August 02, 1997

Article at Washington Post

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Nineteen hundred years ago, Saint John the Apostle went to Patmos and wrote the Book of Revelation. Today, the tiny Greek island is still a vision to behold.

Nineteen centuries ago, a Roman galley ship brought John the Apostle through the same waters I am cruising now, heading toward the same destination: the tiny Aegean island of Patmos. All these years later, a boat is still the only way to get here. My ferry has been steaming east from Athens for nine hours and now, at 2 a.m., the island finally appears on the horizon, a deeper scribble of black against the blackness of the sea at night. I wonder whether John arrived at night, whether he too saw the stars above the island glittering in the colors that emerge so far from city light -- amber, red, pale green, blue-white, pink, the glittering white of no-color. I have the leisure to notice such things, but John -- witness at Christ's Crucifixion and author of the last of the four Gospels -- came here in chains, a man in his nineties, condemned to exile by the Roman Emperor Domitian. His crime: Being a Christian, and a prince of the early church.

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book . . .


The book John wrote on Patmos is the Book of Revelation -- the final book of the New Testament, a hallucinatory tapestry of hail, fire and blood, of six-winged beasts and human-faced locusts, of angels clothed in cloud, capped with rainbows and walking on legs like pillars of fire, of saints singing praise in the golden streets of an eternal Jerusalem. John wrote it in the form of letters to the seven major churches scattered across what was then the heathen Roman province of Asia Minor, now western Turkey. In the nearly two millenniums since he dictated his vision in a humble Patmos cave, Revelation's images have been fodder for cults, horror movies and powerful Sunday sermons. They have given comfort to the doubting, doubt to the comfortable and, over and over again, have been used to predict imminent Apocalypse. In short, the Book of Revelation brought into the world some of the most potent words and images Western culture has known. I have come to Patmos to see what remnants of such a powerful dream may linger in the island's air, its rock, its waters and its holy places.

At sunrise, a chorus of roosters jerks me from a luminous and hectic dream. I sit at the bed's edge trying to connect disjointed images but losing them. All that remains is a sense of sound and color. Later I will find out it is a commonplace of conversation on Patmos: What did you dream last night? Vivid dreams, it turns out, remain a part of everyday life here.

The roosters crow for half an hour, then break off. I sleep again, for an hour or two, before I get up to eat breakfast and explore.

A small, volcanic island shaped like a hook and dotted with minor peaks, Patmos is one of the northernmost of Greece's Dodecanese Islands, which are scattered like a broken necklace along Turkey's western coast. Only about a thousand people live here year-round, most of them in the port town of Skala, but others are scattered in smaller fishing villages dotting the island's other harbors. While tourists from all over the world ferry among the Grecian islands every season, Patmos is rarely on the itineraries of big tour groups and travel planners, which tend to favor the better-known, more culturally rich or tonier islands of Crete, Rhodes, Santorini, Mykonos and others. Patmos is known primarily as the place Revelation was written and as home to two important shrines: the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse and the Monastery of St. John the Divine. The island receives a steady stream of day-trippers ferrying in from other nearby islands, and a regular dose of Christian pilgrims who seek it out to pay tribute.

Located in sea lanes that have borne commerce, war and migration for many thousands of years, Patmos has a history consisting largely of waves of invasion and settlement -- by the pre-classical Greeks, by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Turks and, more recently, the Italian Fascists and the Nazis. John was here during the later part of the Roman occupation, when Patmos was a prison island where the Emperor Domitian cast criminals, political opponents and revolutionaries. John would have been considered all three.

Though Patmos was a holy place before John came -- the Greek hero Orestes allegedly founded a temple to the goddess Artemis here -- it was John's Revelation that made it a destination for pilgrims. The Blessed Christodoulos, a Christian abbot during the Byzantine Empire, which followed the Roman, was one of these. He came to Patmos in 1088, roughly a thousand years after John's imprisonment, following the Evangelist's footsteps. Not as a prisoner, though; Christodoulos came as the island's landlord. Ironically, the man of God won Patmos on a bet. He had prophesied that a political weakling, Alexis I Comnenus, would become the Byzantine Emperor. The skeptical but hopeful Alexis told Christodoulos that if the prediction came true, he could have anything he wanted. When Alexis was crowned, Christodoulos wanted Patmos.

The morning is cloudless and mild; bougainvillea trained in arches over entranceways and garden gates perfumes the air, a smell so pungent it is almost color. Coriander grows in head-high shrubs, and in the waterfront's few vacant lots blood-red poppies nod, magenta morning glories twine around grass stems. But along the wharf, the throat-clearing of rented scooters sours the calm, aided by the percussive hacking of a steam engine down the street that works a single pneumatic tooth into the island's volcanic bone, clearing the way for another pension or hotel, another whitewashed domatia, an extra room that island residents let to tourists in high season. In the main square, I see Disney has made landfall before me: The shop windows show "101 Dalmatians -- Island of Patmos" T-shirts and Hercules action figures.

I walk west, away from the harbor and deeper into town. My guidebook tells me there is a medieval cobblestone cart track on the edge of Skala that winds upward for several miles, leading to the Monastery of the Apocalypse, constructed around the cave where John dreamed Revelation. From here the track continues winding upward, ending at last at the hulking hilltop fortress that is the Monastery of St. John the Divine. Both monasteries are Christodoulos's legacy, built after he and his followers took possession of the island.

I turn up a street and come at last to the gray stone ribbon that cuts between low walls up a steep hill. The Monastery of the Apocalypse is nestled only a half-mile or so ahead -- I can see its main building, shining like a low chalk cliff in the morning sun.

In Revelation 1:19, Christ told John: Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter. I walk trying to see through the obscuring screen of the modern, catching glimpses of the ancient landscape. The farther from the town I go, the easier this becomes. Houses fall behind, groves of willow and pine close in, and the cobbles are drifted in hushing needles. The path is deserted in the morning cool. The bitter smell of carnations rises from behind a garden wall where the valley falls away. Sound carries here; no white noise of traffic, only the quiet that holds above the surrounding sea, lightly torn as the island wakes. He that hath an ear, let him hear.

I cross a flagstone courtyard before the Monastery of the Apocalypse. Signs point me toward John's cave, down a winding flight of open-air steps, past the closed doors of monks' cells, through the gift shop and finally through the Chapel of St. Anne, one of the first things Christodoulos built after arriving here. The chapel, a peaked vault attached like a tiny stone porch to John's cave, is packed with tourists sitting on low benches. A tour guide stands in the cave's open mouth, addressing her charges in German.

The chapel has a single simple window whose frames open inward, and through them the valley asserts itself. The view is of terraced fields, stone walls, olive groves moving in the scant breeze, a hay field freshly cut and lined with windrows. The ocean throbs behind the hills. What John saw: rock, sea, the island's hardy growth, maybe the few scattered dwellings of the other exiles, entering through this small opening, a key through a keyhole.

I step past the Germans, following the shaft of natural light into the cave's interior. There are no stalagmites or deep, secret grottoes. The cave is just a shallow scoop of space beneath a head-high overhang. It must have formed when an enormous bubble burst in the cooling magma that pushed the island up from the seabed. The cave is rounded, womblike; when John was here there was no chapel to close it off from the weather. But Patmos was a prison island then, and John must have had competition for even this meager bit of shelter.

The chapel was bare stone then, with a hollow where he lay his head, a hand-hold cut to help him rise from sleep, from prayer or vision. Above his head, a crack was blasted through the rock, allegedly by the thunder of God's voice. To the right there is a natural shelf, where John's disciple Prochorus stood as John dictated Revelation's letters to him. Two thousand years of faith have, meanwhile, encrusted nearly every surface: the niche where John's head rested is now framed in a hammered silver halo, and boxed in with a brass banister. Above the halo, at chest height, a Maltese cross is etched into the rock, cut by some anonymous crusader on his way to the Holy Land. John's handhold is circled in white marble, smoothed and darkened with the oils left by centuries of reverent hands.

To the right, a silk brocade drape covers Prochorus's desk. The spot is lit feebly by candle lanterns that swing from ancient iron rings screwed into the ceiling. Only the crack from which God's voice issues seems unadorned. It splits the overhanging rock into three lobes: Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. REVELATION 4:2-3

To the left, an altar screen closes off the end of the cave. Its central panel is a 16th-century icon showing John prostrate and terrified, Christ seated above him, His face rigorous with judgment. He holds aloft the seven stars in His right hand, and in His left the keys symbolizing His command of death and Hell. Hovering in a circle around Him, angels hold the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom Christ addressed Revelation's stern warnings: Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. . . . As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. . . . All the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

The altar screen's gilding is chipping away, the icons' gesso darkened until Jesus and His attendants seem to peer at the viewer through black smoke. There is a glass box of votive offerings -- small silver arms, silver legs, hands, torsos, eyes -- and others tied to the bannister with pink grosgrain ribbon, identifying afflicted body parts for the saint's intervention and cure. Pilgrims were moved to leave other offerings, too: rings, pendants, bracelets, drachmas, Deutschmarks, dollar bills, a woman's digital watch.

The next day I make my way up the cobblestone track again, bound this time for the Monastery of St. John -- the holy fortress whose construction went on for the better part of seven centuries. I pass the cave; above it the groves of willow and pine fall away and the path is naked in the light, winding among gorse, boulders and cactuses. St. John's looms on every turn: unscalable walls grown with lichen, punched through with arrow slits and places where boiling oil could be poured down. Such protection was necessary in Christodoulos's time -- the Aegean swarmed with pirates. During the monastery's construction, the monks were driven off several times, dislodged by raiders. But they always returned.

Because St. John's is a functioning monastery, much of it is closed off to tourists. Visitors who make the trek are permitted, however, to peer into the monastery's main chapel, which the monks completed in 1091. I pass through the main door and look inside. If ever there was an attempt to manifest the fractal hallucination that was John's vision, this is it. The space is chockablock with sacred objects, icons of various antiquities and subjects, silver lamps depending in their dozens like filigreed icicles, a towering 19th-century wooden altar screen that seems like something thrust up from a gilder's nightmare. There is not an undecorated inch: My pocket flashlight shows that even the ceiling -- blackened by the tallow of nearly a millennium's candles -- has its posing figures, staring down in blurry sanctity into the puzzled faces we visitors tip up to them. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand.

I come back down the cart track again in the late afternoon, tired. I read for a while, stretched out on the bed in my room. At 6:30 p.m. the churches' bells wake me -- astounded, my book tented on my chest -- from a deep sleep into which I hadn't expected to fall. The dream, again, is in tatters: only bright color in bursts and flashes. The pealing seems to come from everywhere and nowhere -- a beautiful, inscrutable harmonic of seven notes. Seven churches, seven stars, seven lamp stands, the Lamb's seven horns and eyes. The number seven symbolized completeness or perfection to the Jews who were the first Christians. I go out onto the little terrace to take in the sun as it sets over Hohlaka Bay, battering a corridor of glare across the blue sea's dimpled surface. And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

In a small taverna I decide on grilled octopus, grape leaves drenched in olive oil and lemon juice, salad. As I eat I think of John, rigid with vision on the naked stone floor of his cave, his dream translated by the monks into the sooty scents of ink, beeswax and lamp oil, to the tempera and gesso on the icon panels, gilding and silver, amethyst, beryl, chrysoprase, ruby, sapphire. Frozen gestures of awe and worship lit badly on the walls and illuminated in the books.

The pirates came and raided; the monks built their fortress. The long, dark, impecunious centuries of struggle wove themselves into the garment Patmos wears. Water dripped onto the books that held the words, rats ate the leather bindings. Worms gnawed the wood beneath the icons' paint and it fell away. The frescoes disappeared, blackened with incense and tallow, obliterated by the worship they signified. The invaders came and were displaced, over and over, until the only army left is the one that has no nation and bears no weapons, only the flashing lights of their cameras, their loud voices, their money that is their armor, laying a siege that never lifts.

The next morning four cruise ships dock, disgorging a thousand or so vacationers, instantly doubling the island's population. I steer clear of Skala's waterfront, keeping to the narrower streets leading away from the harbor and toward Hohlaka Bay. Behind Skala, like a backdrop to the town, climb the slopes of a height called Kasteli, slanting upward to a broken halo of ruins where a complex of pagan temples and public buildings -- the Patmian Acropolis -- once stood. Each time I have stepped out onto the terrace of my room I have looked up here, knowing I needed to see this place firsthand. The climb up the slope is a hard scramble over loose-piled stone walls, fields of seeding rape and gorse in yellow flower -- up and up the toppling rocks and goat paths, to what's left of the temple.

Apocalypse. We think it means the end of all things, disaster. But it comes from the Greek for "remove" -- apo -- and from Calypso the concealer, the sorceress who held Ulysses enthralled on her hidden island for two years. To remove that which conceals. To reveal. Apocalypse is a synonym for Revelation, its derivation elegantly joining Patmos's pagan and Christian sacred traditions. It is a reminder that Patmos was a holy place long before John came here, before Christodoulos won it and transformed it into a tribute to his God and his Apostle. When John arrived, the islanders still worshiped in the pagan temples of Kasteli. When he left 18 months later, he had converted them all, and the empty sanctuaries of the old gods fell into the decline that has since claimed them entirely.

Only a few oblongs of massive, neatly carved basalt block remain; the Blessed Christodoulos and his followers disassembled everything that stood here 900 years ago and used it to construct St. John's on the hill opposite, literally transforming, by the sweat of their labor, a pagan shrine into a Christian one. I look around, trying to catch my breath in the glare and the ringing quiet.

Christodoulos was quite thorough: Little remains to suggest the place's pagan sanctity except the quiet. The lively port of Skala, behind and below me, is not even a mutter here; there is only the croaking of the wheeling jackdaws the Greeks call kallimatsou, the wind in the waving grass. Thermals spiral upward from the cliff faces that drop into the sea and swallows buffet against them, hanging cruciform against the sky's crystalline blue. A goat's bell ting-ting-tings, the animal's bleat rising so softly that it might be a thing thought, not heard. Color changes show me where the Aegean is deep and where it is shallow; the sea's surface is stippled where currents of air move on it, shadows and light, glossy and matte. I think not of Revelation now but Genesis: And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

How to reconcile this irony, seeking the eternal amid the destroyed, looking for remnants of a Christian saint's vision amid a pagan temple's ruins? Apparently I am not the first to try. There is a chapel here that perches just beyond the vanished complex's foundations, where the slope is steepest. It is perfectly tended, looking west across the water toward Athens. Behind the chapel rise the remains of a staircase. It leads nowhere now, to mysteries exposed a thousand years ago to open air.

Final night. I am waiting with other passengers at the Arion Cafe on Skala's waterfront. Our ferry is due within the hour.

As dusk comes on, everyone is setting out candles on doorsteps. It is the evening before the Feast of the Ascension, when Christ rose into Heaven after His Resurrection. The candles -- glittering in every alleyway and on every hill -- are to light Jesus's way upward, as is what is in preparation on the little bit of beach beneath the northern part of the quay. Stooped over the sand, a crowd is arranging oil-soaked rags in two crosses and a peace sign along a 200-foot stretch of the water.

Excited voices come in a murmur to those of us in the Arion, calling us away from our tables. There is time; the boat is always late.

We walk out past the cafe's tables, past the masts of the yachts, out to a pier's end where the deep waters chew patiently at the stone. One by one, the crosses, the peace sign, are lit.

John arrived on this shore an old man, thinking he would never leave. Tradition has it that his stay was only 18 months. Domitian was assassinated and replaced with more the lenient Nerva, who with the Senate annulled all Domitian's decrees, including the one that Christians be exiled. How did John feel when the ships arrived to carry him back?

The ferry comes at last and it takes only moments before everyone is on board. We move to the rail and watch the ceremony on shore. The custom of centuries, meant like the doorstep candles to light Christ's way as he rises. Children run through the flames unhurt and leap into the water.

Rolling dark smoke climbs into the dimming sky, an inscrutable and elaborate gesture, rising above the flames that double themselves on the still harbor's surface, above the children that race and shout, their silhouettes moving through the glare like the attenuated figures in the art of Mycenae. Form against flame, figures bracketed by fire, everything moving and bright.

It is the last look and it is what remains: Children dancing as they always have, their cries -- audible a moment ago, but now, as the boat pulls farther away and its engines throb, supplied only by memory -- tracing the rise and fall of the swallows that dip and swoop like the glyphs of some fantastic, unread text, eternally above the highest places of Patmos.

Mark Baechtel, a contributor to The Washington Post Book World, is a fellow in the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he is working on a novel.

Details : Patmos GETTING THERE: First you'll need to fly to Athens. A number of airlines offer service from Washington to Athens via various European hubs. Delta flies from Washington National and Baltimore-Washington International, via New York, and is quoting a round-trip fare of $975, with restrictions.

During the peak tourist season (May through September), there are usually a couple of ferries a day making the nine-hour trip from the Piraeus port (about a $10 cab ride from Athens) to Patmos. First-class passage in a cabin with two bunks and a bathroom with shower will run about $35 one way. Specify a private cabin -- about $15 above regular first-class fare -- unless you don't mind sharing sleeping space with a stranger. I was quite surprised on my trip out when a roommate carried his bags into my cabin. Second class (a four-cabin room with a wash basin) costs about $28, deck class about $21. WHERE TO STAY: On Patmos, many homeowners rent rooms -- called domatia -- for $15 to $20 per night. These are usually clean, comfortable and quiet, but may be in remote locations. There are numerous pensions running from $15 to $30, and several good hotels whose rooms -- nicely if simply furnished -- seldom run more than $30 a night. At the Hotel Romeos (telephone 011-30-247-31962, fax 011-30-247-31070), views of Skala harbor to the east and Hohlaka Bay to the west let me watch the sun rise and set on the Aegean. GETTING AROUND: Patmos is small and congenial to foot travel, but if you're disinclined to walk there is inexpensive bus service from Skala to the island's other towns and beaches, and taxis (fares seldom amount to more than $5) are available. By far the most common mode of travel on Patmos is the motor scooter; these can be rented in Skala for around $10 per day, not including gas. WHERE TO EAT: There are numerous tavernas and restaurants in Skala. The fare is simple and traditional, with an entree and salad running about $15. Reliable choices include Taverna Grigoris on the Hora road, and the O Pantelis Taverna behind the Cafe Bar Arion, itself a popular gathering place for Greek coffee and people-watching. INFORMATION: Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., Olympic Tower, Fifth Floor, New York, N.Y. 10022, 212-421-5777.

-- Mark Baechtel CAPTION: Rising high above Patmos's harbor of Skala, the fortresslike Monastery of St. John was built from remnants of a pagan temple. Left: Inside the Monastery of the Apocalypse, where legend says the power of John's vision split the volcanic rock. CAPTION: The Monastery of St. John the Divine was constructed to withstand raids by pirates, frequent visitors to the island of Patmos. CAPTION: The spot in the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse where John's head is said to have rested is cordoned off by a brass rail. CAPTION: The view of Skala from Kasteli, atop which a complex of pagan temples and buildings once stood. CAPTION: The still-functioning Monastery of St. John was built 900 years ago.