I wrote about falling in love with the Greek island of Amorgos in my last blog but had left the highlight of our short stay – the Monastery of Panagia Hoziviotissa – until I could write about it separately.
This miraculous edifice hangs off the side of an enormous cliff 300 metres above the sea.
First built in 812/813 AD and renovated significantly in 1088, the motive behind its construction was to protect an icon of the Virgin Mary that had been rescued from a religious community in the Holy Land called “Hoziva” or “Koziva”. Legend has it that the icon was cast into the sea and was washed up in Amorgos but historians believe it arrived by boat.
How ever it got there, the icon can still be seen today in the tiny monastery chapel (no photos allowed) along with a chisel that belonged to the master builder who prayed to the Virgin Mary to show him where to build the monastery. The chisel, and a basket of tools were found hammered high up on the rock the next day.
The monastery is not easy to find being visible only from the sea or when you arrive, from the base of the cliff against which it is built. There are no huge billboards or road signs, just a small unassuming board marked “To the Monastery”.
The monastery is 40 meters long but only five meters wide. This extraordinary feat of early engineering has eight floors with 15 monastic cells and 72 different rooms, including the very diminutive chapel.
There was one other car in the car park when we arrived but no sign of anyone else while we clambered up the many hundreds of stone steps. That is, there were no people around but loads of cats!
One decided to guide us up the stairs and sprang her way up the hillside just ahead of us all the way to the top.
As we climbed, other dear little cats and kittens came out to greet us.
Our cat guide showed us the low door we had to pass through to enter the monastery (up more stairs) which led into a cave-like room. In one corner there was another steep staircase leading up to a second solid timber door which when I eventually plucked up courage to go up the stairs, appeared to be locked.
I knocked on the door tentatively- no reply. Then I heard voices and I knocked a little louder. After a few minutes the door swung open and a couple of people were on the other side preparing to make their way out. We pressed ourselves onto a tiny landing where there were two more closed doors and then after the people departed we were welcomed into a narrow chamber and then up another steep set of steps which led to the monastery chapel.
How on earth they would have fitted 15 monks in the chapel at a time I really don’t know but fortunately there are only three residing in the monastery nowadays which means it would be less of a squash during services!
Leading from the chapel was a balcony with the most spectacular view over the blue, blue, Aegean Sea.
From the chapel we were lead through a narrow passageway to a reception room where a monastery representative had put out water, loukoumi (Turkish Delight), and psimeni raki, the traditional drink of Amorgos, a honeyed and spiced spirit reminiscent of Christmas pudding.
We had a very long chat with our host who answered our many questions about monastery life and the history of Panagia Hozoviotissa.
He told us that in the height of the season the monastery could have up to 400 visitors a day but they had received less than 40 guests in the whole of that week. We felt very privileged to have been amongst the latter group.
On our way out we were farewelled by one of the monks and signed the guest book in another long, slim room before descending two flights of stairs to the exit where our cat guides were waiting for us.
Outside they watched curiously as Jonathan stripped off his too-hot long pants (legs must be covered in the monastery) and put his shorts back on.
We left this awe inspiring place marvelling at the ingenuity of the people who built such an incredible and magnificent masterpiece of architecture. It seemed to us that it should definitely be counted as one of the wonders of the world!