Saturday 7 November 2015

Oddball Churches:The Agios Giorgios Monastery and the Pheneos Valley

The Agios Giorgios Monastery and the Pheneos Valley:

Corinthia’s Best Kept Secret

The view of Lake Doxa from the monastery of Agios Giorgios (Άγιος Γεώργιος) is alone worth a trip to the Pheneos valley, but there is so much more. Where else can you find, at 900 meters elevation, a valley approximately 3km by 12, flat as an ironing board and surrounded on all sides by some of the highest peaks in the Peloponnese?


This little Shangri-La was isolated even in ancient times when most cities tended to be inland and it has remained relatively unknown today because the easiest road access is from the Corinthian Gulf at Derveni - a bit of a trek unless you live in the north Peloponnese. There are twisty paved passes on the east and west sides of the valley and one on the southern tip (passable on a good day by a 4 by 4). But a quick look at a map of the Peloponnese tells you that these roads lead respectively to Stymphalia, Kleitoria, and Orchomenos,  not exactly household names unless you are a Greek history buff. So the Pheneos valley remains the kind of place you either go to on purpose or stumble upon because you lost your way en route to somewhere else.

Pausanias visited around 150 AD. Like many classical scholars since, he was attracted to the ancient city of Pheneos and the valley’s quirky mythological past. This was Arcadian territory back then and Arcadia has always been the breeding ground of oddball religious cults. Pheneos was the stomping ground of Hermes, Hercules, Odysseus, Asclepios, and, no doubt, Pan.(1)

 William Leake was just one of the many travelers who braved the mountains in modern times to visit Pheneos.  In his case, he was working for the Ottomans, surveying and making maps. Ancient Pheneos (called Fonia back then) is marked on a little knob of raised ground on the rough and ready map he drew for his book on the Peloponnese.(2)

Leake’s  map

Ancient Pheneos was never large although it once boasted a circuit wall with towers and a good sized Asclepeion. (Its tiny museum, if it ever happens to be open, has a wonderful Hellenistic head of Hygeia from the Asclepeion.) The city was founded by the Mycenaeans in 1500 BC and, although partially in ruins, was still going strong during the Roman period. Likely, it was never entirely abandoned even after that because it was at a crossroads and something of a hideaway too. Hideaways have been handy spots to maintain throughout Greece’s turbulent history.

But, it wasn’t just its out of the way location that kept Pheneos small; it was geology. In winter, water and snow run-off poured down those steep mountain sides. Some of it was channeled into the rivers Doxa and Aroanios , but all of it eventually ran pell mell into the valley bottom with nowhere to go unless two large sinkholes (katavothres)  on the southern part of the valley were unobstructed. In that case, the resulting winter ‘lake’ would slowly drain through underground limestone channels to Stymphalia in east and to the River Ladon in the west. (3) Often earthquakes plugged these sinkholes and when that happened, a large lake would form and silt would settle.  This was the case in ancient times and true again when Leake came by in 1806.
I have doctored Leake’s map a little to show modern roads and the position of today’s Agios Giorgios Monastery:

Roads are in red; sinkholes are black circles.

Note that the modern towns are also built quite far up from the old lake bed, - just in case.  Where Leake saw water everywhere, we see a plethora of small rectangular fields now given over to animal fodder, potatoes and the best beans south of Lake Prespa. 

 A small section of the Pheneos valley at dawn.

Ancient Pheneos is a tiny pimple of a knoll on the very left edge of the bigger green hill in the picture. Agios Giorgios lies behind the bigger hill, right underneath a barren peak of Mount Helmos.

The ancients could not have counted on this as arable land although there is ample evidence that they attempted to use some of it by channeling the water from the two rivers through a man-made canal to one of the sink holes. In fact, Pausanias was told by the locals that Heracles had performed the deed.  The results were less than stellar. Until our times, the Pheneos valley has been an ‘on again, off again’ lake.

I suspect that Christianity took quite a while to gain a foothold in remote Pheneos but when it did, it was represented first by a few small churches and only much later by our Monastery. 

  The Agios Giorgios monastery today.
It was not the first monastery here to be dedicated to Saint George the Dragon Slayer. The original 14th century complex was lower in the valley by the River Doxa. They say it was founded by monks from Mega Spilaion in Achaia. (4) It was submerged when the river ran rampant shortly before 1700.  The picturesque chapel of Agios Fanourios marks the spot today. It is situated on a small peninsula in the middle of Lake Doxa, a beautiful addition to the landscape thanks to a 1990s dam created to tame the waters of the Doxa River and to create a controllable means of irrigation for all those potatoes and beans.

Agios Fanourios: the most beautiful ‘grave marker’ ever.

A walk to this small chapel gives you a chance for a swim beside a remnant of the first Agios Giorgios:

(There is a better if less romantic spot for a swim on the western shore of the lake.)
Today’s three storey monastery reached its final form around 1745. (Although its position well up from the lake avoided water it didn’t avoid fire. The first effort on the site burned to the ground in1740.) 

It is a wonderful blend of stern ‘fortress’ and cosy retreat. It had to be the former because it was built in troubled times and was a hotbed of resistance against the Ottomans. Both Theodoros Kolokotronis and members of the Filiki Eteria met here to plot insurrection. The monastery’s remoteness along with its defensibility made it a good hideout. (5)

It was wealthy: founded with permission from the Patriarchate in Constantinople and therefore not under the aegis of the local Metropolitan, it could largely control its own wealth. It owned a lot of land and drew monks from as far away as Epidavros, Nemea, and Elis. Some claim that the famous agiorgitiko wine that originated in Nemea and Corinthia took its name from this monastery because it once owned so much of the land that cultivated this grape variety.

You approach the monastery from the ring road that circles the lake. It is charming.  Agios Giorgios’ single resident monk must have an amazing green thumb. There are flowers everywhere – in the ground in old tin containers - on the entrance path, and in the courtyard.
The large wooden cross which has bloomed in the inner courtyard by 2015 is a botanical marvel: 

The first time I visited, that cross consisted merely of two austere pieces of wood.  Its transformation seems positively Biblical!
On three sides of the inner courtyard are wonderful balconies and on the fourth the church of Agios Giorgios, a domed extravaganza with excellent wall paintings dating from 1754 by  a painter named Panayiotis from Ioannina,


and an impressive gilt iconostasis (circa 1768)  that should not be missed:

Over the church entrance Saint George rides his white horse, his ‘coffee bearer’ in attendance (see ‘G is for George’ on this blog). The vanquished dragon is hidden by the lamp. Great ‘filler’ decorations abound! 
The door has an impressive bronze representation of Saint George in action  as well.

In the narthex of the church a wooden staircase leads to the ‘secret school” run by the monks.  This whole ‘hidden school’ idea has been debunked by many historians and, it is true that this could also have been merely a superb hideout for insurgents, but if such schools ever did ever exist this is the sort of place they would have been. The Peloponnese suffered more oppression from the Ottomans than many other parts of Greece and had no access to education. 

The ‘Secret School’ up by the dome.

 As we marveled at all of this, the voice of the caretaker (the monk was at the Bishops on this particular day) wafted down from the third floor, inviting us up for coffee and the rose petal jam that the monastery makes and sells. The visitor’s area is as cosy as a village house,

And leads out to one of those precarious balconies and the ‘view’

I was thinking it would be a great place to stay and was happy to learn that it is possible to arrange to do just that. The caretaker showed us a six bedroom dormitory, ready for anyone who could arrange it. Try 274 704 1226 or contact the Bishopric in Corinth.

Tempting, isn’t it?

After1830, Agios Giorgios fell on hard times. Like so many monasteries, it gave up a good deal of its wealth to the new state which needed money to create some sort of educational system. They ‘downsized’ monasteries everywhere.
The monastery had a macabre fate during the Greek civil war (1946-9) when it was taken over by the communists of ELAS who used it as a prison and executed six monks.
Hard to believe today; it is all is peace and serenity.

Like so many churches in Greece, the journey to it and its surroundings are as wonderful as the destination. Pheneos and Lake Doxa  have become a popular winter venue with Athenians. 
But I prefer the summer and a swim in the lake. It is so well named. ‘Doxa’ in Greek means ‘glory’. 
Then there is the last half of September when a swim is still possible, there are hardly any visitors, and those fabulous beans are ready to be taken home and stored for winter feasts.   So many reasons to visit


(1)   On my first trip to Pheneos, I didn’t give a fig about the monastery. I was totally focused on the weird rite to Eleusinian Demeter and a yearly ritual involving disengaging a mask from a cunningly contrived rock and beating the ground with rods! Great stuff, all from Pausanias, Book 8. For the scoop, try  Enigmatic Ancient Pheneos was more comprehensible this year because the archaeologists were there:

no cunningly contrived rock as yet…

(2)The problem of names always crops up in any study of Greek History. Ancient Pheneos was called Phonia, then Kalivia, then Ancient Pheneos again. Leake tried to use Pausanias’ names on his map where he could, but more Slavic names had been given to the surrounding mountains; those he could not ignore. Hardly any place of any age has retained one name throughout its history in Greece. It makes reading contemporary accounts quite mysterious.
(3) Pheneos water really travels. From Stymphalia it goes to Corinth and via an ancient man made channel to the famous Pirene fountain and then into Pope’s poetry as well as the Gulf. It also travels from Stymphalia to Kefalari near Naplio in the Argolid. From the Ladon it goes eventually via the Alpheos river to the west coast of the Peloponnese – quite a wide swath.  All those limestone caverns ‘measureless to man’ do strange and wonderful things to the Peloponnesian watershed!
(4) Mega Spilaion has its own entry on this blog, as do Agios Fanourios  and Saint George for that matter!
(5) The monastery has narrow ‘rifle’ slits as windows near ground level. That made the well guarded entrance (two doors with a corridor in between) the only access. My attention was drawn to this feature one year by a long red strip of a flokati rug hanging down from one, so that the monastery cats could clamber up and gain entrance when the monastery was closed at midday!


  1. Good article, Linda! I remember when we went there together oh so many years ago, and how atmospheric and uncanny it was, and oh so quiet. The monastery looks amazing- next time will try to spend a night there for sure!

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