the villa are a set of baths with dressing area, massage room and hot and cold pools. One of the most interesting mosaics shows the mistress (domina) of the house walking to the baths with two servant girls and possibly two sons or slave boys.

[Apologies for the variations in light and some of the angles of the shots – conditions were not ideal]

There’s also a communal family loo:

Some interesting geometric mosaics:

The mosaic floors also make use of intriguing trompe-l’oeil effects in the borders:

One long corridor that leads towards the basilica features a whole range of wild animals:

Thee are also some quite brutal hunting scenes which remind me of the equally savage animal depictions in the mosaics of the Great Palace in Istanbul that I covered in an earlier post.

The most impressive mosaic is one huge, continuous scene in the corridor in front of the basilica (the reception room of the villa). It depicts the hunting, capture and transfer from Africa to Rome of a huge variety of wild animals for display and combat in the Circus games.

 

‘Take that, for letting that valuable specimen get away!”

They obviously packed the animals carefully to protect them on the sea journey to Rome.

Obviously some animals were more difficult than others to bring on board ship:

At one part of the mosaic there are two richly dressed figures surveying the scene. It is possible that the one on the left is the owner of the villa:

Temple of Hephaestus

This shot of the interior was taken from the rear of the Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora in Athens, one of the most completely preserved buildings from Antiquity and a stunning example of Ancient Greek architecture.

I’m pleased to be back to my blog again after a prolonged absence. Now I have fully retired I’ve plenty of shots to upload and a lot of ideas for posts.

On the set of the film ‘Kazantzakis’ by Giannis Smaragdis

Wandering around the back streets of Irakleio at the end of a two week holiday in Crete back in 2016, we came across a strange sight. On the edge of a dusty square, dominated by a church a young man in black clothes was being lynched in a mulberry tree. Or rather he was standing on a step-ladder whilst a roadie fixed up the harness that would support him when he was eventually hanged. We had come across the shooting of a scene from a film or TV programme that looked as it was set in the nineteenth century when Crete was under Ottoman rule. Various other characters were waiting around in the square for their bit of the scene:


 We found seats at a local cafe to watch them shoot the scene, but they were still setting up when we left three-quarters of an hour later, without a clapboard being clapped.

About a year later, I found a You tube clip of a scene that featured the characters and setting we had seen in that square in Irakleio. It was from Giannis Smaragdis’s film Kazantzakis that was released in November 2017. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing when I can find a copy of it.