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Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Karyas

LISTED historical monument by Ministerial Decree 15904/24-11-1962 (Government Gazette 473/Β/17-12-1962)

 

LOCATION

Agios Nikolaos Karyas, the monastic heart of Kynouria, in the province’s very centre, is a typical fortified Post-Byzantine Peloponnesian monastery. It is located 2-3 kilometres beyond the Artokosta Monastery, on the road to Prastos, 879 metres above sea level, between two heights, the medieval castles of Oriontas and Paliochora.

The names Prasies, Brasies, Prasioi Topoi, Oreioi, Tyros, Apollo Tyrites, all ancient epithets and modern toponyms related to Baskina and Paliochora, provide evidence for the existence of ancient Lakonian cities and their connection to the medieval historical reality. Now located on the coast, Tyros was originally a thriving settlement, the closest to the Karya monastery, opposite Paliochora. Among the old churches preserved at old Tyros is a dependency of the Karya monastery. Within the monastery, the current church of Saint Nicholas was built over an earlier church, of which parts of walls with traces of wall paintings are preserved.

Below Karakovouni is the monastery’s cemetery and its church of the Dormition of the Virgin. The church, which was probably reconstructed in recent times, is identified as the katholikon (main church) of the now defunct mid-eighteenth-century monastery of Karakovouni. It is a relatively large church of the cross-in-square type, with an octagonal dome, a three-sided apse, and a belfry. The roofing is old, combining schist plaques and ceramic tiles.

 

CITADELS/FORTRESSES AND TOWERS

  1. 1. The citadel of Tyros

The lexicographer Stephanos Byzantios is the only ancient author that mentions the town of Tyros: Τύρος νήσος εν Φοινίκη από Τύρον του Φοίνικος, έστι και Τύρος της Λακωνικής. (Tyros [is] an island in Phoenicia, [named] after Tyros of Phoenicia; there is also a Tyros in Lakonia). The preservation of the ancient toponym, despite the different intonation (Tyros for the ancient town, Tyros for the modern village), the remains of a fortified site on Kastro Hill, and the discovery of an ancient sanctuary of Apollo Tyritas on a nearby rise (Profitis Ilias Melanon) confirm the presence of the ancient town. Traces of an Early Helladic citadel are preserved on the small inaccessible promontory south of the Tyros-Sapounakeika beach.

The remains of the hilltop fortification, with four square and one semi-circular towers, are visible particularly on northern slope. The fortification was probably rebuilt in the third century BC using polygonal masonry.

 

  1. 2. The Castle of Orontas

The Castle of Orontas, unknown from medieval sources, stands atop the homonymous mountain, which rises at the northern extreme of the Baskina plateau, near the abandoned village of Paliochora. According to local tradition, the Aetos gully that leads to Oriontas took its name during the Greek War of Independence, after “an eagle (=aetos) was killed here and inside his belly they found the finger and finger ring of a man from Prastos, who was killed during the conquest of Tripoli”. The castle’s name derives from that of the ancient settlement of Oreiaitai, a peripheral town of the city of Prasies, which the Tsakonian dialect altered into OrzontasOriontas.  Orontas is the root of both the ecclesiastical title of the Reon bishopric (later Prastos bishopric), mentioned in a thirteenth-century chrysobulle of Andronikos II Palaiologos, and the epithet Reontinos of the now abandoned monastery of Agios Demetrios.

A fortified Byzantine settlement flourished at Orontas, but was never linked to any important historical event. This settlement was abandoned in the seventeenth century, when nearby Prastos began to rise. The fortification wall was built primarily of dry-stone masonry, except on the north side where mortar was used. Nowadays, the walls lie in stone heaps on the slopes, as do the Tsakonian houses on the hilltop plateau. Only one square tower on the east still stands three metres tall.

 

NAME

Outside the enclosure of the Karya monastery is a water spring and next to it a newly planted walnut tree (karya, karydia). Several interpretations exist for the epithets Karya and Karea, which have always accompanied the monastery’s name in documents and inscriptions, almost since its foundation. Kareas may have been the monastery’s founder, whose name was later corrupted into Karyas. The monastery may have also been named after the toponym Karya near Paliochora, although Karya is a common toponym throughout Greece, probably related to the walnut tree, which grows wild near fresh water. Some scholars relate the Lakonian Tsakonia to Karyai and the worship of Artemis Karyatis, whereas others link the name Karya to the Turkish kahrie (land), a possible reference to the nearby ruins of Paliochora, which lie south of the monastery

A Turkish document of 1620-1621 provides important evidence on the monastery’s name. The document mentions a church of Saint Nicholas, probably the katholikon of the homonymous monastery that was founded a year later, located at the site of Lenti. Lenti (or Leni) may be related to the Lenio rise, east of the monastery. The epithet Karyas (or Kareas), however, does not appear in the 1621 document. Finally, on his way from Thyrea to Lakoniki, Pausanias (38,4-7) comes to “eis tas Karyas”, a site dedicated to Artemis and the Nymphs. Could the modern toponym reflect the site mentioned by Pausanias?

 

THE MONASTERY’S FOUNDATION: EVIDENCE FROM LOCAL FOLKLORE

Some believe that Agios Nikolaos Karyas was founded by monks of the Karyes monastery on Athos. According to local and monastic tradition monks from the Athonite monastery of Karyes sought refuge from the Turks at Tsakonia, where they founded a monastery under the same name before the sixteenth century. Both the monastery’s name and form, which recalls the Athonite monasteries, reinforce this hypothesis. There is, however, no historical evidence to confirm the relation between the two monasteries.

HISTORY

The main and most secure sources of information on the history of the Agios Nikolaos monastery are two Turkish documents of 1620 and 1621. The earlier document, a firman of Sultan Osman II with Hegira dating, reports that the taxpayers of Prastos could not afford to repair the old church of Agios Nikolaos located near their village, because of the heavy taxation. The second document, a decree relevant to the 1620 firman, requests that the villagers repair the church. The repairs were therefore approved, but the document stated clearly that neither the church’s size nor its form could be altered. The church mentioned in the two Turkish documents may well be the monastery’s current katholikon, which was, therefore, restored in 1621-1622.

In April 1622, a sigillion of Patriarch Cyril I of Constantinople, issued with the collaboration of Patriarch Theophanes of Jerusalem, bestowed the newly founded monastery its stavropegial privilege. This sigillion, now in the National Library of France in Paris, is a primary source for the monastery’s history.

After the monastery was founded, the monks’ first aim was to decorate the katholikon with wall paintings. Donations by the three Kaniklis brothers and by Leo Vrestetiras covered the fee of Georgios Moschos, the greatest painter of his time, who came from Nauplion with his atelier. According to the dedicatory inscription, the wall paintings were executed in 1638. In 1734, the abbot Lavrentios Kostakis paid for the paving of the katholikon’s floor. A plaque with a two-headed eagle was placed over the omphalos, surrounded by relief carvings of vegetal and animal motifs.

From 1634 to 1857, fifty donation and sales records document the history of the Karya monastery. By the late eighteenth century (the last recorded purchase dates from 1784), the monastery’s landholdings had increased significantly, both through purchases and donations, and it fully exploited its enormous estate for produce and income.

During the Venetian period, when all relations between the Peloponnesian Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople were suspended, the monastery accepted the new regime, following the example of Iakovos Saloufas, bishop of Reon.

During the second Ottoman occupation (1715-1821), after the Turks violently ousted the Venetians, the land and its people suffered greatly. In 1770, Albanians looted the monastery. Eight years later Patriarch Gregory V renewed the monastery’s stavropegial status. A document of 1782 by Bishop Joseph of Reon and Prastos reports that the monastery suffered financially and that, as a consequence, its abbot Ioasaf toured the region with the monastery’s relics in order to collect money. A patriarchal sigillion of Gregory V renewed the monastery’s stavropegial pivilege again in April 1798 Gregory’s sigillia were preceded by letters addressed to all stavropegial monasteries announcing the dispatch of the synodical sigillia and requesting the monks’ attention on their regulations. Throughout this period, the monastery remained dependent on the Patriarchate. The monks paid their yearly contribution (receipts for these contributions are still preserved) and mentioned the patriarch’s name, while, at the same time, maintaining good relations with the local bishop. This is confirmed by a written source, which mentions that the Albanians subdued the region after the uprising of 1770. The monastery repeatedly turned to the Patriarchate, which renewed its stavropegial privilege after the return of the Ottomans (1715) and the extermination of the Albanians (1779).

During the Greek War of Independence, Abbot Joseph Krimitzos participated in the uprising; he was decorated by King Otto for his contribution to the cause in 1844. In 1829, Ioannis Kapodistrias, first Governor of modern Greece, congratulated the monasteries of Orthokosta, Karya, Reontinou, Engleistoureiou, and Sitza for their role in educating the youth. Kapodistrias had requested that the monasteries contribute towards the founding of schools; the Karya monastery donated 200 five-drachma coins. The monastery’s continued after 1834.

The monastery was not damaged during the Greek War of Independence, not even during Ibrahim Pasha’s terrible assault on Tsakonia in 1828, when Prastos was burnt to the ground. After Greek independence, the monastery continued to operate with eleven monks. Its demise and subsequent abandonment came in the twentieth century. Until 1994, the monastery was overseen by the Loukou and Artokosta monastery, and was even converted into a nunnery, dependent on the Loukou monastery, in 1970 and for a short time period. The monastery was reconstituted by presidential decree in November 1993 and manned again with the efforts of the Metropolis of Mantineia and Kynouria. It has been operating since April 13, 1994, under Abbot Kallinikos Poulis. Its monks work hard conserving and restoring the monastic buildings, while agriculture and animal husbandry provide for their livelihood.

Today, Agios Nikolaos Karyas is administrated by a committee presided over by the Archbishop of Mantineia and Kynouria. Its buildings were fully renovated in recent years, providing comfortable surroundings for the monks and visitors, with respect to the monastic tradition. The monastery celebrates both the feast of Saint Nicholas, on December 6, and the memory of the Megalomartyr Procopios, on July 8.

ARCHITECTURE

1. The monastery 

Wars, natural disasters (particularly earthquakes), and, more recently, attempts to modernize earlier buildings have all marred the monasteries of the Peloponnese (and Greece in general). Very few preserve their early twentieth-century form and character as a result. The Karya monastery is one of these few. This relatively small but important monastery saw little intervention in the years following the Second World War. It has thus preserved not only its early form and structure, but also, to an impressive degree, the rusticity of Greek monasteries, which were both a place of training in the ancient tradition of Orthodox monasticism and centres of traditional, pre-industrial agriculture.

Despite recent renovations, the monastery’s main features have not changed. Its appearance is the same as thirty years ago, when a scholar noted that “interestingly the katholikon and residential wings harmonize with their natural surrounding. The building complex does not clash with the landscape. The pi-shaped residential building consists of a long central wing to the north (or rather north-west) and two shorter side wings. With a northwest orientation, the former is bathed in sunlight all day long; the side wings have different orientations. The katholikon stands at the base of the pi, and a stone-paved courtyard, approximately thirty metres long and up to ten metres wide, occupies the centre”.

The monastic complex of Karya forms a rectangle, approximately forty metres long and twenty metres wide. Three residential wings frame an elongated courtyard; the katholikon, another building, and the entrance gate occupy the rectangle’s fourth side. Two wings are two-storied, with the traditional consecutive porticoes on the ground floor, which houses all sorts of storerooms. Part of the southwest wing is three-storied. The arched gate leads onto the paved courtyard, which surrounds the katholikon on three sides. All the other buildings also give onto the courtyard. The entire complex, including the church, is roofed with local, dark grey schist plaques. The walls are plastered, except in places where the rubble masonry is visible. Well-built stone stairs lead to the upper floors.

A three-storied building occupies the larger part of the west wing. Its two lower stories are earlier, possibly of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The ground floor comprises a vaulted storeroom for grain. The second storey houses the vaulted refectory, the east wall of which is decorated with wall paintings, and an auxiliary room. A wooden balcony once provided access to the third storey, which was added in the late eighteenth of early nineteenth century. Destroyed in the 1950’s, this floor’s interior probably resembled the residential floor (piano nobile) of a typical Tsakonian house. A reception room, or ontas, occupied the south side and had two wooden balconies, no longer preserved, on the south and west. The winter room, or gonia, occupied the north side. Between these two rooms was the wooden partition that hid the entrance to the lavatory, a stone structure protruding to the west. The remaining part of the west wing houses the kitchen on the second storey. West of the kitchen, the remains of walls and of a roof indicate the presence of a small contiguous building, which was destroyed at an unknown date.

The north wing is two-storied. Four small and two large vaulted storerooms now occupy the ground floor; six cells and two auxiliary rooms, one of them shaped like a narrow corridor, occupy the top floor. A wooden balcony, supported by a row of transversal barrel vaults, lines the upper storey on the south side. A stone staircase leading to the upper floor replaced one of the barrel vaults during a subsequent building phase. The available evidence suggests that the ground floor, except, possibly, its east room, dates to the seventeenth century. This ground floor originally consisted of three vaulted spaces. The second storey, also originally vaulted, and the wooden balcony were added later, possibly in the eighteenth century. During this later construction phase, two of the three ground floor spaces were subdivided into two rooms by transversal walls. The wing was extended eastward by one extra room on both floors at an unknown period. Evidence suggests that this wing was repaired in the late nineteenth century, when the present wooden roof replaced the original vaulted roof in the upper storey.

The east wing, which is also two-storied, was probably built in the late eighteenth century and repaired in the late nineteenth century. The ground floor consisted of two, now deformed vaulted spaces, of which the larger one was the stable. To its west, a vaulted portico led to another small vaulted space. The upper floor probably originally resembled the main floor of a typical Tsakonian house, with two residential spaces, one for the summer and one for winter, at its two extremes, separated by a small, possibly originally auxiliary room. Traces of this arrangement are still visible despite the thorough restructuring that took place in the nineteenth century. The fireplaces, interesting wooden ceilings, and other secondary features all date from this period.

 

2. The katholikon

The monastery’s katholikon is of the Athonite type. The plastered exterior does not allow for a detailed observation of the building techniques. Selective removal of the thick wall plaster, however, revealed the strong, rough rubble masonry with wide joints, typical of economically depressed areas.

The church is shaped like a triconch, with apses on the north, east, and south sides – the famous Athonite choroi. The apses are faceted on the exterior, semi-circular inside. The tall twelve-sided dome rests on a four-sided base. The later belfry was built of stone with bricks inside the joints. Wall paintings by the Moschos brothers (1638), a marble floor of 1734, and a carved walnut templon of the late nineteenth century with despotic icons and icons of the Twelve Feasts decorate the interior (approximate dimensions 8.00 x 7.80 metres).

The floor is paved with marble slabs, rectangular in the side apses and sanctuary, hexagonal in the centre. Several slabs are decorated with relief carvings of vegetal motifs, animals and human figures (lion, bull, winged demon, two-headed eagle). The finest carving decorates the square slab in the centre, directly under the dome. It depicts a two-headed eagle surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists in the corners and framed by an inscription that reads:

 

“On August 25, 1734, the floor of the holy monastery of Agios Nikolaos Kareas was paved with funds provided by the most holy Lavrentios Kostakis; Kostas [son] of Gionis of the village of Prastos was the craftsman”

(Α Ψ Λ Δ ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΟΥ ΚΕ ΚΑΤΕΣΡΩΘΗ ΤΟ/ΕΔΑΦΟC ΤΗC ΑΓΙΑC ΜΟΝΗC ΤΟΥ ΑΓΙΟΥ / ΝΙΚΟΛΑΟΥ ΚΑΡΕΑΣ ΔΙΑ ΕΞΟΔΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΠΑΝΟ/CΙΩΤΑΤΟΥ ΚΥΡΙΟΥ ΛΑΥΡΕΝΤΙΟΥ ΚΩCΤΑΚΗ / Ο ΔΕ ΜΑΪCΤΩΡ ΚΩCΤΑC ΤΟΥ ΓΚΙΩΝΗ ΕΚ ΧΩΡΑΣ ΠΡΑCΤΟΥ).

 

The inscription refers to the abbot Lavrentios Kostakis, who paid for the paving, and the craftsman Kostas of Gionis from Prastos. A hexagonal frame also decorates the reliefs that correspond to the centre of the apses and depict a lion, a bull, a two-headed eagle, and a winged demon. These reliefs and their popular imagery were produced by local craftsmen probably in the same period (mid-eighteenth century).

WALL PAINTINGS

The katholikon’s interior is entirely decorated with wall paintings, which, despite the damage caused by falling plaster, particularly in the lower register, and the layer of soot that covers the walls, retains much of its beauty. According to the dedicatory inscription (dimensions: 0.40 x 0.74 metres), Georgios Moschos of Nauplion, an artist devoted to the Byzantine tradition, executed the wall paintings in 1638. Fotis Kontoglou, however, reports that Kyriakos Koulidas of the famous eighteenth-century family of painters worked on the wall paintings in 1767. Did Koulidas repair or complete Moschos’s wall paintings? The style is uniform throughout, making it difficult to tell. The wall paintings were donated by members of the Kaniklis family, one of the most prominent families of Tsakonia, according to Nikolaos Veis. Organized in horizontal registers, the scenes are badly preserved. In fact, the Virgin Platytera and the scenes decorating the dome are now almost entirely destroyed by the humidity and smoke.

 

HEIRLOOMS (ICONS, BOOKS)

The characteristic carved walnut templon of the late nineteenth century supports several icons, which may have been repainted. The monastery also has a small library with ecclesiastical books.

 

DEPENDENCIES

1. Monastery of Agios Georgios at Tyros

Modern Tyros is named after the ancient settlement that occupied the site of Kastro and the nearby sanctuary of Apollo Tyritas. The beach of Tyros, the Gulf of the Argolid, and Spetses stretch before it; behind it, rise the peaks of Mount Parnon. Tyros (Tere) is divided into three districts: Tanou (upper) Tere, Kotsineika, and Giale tou Terou.

The acropolis of ancient Tyros, with its Cyclopean walls, occupies a hilltop to the south. Michael Deffner recorded several works of art and fortification walls with large blocks in 1875-80. The discovery (1911) and Konstantinos Romaios’s excavation of the temple of Apollo Tyritas at the nearby site of Sirniali, between Melas and Tyros, confirmed the identification of modern Tyros as the site of the homonymous ancient Lakonian city.

The small monastery of Agios Georgios, once a dependency of the Karya monastery, is located at the northern edge of Ano Tyros. A large old well is situated outside the monastery’s enclosure, which measures approximately 30x30 metres. The katholikon, a basilica with tile roof, 12.80 metres long and 5.90 metres wide, has a three-sided sanctuary apse and a door with an awning, also covered with tiles, on the north side. A simple belfry, dated 1894, rises directly above the door. Inside the formerly domed church is a wooden templon with interesting icons of the Virgin, Christ the Great Priest, John the Baptist, and Saints George and Nicholas. A second icon of Saint George also depicts the saint’s miracles. North of the church is a two-storied building, with vaulted storerooms on the ground floor and monks’ cells on the upper floor. The monastery’s derelict olive press is located nearby.

 

2. Agios Nikolaos at Tyros

A small cruciform church located by the road to Leonidio, near the beach of Tyros, is all that remains of the monastic dependency of Agios Nikolaos. Built on a rise opposite the ancient acropolis, it faces the three picturesque windmills of Tyros. The church is 12.20 metres long and 6.90 metres wide, with three doors on three of its sides (north, west and south) and large windows. A tall, simple, concrete belfry, dated 1952, rises above the west door. The church has a wooden roof and black and white floor tiles. Part of the wall of an earlier building is preserved in its southwest corner.

 

3. Agios Ioannis at Leonidio

The only preserved structure of the dependency of Agios Ioannis at Leonidio is a simple, picturesque, two-storied building with a tiled roof, vaulted ground floor storerooms, and two or three monk’s cell in the upper floor. The building is located near the large parish church of Agios Ioannis, which may have succeeded a small, originally monastic, church.

 

4. Agios Georgios at Leonidio

Located outside Leonidio, on the road to Sintza, this chapel incorporates two reused ancient column drums. The chapel is a basilica with a two-pitched roof and a small, simple belfry at the edge of the south side. A door and window are located on the south wall. The interior is covered with lime plaster. West of the chapel are the remains of another building, possibly a storeroom or stable.

 

CONSERVATION AND RESTORATION

The restoration of the monastery of Agios Nikolaos Karyas was approved by Ministerial Decree in 1997. The project was carried out by the Technical Service of the Metropolis of Mantineia and Kynouria, under the supervision of the Directorate of Restoration of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments and the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, with funds by the Third Community Support Framework. Work, however, that was not included in the study was carried out without the knowledge or approval of the Archaeological Service.

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