Saturday, 7 December 2013

Oddball Churches: Panagia ton Katafigion in Evrostina

Panagia ton Katafigion in Evrostina (Παναγίας των Καταφυγίων, Ευρωστίνa)

10 kms south of Derveni (on the old Corinth-Patras national road) and 2kms or so before Evrostina  (Ευρωστίνα).  It is hard to miss on the bend of the road because of its impressive entrance. Open: always open.

Like most river valleys in the North Peloponnese, the river running north from Evrostina has cut a spectacular valley on its way to the sea.  It wasn't all that difficult; the area is composed of sand and conglomerate rock, debris from a long gone fan delta. Where silicates dripped into the sand over the eons, limestone cliffs formed and where there are limestone cliffs there are caves.  The North Peloponnese is riddled with them and these ones  north of Evrostina would probably have remained shelters for sheep and goats if it hadn’t been for Catherine the Great.

 When she sent Count Orlov into the Peloponnese with Russian troops in 1770 to help start an uprising against the Turks, many Greeks answered the call including the village of Evrostina.  How were they to know that Catherine would do an about face and make peace with the Ottomans soon after?  Deeply rattled by events, the Turks then began reprisals similar to ones that would occur again much later when Germany invaded. Mountain villages were hard to police and extermination of the populations was a pleasing alternative to the constant vigilance and force required to subdue a resentful population.

Before the Turks arrived, the entire village fled to the most inaccessible caves with whatever property they could gather and there they stayed, safe as long as they retracted the ladders when danger was imminent.  It was an impregnable position.  Turkish forces were not numerous and sallies into mountain strongholds like this were sporadic, so a long stalemate ensued. Meanwhile, life went on and this group of cave men and women formed a new community by building a church in one of the caves. Thus the first Panagia Ton Katafigion , our  Lady of the Refuges, was born.

There has been more than one church since and a fire in 2012 has severely damaged the latest effort (shown above before the fire), but in spite of that there is still a lot to see, all because of the work of one man, Georgios Roussos, who has, as a result of a dream, been altering the area around the caves since the 1990s.
 He has created a long walkway down to the church and paths the caves on the way.  The walk down is a true  heart stopper. In one cave he has placed  life size figures to represent one of the secret or ‘hidden’  Greek schools run  during Turkish times, and other paraphernalia from the era. Is the result beautiful?  Well, if the strange aesthetic of a waxwork museum appeals, then the answer is yes.

 Inside the large roadside entrance is place for lighting candles, handy for those not hardy enough for the descent, and a quirky folk art icon showing a bunch of frustrated Turks staring up at the villagers huddled in a cave.

There area just beyond this entrance is amazing. Aside from the spectacular view and the precarious  platform jutting out from the rock from which Mr Roussos lowered his building materials, are several proskynitaria the size of roadside shrines (some inexplicably in the island style). 

Then there are two man made caves.

The first 'cave'

The first contains an icon of the crucifixion, impressive once I got over the two dimensional plywood cut outs of the figures and the liberal use of  aluminium foil to catch dripping candle wax. This visit happened to mark my first encounter with these life size cut outs and my reaction was less than lyrical.  It still is, but rules are rules and these are icons. I was surprised to find out that they were painted in the small town near my home and could easily be ordered, so there is still a demand ‘out there’.

The second and larger ”cave” offers  a unique  diorama of the Nativity Icon, one of my absolute favourites, the opportunity to be in it, irresistible! The elements of this wonderful icon are all here. 

I have to look behind me to see the Three Wise Men bearing gifts.

The ox and the ass are out of position; normally their heads are leaning over Christ’s crib. They are two of the oldest and most consistent images in the nativity icon and worth a digression. The ox symbolizes Israel and the ass the Gentiles – both tribes brought together by the birth of Jesus. Their iconic rendering is always worth a look because the strict iconic rules that apply to humans are less rigid for animals and the artist's rendition can be more free.

These two look like tough customers or maybe they just do not like being displaced. To add insult to injury they are festooned with Christmas lights that no one had thought fit to remove in April. (The why of that Last Supper add on is a total mystery.....)

Joseph, as usual, is set slightly aside.

Tradition has it that he is contemplating the dream that tells him that he and Mary must escape to Egypt. To me, he just looks depressed –knowing that he is fifth business but somehow necessary to the plot.

If you have descended to explore the warren of caves below the entrance, you will be happy to know that Evrostina, two kilometers on, has two excellent restaurants, an inn, and a duck pond. A break of some sort is in order if you plan to climb the daunting stairs in the centre of the village and visit Ag. Georgios,  another church with a difference. 

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