The large number of historic churches and monasteries in the Municipality of Monemvasia bears witness to the region’s long religious tradition.
These places of worship attract many pilgrims and other visitors every year. They are also favorite sites for marriages and baptism both among locals and others from further afield.
In Monemvasia’s fortress are the Church of the Elkomenos Christos, with its priceless icon of the Crucifixion that was recently returned to it in 2011 after being stolen by antiquities smugglers 31 years ago. Other important churches in the fortress are the Panagia Chrysafitissa and Aghia Sofia in the Upper Town.
Byzantine churches and chapels are scattered throughout the region. They include Aghios Athanasios in Pantanassa, Aghios Nikolaos in the village of the same name, Aghios Georgios, hidden away on the slopes of Mt. Vavila off the road to Velanidia, the Twin Churches (Dormition of the Virgin and Aghia Anna) at Teria, Aghios Ioannis Theologos at Haraka in the north of the municipality and Profitis Ilias in the fishing settlement of the same name to the south of Neapoli. Take the road to devoutness!
It is said that there were once 40 churches in the Monemvasia fortress. Today several of these are still standing, first and foremost Aghia Sofia in the upper town, the only structure still in good condition there. The view is breathtaking – when the right weather conditions prevail it is possible to see as far as the mountains of Crete.
In the main square of the lower town in front of the cannon is the church of Elkomenos Christos, where the most important Christian artifact in Monemvasia is kept – an impressive icon depicting the Crucifixion. Its theft 32 years ago was a great blow to the faithful of Monemvasia, but fortunately it was recovered in 2011.
In Chrysafitissa Square is the church of the same name, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Also important are the churches of Myrtidiotissa and Aghios Nikolaos although the latter, according to local legend, has never functioned as a church.
‘Aghios Athanasios of Pantanassa’ church
The Byzantine church of Agios Athanasios, dedicated to Virgin Mary, Saint Athanasios and Saint Spiridon, is located a few kilometres outside the village of Pantanassa, which was named after the church.
Tradition has it that the church was built by Irene Palaiologou, the daughter of King Andronikos Palaiologos in 1300 AC. However, it was later proved that the church was built in the12th century.
The church is a five domed, octagon rhythm, cemetery and triune temple that has a lot of similarities with Pantanassa church at Mistras Castle and Pantanassa church in Arta.
The hiking route that starts from the church’s countryard leads through an astonishing green scenery to the Princess’s Castle.
Agios Athanasios of Pantanassa is located halfway on the road connecting Molai with Neapoli.
Twin Churches of Teria
These are two small adjoining churches, one of which is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, the other to Aghia (Saint) Anna.
The former, attached to the village cemetery, is the older of the two, most probably built before the 10th century, while Aghia Anna most likely dates from the 12th century.
Inside both churches there are noteworthy Byzantine frescoes from various periods. On the altar in the Church of the Dormition is an extremely interesting inscription dating from Roman times (1st century or early 2nd century AD).
Aghios Nikolaos village
The village of Aghios Nikolaos developed during the Byzantine period around the Monastery of Aghios Nikolaos Schineas, the remnants of which now constitute the church of the same name, which dominates the village square.
Built in the 11th or 12th century, it is a cross-formed church with a dome and narthex.
Almost all the interior wall surfaces are decorated with two layers of frescoes. The underlying one, visible at one point, probably dates from the early 13th century.
The general style of the decoration is linear. The figures depicted vary in style; some are tall, slim and elegant, others are short with disproportionately large heads.
In the years up to the Greek War of Independence, the church was occasionally used as a school.
The village of Aghios Nikolaos is about 15 km from Monemvasia on the road to Neapoli. Turn off at the sign to the village between Aghios Dimitrios and Talanta. Aghios Nikolaos is about 2 km from the turnoff.
The Evangelistria Monastery (Monastery of the Annunciation) is a convent situated on a promontory at Pyla, between Gerakas and Riechia. The view from the monastery of the surrounding Myrtoon Sea and the Argolid is truly magical. It was built in the early 19th century by the hermit Georgios Kyriakos (aka Stournaros) who lived in the area after moving there from Mt. Athos.
It consists of a building containing two chapels (Aghios Georgios and the Annunciation of the Virgin), although this is not obvious unless pointed out, and other monastery buildings.
The monastery is 10 kilometres from Gerakas and 10 from Riechia.
Monasteries of Cape Malea
The little white church of Aghia Irini, perched near tip of Cape Maleas on its western side, was built on the ruins of an older monastery.
The altar screen is decorated with icons by the monk Nestor Vasalakis. Beside the church are monks’ cells, once part of the monastery complex and now available for the use of visitors, by arrangement.
Seamen and fishermen throughout the ages have known about this church and that of Aghios Georgios a little further south, right on the tip of the cape, both of which have attracted pilgrims from around the world.
Monastery of Saint George at Cape Maleas
This monastery complex, dating from the 13th-14th century, actually consists of three structures. One of them, a little higher than the others, is dedicated to the Forty Holy Martyrs, but is now in ruins. To the north of it is another church that was the monastery’s basilica. On the north side of the altar wall is a door leading into a chapel. The icons on the walls are dark and the eyes of the saints have been effaced, most probably by pirates. Aghios Georgios of Cape Maleas lived here for several years as a hermit.
Hermitage of Venerable Thomas
There are two hermitages bearing Thomas’ name, the first a domed semi-cave. The second is inaccessible – according to locals only a shepherd has managed to reach it. The Venerable Thomas was an important monastic figure – some of his relics are kept at the Filotheos Monastery on Mt. Athos and in the Myrtidiotissa church in Velanidia. Before becoming a hermit, he had been a soldier, originally from a rich family.
From Aghios Nikolaos, take the road south to Aghia Marina and the petrified forest. Continue for a few more kilometres towards the cape on a fairly rough unsurfaced road until the beginning of the D12 hiking route.
It takes at least an hour to reach the monasteries along a narrow path a few metres above the sea. The path is vertiginous in places, but the views over the sea to Kythera, Antikythera and Elafonisos are breathtaking. On a clear day the mountains of western Crete can be seen to the southeast. It is possible to reach a small landing stage below the monasteries by boat, but only in calm weather.
Church of ‘Aghios Ioannis Theologos’
The chapel of Aghios Ioannis Theologos (the Theologian) is 2.5 kilometres north of Harakas on a small enclosed plateau.
It is a tiled structure built during the 18th century, according to oral history, and renovated in 1958 by devout local residents.
A rectangular building standing beside it, in good condition, is divided into small rooms used for habitation, supporting the belief that this was once a monastery.
It is supposed to have been built by inhabitants of the island of Spetses as an offering after they were saved from a shipwreck near Pyliza, along with the unexplained reappearance at the site of the saint’s icon from its home on Spetses. Today the icon is displayed in the parish church of the Three Holy Hierarchs in Harakas.
For a spectacular view over the valley, enormous rock formations and the Myrtoon Sea, walk back to Harakas along a stone-flagged path that runs parallel to the cliff at Stavros.
The church is reached along a surfaced road leading from the centre of Harakas. Turn left at the signpost. The church is about 10 minutes away.
Church of Profitis Ilias
The stark white outline of the little church of Profitis Ilias stands sentinel above the little fishing cover of the same name.
The altar is built-in and some of the church’s icons are excellent examples of early 20th century folk art. It is a popular choice for weddings and baptisms.
According to local oral traditions, there is a particular reason why this seaside church received its name, one usually associated with chapels on mountain peaks. About two centuries ago, a raiding ship was heading for the cape bearing a Greek shepherd as a prisoner, battling heavy seas that threatened to sink the vessel. The prisoner offered up a prayer to Profitis Ilias, the patron saint of shepherds. The captain was so frightened that he promised to build a church to the saint if his prisoner’s prayers were answered.The ship eventually found refuge in the little cove where the church was built in accordance with the captain’s vow.
The church and the settlement of the same name, lie about 7 km south of the village of Aghios Nikolaos.
Church of ‘Aghios Georgios (Piso Ai-Giorgis)’
A special pilgrimage in a very sacred and peaceful environment. This little church stands under tall trees at the end of a large natural clearing surrounded by dense vegetation. It was once the main church of a monastery, amid three other churches now in ruins. Taken together, their construction resembles that of the Pentagia church in Kouno, Mani. The icon screen and other surfaces have been whitewashed, although it is believed to have been decorated in the mid-14th century. Although a provincial monument, it appears to be in the style of larger late Byzantine sites in the Peloponnese. The eyes of the saints in the frescoes have been effaced, probably by conquerors.
According to testimonies of local inhabitants, a massacre of women and children occurred here during the Turkish occupation.
After about 7 km on the road from Neapoli towards Velanidia, at the top of Mt Vavila, turn left into the dirt road that leads down into the valley. The church is about 1.4 km from the turnoff from the main road.