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A literary tour of Patmos

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on March 09, 2006

Inveterate traveller Sarah Anderson again packs her trunk with books, this time bound for the Greek Islands

One of the main advantages of Patmos, one of the Dodecanese islands, is that it is not beholden to tourists. During the day large cruise ships do pour out their passengers into the port of Skala but come nightfall the island reverts to being the peaceful home of the monks, locals and a handful of foreign residents; there are few hotels.

Many of the visitors make their way to the Cave where St John is reputed to have written the Apocalypse: “The roof, which is very irregular in height, is of solid rock likewise” (Marquis of Bute), and on up to the monastery in Xora, a building that dominates the island.

I was staying with two different groups of friends, splitting my time between two houses, both in whitewashed Xora. I was unexpectedly left alone for the second part of my visit and found myself in sole charge of a large house with myriad terraces.

At least I thought I was alone but I quickly realised that I was sharing the house with a variety of cats, nothing new as I read: ” … and passed some score of cats, most of them yellow (I afterward learned that there are forty monks and sixty cats in the monastery” – (The Isle that Is Called Patmos, William Edgar Geil, 1897).

Geil spent a week in the British Museum library researching Patmos and discovered that most of what was written about the island was by people who had never been there. Even today there is remarkably little of interest written – strange because islands usually attract thriller and other writers; a romantic comedy, Opa, starring Matthew Modine as an American archaeologist, and Richard Griffiths has just been filmed on Patmos, I hope this doesn’t attract too many people eager to photograph where ‘it’ happened.

I was extremely lucky in meeting people who asked me to join them during the day in their private boats – September must be the best time of year in Greece, the sea is warm and the hoards have gone. One day we sped out to an adjoining island and swam in a silken-textured sea before having lunch at Pantelis in Marathi.

We tried many small dishes but all agreed that the fava beans which our captain whisked into a concoction of his own making was the most delicious; another day we caught and took our own squid and sea urchins to a small restaurant where they were cooked for us. The freshest and least chewy squid I had ever eaten.

One of the few beaches for which you don’t need a boat is Cambos: “Whereupon a lovely sand beach burst into view, just the place for bathing, with vineyards and gardens reaching from near the water’s edge out along the four beautiful glens” (Geil). George’s Place, the taverna on the beach, has salads and sandwiches and a good supply of backgammon boards. On the way to Griku, another place approachable by car, is the restaurant Benetos where at dinner you need to ask for a table overlooking the sea so as to enjoy the reflection of the moon.

The Marquis of Bute arrived in the 19th century in a private yachting party and thought the scenery similar to that of Scotland – as did William Edgar Geil: “Hills and glens abound in the one as in the other. The masses of rock and stone are sprinkled here and there with a bushy herbage”. However Joseph Georgirenes, the Archbishop of Samos in 1677, made it sound somewhat different: “The island is well stored with vines, fig trees, lemon and orange trees, and corn sufficient for the inhabitants, if they could keep what they have from the robbery of pirates, as well Christian as Mohammedan, who often pillage the port”.

Patmos was mentioned three times in classical history by Thucydides in 427 BC, Strabo in 15 AD and Pliny in 77 AD from whom we learn not much more than that “Patmos, thirty miles in circumference” (Natural History Book 1V).

But it is for St John and the Apocalypse that Patmos is best known: “I John, … was in the isle that is called Patmos (Revelation 1:9) … and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth” (Revelation 12: 3-4).

In the 19th century Dean Stanley visited Patmos with the Prince of Wales and reflecting on St John’s work wrote: “At his feet lay Patmos itself, like a huge serpent, its rocks contorted into the most fantastic and grotesque forms, which may well have suggested the ‘beasts’ with many heads and monstrous figures, the ‘huge dragon’ struggling for victory …”.

It is tempting to speculate that the rare eleanora falcons that nest on an outlying rock towards the north of the island have a Biblical resonance: “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle that she might fly into the wilderness …” (Revelation 12: 14).

Patmos was used as a prison island by Ephesus, hence St John’s incarceration there, but as Stalker (an untraceable figure) wrote, mentioning Milton, and Bunyan “Prison literature has greatly enriched mankind, and at the head of all such products we must place the book of Revelation”.