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Monastery of Panagia Elonis (Dormition of the Virgin)

LISTED historical monument with a surrounding protection zone of 250 metres by Ministerial Decree ΥΠΠΟ/ΑΡΧ/Β1/Φ30/50540/1116 (Government Gazette 59/Β/31-1-1990)

LOCATION

The majestic and imposing monastery of Panagia Eloni stands on a huge rocky crag of Mount Parnon, halfway between Leonidio and Kosmas, 14 kilometres from the former and 107 kilometres from Tripoli. The crag rises inside the Dafnon gorge, one of the many steep, wild gorges carved by the Dafnias River, ancient Selinountas. Following the river’s course, the visitor arrives before Parnon’s massive rock-face; a hanging balcony at the base of the monastery offers the awestricken viewer a spectacular sight.

The monastery’s spiritual radiance reaches beyond the confines of Kynouria, from Lakonia to the Argolid and the islands of Hydra and Spetses. Its feast day attracts pilgrims from all over Greece. The monastery celebrates the feast of the Dormition on August 23, but its main feast day is the Virgin’s Presentation to the Temple on November 21. Originally, the Panagia was celebrated as Zoodochos Pigi on August 15 (Dormition of the Virgin).

 

NAME

The etymology of the monastery’s epithet is unknown. Elona may reflect the name of the site where the icon of the Virgin was found or where the monastery was built. The official patriarchal document that bestowed the monastery its stavropegial status refers to the monastery as “located on the site of Elona” (εις τοποθεσίαν Έλωνης καλουμένην). The epithet may derive from the word elos (swamp), possibly the monastery’s originally location. A monastic seal on a 1798 document reads ΘΕΙΟΣ ΝΑΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΥΠΕΡΑΓΙΑΣ ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΥ ΚΟΙΜΗΣΕΩΣ ΦΑΝΕΡΩΜΕΝΗΣ ΕΛΩΝΑ (Holy church of the most Holy Theotokos of the Dormition of Phaneromeni Elona).

Another theory suggests that the monastery was named after an early icon, which was brought to Tsakonia from Elos in Lakonia, an area that still has great faith in the protection of Elona. According to tradition, the inhabitants of Elos fled a Slav invasion in 582, some reaching Monemvasia and some settling in Tsakonia, the latter bringing an icon that preserved the name of their homeland (Elos, Elona).

A third hypothesis links the epithet Elona with the Tsakonian name Eouni for Eleousa (Merciful), and a fourth hypothesis links it with the name of a cave.

The second hypothesis is the most likely, since all of the others show greater etymologically weaknesses. Either way, the epithet appears to be early. It is possible that the name of Leonidio, the town established nearby in later times, derives from Elona (Elona > Elonidio); Agielidi, Leonidio in the Tsakonian dialect, derives from Agios Leonides. The monastery had a dependency at Leonidio, which Pouqueville called Eleonition.

 

FOLKLORE

According to tradition, shepherds herding their sheep on Mount Parnon saw a light shine from the great rock at night. They mentioned this to the bishop of Reon and Prastos, who, together with the region’s priests, notables, and Christians, approached the site and found an icon of the Virgin at the centre of the enormous rock with an oil lamp burning before it. Prompted by the bishop, two apprentice monks, Kallinikos and Dositheos, settled on the site and built a chapel and two cells. Their hermitages became the core of the monastery of Elona in the sixteenth century. According to the same tradition, the two hermits became martyrs of their faith and neomartyrs of Kynouria when slain by two wandering Turks, who attacked the Christian populations. The Virgin punished the two Turks by blinding them as they entered the chapel to loot it. They repented immediately, regained their vision, and donated their belongings to the monastery. Because of this miracle, the Ottomans gave the monastery various privileges, which contributed to its development in size, buildings, pilgrims, and donations.

 

HISTORICAL FACTS

The principal written sources for the monastery’s history are a synodical sigillion by Serapheim I, dated July 1730, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and several other later patriarchal documents.

A flourishing monastery since 1688, Panagia Elonis was probably savagely raided during the Veneto-Turkish campaigns of 1715, which led to the re-establishment of the Turks. Aided by other Christians, the few remaining monks managed to re-organize the monastery. Many years passed, however, before the monastery was restored. The monks’ first act was to request the stavropegial privilege in order to prevent the local bishop from meddling in the monastery’s affairs (as clearly stated in the relevant sigillion) and the Turkish authorities’ agents from stealing its riches. The stavropegial privilege was renewed in 1730, and the monastery depends directly upon the Patriarchate ever since.

The stavropegial privilege was again renewed by Patriarch Gregory V, who renewed the privilege of all stravropegial monasteries during his first term of office in June 1798. The relevant sigillion is kept in the Historical Archives of Sparta. On the parchment’s lower right corner is Gregory V’s signature as confirmation of his third term of office (June 11, 1819).

Shortly before 1798, the patriarch sent exarches to inspect the state of the monasteries and the administration of their finances. After the visit of the patriarchal envoys at the Elona monastery, Abbot Nikodimos addressed a special report to the patriarch and the patriarchal council on February 6, 1798. Nikodimos reports that the patriarchal exarches were accompanied by the bishop of Reon and Prastos and that they read their letters of authorization by the patriarch to the monks before examining the list of financial transactions.

Later inventories of the monastery’s holdings show that the monastery had amassed considerable property. After 1715, the monastery was rich enough to give out a loan. The monastery also received donations from Christians in the wider region and profited from the many visiting pilgrims. Unfortunately, a foundation document that would provide further evidence is not preserved.

The monks of Elona participated actively in the Greek War of Independence. According to one source, Abbot Neophytos joined the Greek combatants and was killed near Argos. Because of its fortified position, the monastery served as a safe refuge for civilians. In 1822, the monastery loaned the Peloponnesian Senate 1,500 piastres, which were never returned, as a contribution to the Greek cause. The monastery was also used for storing arms and as a base for armed forces.

After Greek Independence, most Peloponnesian monasteries were in a state of collapse. In 1836-1854, under the regency of King Otto, the Elona monastery was listed as historical monument. It subsequently absorbed the monks from nearby establishments, its population reaching the number of forty. Its monks rented, sold, and improved the monastic lands. Theodoritos, its abbot during that period, was succeeded by the monk Joachim after his death in 1839.

The monastery declined after 1860, but its population increased again around 1900, and it has flourished to this day. One of the richest Peloponnesian monasteries in 1930, it became a nunnery in 1970.

 

THE MONASTERY TODAY

A. The building complex

A well-built staircase with wide steps leads to the monastery’s arched gate, above which is a machicolation. An open corridor, approximately fifteen metres long, connects this to a second gate, again with a machicolation. Finally, another corridor, approximately 100 metres long, flanked by the great rock-face on the right and the steep drop on the left, leads to the centre of the monastic complex. The buildings’ different levels and the many corridors, porticoes, and staircases give the complex a sense of rhythmic movement and internal life.

From here a staircase leads downwards and left into a long, narrow corridor, the east side of which lines a three-storied building with cells and guestrooms on the first floor, refectories and storerooms on the ground floor, and offices and reception rooms further on. The balconies and porches afford breathtaking views.

Another staircase leads to the building opposite, on the monastery’s west side. This is a three-storied structure with storerooms on the ground floor and guestrooms on the upper floors. Behind this building, a staircase leads to the All Saints chapel. Next to it is an old hermitage inside a rocky hollow. At the corridor’s south end, a double staircase with ten steps reaches a small, triangular, paved courtyard in front of the katholikon (main church).

From the monastery’s main courtyard, a staircase descends to the monastery’s lower levels and, further on, to the portico that houses the monastery’s service rooms (bakery, ovens, etc). Water comes from a spring in the rock and is gathered in a cistern west of the katholikon.

 

b. The katholikon 

The current katholikon (main church) was built in 1809. It is a barrel-vaulted basilica (interior dimensions: 14.90 × 5.10 metres) tucked into a natural hollow of the great rock, with four rectangular entrance doors on the north side. A somewhat irregular stone arch crowns the largest of these doors. To its left is an empty niche and to its right an inscribed plaque, which reads:

 

ΕΓΩ ΜΕΝ ΑΝΕΙ ΓΕΡΜΑΙ ΓΗΣ ΕΚ ΒΑΡΑΘΡΩΝ

ΛΙΑΝ ΩΡΑΙΟC ΝΑΟC ΤΗC ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΥ

ΠΟΝΟΙC ΦΡΟΝΤΙCΙ ΤΩΝ ΩΔΕ ΜΟΝΑΖΟΝΤΩΝ

ΑΔΡΑΙC ΤΕ ΔΑΠΑΝΗCΙ ΜΟΝΗC ΙΔΙΑC

ΗΓΟΥΜΕΝΕΥΟΝΤΟC ΤΟΥ ΚΥΡΟΥ ΝΕΟΦΥ

ΤΟΥ ΕΙΛΚΕ ΓΕΝΟC ΕΚ ΠΑΛΑΙΟΧΩΡΙΟΥ

ΕΦΗΓΕΜΩΝΟC ΒΕΛΗ ΤΟΥ ΗΠΕΙΡΩΤ(ΟΥ)

ΚΑΙ ΤΟΥ ΡΕΟΝΤΟC ΤΟΥ CΕΠΤΟΥ ΙΑΚΩΒΟΥ

ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟ Α Ω Θον ΕΤΟC ΤΟ CΩΤΗΡΙΟΝ

 

The inscription mentions Abbot Neophytos, a member of the Filiki Etaireia, who was killed at Argos in 1821. According to the inscription, the church of 1809 occupies the site of an earlier church and extends along the east side of the cave so as to protrude over the gorge. The plaque was placed by permission of the Turkish governor of the Peloponnese, Veli Pasha, under Archbishop Iakovos of Reon and Prastos.

The church has two windows on the north side, a rectangular window (0.65 × 0.90 metres) on the south wall, three windows in the sanctuary, and a light shaft in the three-sided apse.

Inside the church is a finely carved wood (walnut) templon, which separates the sanctuary from the nave. The parapets are decorated in relief with various representations, including the Zoodochos Pigi. Below the images of the Twelve Feasts are the Anastasis (Resurrection), the Last Supper, and the Transfiguration.

A circular staircase on the katholikon’s west side leads to the gallery. A two-storied marble belfry was erected in 1831 against the centre of the north side.

 

HEIRLOOMS

In an 1828 inventory of ecclesiastical properties, the Elona monastery appears as holding among other things sacred vessels, gospels with silver revetments, crosses, two icons with silver revetments, priest’s gowns, and books. Relics, gospels, various heirlooms, and many offerings are displayed in special cases inside the katholikon.

 

DEPENDENCIES

The 1828 inventory lists seven dependencies of the Elona monastery. These include a building at Kosmas (later converted into a school) with a small church of the Zoodochos Pigi; a dependency at Pournaro near Kosmas; the Evangelistria church at Leonidio, which celebrates the Virgin’s Presentation to the Temple on November 21 with a great feast and a procession of the miraculous icon; a dependency at Geraki, another at Elochoria, and another at Mari. The toponym Elona on the island of Hydra may reflect the presence of another monastic dependency there.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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