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Monastery of Timios Prodromos

LISTED historical monument with surrounding ten-metre protective zone by Ministerial Decree ΥΠΠΕ/ΑΡΧ/Β1/Φ30/26891/512/29-5-1984 (Government Gazette 836/Β/26-11-1984)

 

LOCATION

On their way from Tripoli to Argos, visitors pass through the magnificent gorge of the river Tanos in the heart of Mount Parnon, which is filled with interesting sites. They then come upon the Kotronas rise and the hermitages of Agia Eleousa, now mere traces of walls inside the shallow caves of Kokkinovrachos, where the rock-hewn church of Agia Eleousa was built. A later church dedicated to the Archangels stands atop Kotronas.

The monastery of Timios Prodromos is located in a remote, inaccessible part of Mount Parnon, near the villages Karatoula, Bernori, Mesorrachi, Kotrona, Kakkavo, Tzorvasi (Pardikovrysi), Platana, Stolo, and Agia Sofia.

 

CASTLES OF THE SURROUNDING REGION

1. The Oria (Estella) Castle

In the southeast part of the Xerokampi plateau, between the villages of Agios Ioannis and Agios Petros, stands a pyramidal rise with the remains of a settlement and fort locally known as the ‘Oria Castle’. Written sources place here the Estella Castle (Astron), which was built in a strategic location, on the only natural route connecting the Argolid with Lakonia and the coast of Kynouria with Arcadia.

Spyridon Lampros, Adamantios Adamantiou, Nikolas Veis, and Konstantinos Romaios identified the Oria Castle as the Estella Castle of the Aragonese Chronicle, which the Francs built in 1256 in order to supervise the undisciplined Tsakonians. The name Estella was later connected with the widespread Greek myth of the Oraia (Oria) Archontissa (Fair Lady), and the castle was renamed Kastro tis Orias (Castle of the Fair Lady), like dozens of other castles in Greece.

After Andronikos Assan’s successful campaigns in 1320, the castle came under the Despot of Mistra. In 1407, it was conquered by the Venetians of Nauplion, and in 1423 by the Melissinoi. In 1463, the castle was once more Venetian until it fell into Turkish hands in 1467.

A double fortification wall rises on the more regular west slope. Built of dry stone masonry, the outer wall surrounded a large settlement of more than 150 small, one-room houses, approximately 8 metres long and 4 metres wide. The stone and mortar inner wall (preserved dimensions are 100 metres long and three metres tall) is located thirty metres below the hilltop. The entrance gate, which is narrow on the wall’s outer face and wider on the inner face so as to fit four or five defenders in its opening leads onto the spacious hilltop plateau, where the foundations of three houses and a tower, now preserved to a height of three metres, are visible.

 

2. Kotronas

A fortified site of unknown date sits atop the rocky crag of Kotronas on the right bank of the Tanos river opposite the Prodromou monastery at Perdikovrysi. A small section of the fortification wall is preserved of the north side and a masonry cistern on the hilltop. Foundations of houses are visible on the foot of Kotronas at a site dubbed ‘Paliochora’, where, according to tradition, people from Thyrea settled after fleeing Algerian pirates who disembarked at Astros.

 

3. Meligou Castle

Part of an ancient fortification wall built of rough boulders, now six metres long, rises on the east slope of a hillock southeast of the village of Meligou. South of the church of the Agioi Apostoloi, which was built, according to an inscription, in 1611, is a derelict tower house with archery windows. The tower house probably dates to the Ottoman period and may have been the residence of a Turkish notable. The entire plain of Astros and Agios Andreas and much of the Argive Gulf are visible from the hilltop.

HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

Timios Prodromos was a parochial monastery under the jurisdiction of the Archbishopric of Argos and Nauplion. In 1696, it was a flourishing establishment that had earned the respect of the region’s Christians who donated land, money, and various objects. There is no evidence for direct relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, whose help the monks requested in 1808 in an attempt to protect their land from Christians, who had appropriated the monastery’s property. A synodical document denouncing the interlopers was issued under Patriarch Gregory V.

During the Greek War of Independence the naturally fortified monastery played an important role both as military hospital for the combatants and as refuge for civilians, including the Greek chieftains’ families. Its monks also fought in the battles.

After a failed attempt to break Panos Zafeiropoulos’s defence and conquer Kastro in August 1826, Ibrahim Pasha’s army left Astros, passed Agiannis and Xerokampi, and unleashed its rage on the Timios Prodromos monastery where wounded and sick soldiers and many families from nearby villages with their children and elderly sheltered. Among the wounded was George Jarvis, an American philhellene and fighter for Greek independence, who had taken the Greek name Kapetan (Captain) Georgis Zervis. The Greeks defended the monastery vigorously forcing the enemy to retreat.

The flourishing monastery supported financially the operation of a school at Kastri and is referred to as “well ordered” in an 1859 report by the Holy Synod. The monastery declined in subsequent years; only its abbot Christophoros Diamantakos and the elderly monk Euthymios lived there in 1973. In 1980, it became a nunnery under Abbess Anysia of the Malevi nunnery.

The monastery’s feast day is September 6 (nine days after the beheading of John the Baptist) and 14 (feast of the True Cross).

 

FOLKLORE

Near the monastery’s property limits, a fence surrounds the so-called ‘patima’ (footprint). According to tradition, when Saint Nicholas came through on a special mission to define the area of his jurisdiction, his horse’s hoof left a mark on the ground, henceforth known as the ‘patima’.

According to another story, when the monastery was being built, a workman fell down the precipice together with a stone block. When other workmen went to look for his body, they saw him climbing up the side, the block on his shoulder. 

 

FOUNDATION AND CONSTRUCTION PHASES

Built at the cave’s entrance, the original katholikon was a small church, four metres long and three metres wide, with a northeast-facing apse. The church was later extended to the east. A later inscription over the church’s entrance mentions 1126 as the year in which the church or monastery was founded – it was probably the year when the monastery’s east, central, and north wings were built. The south wing, which several scholars date to 1706, displays the same construction techniques as the other wings and may, therefore, date to the same period. The monastery was restored and rebuilt several times during its long life.

Due to a shortage of space, the residential wings, which form a pi, were built on different levels. The two towers were built between 1330 and 1382. The north tower was erected on top of the north wing, while the south tower is adjacent to the south wing. The south wing’s third storey and wooden extension were built in 1704, giving the monastery its current appearance.

 

ARCHITECTURE

1. THE BUILDING COMPLEX

The monastery was founded in the tenth or eleventh centuries inside a large cavity of the blue-green limestone rock-face. The building complex is pi-shaped, a typical arrangement in monastic architecture. Despite repeated interventions, the buildings retain their original features.

The three-storied east and south wings and the two-storied north wing contain cells, storerooms, and service areas. They surround a small courtyard at the far end of which stands the katholikon (main church) and the famous ‘Cave of the Prodromos (John the Baptist)’, the last refuge and defense in the event of attack. The Kastriot builders ingeniously placed two bastions from where a minimum number of men could block the monastery’s only access points: one west of the entrance gate and another on a particularly steep pass in the Xerokampi plateau above the monastery.

Next to the katholikon, a long and narrow corridor leads to the so-called ‘Cave of Pan’. According to tradition, this cave ends inside the Malevi monastery. Three water cisterns, still operating today, are located near the cave’s entrance, which is now almost entirely blocked by the katholikon. The cave’s large chamber probably served as a storeroom.

A most interesting feature is the monastery’s two underground passages, particularly the passage located underneath the west wing, in which a trap door leads into the kitchen. Inside this passage the Greek chieftains gathered before various battles and made historical decisions regarding Greek independence.

 

2. THE KATHOLIKON

The katholikon (main church) is a domed, rock-hewn structure, located on the same level as the residential wings’ second storey. The church preserves its original core with its northeast-facing sanctuary apse. Above the katholikon’s south door an inscription reads: Ο θείος ούτος ναός του ΠΡΔ εκτίσθη δια συνδρομής και εξόδων παρά του κυρίου Ιωάννου Πίκλη και ηγουμένου Αρσενίου, εν έτει από Χριστού 1126 (This holy church of John the Baptist was built with the contribution and funds of Ioannis Piklis and Abbot Arsenios, in the year 1126 from Christ’s birth). Inside the church is a fine carved wood templon.

The original katholikon was probably squeezed inside the narrow cave with some difficulty. The church was later extended into a simplistic L-shaped building with four crude barrel vaults. A subsequent extension involved the construction of a crude dome supported by two pillars, one inside the extension and another on the south wall. The barrel-vaulted sanctuary adds much-needed space.

 

WALL PAINTINGS

Most of the katholikon’s wall paintings are covered with lime, and those still visible are in a poor state. The surviving wall paintings inside the sanctuary (Virgin Platytera, Three Hierarchs) are the work of an unknown artist of the Venetian period (late seventeenth-eighteenth centuries).

DEPENDENCIES – MONASTIC ESTATE

In a report addressed to the Venetian administration on September 2, 1696, Abbot Joachim lists fourteen monks, eight cells, two houses (one used as a guesthouse and the other as the refectory), and several dependencies, such as the chapel of Agios Georgios and the dependency of Agios Nikolaos, which was located “opposite the monastery”. The church of Agios Nikolaos had been damaged by earthquake, but the dependency still boasted three houses, an orchard, a vineyard of 4,000 square metres, and farmland. At Kastri, the monastery owned thirty trees (chestnut, cherry, mulberry, and apple trees). Another dependency was located at Stolos, and various landholdings at Xerokampos, Masena, Mouchli, Mystras, Botamia, and Dropolitza (Tripoli).  

An 1828 census mentions thirteen monks and lists ten cells, three dependencies, vineyards, 415,000 square metres of farmland, 500 olive trees, a mill, and a debt of 3,240 piastres.

The General State Archives also provide information on the monastery from 1833 onwards, primarily through accounts of the monastery’s buildings, estate, portable objects, sacerdotal vestments, and sacred vessels, addressed by Abbot Parthenios to the newly established Greek administration. The cultivated farmland, mills, and dependencies provided the monastery with considerable income. Another lucrative activity was the display of sacred relics at Kastri.

CONSERVATION AND RESTORATION

The Ministry of Culture approved a study for the conservation and restoration of the Timios Prodromos monastery in 2002. The project was financed by the Third Community Support Framework and carried out by the Technical Service of the Archbishopric of Mantineia and Kynouria under the supervision of the Fifth (subsequently Twenty-fifth) Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. Work focused on the north and west wings, the entrance tower, and the floor of the monastery’s courtyard.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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