Friday, June 26, 2009


Being here at the monastery has allowed me to sit back and think about my life on a level that I don't feel has been possible in the past. I get so caught up in academics or looking forward to what's coming next in my life (travel, Fulbright, Grad School, Employment) that I don't get a chance to reflect on where I've come from and what means most to me. These are major decisions in my life, but are also opportunities that are supposed to be fun and aren't available to everyone!

Living in this simple community, out of reach from external influence, allows me to focus and catch up to my rising stress level. As I've said before, not having a background in religious studies, art history, and classical studies puts me at a disadvantage during our tours, (mini)lectures, and conversations. However, When I think back to a little over a year ago, I don't think there has been a time in my life that I learned more. Travel has been influential in my passion to learn more about historical, sociological, and cultural aspects of my design education. Studio becomes the ruler of my life, and I'm glad I've taken a stance
against that to allow for a more rewarding and well-rounded (Liberal Arts) education.

As I said when I was in the island of Leros, Greece... The sound of nothing is something so far gone in our contemporary society, that cherishing those experiences becomes extremely important.

Thursday, June 25th - FEAST!

Today is the birthday of St. John the Baptist who is the patron saint of the monastery. “Prodromos” is the greek word for “forerunner”, and is referring to St. John as he prepared the way for Christ’s time on earth, hence the name of the monastery here on Mt. Menoikeion. There was a massive liturgy this morning which started at 7:30 and lasted longer than 3 hours! I sat in for approximately the last hour, but seeing this during the daylight with more pilgrim interaction and knowledge of the church itself was incredible! Though I still don’t understand much of what happens during each moment of the service, due to the language barrier, I still find the activities captivating. As the priest directs the ceremony with the assistance of the nuns, everything is in unison and the liturgy embodies a feeling of transcendence. There is a smell of incense which the priest is blessing the icons and participants while the nuns sing in perfect unity, the bells ring, and the candles light the room!

The liturgy is long and my attention is distracted from time to time, but there are specific moments that are very special. A specific instance of this occurs when the nuns spin the large chandeliers within the Katholikon and sing in unison with a wide range of tones. Each little detail of the service has deeply rooted history passed down through generations which started long ago. The liturgy celebrates more than the story of Christ as well. The Priest and Nuns include stories of saints and leaders throughout Byzantine history that date back to Early Christian times (4th century BC!!!).

The rest of the day has been extremely busy. Only the females are able to help the nuns with chores because it is monastic tradition. Therefore Julian, Matt, and I (the three guys) have been working on research, reading, and writing during those times. The nuns are frantically preparing the feast, which includes 4 main meals throughout the day after a post-liturgy snack (which had already filled me up!). The meals were beyond anything I could have imagined. As an example, the first meal included a fish pie (not like an American pie), a casserole that included egg plant, salmon, tomatoes, and pesto, as well as a stuffed zucchini plate, grilled calamari, and a honey soaked dessert that I’ve had before but don't recall the name of. There was also word that the Bishop may stop in, which worried them as there is political controversy because this particular monastery elects to praise the patriarch in Constantinople before the Bishop of the Greek Church. He did end up stopping in, but not until the late afternoon when things had calmed a bit. We didn't get to meet him, but it sounds as though that may have been a good thing as there are some political issues with US students studying a monastery that he doesn't have as much control over.

I was also given a tour of the old olive press by Sister Catherine, who is originally from Texas and one of the only ones who speaks English well! The press is now a museum and gift shop (where I will undoubtedly pick up some worry beads to bring home). The technology they used is fascinating with pulley systems, cranks, and troughs that took advantage of the density of oil!!! These were used for centuries as monks ran the complex, and now it’s symbolic of the ability of a monastic community like this one.

Though life in a monastery may sound as simple as pious living, the abilities of the women here is incredible. At the end of the service today, the Abbess was recognized for her service. She has been the leader of the complex since its beginning (1986), and managed a small group of Orthodox Nuns into a finely tuned self-sufficient community, business, and religious monument. She is a entrepreneur turned CEO, spiritual leader, and president of this small community that started literally from ashes and rubble. The efficiency at which things are done has developed from a strict methodology that she has put forth, and it continues to produce great results.

Wednesday, June 24th - First Tour

Today we got a tour of the main church on the complex. Because my interest lies mostly in the architecture/planning of the site, it couldn't wait to understand the most important and oldest building on the complex more thoroughly. The church is composed of additions that have combined over time to create what can be seen today. The walls within are covered in paintings, or frescoes, and many have 4 or more layers beneath them! The original building which was begun in the late 13th century included a narthex, nave, and sanctuary. As with most other monastery complexes, side chapels, a side aisle for liturgy seating, an outer narthex, a portico, and the bell tower were added over the coming centuries. There are clues explaining what came before the other, such as arches and wall paintings that are interrupted by newer development. This hides important clues in discovering the exact history of the monastery, yet adds another layer of folklore/religious history along the walls.

Major restoration and preservation work has been done on the chapel by an area architect over the past few years named Pandalis (sp?). We hope that he will come in the next few days, as I think it would be fascinating to hear about what it’s like to work on a project like this, which is relatively unconventional in comparison to the most contemporary commissions we see in the US. Continuing the aesthetic of what has been produced from centuries of building must be cared for meticulously and this architect appreciates that. An example of his work is that he has added stairs ascending to the second story chapel and bell tower that are made of natural wood and look like part of the complex (instead of using clean cut steel railings and stairs).

Having worked at LJM architects, it’s interesting to make a comparison between this style and what I’m used to. The work here does not have to meet any sort of international building code (as far as I understand) and is governed more by UNESCO and archeological foundations that provide fund their renovation. I guess you could use the term “grandfathered in” for the reasoning, as adding a stair that meets code would be almost impossible unless it was an eye sore on the exterior of the building.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tuesday, June 23rd - Impressions

Once the sun was up (around 6) I was wide awake! I hadn’t been able to see much of the complex yet, and now had the opportunity to walk around and take some pictures. They don’t have internet access here, though I thought they would, so you are probably reading this a few days late as we have to drive into town to connect which doesn’t happen every day. The landscape of the monastery and its surroundings are incredible. We are nestled in a valley in Mount Menoikeion, and the road up winds around the hillside for half an hour out of the nearest town of Serres. It’s rained the last two days and everyone is saying it usually doesn’t do so.

This was also the first day I really got to interact with my group members. There are ten of us now: 7 Princeton/Columbia students (only 1 undergrad) most of whom are in the classical studies program focusing on their masters or doctorate dissertation, two professors/leaders, and then myself. Outside of the fact that I can’t join in on the conversations about times in the history library at Princeton, everyone has been extremely welcoming and I’m very happy I decided to come. Admittedly, as an architecture student with a limited historical background in comparison to these students who study it constantly, there are obviously many things that are going over my head. However, I’m able to wrap my head around basic concepts of monastic and Byzantine life and history by being present for conversation and explanation of research projects.

Aside from the constant excursion-based seminar run by Nikos, I will be working on project documenting hundreds of icons which the monastery owns, allowing for easy reference in digital form by the nuns. Prodromos Monastery has limited documentation on it, and this research group is important to furthering the understanding of the monastery and its relationship to the history of Byzantine art and architecture.

The relationship this program has developed with the nuns is rare. We stay in their living quarters, eat under their roof, and attend their sacred religious events. They are all incredibly nice and even if they don’t speak any English, they greet us with a “Hello” and smile every time we see them.

We visited a sister of our Monastery today dedicated to the Virgin Mary near Drama (ours is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, in Greek: Prodromos). The differences between the two were obvious, but the similarities were absolutely incredible. Both monasteries have similar wall paintings, topographical settings, and were resurrected by nuns at around the same time (theirs a bit before ours, which occurred in the 1986). However, after both were devastated by war within the Balkans throughout the 20 century, the revitalization and rebuilding processes were gone about quite differently. Our monastery has made the decision to (re)develop itself in a way that cherishes the history of the place in an attempt to preserve as much as possible. The other monastery developed itself from the ground up in a fashion that does not celebrate what was there previously. This could be looked at in two ways: they are continuing the tradition of past centuries by adding new layers and redeveloping as they always have, or they are failing to celebrate the site historically by preserving rather than building over… I feel more comfortable and interested in a celebration of the past, and this is where my passion for heritage preservation and urban planning have sparked from.

Monday, June 22nd - Arrival

I MADE IT! Despite what seemed to be a team effort by myself, the airlines, and the bus system to stop me from coming, I have arrived at the Prodromos Mon
astery on Mount Menoikeion. I’ll run you through my day to explain to road that led me here:

Flying to Frankfurt from Chicago was splendid, outside of the fact that the plane left about 45 minutes late… With an hour to transfer in Frankfurt I knew I would be in a rush immediately when we took off. I looked at my watch as the plane landed and it was 7:12 local time (my plane was scheduled to leave for Vienna at 7:50). We arrived at gate C13 and I sprinted through passport control and a security check all the way over A40! Somehow I got there and took off about 5 minutes after stepping foot on the plane.

My plane from Thessaloniki was then delayed by a bit over an hour which finally got me there at approximately 3:00… After getting off the city bus at the wrong time and having to get back on to take an multi-city bus to Serres (which is the city nearest to the monastery), I had some financial issues and had to be picked up.

A van picked me up from the bus station and one of my roommates Matt was driving. Up the winding mountain road I asked him questions about the monastery that I was still curious about after all the readings. As this is his 4th year on this trip, he knows quite a bit about the history of this place and monasticism in general.

Once I arrived, I was greeted by my Professor (Nikolas Bakirtzis who I will refer to as Nikos for the rest of the time in this blog) and was served dinner, as everyone else had just finished eating. Because of specific fasting rules, they are limited in what they use. In this case, they couldn’t use butter or milk in any of dishes they made. The seafood soup and casserole they made was composed entirely from scratch and with the ingredients they grow at the monastery. This monastery is almost entirely self-sufficient! The food is incredible and all the nuns are incredibly nice to us

Before heading to bed we had a special opportunity to watch a 10:30 liturgy. There will be another tomorrow that will be longer and have a different priest. From what I understand, the liturgy basically goes through the story of Christ and the priest comes out under the dome in the narthex for the first time once Christ is born. We'll have many more opportunities to watch this unique tradition.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Though many of you believe I'm simply gallivanting throughout Greece, I will actually be learning a few things along my adventure. My trip, which will extend from 6/21 to 8/26 will include four countries. Three of them, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Israel are new to me but have been researched extensively.

Probable Itinerary:
June 21-22 - Fly to Thessaloniki, Greece
June 22-July 2 - Stay at the Monastery of Hagios Ioannis in Prodromos, Greece (near Serres)
July 2 - Travel by bus to Sofia, Bulgaria via Thessaloniki
July 2-6 - Stay in Sofia, Bulgaria
July 6 - Fly from Sofia, Bulgaria to Larnaca, Cyprus
July 6-9 - Stay in Paphos, Cyprus (birthplace of Aphrodite)
July 9 - Aug 10- Research in Nicosia, Cyprus (with side trips to Famagusta, Troodos Mountains, etc.)
Aug 10 - Fly to Tel Aviv, Israel
Aug 10-17 - Stay in Jerusalem, Israel
Aug 17 - Fly from Tel Aviv, Isreal to Heraklion (Crete), Greece
Aug 17-19 - Stay in Crete, Greece (with trips to Heraklion, Knosos, Rethymnon, Chania)
Aug 19 - Travel from Crete to Piraeus, Greece by overnight boat
Aug 20 - Take the hydrofoil to Hydra, Greece and return to Piraeus, Greece in the evening. Overnight in Athens, Greece
Aug 21-23 - Travel to Meteora, Greece by a morning bus arriving there in the afternoon. Overnight in Kalambaka
Aug 23 - Travel to Thessaloniki, Greece.
Aug 23-26 - Stay in Thessaloniki (with possible side trips to Vergina, Kastoria, or Dion)
Aug 26 - Fly to Chicago

I'll try to update as consistantly as possible as I want to have this work as a personal travel log as well as keeping you all up to date with how my trip is going. Feel free to comment on the posts or email me if you have any questions and I'll try to respond in a timely manner.