Blog 17 22/08/2015 The Byzantine Monastery of Nea Moni, Chios.

Posted in on 22 August, 2015 in News

 The Byzantine Monastery of Nea Moni, Chios.


Theodosius the Cenobiarch

The Monasteries of Nea Moni on the Greek Island of Chios, Hosios Loukas near Delphi, and the monastery of Daphni in Attica, are three of the most important monasteries of the Byzantine world. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, they are superb examples of the ‘second golden age of Byzantine art’, a period when the iconoclasts lost power and a new golden age began. Compared with the grand monuments created under the Emperor Justinian’s rule, the churches are on a smaller scale and much more intimate. It was a period when religious art was meant to appeal to the worshipper in much more human terms and the emphasis was on Christ and his sufferings as a man. As the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople epitomized the grandeur of the early Byzantine period, the second golden age was marked by the famous church of Saint Mark’s in Venice. Yet smaller, equally beautifully churches sprang up during this period, all with similar constructions. These little jewel boxes in stone were in the shape of a cross with arms of equal length. Over the main square is a dome, surrounded by smaller domes built between the arms of the cross. The texture of the walls was important in these buildings. In some cases, the walls are rough, in others smooth, creating an ever-changing activity of light. Around the domes are some of the finest mosaics in the history of Byzantium.




Christ washing the feet of the disciples.

Like the Hagia Sophia, the domes were designed to have a ring of windows to let in the light. The effect of sunlight on the domes with their mosaics was to look like golden domes shimmering in the light – heaven brought to earth. During the Byzantine period, there were two notable changes in mosaics. The first was that mosaics were now decorating the walls besides the floors, and the second, golden tesserae were used. Tesserae are the small cubes of coloured marble, glass, pottery, alabaster, shell or semi-precious stones used for the images. Gold tesserae are very complex. First glue is applied onto a layer of glass on top of which a sheet of gold foil is laid. Then the foil itself is covered with a very fine layer of glass. Mosaics were the official decorative medium of the Christian religion and the state during the second golden age and therefore an expression of the wealth and political status of the empire.

Nea Moni

Nea Moni


Archangel Michael

The Monastery of Nea Moni stands in a valley on the slopes of Mount Aetos, 14 km from Chios town. It was built in the mid 11th century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and his wife, Empress Zoe.  According to the legend, it is built on the spot where three monks, Nikitas, Ioannes and Iosif, miraculously found an icon of the Virgin Mary hanging from a branch of myrtle. As with many such finds during those days, this was believed to be a good omen. The three monks set out for the nearby island of Lesbos to visit Constantine who was in exile at the time. The monks told him of a vision they had had stating that he would eventually become Emperor. Constantine promised to build a church should this prophecy come to pass. Two years later, in 1042, Constantine did indeed become Emperor and fulfilled that promise, dedicating the church to Panayia or Theotokos, the mother of God. The monastery was endowed with privileges and became one of the richest monasteries in the Aegean. At its peak, around 1300, its estates covered one third of the island of Chios and over 800 monks belonged to it. The icon of the virgin is still kept in the monastery museum.


The Icon of the Virgin

Byzantine mosaics of Christ i Nea Moni built by Constantine IX and Empress Zoe after the miraculous appearance of an Icon of the Virgin Mary at the site and inaugurated in 1049. Scene of a terrible sack and massacre of hundreds of Chiots and priests during the Ottoman sack of Chios in reprisal for the 1821 Greek War of Indipendance. Nea Moni monastery, Chios Island, Greece. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After the Genoese took over the island, its wealth began to diminish. During the Ottoman rule, the island, including the monastery began to prosper again. The monastery was now subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople and enjoyed considerable autonomy. In 1821, with the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, everything changed. For almost a year, the Chians refused to be dragged into the war but as events unfolded, Chios found itself embroiled in a situation beyond its control and faced the fury of Sultan Mahmud II and his Ottoman forces. Hundreds of villagers, mostly women and children fled for the safety of the monastery but it was not to be. They were no match for angry Turkish troops who broke down the huge doors and pillaged the monastery on Good Friday 1822, slaughtering hundreds of victims. In 1881, an earthquake further destroyed the monastery including the bell tower and the dome with its priceless mosaics.



tumblr_m49mu1DOff1ruo07wo1_1280 The Dome

The Dome

In 1960 work began on the restoration of Nea Moni, especially the mosaics. Recognizing the importance of the mosaics and the slaughter that occurred there, the monastery was put on the list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites in 1990. Today there are only a few nuns living there. The bones of some of the victims of that terrible massacre are kept in the ossuary in the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

When I visited Nea Moni as part of the research for The Embroiderer, It was at the end of a two week stay in Chios. I was already familiar with its history but nothing prepared me for the intense feelings it brought about. The following is taken from notes written at the time.

“I make the decision to buy food and have a picnic at the monastery. My bag is quickly filled with local cheese, crusty bread, olives and tomatoes. I can’t resist the figs. They are the last of the season and their perfume bursts from the velvety, dark purple skin in the morning heat. The 14km drive from Chios town to Nea Moni climbs a winding mountainous road with panoramic views across the sea to the shores of Asia Minor. The landscape is partially scrub with pines and myrtle bushes. Towards the top of the mountain, a smaller road descends into a valley and I catch my first glimpse of the monastery enclosed by a stone wall and nestling among a cluster of dark green pencil pines. In such a peaceful setting, it is breathtakingly beautiful.  I park my car outside the perimeter walls just as the last tour bus leaves. Entering the monastery complex through a large wooden doorway, I immediately find myself in a cobblestone courtyard. More pencil pines and shade trees stand alongside the honey-coloured stone buildings. I experience a feeling of peace and calm combined with a sense of reverence. It isn’t the same reverence that one experiences on entering a magnificent cathedral, but one based on the knowledge that I am treading in the footsteps of the scene of one of the worst massacres in modern Greek history. It is hard to express these feelings; words suddenly seem unimportant.

Nun at Nea Moni

Nun at Nea Moni

EBDJ0M The Byzantine chapel & Ossary of Nea Moni built by Constantine IX and Empress Zoe after the miraculous appearance of an Icon of

Ossuary of Nea Moni built by Constantine IX and Empress Zoe

At the top of the courtyard stands the octagonal shaped church with its 7m diameter dome. Behind it is the refectory and nearby is a museum housed in the restored ruin of what was once a monk’s cell. A sign points to the tiny Chapel of the Holy Cross to the left of the entrance. The midday sun is beating down yet in this stone chapel it is noticeably cooler. Candles flicker in front of a simple altar. Opposite is an old wooden glass-fronted cabinet filled with bones. I stand transfixed with a mixture of curiosity and horror. I can’t take my eyes off them. The top shelves are filled with sculls and the bottom shelf is filled with what appears to be femur bones and more skulls. The terrible wounds inflicted by the Turks’ scimitars and yataghans are clearly visible. One small scull serves as a poignant reminder that not even babies were spared. A sign attached to the bookcase reads:

“The Massacre of Chios (1822)”

Before the massacre, Chios had a population of 118,000 souls. The terrible massacre left only 1,800 people in the southern part of the island to take care of the mastica. It has been calculated that at least 23,000 people were slaughtered, about 47,000 people taken to the slave markets of Cairo and Smyrna, and the rest escaped to other islands. There were 600 monks and 3,500 women and children who had come to seek refuge in the monastery. All were slaughtered by the Ottomans. Part of the bones of the slaughtered monks and people are kept in this Chapel of the Holy Cross.”

Chios-Nea-Moni-Greece. The ossuary

The ossuary

The stone walls accentuate the silence broken only by the crackles of burning candles and the buzzing  of flies. I light a candle at the altar. Somehow this small gesture seems the least I can do for these poor unfortunate souls. I am one of the last visitors to leave and the priest locks the wooden door after me. It is two o’clock and I decide to have my meal at a table under the shade of a pefkaki (pine tree). Unwrapping my food, I lay out my biblical meal and settle down to enjoy a fresh, tasty meal. The aromas have intensified in the warmth of the car. It occurs to me that I am having lunch in the manner of the Byzantine pilgrims. Did they sit in this very spot to eat their bread and olives too? The priest drives away and I am completely alone. It’s a strange feeling to be here with not a soul in sight, next to a place of such significance. The pine tree offers perfect shade and a cool breeze gently fans the air. The view is spectacular. The mountains rise up on one side, covered in trees, and slope down towards the sea. Small birds chirp in the nearby trees yet strangely, there are no flies. It is as if they are only in the chapel with the bones. I fill my water bottle at a fountain and notice the UNESCO sign near the entrance. The last phrase stands out to me.

“The inscription on this list confirms the exceptional value of this cultural site which deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity.”

Fate – destiny, call it what you will, but by the time I left Nea Moni, I knew this is where I would set the opening chapter of The Embroiderer.

The Embroiderer (Excerpt)

Historical Note

 As the storm clouds of nationalism gather over Europe, on March 25, 1821 the Greek War of Independence breaks out in the Peloponnese and Danubian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The Orthodox Christians declare war on the Ottoman Turks. A month later, the islands of Spetsai, Hydra, and Psara declare independence. The island of Chios, lying just six miles off the Turkish mainland, hesitates.

The jewel in the crown of the empire, Chios is the richest island in the Mediterranean, enjoying unparalleled freedoms that have allowed its merchants and ship owners to prosper for hundreds of years. Throughout autumn and winter, a stalemate exists, until a Samian revolutionary, Logothetis, lands troops on the island. Watching the events unfold from the saray in Constantinople, the Grand Seignior Sultan Mahmud II is outraged. The tyrant’s anger knows no bounds and he seeks vengeance.

In April 1822, the Sublime Porte issues a jihad against the infidel Christians. The Sultan dispatches the Ottoman Armada under Admiral Kapitan-Pasha Kara Ali, along with four thousand troops. Another seven thousand set sail from Smyrna on the Turkish mainland. The orders are to kill all males over twelve, all women over forty, and all children under two years old. The rest are to be sold in the slave markets of Istanbul, Cairo, and Tripoli.

Chios trembles.


Chios, April 12, 1822

 Darkness falls and an eerie silence descends over the landscape, broken only by the sound of cicadas and the occasional hoot of an owl. The night sky is a canopy filled with millions of twinkling stars: diamonds on black velvet.

In a race against time, the two women make their way up into the hills following ancient donkey tracks that meander through scrubland of myrtle thickets, oleander, and broom. In an agonizing journey fraught with danger, their only hope of salvation is to find sanctuary in the Monastery of Nea Moni.

Swaying and clutching her swollen belly, the young woman collapses onto the soft, warm earth moaning in pain. Euphrosyne kneels over her, coaxing her to make one last effort. Their lives hang in the balance. She cannot give birth here, not now; they are alone and within reach of the Turk. Untying her sash, Euphrosyne takes out a silver flask and pours the last drop of precious water onto the woman’s dry crimson lips. Even in such distress, Artemis is still the most beautiful creature she has ever known. With her perfect almond-shaped face and flawless alabaster complexion, in the moonlight she resembles a goddess. Uttering a prayer to the Virgin to protect the mother’s milk, Euphrosyne reaches out and tears away the water-logged leaves of a succulent plant, opens the delicate silk bodice, and tenderly massages Artemis’s supple breasts, bursting with milk, until the leaves have released all of their medicinal properties. The child kicks violently in her belly.

‘Not now, my child, not now,’ Euphrosyne whispers, gently running her withered, bony fingers through the falling tresses of Artemis’s thick, raven-black hair and wiping away the tiny pearls of perspiration from her brow.

A glorious silver moon hangs over the Straits of Chios and the sea shines like a silver mirror. The Turkish fleet lies in the harbor and beyond on the horizon is the dark shadow of the Turkish mainland. Flashes of red light tinged with yellow illuminate the sky over Chios town, and a thin column of smoke ascends into the heavens. A screech owl swoops overhead, flapping his wings, disappearing into the shadows.

‘Look, Artemis,’ cries Euphrosyne. ‘The messenger of the Goddess Athena; it is a good omen.’

Artemis forces a smile. The light in her amethyst eyes intensifies.

‘It is not the destiny of this child to be born here,’ Euphrosyne adds. ‘Remember that the miraculous icon of the Virgin was found hanging from a myrtle bush nearby. It is she who will guide us to safety.’

The two women struggle in silence until finally, from the brow of the hill they see the monastery nestling amongst the cypress trees, protecting itself from the outside world. As they approach, they hear a soft humming noise. Gradually the noise becomes louder and they recognize the pitiful sound of wailing. The great wooden doors open to reveal a scene of abject human misery. Women, half-crazed with terror, shriek and cry; desperate children clutch their mother’s skirts, trembling in fear. A monk helps Artemis across the cobblestones, pushing his way through the desperate throng. Two thousand souls awaiting salvation are crammed inside the walls of this great Byzantine monastery.

‘Pray for us,’ they cry. ‘Pray to the Virgin.’

Finding a place in the church, Euphrosyne spreads out her woolen cloak on the ancient marble floor in preparation for the birth. Artemis sinks to her knees as the monk lays her down, blessing her forehead with the sign of the cross. With not a moment to spare, under the splendor of the eleventh-century domes ablaze with gold mosaics, the child is born. The Christ Pantocrator and holy saints of the spiritual world gaze down on mother and child. Artemis looks up at the Virgin dressed in her shimmering blue robe, as Euphrosyne wraps the child in her warm shawl and hands it to her.

‘You see, Artemis,’ Euphrosyne says. ‘It was not her destiny to be born on a hillside. Look above you. In such pitiful conditions, to be born with all the saints of Christendom looking down on you for protection is something miraculous. God will watch over this child.’

The church door flies open. ‘They are here, the Turks are here,’ a woman screams.

Panic and fear grip everyone. A mother of two small children who are cowering against the wall faints, leaving her little ones crying helplessly. The monks reach for their guns.

‘Courage, my children, courage,’ they cry, as they run towards the gate.

Artemis clasps Euphrosyne’s hand. ‘You must take the child and escape while there is still a chance.’

Euphrosyne looks at Artemis in horror. How can she leave her here alone, and to such a terrible fate? She had watched this woman grow from a child and blossom into the most beautiful woman in Chios. She owed her life to this family. Rescued from the slave market by Artemis’s father, that family was all she had in the world. Her own family had perished at the hands of the Turks in reprisals for Greek freedom fighters attacking a Turkish village. It was unthinkable to leave.

‘Euphrosyne,’ Artemis pleads. ‘I am begging you. I am too weak to move. My end is near but the child must live. You said that she is the child of destiny. Her life is in your hands.’

Artemis unties the embroidered silk sash from around her hair and secures it around the tiny bundle. Taking the precious locket from around her neck, she kisses it and places it over the child’s head, securing it between the folds of silk.

‘Go. Run as fast as you can; don’t look back. God be with you.’

Euphrosyne gathers the child in her arms and in a sea of tears runs to the door. Against Artemis’s wishes, she turns and takes one final look. Artemis seems to be searching for something in her clothing. She catches Euphrosyne’s eye.

‘Run,’ Artemis urges, ‘while there is time.’

Euphrosyne runs as fast as her weary bones can carry her. With blind determination, she makes her way to the far side of the monastery. Behind the monks’ houses stands a narrow stone stairway leading to the top of the outer wall. Behind her is Dante’s inferno. The screams of slaughter ring in her ears and the sounds of gunshots grow nearer. Reaching the upper ledge, Euphrosyne makes a rope from her sash and ties it to the small bundle. Carefully lowering it over the outer wall onto a soft patch of wild thyme, partially obscured from view by the bough of a wild fig tree, she lets the sash go. Turning around, she freezes. At the bottom of the stairs stands a Turk, yataghan in one hand and scimitar in the other. Euphrosyne runs along the ledge until she can run no more. Leaning against the wall, she turns her head. The Turk, his face and clothes smeared with blood, laughs at her. In defiance, she spits in his face.

‘The devil take you,’ she curses.

Angrily, he raises his bloodied scimitar to strike but defiant to the end, Euphrosyne throws herself over the monastery wall. She falls to her death on the rocks.

The remaining souls barricade themselves inside the church. Finally, the doors break open and the Turks, showing no mercy, slaughter all except for the young women destined for the slave markets. In the center of the church, under the Christ Pantocrator, lies Artemis, as if asleep, a cover pulled over her body. A Turkish officer stands over her and in the midst of so much devastation he pauses, catching his breath at such beauty.

Korkma kadin. Sen benimsin! Fear not! You are mine,’ he leers, tearing away the cover only to reveal her blood-soaked clothing. Like Euphrosyne, Artemis has cheated them out of killing her. She has plunged the jade dagger once given to her for protection by Yasim-Ali into her heart.


As the sun rises the next day, the sound of hoof beats galloping through the scrub becomes louder and louder. A blood-bay stallion approaches the thicket of wild fig. The horseman is agile. In an instant, he lifts the tiny bundle onto his saddle and gallops away through the trees. A Painted Lady butterfly flutters over the ground where the infant had lain. Nearby, the bright red wild tulips unfurl their petals to the morning sun and a quiet peace descends over the monastery.


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