Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Battle of Maniaki May 20, 1825

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

Some of the most interesting journeys you can take are those that are accidental, unplanned, happenstance almost; where the outcome, because of a decision to undertake that journey then becomes not so much a revelation but “enlightening”. This Rihla is about “METAMORPHOSIS”, the transfiguration of an individual and place in the course and cause of revolution.


I found myself sitting, happenstance, on a hot late June day, out of the heat, in the small covered portico of the ancient Church of the Metamorphosis (Μεταμωρψδη – Transfiguration) on the road between Chora (Χωρα) and Messini in the SW Peloponnese. Why stop here, I wondered. I had intended visiting the Mycenaean Nestor’s Palace ruins as well as the museum in Chora, but forgot it was a Monday and that the archaeological attractions were closed for the day. It is wonderful, I thought while biting into a succulent peach, when travelling or exploring to lose track not just of time but of entire days. Given my surroundings I should have perhaps switched to the modified post-Byzantine Revised Julian calendar of the Orthodox Church rather than its Roman Gregorian replacement. Perhaps I could have metamorphosed the day of the week!

Where to next, I wondered aloud?

Church of Metamorphosis,
Metamorphosis, Messenia, Greece

The old church was very basic in its construct, a very “still” place, and almost certainly an early physical manifestation of hesychastic Eastern Orthodox doctrine. The Metamorphosis or Transfiguration of Christ as depicted in the Gospels is a major component of Eastern Orthodoxy, one of the twelve feasts. Indeed there is a suggestion that in contrast to the Roman Catholic church’s primary theological ceremonial emphasis, that marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Eastern Orthodox church’s most important theological celebration, is now that of Jesus Christ’s (mankind’s) encounter (transfiguration) with the Divine Light on Mt. Thabor. It is a theological contrast between a theology of fear and a theology of enlightenment.

Transfiguration mosaic from
St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.

Choosing enlightenment I took out my Anavasi 1:80,000 topographical map of Messinia to scan the road ahead. Not far away was the village of Maniaki and slightly beyond it there was depicted on the map a Church dedicated to the Holy Trinity at a place called Tampouria. My translator said that this was the word for a military "breastwork" or redoubt. On the map there was an associated legend of a small Greek flag but the Legends section of the map did not detail what these small Greek flags indicated. I suspected, but was not certain, they indicated a site associated with heroes or events of the Greek Wars of Independence. There were similar flags on the village of Nedoussa (where Nikitaras Stamatelopoulos, the “Turk-eater” was born) to the east in the foothills of the Taygetus mountains – which I had passed close to a few days previously on my way to Mystras – and also further north in Ano Psari and Pamoboyni.

I left the old Church of the Metamorphosis behind me, turned left at the Touloupa Chani junction and winded my way up the road to Maniaki. On that stretch I passed a observation post for the rural fire service with an attendant fire tender parked ready on standby. From that spur of the Egaleo mountains the firemen could survey the entire territory southwards towards Kalamata to the east and Pylos to the west, and thus be able to intervene early in any fire outbreak.

For a similar reason of good visibility, further up the mountain just beyond the village of Maniaki, Gregorias Dikaios a.k.a. Papaflessas, Orthodox priest, revolutionary fighter and Minister for the Interior and Chief of Police since 1822 in the Provisional Administration of Greece established his redoubt, built his breastworks, and on the May 20, 1825 met his death confronting the army of Ibrahim Pasha.  

Papaflessas Memorial Tampouria, Messina, Greece


“Of these agitators the best known and most influential was the Archimandrite Dikaios, popularly known as Pappa Phlesas, a priest whose morals were a scandal to the church, as his peculations were to the national cause, yet, for all that, a brave man, as he proved by his heroic death on the field of battle.”

W. Alison Philips (1897)
The War of Greek Independence
1821 to 1833

Georgis “Papaflessas” Flessas a.k.a. Gregorius Dikaios was born in 1788 in Poliani village, located about 21km north of Kalamata in the Vromovriseika Mts. The village was also the birthplace of Christos “Anagnostaras” Koromilas. His family were descendants of klephts, mountain outlaws who continuously opposed the Ottoman occupiers of Greece.

Papaflessas Memorial Tampouria, Messina, Greece

Young George Flessas from an early age was determined to root out the Ottomans and get under their skin. While attending the famous school at Dimitsana he published a satire against the local Turk governor and had to quickly “disappear” for his own safety into the monastery at Velandia, where he decided to become a priest and took the monastic name Gregory Dikaois. Even there, and also when asked to leave because of his argumentative bent, at his next port of call in the monastery of Rekitsa he was turbulent, fighting with his superiors, and with local administrators. Accused of treason he disappeared to Zakynthos for a time before finally making it to Constantinople, being ordained into the highest rank of priesthood, and beginning his formal revolutionary metamorphosis by joining the secret Filiki Eteria organisation that had been established in Odessa in 1814 and run along Freemasonry lines with the leaders calling themselves the “Invisible Authority”.

Once ordained Papaflessas was dispatched as a “missionary” and spent 1819 and 1820 preaching Greek independence rather than theology in Wallachia. By January 1821 he was back “home” in the Kalamata area initiating members into the Filiki Eteria and organising revolutionary meetings. On the 23rd March 1821 Papaflessas, Nikitaras, Anagnostaras made their way from the Monastery of Mardaki to Almyros Kalamata to take delivery of a landing of military supplies. Although there is some dispute about when and where the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) began but March 25, 1821 is the official date.

church of Holy Trinity, Tampouria, Messinia, Greece

This dispute over who did what, how much and when they did it, was and is a feature of the Greek War of Independence's multi-layered historiography. What is not in dispute are the atrocities, the ethnic cleansing, the indiscriminate rape, torture, and extermination of men, women and children conducted by both sides, but by the Greek side in particular during the early phases. This cleansing was conducted with an enormous ferocity and appetite for vengeance and in many cases unappeased Greek blood-lust was also to be subsequently directed against themselves. Indeed unlike most countries where a Civil War between opponents of the “road ahead” usually followed the original War of Independence, as in the US or in Ireland, the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Porte was characterised by being conducted at the same time as two internal Greek Civil Wars between 1824-1825.

Navarino Bay from North. The Venetian Paelokastro on top
of headland to right of picture. In distance is Pylos where the Navarino neokastro is.
In middle is Voidokilia Beach and beyond on right Sfaktiria Island.

Despite fighting alongside the famous freedom fighter Theodoras Kolokotronis at the Greek victorious battle of Dervenakia in July 1822, Papaflessas, as he was now known in a nom de guerre, accepted as Gregorius Dikaios the post of Minister of Internal Affairs and Chief of Police in the first Provisional Greek independent government. In that position as Minister of Internal Affairs he had to sanction the capture and imprisonment on Hydra in February 1825 of his friend and commander Kolokotronis, as a consequence of Kolokotronis’ civil war opposition to the new administration.

On February 24, 1825 Ibrahim Pasha, the son of the ruler of Egypt and at the request of the Ottoman Sultan, landed in Modon (Methoni) with 4,000 infantry and 500 cavalry and a month later was joined by a further 6,000 French trained and battle-hardened Egyptian infantry, as well as 500 cavalry, to confront and supress the nascent Greek revolution.

1880's Map 

On the 19th April 1825 an irregular force of 7,000 Greeks and Albanians under Skourti, set out to try and intercept Ibrahim’s advance as well as trying to relieve the garrisons in the Neokastro in Pylos and on Sfaktiria but were routed by the discipline of Ibrahim’s Arabs and forced to retreat. Unimpeded Ibrahim captured the old Navarino fortress (paleokastro) to the north of Navarino bay on the 29th April, Sfaktiria island on the 8th May and finally the new Navarino castle at Pylos on the 11th May. Anagnostaras, Papaflessas fellow-villager and friend, was killed in the defence of Sfaktiria.

Following these set-backs and recognising the extreme danger posed by Ibrahim’s campaign to establishing the new independent Greece Papaflessas pleaded with his colleagues to release Kolokotronis so that he may command an army to confront Ibrahim Pasha. The Interim Government refused and Papaflessas stated that he would take and lead an army himself to make a stand. The Government were more than willing to allow their truculent Interior Minister to depart. Always the showman Papaflessas marched off to his destiny accompanied by his two mistresses.

Looking North from Tampouria, Greece

Papaflessas arrived and after discussing with villagers the best place to observe the plains dug into three positions above the village of Maniaki, erecting temporary breastworks on the karst exposed hills, with about 3,000 troops. He instructed that the Breastworks (Tampouria) be set on the oblique and not the crest of the hills as this made them easier to defend. One of the three main positions was commanded by his nephew and he was expecting his brother to join him with about 700 more infantry. During the night of the 19th May 1825, the night before the Battle of Maniaki, about 2,000 of the Greeks melted away when they perceived the size of Ibrahim’s force camped in the valley below them.  The following morning one column under Ibrahim Pasha's French commander took the easterly approach and Ibrahim pasha the westerly, splitting his own detachment in two to meet up again for the final assault on Papaflessas' position. 

Papaflessas vowed to die where he stood in defence of Greek independence. His wish for martyrdom was granted and he and 600 of his troops lost their lives, including his nephew, an Italian volunteer and his flag-carrier. 

Some reports state that Ibrahim Pasha kissed the head (decapitated)
of Papaflessas in honour.

Following the battle Ibrahim sought out his headless body and head of his adversary and set these upright up on a post once the body parts had been cleaned. This was an act of honouring his opponent and he is reported to have said, concerning Papaflessas,

“That was a brave and honourable man! Better have spent twice as many lives to save his; he would have served us well.” 

Unlikely! Pappaflessas would have continued in whatever guise to be a “turbulent” priest. Papaflessas metamorphosis, a bit like that of Henry VIII’s Beckett, from truculent priest to martyrdom had been achieved and today is marked, is remembered, by a blue Greek flag, a collective memory, on a map and on the ground.  


The actual Battle of Maniaki took place about 4 km north of Maniaki on a small hill now known as Tampouria. Tampouria derives from Ταμποúρια a Greek word that defines a temporary or hastily erected Military fortification known as a breastwork or sconce. A signpost indicating its position, is nestled in a grove of tall Cypresses, about 2km beyond the turn-off for the village of Maniaki. There is a short winding road to an open parking area and then perhaps the most beautifully constructed external stairway I encountered in Greece.

Icons and Imperial Byzantine Eagle on Candle Box. 
The official flag of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which 
represents the Orthodox community worldwide
is a double-headed eagle holding an orb and a cross. In this church the eagle
is holding two orbs, while outside fluttering in the wind is the more recently
adopted, and a more belligerent flag, with the eagles holding an orb and a sword,
rather than a cross. (The double-headed eagle was originally a Hittite 14C BCE motif and was adopted by the Byzantine Palaiologan dynsaty when they wrested back control of
Byzantium from the Latins in 1250s)

After a short climb you encounter the 1975 refurbished Church of the Holy Trinity. Through a window can be seen the icons as well as the Byzantine imperial flag adopted by many Greek orthodox churches. Outside the Greek flag on its pole flutters in the late afternoon wind, and as well as an obelisk, there is upright stone engraved memorial slab to the fallen as well as a black stone sculpture of Papaflessas.

To the east and below behind the sculpture are the alonia (drying floors) of the joint villages of Ano and Kato Papaflessas, formerly known as Kondogoni, but renamed in his perpetual honour. Bones from the battle were gathered and are in an ossuary in the Church of the Resurrection on an outcrop east of Maniaki village.

Tampouria I found to be a strange place. In the middle of an ancient landscape well used to glorious death many Greeks considered Maniaki to be a 19th century Thermopylae, and Papaflessas to be Leonides. A natural rampart which for a brief moment in time held the hopes of a nation, and of its defenders within its hastily erected stone redoubts... and then let them go.   


For Papaflessas perhaps Tampouria was his Mt. Tabor. The statue depicts a proud, defiant man and is a sculpture that engages your eye, framed by the sky and the rocks, of the place where he lost his life defending his ideals of Greece, of a place where perhaps he finally found enlightenment...and was at peace.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Waiting for Airport Metro connection at Athens
at Doukissis Plakentias station.

Wandering around Athens last Friday, I diverted my attention from the sites to the sights. There appeared, to me at least, a sense of optimism about, despite the ongoing IMF/EU bailout, (see:  although Athens seemed quieter than the last time I was there 10 years ago.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

“If we cannot know God’s essence, we can stand in God’s place … 
on the high mountain, in the lonely desert, at the point where 
terror gives way to wonder. Only here do we enter the abandonment, 
the agnosia, that is finally necessary for meeting God.”

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998)
Belden C. Lane


The Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael or Great Skellig) rock off the south-west coast of Ireland is probably as “fierce” a landscape that you will ever encounter in Ireland, subject, often without respite for weeks on end, to Atlantic storms and the isolation of less-than-forgiving seas. It is also a very special “landscape” that I have wanted to travel to for nearly 40 years and having been turned back previously 4-5 times by either weather or sea conditions, or by the more recent UNESCO imposed restrictions on visitor numbers, I finally managed to make it from Port Magee across the gannet-pierced waves west of Valentia Island’s Bray Head to the monastery island on the 27th May last.

Looking east towards Little Skellig over half-wall of Monastic Cell G

Even without a belief in a Supreme Being, I find it easy to admire, indeed wonder at, mankind’s architectural conversations, mankind’s communal constructs, in an attempt to get closer to God or the Gods. I think of the 10,000 BCE temple complex of Gobekli Tepe, the Pyramids, The Parthenon, Hagia Sofia, Angkor Wat, Chartres Cathedral, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat…. to name just a few. All places of wonderment… all places that were not designed for separation from community, but spaces which can tolerate the noise, and which encourage the volume of communal worship.

Roofless St Michael's Church Skellig Michael.
Little Skellig to right and Puffin Island close to mainland
directly ahead.

In every religion however, monotheist or polytheist, or I suspect in any form of “beyond us” worship, from time immemorial, there have been those individuals who have been quietist, those who have sought an alternative way of communicating with their God or Gods in isolated contemplative silence or in small communities where the volume of exhortation, of expectation even, was turned right down. In many cases this involved removing themselves from their societies and finding a space for reflection in “Fierce Landscapes”.

The "Fierce Landscape" of the northern shores of
Little Skellig (foreground) and Skellig Michael (distance).
Monastery just visible on top left of Skellig Michael.

The lines quoted above from The Solace of Fierce Landscapes,  are from a book written by Belden C. Lane, a Presbyterian theologian, which is an academic exploration, and affirmation of the history and purpose of the extreme abandonment of an individual from society, the agnosia, in the pursuit of encountering God.

This desire for quietness, for agnosia, a desire for remoteness from self in a way, amongst certain individuals, was evident from very early on in the Christian church and the absolute contradiction in a faith perspective between the demands of service to others and service to self was evident from the very beginning of the Christian faith when one considers the Gospel of Mark’s description of the feeding of the 5,ooo.

“The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they 
had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves 
to a desolate place and rest awhile.’ People were coming and 
going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. 
So they went off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place.”
Mark 6: 30-32

Jesus Christ appeared to demand that the disciples deliberately withdraw to a desolate place to rest, to contemplate.

Taking the “permission to withdraw” passage of Mark’s gospel as guidance the Desert Fathers, particularly following the example of St Anthony the Great around 270 CE, established the first contemplative monastic communities in the desert west of the Nile Delta. Although true hermits existed, and indeed even more extreme forms such as anchorites (those walled up in cells in monastic communities) and styilites (like St Simeon in Syria. See: Rihla 54, November 2015 at ) were to evolve in the future the vast majority of these early contemplative monastic hermitages were actually communities with male and female adherents, and properly termed coenobitic (from the Greek words for Common [koinos] and Life [bios]), and a little later adopted the Coptic Rules of St Pachomius for their actual function.

East Steps from Blind Man's Cove


This theological model for monastic communities established in the desolate places of the 4th century Western Desert of Egypt or the more formalised architectural lavra of the 5th and 6th century Judean Desert such as Mar Saba in the Kidron valley, was to be the model adopted in Sceilig Mhichíl where the early 7th century penitent monks – in contrast to the missionary "wandering" monks, like St Columba, and collectively  known as the Peregrini –really did take Mark’s Gospel at its word and “went off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place.”

Skellig Michael originally called the Green Skellig ( sceilg in old Irish is a reef of rocks at sea or a sheer cliff face) and was part of the territory of the Corcu Duibne petty Kingdom in west Kerry. The Corcu Duibne were subject to their overlords the Kings of Íarmumu (west Munster), the Eóganachta Locha Léin centred in Killarney who in turn were subject to the High Kings of Munster, generally the Eóganachta Chaisil, ruling from Cashel. There is some archaeological evidence for the presence of a hill fort just above the monastery complex and it is postulated that Skellig Michael was originally established as a costal island hill fort, like Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands, and that no longer functioning as such by the mid-6th century it was given to the early monks by the Corcu Duibne for them to establish their community. Saint Fionán is the member of the Corcu Duibne ruling dynasty most associated with the island.

The "hermitage" on top of Skellig Michael South Peak

Skellig Michael is a lavra or laura, a cluster of beehive cells centred on narrow alleyway beside in its case two oratories, with stout protective walls surrounding the complex. I say protective rather than defensive, because the walls were designed to prevent visitors or penitents in “great numbers” entering the monastery at random. Very unlikely in Skellig Michael’s case but perhaps even one visitor making his way up the south, north or eastern steps was one visitor to many. The visitor’s dormitory cell is located outside the enclosure walls on the edge of a precipice that was certain to create feelings of terror more than wonderment in that visitor. If the weather was bad he could have been stuck in this eerie for some time and almost certainly unlikely ever to return. But that is the nature of pilgrimage.

Gannet Colony on Little Skellig

Of very particular interest in Skellig Michael’s construction is that there is an even more desolate oratory or hermitage located high on the south peak of the island with two further praying platforms constructed nearby on the edge of oblivion. It is certain that the monastery primarily catered for monks who wished to exist in community but that there was room for the individual who wished to “withdraw” even from them for a period of time, or forever was a real incorporation of the Desert Father’s example. This is conjecture of course. There is no documentary evidence and we know very little however about the workings of the main monastery (apart from the fact that it had an abbot called Étgal in 884 who was abducted and starved to death by the Vikings) and even less of the south peak eagle’s nest hermitage that looked down on it.

The Ruin of the Guest Accommodation
outside Monastery Walls

There is no doubt however that the Skellig Michael monastery complex was very influential. The success of establishing it on a remote, storm-swept, almost inaccessible island created the 8th century precedent for the metaphorical and Christian-orientated prose-poem immrama voyages to strange islands and in particular the later stories of the Voyages of St Brendan the Navigator, where reality and metaphor are fully fused.

(See Rihla 29, June 2012 at )

In a real sense of monastic voyage achievement the monks success on Skellig also encouraged other monks to follow Jesus Christ’s instructions in Mark’s Gospel to “…go off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place” to establish 7&8th century monastic communities on other remote islands such as the Faroes and Iceland, 100 years before the Norse migrations to those places. 

Faroe Island stamps commemorating
St Brendan's "discovery" of the Faroe Islands (top) and Iceland (below).

By the mid-12th century however the full time coenobitic character of Skellig Michael had changed, and inhibited by Viking raiding, disputes over patronage and protection, or perhaps by more severe weather making even a marginal existence impossible, the monks decided to relocate. The island by this stage had become a significant place of summer pilgrimage and a new wooden-roofed church dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, was built amongst the cloister of stone-corbelled beehives, to cater for these pilgrims, around 1044.

A Skellig Puffin

Sometime after this date the monks of Skellig appeared to have relocated to the mainland. A little later they abandoned the “Desert Fathers” monastic rules of St. Anthony and St. Pachomius and adopted the Rules (Arrosian) of St Augustine and with the encouragement of Malachy Ó Morgair, the papal legate between 1140-1148, established on the coastline near Ballinskelligs an Augustinian Priory, also dedicated to St Michael. In contrast to the coenobitic existence of Skellig Michael however, Ballinskelligs Priory engaged in a public ministry and although the nature of their monastic calling had changed because they continued to live in community the monk/priests were now known as Canons Regular. Canon is derived from Kanon, a Greek word meaning “rule”.

Map of Ancient sites in Waterville/Ballinskelligs area by Seán O'Shea
in Butler Arms Hotel, Waterville

Skellig Michael remained in the hands of the Augustinians until 1578 when following the Desmond rebellion the Ballinskelligs monastery was dissolved and Queen Elizabeth I gave the islands over to the Butler family. The Commissioner of Irish Lights compulsory purchased the island in 1820 from the Butlers to build two lighthouses on the island and in 1826 on completion of the lighthouses the OPW, took over the care of the monastic site.


Our rihla to Skellig Michael ends on the mainland at the less known and even less investigated Oratory at Kildreelig. Situated about 5 km to the west of the Priory ruins in Ballinskelligs, the oratory is to be found to the left hand side of the road to Bolus Head about a half a kilometre the Cill Rialig Arts Centre and artists’ retreat in the refurbished pre-famine village at Dungeagan.

The oratory is a corbelled construction aligned east-west and there are two associated cross-slabs and a leacht (raised outside altar or marker stones for a graveyard) at the eastern end of the site looking towards the priory in Ballinskelligs below. The cross on one slab is that of a Tau or Coptic-type cross. The site itself is a cashel, or caher, a circular level piece of ground about 40 metres in diameter with a raised dry stone wall, at almost 2 metres high at extreme of slope surrounding the entire area. Typical of defensive or protective cahers there are two, perhaps three, basic souterrains on the site. It is likely that Kildreelig caher was given over to the monks of Skelligs at an early stage, perhaps 9th century, that they could have a main-land base to sit out the weather until they could attempt the crossing to the island.

Cross Slab 1

It is uncertain whether the oratory continued to be used as a “hermitage” after the Priory was established but what is certain is that the oratory derived its name from the monks in the mainland Priory.

Cross Slab 2 (Tau-type cross)

Kildreelig gets its name from Cill Rialaigh or Cill Riaghlach, meaning the Church of the Rules (religious). This in turn refers to the “Black” or Canons Regular of the Augustinian Priory, canons itself deriving from Gr. kanon (rule), and who were subject to the strict Arrouaisian interpretation and application of the Rule and who gave their name to the townland.  Another interpretation of the name, but less likely, is that of Cill Réidhleach (Rae), the Church of the flattened area of ground on a slope, which of course the caher with its rampart walls was.

Kildreelig is well worth a visit, appearing as it does to be a time capsule of an early Christian monastic site, supplanting the souterrains and buildings of an even earlier caher ring fort.   Now that the excavation and restoration of Skellig Michael is complete perhaps some attention to excavating the "daughter" oratory at Kildreelig should be undertaken.

Eastern doorway of Roofless Kildreelig Oratory

Standing on the caher looking at the ruins of the Priory to the east, with the Skelligs behind you to the west you are caught in a timeline, a timeline of faith and stone, of both withdrawal and of engagement, and even though the sun might be shining, it is a landscape that is fierce.

One large "puffin" on Skellig Michael!