Saturday, 31 August 2019

Castle and bunkers are
reminders of sieges
of Corfu and Albania

Lekuresi Castle, on a hill above Saranda, played a pivotal role in the siege of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Between my visit to Butrint earlier this week, and my walking tour of the religious sites in Sarnada – including the site of an early synagogue, the Orthodox Church of Saint Charalambos and the City Mosque – I took a tour of Lekuresi Castle or Lëkurësi Castle, about 3 or 4 km away from the centre of Saranda.

The castle stands on the top of the hill of Lëkurës looking directly over Saranda. Lëkurësi Castle is on a strategic hill top overlooking the town of Saranda, and south-east of the town centre.

It was built in the early 16th century by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who completed the castle by 1537.

This was the same sultan who had attacked Corfu and he needed to control the harbour of Saranda and the road that connected it with Butrint. The castle was built to guard the city of Saranda against invaders arriving by boat along the coastline by boat. The region traditionally belonged to the southern part of the region of Himara.

Suleiman the Magnificent led the Siege of Corfu in 1537 in an attempt to capture the island from the Republic of Venice at the beginning of the Ottoman–Venetian War (1537-1540).

At the time, the Ottoman Empire had entered an alliance with France, in which the Ottomans would attack southern Italy and Naples under Barbarossa, and Francis I would attack northern Italy with 50,000 men. Suleiman led an army of 300,000 from Constantinople to Albania, with the objective of transporting them to Italy with the fleet.

The Ottoman fleet gathered in Avlona with 100 galleys, accompanied by the French ambassador Jean de La Forêt. They landed in Castro, Apulia, by the end of July 1537, and left two weeks later with many prisoners. Barbarossa had laid waste to the region around Otranto, carrying about 10,000 people into slavery. Francis, however, failed to meet his commitment, and instead attacked the Netherlands.

The Ottomans left southern Italy, and instead diverted their forces to mount the Siege of Corfu, then held by the Republic of Venice, in August 1537. Suleiman decided to leave Avlona for Corfu on 19 August 1537. The fleet of about 320 ships started bombarding Corfu on 26 August. An Ottoman force of 25,000 men landed on the island of Corfu. At the siege, the Ottomans were met by the French Admiral, Baron de Saint-Blancard, who left Marseille on 15 August with 12 galleys and arrived at Corfu in early September.

Saint-Blancard tried in vain to convince the Ottomans to again raid the coasts of Apulia, Sicily and the March of Ancona. But eventually Suleiman, worried by a plague mong his troops, decided to return with his fleet to Istanbul by mid-September without having captured Corfu.

The French ambassador, Jean de La Forêt, became seriously ill and died around that time. Francis I finally arrived in Italy, and reached Rivoli on 31 October 1537.

Saint-Blancard’s fleet spent the wintered in Chios until 17 February 1538. It was decided that three ships would go to Constantinople, while the rest of the fleet returned to France. In Constantinople, they were received by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac. Hayreddin Barbarossa provided for the expenses, and the French galleys finally left on 11 April 1538 to return to Nice through Monastir.

As a consequence of the Siege of Corfu, the Venetians formed an alliance with the Pope and the Habsburg against the Ottomans. On 18 June 1538, Francis I signed the Truce of Nice with Charles V, and so abandoned his alliance with Ottomans, for the time being.

Lekuresi Castle was attacked at the end of the 18th century by Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and the surrounding areas were raided.

The remains of Byzantine frecoes in the walls of Lekuresi Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The castle is square in shape and has two round towers at its north-west and south-east corners. At one time, the village of Lëkurës was enclosed within the castle walls.

During the isolated regime of Enver Pasha, that closed Albania to the outside world from the 1960s to the 1980s, the bunkers and sentry lookouts were built on the slopes surrounding the castle.

These concrete bunkers can be seen throughout Albania, with an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometre. By 1983, a total of 173,371 concrete bunkers had been constructed across Albania.

Now it was Albania, and not Corfu, that felt besieged.

But inside the castle wall we found much older Byzantine mosaics, perhaps moved here from a village church and with lit candles showing evidence of local devotion and veneration that had turned the alcove into a makeshift castle.

Lekuresi Castle offers commanding views of Saranda Bay, the surrounding countryside, and across to Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The castle, sometimes a venue for summer concerts, offers commanding views of Corfu and Ksamil islands and of the surrounding countryside. The Castle Restaurant inside the walls also has a bar, but both the restaurant and bar were empty when we visited.

The castle is open from 10 am to 11 pm, seven days a week, and there is no entrance fee.

It takes 45 to 60 minutes to walk there from the centre of Saranda, but it is uphill most of the way. The road leading up to the castle is not in great condition and it is easier to visit the castle using a taxi, although haggling about the fare beforehand is strongly recommended.

Lekuresi Castle is open to visitors throughout the year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Four Irish politicians
in 19th century Corfu:
3, George Nugent-Grenville

Church ruins in the centre of Coru’s old town … George Nugent-Grenville, Lord Nugent of Carlanstown, became Governor of the Ionian Islands in 1832 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Four Irish politicians and administrators played key roles in shaping 19th century political life in Corfu: Sir Richard Church (1784-1873) from Cork; Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) from Celbridge, Co Kildare; George Nugent-Grenville (1789-1850) from Co Westmeath, 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown; and John Young (1807-1876) from Balieborough, Co Cavan, later Lord Lisgar.

The Irish general and poet Lord Nugent was a Philhellene and an early member of the London Greek Committee. He was among the British governors of the Ionian Islands, and was the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands from 1832 to 1835.

George Nugent Grenville, who was born on 31 December 1789, was a younger son of George Nugent-Temple, 1st Marquess of Buckingham. His mother, Lady Mary Elizabeth Nugent, was the only daughter and heiress of Robert Craggs Nugent (1709-1788) of Carnalstown, Co Meath, who became Viscount Clare in 1766 and the Earl Nugent in 1776.

Lady Mary was made a member of the Irish peerage in her own right in 1800 as Baroness Nugent of Carlanstown, with the stipulation that the title would pass to her son as an Irish peer when she died. When she died in 1813, George became the 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown, Co Meath.

At one time, the family’s estates in Co Westmeath, Co Longford and Co Clare totalled 15,991 acres. Nugent was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and in 1810 received the honorary degree of DCL from Oxford.

He was a Whig MP for Buckingham (1810-1812), a rotten borough controlled by the Grenville family. As an Irish peer from 1812, he could still sit in the British House of Commons, and he was an MP for Aylesbury (1812-1832).

Nugent became one of the Lords of the Treasury in 1830, but he resigned this position and his seat in the House of Commons in August 1832 when he was appointed the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands.

As Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, Nugent entertained a visiting King Otho of Greece in the Solomos family villa in Zakynthos.

It may have been at the Solomos villa in Zakynthps that Nugent introduced Eliza-Dorothea Tuite, from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, to Count Giovanni Salomos or Solomos of Zakynthos. They were married in 1838, giving the Irish Philhellenes an interesting family connection with Dionysios Solomos, author of Hymn to Liberty, the Greek national anthem.

Nugent remained the High Commissioner in Corfu for three years, living at the Palace in Corfu. He was rewarded with being made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, an order associated particularly with Corfu.

When he returned, was defeated twice when he stood for his former Commons seat of Aylesbury (1837, 1839) and again in 1843 when he stood for Southampton. But he was returned for Aylesbury in 1847, and held the seat until he died in 1850.

In politics, Nugent was a Radical Whig and a strong supporter of Queen Caroline of Brunswick. He visited Spain as a partisan of the Spanish Liberals against the Carlists, advocated the abolition of capital punishment, and supported a measure for the further repeal of Penal Laws. He died on 26 November 1850.

Meanwhile, Eliza and Giovanni settled in the Greater Athens area, and both were buried from Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens.

Friday, 30 August 2019

A ‘three faiths’ encounter
with Albanian religion on
the streets of Saranda

The Church of Saint Charalambos … a new, large Orthodox church in the centre of Saranda in southern Albania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

After visiting the site of the early synagogue in Saranda – one of the earliest synagogues in Balkan-Jewish history, I also visited a neighbouring church and nearby mosque.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had visited the Byzantine mosaics that survive in the 16th century hilltop Lekursi Castle, and in morning I had visited the former Byzantine basilica and baptistry further south in Butrint; this was therefore, , in every sense of the meaning, a ‘three faiths’ visit to southern Albania.

The City Mosque or Xhamia Sarandё is at Rruga Lefter Talo 167, in the heart of the city. It is a relatively small building in the traditional Albanian style, with one, tall slender minaret.

The size of the City Mosque compared with the much larger and more impressive Orthodox Church of Saint Charalambos is a clear indicator that this is a mainly Orthodox city.
The cloister-like passage on the south side of the Church of Saint Charalambos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Charalambos (Ἅγιος Χαράλαμπος) was an early Christian bishop in Magnesia on the Maeander, a region of Asia Minor. His name Χαράλαμπος means ‘glowing with joy’ in Greek. He lived during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), when Lucian was Proconsul of Magnesia. It is believed that at the time of his martyrdom in 202, Charalambos was 113 years old.

The church had notices outside in both Albanian and Greek, also indicating that considerable Greek cultural and ethnic population survives in Saranda, although many ethnic Greeks have left this part of southern Albania – often known to Greeks as Northern Epirus – and moved to Greece.

The church was locked, however, as were the offices and school in the basement. On the other hand, the mosque was open, although there was no-one there to question our intentions as visitors.

The City Mosque in Saranda with its slim minaret (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

I took my sandals off and I went inside alone to spend a few moments in quiet and solitude. But I always feel that closed churches – including those in my own parish – are missed opportunities for hospitality, outreach and mission.

On the other hand, the open mosque seemed to confirm all the stories I was hearing this week of the religious tolerance and pluralism that have emerged in post-Hoxha Albania.

Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheistic state in 1967. In a cultural revolution that mirrored events in China, the mosques of Albania’s majority Muslim population were ransacked and turned into storage depots or army barracks. Churches, both Orthodox and Roman Catholic, were torched.

Today, the four major faith groups in Albania are the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Sunni Muslims, and Bek¬tashis. Although the Bek¬tashis are little known outside the Balkans, their importance is much greater than their small numbers might suggest.

Inside the City Mosque in Saranda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The estimates of their size vary wildly, from 60,000 to 750,000 in Albania alone. Arguably, the Bektashis tell us much about a forgotten part of Christian history. Different sources tell different stories about their origins and identity.

The simplest explanation is that they follow a distinctive branch of Shi’a Islam, and they claim as their founder the 13th-century saint and mystic Haji Bektash Veli. His followers developed an Islamic Sufi order, with dervishes living in houses or lodges known as tekkes, each headed by a superior known as a baba.

The Bektashis are famous in Albanian history as being at the forefront of the struggle against the long period of Ottoman rule. Later, they served in the partisan forces, fighting alongside Hoxha’s communists against first Italian and then German occupation.

The Bektashis blend elements of Islam, Christianity and even Buddhism in what is an esoteric, mystical mixture. Today, they believe Bektashism can be a bridge between Christians and Muslims.

The bells of the Church of Saint Charalambos in Saranda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin
Group of Parishes church
services in September 2019

‘You entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination’ (Jeremiah 2: 7) … street art in Rethymnon, Crete … Sunday 1 September marks the beginning of Creation Season (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sunday 1 September 2019 (Trinity XI):

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton (with the Revd Joe Hardy)

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert (with the Revd Joe Hardy)

Readings: Jeremiah 2: 4-13; Psalm 81: 1, 10-16; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14.

Hymns:

553, Jesu, lover of my soul (CD 32)
525, Let there be love shared among us (CD 30)
630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36)

Sunday 8 September (Trinity XII, the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary):

9.30: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church

11.30: Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Readings: Isaiah 61: 10-11; Psalm 45: 10-17; Galatian 4: 4-7; Luke 1: 46-55

Hymns:

373, To God be the glory (CD 22)
704, Mary sang a song (CD 40)
712, Tell out my soul (CD 40)

Monday 9 September:
Mothers’ Union Opening Eucharist to mark the new season,
8 p.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

Sunday 15 September (Trinity XIII, Vocations Sunday):

9.30: Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

11.30: the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert

Readings: Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; I Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

Hymns:

584, Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult (CD 33)
20, The King of love my shepherd is (CD 1)
105, O the deep, deep love of Jesus (CD 7)

Sunday 22 September (Trinity XIV):

9.30: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church

11.30: the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Readings: Jeremiah 8: 18 to 9: 1; Psalm 79: 1-9; I Timothy 2: 1-17; Luke 16: 1-13

Hymns:

597, Take my life, and let it be (CD 34)
81, Lord for the years your love has kept and guided (CD 5)
601, Teach me, my God and King (CD 34)

Sunday 29 September (Trinity XV, Saint Michael and All Angels):

11 a.m.: United Group Service, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

Readings: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51

Hymns:

346, Angel voices, ever singing (CD 21)
492, ye servant of God, your master proclaim (CD 28)
332, Come let us join our cheerful song (CD 20)
Followed by an end-of-summer celebration at lunchtime in the Rectory.

Sunday 15 September is Vocations Sunday in the Church of Ireland

Four Irish politicians
in 19th century Corfu:
2, Sir Charles Napier

The Harbour at Corfu … Sir Charles Napier first arrived in the Ionian Islands in 1819, when he was appointed an inspecting field officer in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Four Irish politicians and administrators played key roles in shaping 19th century political life in Corfu: Sir Richard Church (1784-1873) from Cork; Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) from Celbridge, Co Kildare; George Nugent-Grenville (1789-1850) from Co Westmeath, 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown; and John Young (1807-1876) from Balieborough, Co Cavan, later Lord Lisgar.

Oakley House in Celbridge was the childhood home of Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853), remembered in military history as the conqueror of Sindh. But Napier was also one of the great Irish Philhellenes, and was closely involved with political life in Corfu and the Ionian Islands in the first half of the 19th century.

While he was the British Resident or colonial governor of the Ionian island of Kephalonia, Napier was constantly in conflict with the British administrators based in Corfu. There too he entertained the poet Lord Byron as his guest, and soon became entangled in the political course of events in Greece.

Napier was a first cousin of Lord Edward FitzGerald, one of the leading figures in the 1798 Rising. Napier’s father, Colonel George Napier (1785-1860), was born in Oakley House, Celbridge, shortly after his parents moved into the house.

His mother was Lady Sarah Lennox, an aunt of the 1798 leader, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and although Charles Napier was born in Whitehall, he was soon brought home to Co Kildare, and grown up close to his Conolly cousins in Castletown House.

Napier first arrived in the Ionian Islands in 1819, when he was appointed an inspecting field officer in Corfu. He was sent on a confidential mission to Ali Pasha (1740-1822) at Ioannina in 1820, and was converted to the cause of Greek independence. When the Greek War of Independence began on 25 March 1821, he started supplying military intelligence to the Greeks and publishing pamphlets in English supporting the struggle.

Despite his reputation with British administrators in Corfu as a radical and a Philhellene, Napier was moved from Corfu in 1822 to become the British resident or effective governor of Kephalonia. There he was an ‘enlightened despot,’ providing roads, bridges and public buildings, assisted by his Irish-born Director of Public Works, John Pitt Kennedy (1796-1879), the son of a Church of Ireland rector from Co Donegal.

Napier also played host on Kephalonia to the most famous of the British Philhellenes, the poet Lord Byron. However, faced with continual opposition from British administrators in Corfu, Napier was worried that Byron’s presence on the island and the visitors he was receiving threatened his own position.

Byron left Kephalonia on 30 December 1823, and arrived at Missolonghi on 5 January 1824, hoping he would soon be joined by Napier as commander-in-chief of the Greek army. But Byron died there on Easter Sunday, 18 April 1824; the day before he had said: ‘I wish Napier … [was] here, we would soon settle this business.’

Three days after Byron’s death, the Irish Philhellene, Captain Edward Blaquière from Dublin, arrived back in Zakynthos with the first instalment of a British loan. Within days, Byron’s coffin began its journey back to England on board the Florida, the ship that brought Blaquière back to Greece. Blaquière now tried to recruit either of two Irishmen, Sir Richard Church’s friend Count Laval Nugent or Napier, as commander of the army.

Long after Byron’s death, Napier continued to hope he would become the Greek commander-in-chief, hopes harboured too by his friends among the Greek leadership, including Kapodistrias from Corfu and Mavrokordatos. But the appointment never came, and the command was offered instead to Sir Richard Church from Cork.

Napier eventually left Kephalonia, leaving his Greek-born daughters behind. He returned occasionally to Ireland, visiting his friend Kennedy, the rector’s son from Donegal, at Glasnevin, but eventually made his name as the Conqueror of Sind in India.

Napier’s time in Kephalonia ‘was probably the happiest in his life.’ There he lived with a young, beautiful, proud and patriotic Greek woman, Anastasia. Although they never married, she was the mother of his two daughters: Susan Sarah, born in 1824 and named after Lady Susan O’Brien and Lady Sarah Napier but often known in the family as ‘Piggy’; and Emily Cephalonia, named after Lord Edward FitzGerald’s mother and Napier’s beloved Greek island.

Anastasia obstinately refused to marry Charles, and also refused to accompany him on a visit to England in 1824. Two years later, as he was leaving for London for his mother’s funeral, he tried to leave their two small daughters with Anastasia, but she put the girls in a small boat, pushing them out to sea after him.

The two girls were rescued by a local fisherman, and eventually, after being reunited with their father, were entrusted once again to the care of John Pitt Kennedy from Co Donegal.

Anastasia’s identity has never been established with certainty. Perhaps she was the beautiful young girl who at the age of 16 he had rescued from a convent where she had once been forced to become a nun by her aunt, the abbess. Charles once wrote, ‘The only things that bore me are the church and convent affairs, excepting a beautiful nun of sixteen who dislikes being one very much, and I have blowed up her old devil of an aunt, the abbess, for making her one. Nay more! I told the girl’s friends that if she would run away with a handsome young Greek, I would, as head of the church, stand between them and all harm.’

Anastasia died at a young age. But for the rest of his life, and perhaps even after it through bequests, Charles supported her relatives in Kephalonia.

To the surprise of family and friends, Charles Napier married the poor and invalided Elizabeth Kelly in April 1827. She was a widow of over 60 with grown-up children and grandchildren who were almost grown-up too. The two returned to Kephalonia in July 1827, but we are left with no account of what she thought of the Ionian Islands.

Napier left Kephalonia with his gravely ill wife Elizabeth in 1830, this time leaving his two young daughters in the care of a clergyman named Dixon and his wife at the Monastery of Apostolos Andreas in Perata, close to Saint George’s Castle on the southern end of the island. While Napier was on leave in London that year, his appointment to Kephalonia was annulled, his papers were seized and he was forbidden to return to Kephalonia.

Napier may have been offered and declined an alternative positing on neighbouring Zakynthos, but moved instead to the south of England. Early in 1831, Kennedy also left Kephalonia for Ireland, never to return.

Some time later, Edward Curling left Kephalonia, taking Napier’s two daughters from the convent at Aghios Andreas and bringing them to their father in England. Until Napier’s elderly wife Elizabeth died on 31 July 1833, she treated the girls as her own children. When she knew she was dying, wrote a book, the Nursery Governess, to help Napier find someone to care for them after her death. Napier took an active interest in their education, teaching them geography and maths as well as languages.

Edward Curling was a great nephew of Elizabeth Napier and had worked for Napier on Kephalonia from 1828 to 1831. Some time ago, a member of his family contacted me with further family details that links this episode in the story of the Irish Philhellenes and Newcastle West, one of the towns in my group of parishes in West Limerick and North Kerry.

When Edward Curling left Kephalonia, he brought his Maltese wife Rosa (nee Mallia) to England with him and obtained a post as the Land Agent to Sir Henry Bunbury’s estate near Bury in Suffolk. Sir Henry Bunbury had married Charles Napier’s sister, Emily Louisa Napier, and Lady Sarah Lennox, mother of Emily and Charles, had been first married to Sir Henry’s uncle.

Edward worked on the Bunbury estate for 16 years before moving to Newcastle West, Co Limerick, as the land agent for the Devon estate, centred on the castle in Newcastle West.

Another Irish figure in the Ionian Islands, John Augustus Toole (ca 1792-1829), came to Kephalonia as a member of Napier’s staff, and worked closely with Kennedy on building the roads and bridges. By the winter of 1826 and 1827, Toole was among the supporters of Kapodistrias who organised their activities from Corfu under the cover of a charitable committee.

Meanwhile, Charles Napier’s niece, Rose Leslie Napier, married Edward Portal, and their granddaughter is the mother of the Archbishop pf Canterbury, Justin Welby.

The Harbour at Corfu seen from the Palace … Sir Charles Napier was moved from Corfu in 1822 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Albania’s first synagogue
was built by an early
Balkan-Jewish community

Albania’s first synagogue, built in Onchesmos or Saranda in the fourth or fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent most of Wednesday [28 August 2019] in Albania, visiting the coastal town of Saranda, about 14 km across the Ionian Sea from Corfu. I was on my way to the remains of the ancient city of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was 13 years since I visited Saranda and Butrint in 2006, and it is so obvious today that Saranda is experiencing a steady growth in the tourist sector. Saranda is known for its archaeological sites, and also has a large Greek population and is seen as one of the two centres of the Greek minority in Albania.

Saranda derives its name from a Byzantine monastery, Agioi Saranda (Άγιοι Σαράντα), meaning the ‘Forty Saints,’ in honour of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Under Ottoman rule, it became known in Turkish as Aya Sarandi and then Sarandoz.

Because of Venetian influence in the region, it often appeared under its Italian name Santi Quaranta on Western maps. During the Italian occupation of Albania in World War II, Mussolini changed the name to Porto Edda, in honour of his eldest daughter. Following the restoration of Albanian independence, the city once again became Saranda.

But in antiquity, the city was known by the Classical Greek name of Onchesmos (Ὄγκησμος). It was a port-town of Chaonia in ancient Epirus, opposite the north-west point of Corfu) Corcyra, and the next port along the coast to the south of Panormus.

Two mosaic pavements point to the presence of one of the earliest Balkan-Jewish communities (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

On my return from Butrint on Wednesday afternoon, I spent some time in Saranda at the site was the home to Albania’s first synagogue, built in Onchesmos in the fourth or fifth century. It is thought that it was built by the descendants of Jews who arrived on the southern shores of Albania around 70 CE, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

This was one of the earliest Balkan-Jewish communities. However, the synagogue in Onchesmos did not last long, and was supplanted by a church in the sixth century.

The ruins of the fifth-century synagogue in the heart of Saranda, close to the city hall, have been excavated by archaeologists in recent years. There are four floor mosaics, which are normally covered with sand to protect them, although there are photographs on the walls.

The first excavations at the site were conducted 35 years ago in 1984, when Albania was under the strict rule of Enver Hoxha’s Communist regime. However, the remains of the synagogue only came to light in recent years during joint excavations carried out by the Albanian Academy of Sciences and the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology.

The archaeologists found that the synagogue underwent various periods of use, including its conversion into a church at its last stage. Particularly noteworthy among the finds are two mosaic pavements. At the centre of one of them is a menorah or seven-branched candelabrum, flanked by a citron or lemon, as well as a ram’s horn – all symbols associated with the Jewish holidays.

The other mosaic pavement includes a variety of animals, trees, and symbols alluding to Biblical lore.

The archaeologists also found a structure that may have been the aron hakodesh or holy ark to hold the Torah scrolls.

The archaeologists also found other mosaic pavements that pre-date the building of the synagogue. These old ruins represent what was once a community centre and old school used for Bible studies. During the sixth century, the buildings were converted into a basilica, but this was later destroyed, either by an earthquake or by Slavic invaders.

Although there are official opening times and entry fees, the gates were left open yesterday, but there was nobody there to charge for admission or to show me around. In coming years, archaeologists hope to continue excavations and investigate other parts of the synagogue that remain covered by modern buildings and streets.

Archaeologists hope to continue excavations and investigate other parts of the synagogue site now covered by modern buildings and streets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Four Irish politicians
in 19th century Corfu:
1, Sir Richard Church

Corfu depicted on a painting in the Blue Sea Hotel in Agios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Four Irish politicians and administrators played key roles in shaping 19th century political life in Corfu: Sir Richard Church (1784-1873) from Cork; Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) from Celbridge, Co Kildare; George Nugent-Grenville (1789-1850) from Co Westmeath, 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown; and John Young (1807-1876) from Balieborough, Co Cavan, later Lord Lisgar.

Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes.’ This forgotten Irish hero is commemorated in windows and memorials in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens, where a plaque claims he won the affection of the people of Greece ‘for himself and for England.’ Yet Church was Irish-born and his commitment to Greece owed much to his faith as an Anglican.

Church was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. In his youth, he ran away to join the army. His Quaker parents were disowned or excommunicated for buying him a commission and so they became Anglicans. He arrived in Greece in 1800 as a 16-year-old ensign serving under Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway. Lowe, who is remembered as Napoleon’s jailer, was the second-in-command in the expedition to the Ionian Islands.

Church took part in the capture of Kephalonia, Ithaki, Lefkhada, Zakynthos and Kythera. He wrote home: ‘The Greeks, who are slaves to the Turks and are Christians, are ... a brave, honest, open generous people.’

He soon began providing military training for Greek revolutionaries, including Theodoros Kolokotronis, who became the pre-eminent general in the Greek War of Independence. Church recruited the Greeks troops who captured Paxos and the town of Parga on the mainland, and he assisted in the negotiations for the surrender of Corfu.

For a brief period in 1811, Church was based in Corfu as the British governor of the Ionian Islands. By then, he had become ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’

At the Congress of Vienna, he argued for an independent Greece. But he was ordered to disband his Greek regiments, the Ionian Islands became a British colony, and, in an act of treachery, Parga was sold to Ali Pasha (1740-1822). A disappointed Church left Greece for a military career in Austria and Italy. But when the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Kolokotronis and Edward Blaquière, a Dublin seaman of Huguenot descent, campaigned to bring Church back to lead the armed forces.

Two weeks after Church married Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot, who was a sister-in-law of the Earl of Kenmare and related by marriage to the pot and Philhellene Lord Byron, the Greek government invited Church to take command of the army. After an absence of 12 years, he returned to Greece in 1827 to a hero’s welcome.

Back in Greece, Church played a decisive role in uniting the Greek factions and in the election of Ioannis Kapodistrias from Corfu as President of Greece, and Church was sworn into office on Easter Day, 15 April 1827.

One of his first actions was a disastrous attempt to drive off a Turkish force besieging the tiny Greek garrison in the Acropolis in Athens. But he soon rallied his forces and stirred a fresh rebellion across the northern Peloponnese. A major turning point in the War of Independence came at the Battle of Navarino, the last sea battle of the age of sail. Thanks largely to the actions of Church and Gawin Rowan Hamilton, an Irish officer in the British navy, a large Turkish naval force was defeated in a four-hour battle in October 1827. Turkey’s naval power was broken and Church rejoiced at what he called ‘this signal interposition of divine Providence.’

Church found it increasingly difficult to work with Kapodistrias, resigned and left Greece. But he soon relented, returned to Greece permanently, and became a Greek citizen. In 1834, he and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis in Athens.

King Otho (1832-1862) restored Church to the rank of general and appointed him Inspector-General of the army. But Otho was a despot, and in 1843 Church played a key role in a coup d’état, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication. Otho later took his revenge on Church, dismissing him as Inspector-General. But Church remained a life senator and during the Crimean War (1853-1856) he was recalled as a general. A popular revolt in 1862 finally forced Otho to abdicate.

A year later, in 1863, the Ionian Parliament voted in Corfu for the unification of the Ionian Islands with the modern Greek state, and when Britain acceded to these demands in 1864, it was seen as effort to bolster the reign of King George I, the new monarch.

Church died in his 90th year on 27 March 1873. He received a public funeral and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to Kolokotronis and the heroes of the War of Independence. In his oration, the Greek Ambassador to London, Ioannis Gennadios, described Church as ‘the truest Hellene, the most steadfast and most affectionate of the sons of Greece.’

Church, who often travelled with nothing more than his Bible and his sword, believed the Greek struggle was a holy war.

This connection between his faith and action is seen in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land. Church is represented as Caleb who helps them capture the land from the Gentiles, and as David who, despite his stature, defeats the Philistines. The inference is that the Turks were Amalekites or the Philistines who deprived the Chosen People of the Promised Land.

The inscription on the brass tablet below the two-light north window was composed by the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who had once been based in Corfu as the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. Gladstone unveiled the plaque to Church in Saint Paul’s in 1873. The south windows were presented in 1875 by the Church family, including his nephew, Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a friend of Newman and the Tractarians.

Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’

The grave of Sir Richard Church in the First Cemetery of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Why priests should
talk more about God
and less about cricket

Enjoying the long stretch of gold sand on the beach at Agios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Part of the pleasure of a holiday like this is the opportunity to spend a few days by the beach, enjoying the uninterrupted sunshine – the temperatures here have been in the mid to high 30s each day – the clear blue skies, and the clean waters of the Ionian Sea, with the opportunity to go swimming each morning and each afternoon.

Holidays should be times to refresh and renew the mind, body and soul. Sunday’s visit to Meteora, with its rock-top monasteries, was certainly good for the soul. Daily swimming, long ewalks and Greek food, including fresh figs and new grapes for breakfast, are all good for the body. The mind is being refreshed and renewed with my daily reading on the beach.

I am trying to finish Rabbi David Aaron’s book, Inviting God In, which takes an inspiring look at the Jewish holidays and shows readers how each holy day empowers us to recognise God’s loving presence in our everyday lives.

The book is written for both practising Jews who want to reinvigorate their observance of the holidays and secular Jews searching for a meaningful way to reconnect with their Jewish roots. But Christians too will find his approach very helpful, including his tender description of Jeremiah’s Lamentations at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. I am finding it particularly interesting in the light of last Friday's visit to the synagogue in the old town of Corfu.

It is hard to come by English newspapers on sale in Agios Georgios, which is a small resort in south-west Corfu. I would find it easier, by all standards, to read any Italian newspaper than to try reading the Daily Mail. But I have managed to buy the London Times some mornings, and I am reading the online edition of the Guardian every day – there are good reasons to have good WiFi access on the beach.

I am also catching up on some back issues of the Economist and the New Statesman, which I have taken with me.

It may not be your cup of tea to read an analysis of the Saudi-backed Yemeni separatists who have seized control of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, or how the figures for inflation, poverty and economic growth have been massaged by government statisticians in Rwanda. But this is the time and place to find these opportunities.
Fresh grapes at breakfast every morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The 16-22 August edition of the New Statesman a review by Archbishop Rowan Williams of Peter Gatrell’s book on migration in Europe since 1945; a feature by Deborah Levy on Barcelona and a book review by Jeffrey Wasserstrom look at the enduring relevance of George Orwell – this year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984; Peter Wilby pays a short tribute to Paul Barker, who edited New Society for 18 years, until it merged with New Statesman in 1988; and Richard J Evans asks what Eric Hobsbawm would have thought of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and rise of Boris Johnson.

Rowan Williams’s book reviews in New Statesman are among some of the finest theological writings today. But Lynn Barber makes a crunching theological argument at the end of ‘The Diary’:

‘A couple of weeks ago I went to a friend’s funeral in a beautiful country church. Everything was perfect – wicker coffin, familiar hymns, a brilliant eulogy by her elder son which exactly captured Jude’s mischievous wit. And then the vicar gave his sermon. He opted to talk at length about cricket. Apparently England had just won some major tournament, which he recounted in detail before urging us all to “Rejoice!” Jude’s passions were horses and dogs. I never once, in all the 50 years I knew her, never once heard her mention cricket. Obviously the vicar didn’t know Jude but surely he could have found something more appropriate to talk about. How about God?

‘But there seems to be a rule now that vicars are not allowed to talk about God. I hear vicars talking every day, because I listen to the Today programme, and invariably get trapped into hearing “Thought for the Day”. Vicars on that slot will talk about anything under the sun except God. They particularly like talking about sports fixtures or Strictly Come Dancing because they think it makes them seem like ordinary blokes. But they are not there to be ordinary blokes – they are there to be specialists and their speciality is meant to be God. We don’t expect weather presenters to talk about EastEnders, or sports presenters to talk about gardening, so why should vicars think they can talk about anything they fancy? Air time is precious. Stick to God.’

She could also recommend all of us to read Rowan Williams in the New Statesman.

Sun sparkling on the clear waters of the Ionian Sea at Agios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The theological nonsense
that is handed out as
fact to unwary tourists

A modern painting on a ceiling in the Monastery of Rousanou in Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sometimes you find a guide who is so good that you not only come away deeply impressed, but you realise you have learned and that you have been taught.

As I left Meteora on Sunday afternoon to return to Corfu, I was pleased to have learned so much from the guide Nikki who took me around two of the monasteries, Varlaam and Roussanou.

She provided a detailed explanation of the monks and nuns who live in these monasteries, and give a concise and precise introduction to the differences between the Macedonian and Cretan schools of wall painting in the churches of the monasteries. Her command of theological language and concepts came alive as she explained the images of the Last Judgement on the Doom Walls and the differences between the Orthodox concept of the Dormition and the Western idea of the Assumption.

But sometimes, perhaps not often enough, I wonder what the average tourist thinks theologians and Christians actually teach and believe. To read some of the material handed out by tour operators, I wonder whether they ever ask someone knowledge to read over what is being handed out to people.

I have come across some real theological ‘howlers’ in the past week.

For example, one leaflet declares:

Basil for the Greek Orthodox is considered a religious plant, because according to our religion, Saint Helene found the body of Jesus Christ with the small of basil.

Finding the body of Jesus Christ, rather than the cross, must have been some feat. Undoubtedly, Saint Basil would not have been impressed.

Or how about this:

For us, the Orthodox, the centre of our religion is considered Constantinople, the city of Constantine, which belongs to Turkey today and which bears the name of Instanbul [sic]. Istanbul is a Greek word which means εις τιν πόλη, that means to the city of Constantine. Konstantinoupoli today for the Orthodox Church resembles Rome for Catholics. The differences between the Orthodox and Catholics are very important for the two churches. Every time we enter the church, we do the Orthodox cross. We put the 3 fingers together and cross ourselves from upwards, down, right to left, which goes against the Catholics who finish their cross right. We repeat this 3 times.

And you were wondering what the important differences were? Now you know.

As for the differences in ecclesiology between East and West, I came across this explanation:

Another difference is that we do not recognize the infallibility of the pope. We have a patriarch of the same position, but he lives in Konstantinoupoli (fanari).

Did you think the infallibility of the Pope was the dividing issue in the Great Schism in 1054?

And if you have tried to explain the differences created by the insertion of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and its implications for understanding of the Trinity and the Trinitarian procession, then you are likely to remain perplexed after reading this:

Number 3 is like a sacred symbol that we can find in many situations in our religion. It is also found at the bell tower outside the Greek Orthodox churches ... For the Orthodox, the Holy Spirit comes from Jesus Christ and not from God.

Even if this is a bad translation, it teaches that God the Father is God alone, the Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not part of the Holy Trinity, and what it tries to say about the procession of the Holy Spirit is precisely what the Orthodox Church does not teach, and not what the Western Church was trying to say in the filioque.

I may laugh. But if this is the theological nonsense handed out to tourists, how reliable and informative are the other details they are given on history, archaeology, architecture and the environment?

Did I tell you about the time, in another country, when I visited a synagogue with a tour guide who had a PhD in history … but admitted he could not read the inscriptions in Hebrew on the walls? He wondered what I meant when I asked had he tried to find out from a guide what they meant.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Varlaam and Rousanou,
two monasteries perched
on the pinnacles of Meteora

The Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest of the monasteries at Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of Sunday visiting the unique monasteries of Meteora in central Greece. Once there were 24 monasteries in this area, but only six of the original 24 function as monasteries today.

In the Orthodox world, these monasteries are second in importance only to Mount Athos. But they differ in many ways from the monasteries of Mount Athos. Visitors need no permits issued in advance, women as well as men are welcome as visitors, and all the monasteries display notices outside advising when they are open and when the Divine Liturgy is served.

The monasteries stand precariously on top of immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the area. But, because of their openness and their reputation for hospitality and welcome, I was not surprised on Sunday to find that many of the visitors were Russian and Romanian tourists, who seemed to find pilgrimage and tourism a quite relaxed combination.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest of the monasteries at Meteora, although only three monks live there. It was founded in the mid-14th century and was restored and embellished in 1483 and again in 1552.

The Katholikon or main church Great Meteoron is consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of Christ. It was was built in the mid-14th century and 1387-1388 and decorated in 1483 and 1552. One building serves as the main museum for tourists.

Varlaam is the second largest monastery in Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

However, the first monastery I visited on Sunday was the Monastery of Varlaam, which is the second largest monastery in the Meteora complex. Today, seven monks live here and it has the largest number of monks among the men’s monasteries.

Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaam was built by Theophanes in 1517, which was reputed to house the finger of Saint John and the shoulder blade of Saint Andrew.

The main church or katholikon in Varlaam is dedicated to All Saints. It is built in the Athonite style, in the shape of a cross-in-square with a dome and choirs, and spacious exonarthex is surrounded by a dome.

The church was built in 1541-1542 and decorated in 1548, while the exonarthex was decorated in 1566. The old refectory is used as a museum while north of the church is the parekklesion of the Three Hierarchs, built in 1627 and decorated in 1637.

My second monastery to visit on Sunday was the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara. This was founded in the mid-16th century and was decorated in 1560.

The monastery went into decline after World War II, and was eventually abandoned. But a community of women were invited to move into Rousanou, and today, it is a flourishing nunnery with a community of 13 nuns living there.

I had expected to visit the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen, but our plans were changed. This monastery has a small church that was built in the 16th century and decorated in 1545. This monastery is unusual because it stands on the plain rather than on a cliff.

The monastery was shelled by the Nazis during World War II, who claimed it was harbouring Greek resistance fighter. It was abandoned after World War II. The monastery was given over to nuns in 1961 and they have rebuilt it, so that today it is a flourishing nunnery, with 28 nuns living there.

As we drove around Meteora, we also saw the two other monasteries that have survived into the 21st century.

The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was built on top of the cliffs in 1475 and was remodelled in 1684, 1689, 1692 and again in 1741. There were four monks living in this monastery today.

The Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapausas was built in the 16th century. It has a small church that was decorated in 1527 by the noted Cretan painter, Theophanis Strelitzas. Today, there is only one monk living in this monastery.

But more about Meteora and its monasteries at a later date … perhaps in a feature in an edition of the Church Review before the end of the year.

Looking out onto the world from the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The pinnacles of Meteora
form a unique combination
of geology and theology

The monasteries of Meteora are balanced precariously on the rocky pinnacles above the Plain of Thessaly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

After sailing from Lefkimmi in south-east Corfu to Igoumenitsa on the north-west coast of Greece on Sunday morning, I spent much of the day visiting the many monasteries of the Meteora (Μετέωρα).

This is a geologically unique and captivating collection of rock formations in central Greece and is home one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of monasteries in the Eastern Orthodox world. Indeed, the monasteries are second in importance only to Mount Athos.

In all, there once were 24 monasteries in this area, although only six of the original 24 function as monasteries today. They are built precariously on top of immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the area.

Meteora, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is near the town of Kalambaka at the north-west edge of the Plain of Thessaly, close to the Pineios Rriver and Pindus Mountains. The name means ‘lofty’ or ‘elevated,’ and is etymologically related to meteor.

These enormous columns or pillars of rock rise precipitously from the ground, and their unusual form is not easy to explain geologically.

Caves in the Meteora area were inhabited continuously between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago. The oldest known example of a built structure, a stone wall that blocked two-thirds of the entrance to the Theopetra cave, was built 23,000 years ago, probably as a barrier against cold winds during an ice age.

It is surprising then that Meteora is not mentioned in classical Greek myths nor in Ancient Greek literature.

After the Neolithic Era, the first people to inhabit Meteora seem to have been ascetic hermits or monks who moved to the pinnacles in the ninth century AD. At first, they lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 550 metres above the plain. These heights and the sheer cliff faces deterred all but the most determined visitors.

Initially, the hermits led lives of isolated and lonely solitude, meeting together only on Sundays and holy days to worship and pray together in a chapel built at the foot of a rock known as Dhoupiani.

Some monks were living in the caverns of Meteora as early as the 11th century. By the late 11th and early 12th centuries, a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi and was centred around the Church of the Theotokos (Mother of God).

The first monasteries may not have been formed until the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

We do not know the exact date when the first monasteries were formed, but it may not have been until the 14th century, when the monks sought places to hide and shelter in the face of an increasing number of Turkish attacks in this part of Greece.

In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Meteora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the Great Meteoron monastery on the Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks. They were safe from political turmoil and had complete control of the entry to the monastery. The only way the monastery could be reached it was by climbing a long ladder that was drawn up whenever the monks felt under threat.

Byzantine rule in northern Greece was increasingly threatened by the end of the 14th century by Turkish raiders seeking to control the fertile plain of Thessaly. The monks found the inaccessible rock pillars of Meteora were ideal refuges, and more than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century.

Access to the monasteries was deliberately difficult, requiring either climbing long ladders latched together or balancing in large nets and basks used to haul up both goods and people or to let them down. It is said this required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only ‘when the Lord let them break.’

At their peak in the 16th century, there were 24 monasteries at Meteora in Greece. Much of the architecture of these buildings is Athonite in origin. Today, six of these monasteries are still functioning, but the rest are largely in ruins. Perched onto high cliffs, they are now accessible by staircases and pathways cut into the rock formations.

Queen Marie of Romania became the first woman ever allowed to enter the Great Meteoron monastery when she visited Meteora in 1921. By then, living conditions were beginning to improve for the monks. Steps were cut into the rocks in the 1920s, making the complex accessible through a bridge from the nearby plateau. The area was bombed during World War II and many art treasures were stolen.

Today, only six of the original 24 monasteries are functioning, with 15 monks in four monasteries and 41 nuns in two monasteries: the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou.

I visited two of the monasteries on Sunday – the monastery of Varlaam and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, also known as Saint Barbara – and stopped on the way to see the other four functioning monasteries. But more about these later.

Six of the original 24 monasteries still function today as monasteries or nunneries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Monday, 26 August 2019

Sunrise at Igoumenitsa,
the harbour that leads
to northern Greece

Sunrise in the Gulf of Igoumenitsa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Many people associate holidays in Greece with island hopping. So, I suppose I did something in reverse on Sunday morning [25 August 2019], when I hopped off the island sailed into the sun.

I left Agios Georgios at 5.30 to catch an early-morning ferry from the small port of Lefkimmi, on the south-east coast of Corfu, and crossed the narrow passage in the Ionian Sea that separates Corfu from the Greek mainland.

The sailing from island to mainland takes less than an hour, and as we got closer the mainland, the sun was rising above the Pindus Mountains above the harbour.

In front of us was the whole region of Epirus in northern Greece. To our left or to the north we could make out the coastline of southern Albania. The mountains were cast in a dark silhouette against the glowing orange sky, and the sea below us was sparkling in golden rays of sunshine.

Moments later, we had docked in the small mainland port of Igoumenitsa (Ηγουμενίτσα), and the normal daily routine of harbour morning life had already started, although the town before was still sleepy.

Igoumenitsa is a small town and its economy depends on the port and harbour traffic. About 26,000 people live here, but only 10,000 within the bounds of the town itself. In the medieval and Ottoman times, it was known as Grava (Γράβα), meaning ‘cave,’ but when it became the capital of the prefecture of Thesprotia in 1938, its name was changed to Igoumenitsa, meaning the town of the abbot.

Early morning in Igoumenitsa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Yet this is the gateway to northern Greece, and it stands at the beginning of the Egnatia motorway, built between 1994 and 2009. This road runs parallel with the route of the Via Egnatia, an ancient Roman imperial highway, leading past Thessaloniki and into Adrianople or Edirne in north-west Turkey, across 670 km, through 76 tunnels and over 1,650 bridges.

This is the link between Turkey and mainland Europe, and ferries from Igoumenitsa and Patras continue the journey on to Ancona, Bari, Brindisi and even Venice.

As we headed east through the Pindos Mountains, we were travelling through Epirus in northern Greece, a province with a population of about 350,000 people. The neighbouring part of southern Albania is known to Greeks as Northern Epirus.

It might have been interesting to stop at the archaeological site at Dodoni, at the foot of Mount Tomaros, where the theatre was once the largest in Greece with 18,000 seats, and the stadium was one of the few in classical Greece with stone seats.

It might have been interesting to stop at Ionannia, the capital of Epirus, once an important seat of Greek learning and once the seat of Ali Pasha.

It might have been interesting to stop at Lake Ionannia, with the island in the middle associated with some of the myths and legends about the capricious Ali Pasha.

But we continued along the Egnatia Highway, turning off for Kalambaka. It was still early Sunday morning, and I wanted to spend much of the day visiting the monasteries, perched delicately on the pinnacles of towering rock formations.

Igoumenitsa was far behind us, but the thoughts of that sunrise made me happy I had decided to stay on the deck of the Ioannis Kapodistrias with my early morning coffee instead of catching up on my sleep.

The port of Igoumenitsa is the gateway to northern Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Why Corfu retains the air
and elegance of a small
European capital city

The former Parliament Building in Corfu … here the Ionian Parliament voted for union with Greece in 1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Corfu has the air of a small capital city, with its old palace, elegant buildings, such as the Liston.

And, of course, it was once a European capital city, as the capital of the United States of the Ionian Islands (Ἡνωμένον Κράτος τῶν Ἰονίων Νήσων), a state set up as British protectorate and that lasted for almost half a century, from 1815 to 1864.

This unique state, with its own parliament and institutions, was the successor state of the Septinsular Republic, set up by the Russians and Ottoman Turks when the Ionian islands were captured from France and within a decade of the fall of Venice.

The state embraced the Ionian Islands and only became a part of the modern Greek, in moved that was seen as a British gift to the newly enthroned King George I, but that came after a resolution for union with Greece was put through the Ionian parliament by the Party of the Radicals.

Before the French revolutionary wars, Corfu and the Ionian Islands had been part of the Republic of Venice. When the Republic of Venice was dissolved at the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, the islands were annexed by France.

The French were driven out in 1798-1799 out by a joint Russian-Ottoman force. The Russians and the Turks set up the Septinsular Republic, which enjoyed relative independence under nominal Ottoman rule and Russian control from 1800 to 1807.

France once again took control of the Ionian Islands after the Treaty of Tilsit. But this second period of French rule was short-lived. Britain defeated the French fleet off Zakynthos on 2 October 1809, and captured Kefalonia, Kythira, and Zakynthos, and took Lefkada in 1810. However, the French continued to occupy Corfu until 1814.

The Congress of Vienna agreed to place the Ionian Islands under the exclusive ‘amical protection’ of Britain, although the Austrian Empire was guaranteed commercial status equal to Britain.

The arrangement was formalised with the ratification of the ‘Maitland Constitution’ in 1817, creating a federation of the seven islands, with General Sir Thomas Maitland as the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands.

The statue by Pavlos Prosalentis of Sir Frederick Adam, Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands (1824-1832) outside the Palace in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In all, 10 men served as Lord High Commissioner, including: Sir Thomas Maitland (1816-1824), who built the Palace in Corfu; the Irish-born politician, George Nugent-Grenville (1789-1850), 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown (1832-1835); John Young (1807-1876) from Balieborough, Co Cavan, later Lord Lisgar (1855-1859); and the future Prime Minister William Gladstone (1858-1859).

The Ionian Islands had a bicameral legislature, known as the Parliament of the United States of the Ionian Islands and composed of a Legislative Assembly and a Senate.

The 1818 constitution also established the Supreme Council of Justice of the United States of the Ionian Islands.

However, resistance groups soon began to form, supporting the Greek War of Independence and resisting British rule.

The Party of Radicals (Κόμμα των Ριζοσπαστών) was formed in 1848 to resist British rule in the Ionian Islands and to demand union with Greece. By 1849, a growing restlessness resulted in small battles; 21 leaders were hanged, another 34 were jailed and 87 were whipped.

The Radical politician John Detoratos Typaldos proposed a resolution in the Ionian parliament in 1850 demanding the union of the Ionian Islands with Greece. Britain responded with persecutions, arrests, imprisonments, and exile.

A parliamentary resolution remembered in the former Parliament House in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Party of Radicals split into two factions in 1862: the United Radical Party and the Real Radical Party.

But in Parliament House in Corfu on 23 September 1863, the Ionian Parliament voted for the union of the Ionian islands with the modern Greek state. On 29 March 1864, representatives of Britain, Greece, France, and Russia signed the Treaty of London, transferring sovereignty of the islands to Greece, and this came about with a proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner on 28 May 1864.

Ever since, Corfu and the other the Ionian Islands have remained part of Greece, despite invasions by Italy and Greece. But Corfu still retains the air and elegance of a small European capital.

The Liston in Corfu … a reminder of the French presence in Corfu in the early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Sunday, 25 August 2019

A palace in Corfu first
built 200 years ago for
honoured British diplomats

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu was once home to a British order associated with ambassadors and diplomats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Senior British diplomats are regularly decorated with the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, which was founded on 28 April 1818 by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, while he was acting as regent for his father, King George III.

The three grades of membership carry different initials that have led to in-jokes about their meaning among British diplomats:

● Companion (CMG): Call me god;
● Knight Commander (KCMG) or Dame Commander (DCMG): Kindly call me god;
● Knight Grand Cross or Dame Grand Cross (GCMG): God calls me god.

The purpose of the order was to honour senior British officials in high positions in the Mediterranean territories Britain acquired from France in the Napoleonic Wars. Later, membership was extended to people holding similar posts in other British territories.

The order’s motto is Auspicium melioris ævi (‘Token of a better age’). Its patron saints are Saint Michael the Archangel and Saint George, patron saint of England. One of the symbols shows Saint Michael trampling down Satan.

The Prince Regent founded the order to mark British rule in the Ionian Islands, which came into British hands in 1814 and became the United States of the Ionian Islands in 1817. At first, the order was intended to reward ‘natives of the Ionian Islands and of the island of Malta and its dependencies, and for such other subjects of His Majesty as may hold high and confidential situations in the Mediterranean.’

The order’s original home was the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu, the residence of the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands and the seat of the Ionian Senate.

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu, between the old town of Corfu and the Venetian-era Old Fortress was commissioned 200 years ago by Sir Thomas Maitland as the residence of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. It was designed in the Greek revival style of neoclassical architecture by Colonel George Whitmore of the Royal Engineers and was built in 1819-1824.

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu was the first building in the Greek Revival style of neoclassical architecture built on Greek territory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George is also known as the Royal Palace or the City Palace. But to the people of Corfu it is simply the Palaia Anaktora (Παλαιά Ανάκτορα) or ‘Old Palace.’

The palace was the High Commissioner’s residence and the home of the Ionian Senate, but also as the home of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. The foundation stone was laid on Saint George’s Day, 23 April 1819, and the palace was completed in 1824.

This was the first building in the Greek Revival style of neoclassical architecture built on Greek territory. It was built of limestone imported from Malta, and Maltese workers were employed in its construction. The sculptures in the palace are the work of the Maltese sculptors Vincenzo and Ferdinando Dimech, and the Corfiot sculptor Pavlos Prosalentis.

After Corfu and the Ionian Islands voted to join the modern Greek state in 1864, the palace was a Greek royal residence until World War II.

The palace survived the Italian bombardment of Corfu City during the ‘Corfu Incident’ in 1923. It suffered even greater damage when it was used as temporary housing for refugees from Epirus during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).

The Greek state was only able to restore the palace interiors in 1954 with the help of a private trust organised by Sir Charles Peake, the then British Ambassador to Greece. Until 1967, the Greek king occasionally used the palace on state occasions while in residence at his nearby villa, Mon Repos.

A view of the harbour of Corfu from a palace balcony (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today the palace houses the Museum of Asian Art of Corfu. The collection of the museum started in 1927 and consists mostly of donations, the largest being from Gregorios Manos with 10,500 pieces.

The two gateways flanking the palace are the Gate of Saint Michael and the Gate of Saint George. The state rooms consist of a grand staircase, a rotunda in the centre leading to two large rooms, the Throne Room and the state dining room. The Palace was renovated for the EU Summit meeting in 1994.

The palace gardens, complete with old Venetian stone aquariums, exotic trees and flowers, overlook the bay through old Venetian fortifications and turrets. The local sea baths are at the foot of the fortifications surrounding the gardens. The Art Café on the grounds has its own art gallery with exhibitions of local and international artists.

When the Greek monarchy was abolished after the fall of the colonels’ junta, the old Royal Gardens at the palace were renamed the ‘People’s Garden’ (Ο Κήπος του Λαού).

After Corfu and the Ionian Islands voted in 1864 to become part of Greece and the British protectorate ended, the basis of the order was revised in 1868. Membership was granted to those who ‘hold high and confidential offices within Her Majesty’s colonial possessions, and in reward for services rendered to the Crown in relation to the foreign affairs of the Empire.’

Since 1906, the order’s chapel has been in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. New members are installed at religious services in the chapel, and the knights and dames have stalls in the choir of the chapel.

People are appointed to the order rather than awarded it. British Ambassadors are regularly appointed KCMG or CMG, and this is the traditional award for members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The two gateways flanking the palace are named after Saint Michael and Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Church of Saint Spyridon,
the patron saint of Corfu, and
the island’s tallest bell tower

Inside the Church of Spyridon, the most prominent church in the heart of the old town of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The most prominent church in the heart of the old town of Corfu is the Church of Saint Spyridon. The church was built in the 1580s to house the relics of Saint Spyridon, who, according to legends, has saved the island four times from Ottoman invasions.

Saint Spyridon was born in 270 AD in Assia, a village in Cyprus. When he was young, he was a poor and humble shepherd. He later married and had a daughter. After his wife’s death, his daughter entered a convent and he joined a monastery.

He studied and gained in wisdom and grace, performed many miracles and was considered a saint even before his death. Saint Spyridon also took part in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), countering the theological arguments of Arius and his followers.

He was the Bishop of Trimythous, near Larnaca in Cyprus, until he died in 348 AD. When the Arabs conquered Cyprus, his body was disinterred and taken to Constantinople. However, it was said, his body was incorrupt and a sprig of basil would sprout from the grave.

The tower of Saint Spyridon is the tallest on the Ionian islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the relics of Saint Spyridon and Saint Theodora Augusta were brought from Constantinople to Corfu by a Greek monk, Georgios Kalochairetis. He was also a person of wealth, and the relics were kept in his family as private property.

Later, when a daughter of the family, Asimia, married a son of the Voulgari family in Corfu, the saints’ remains became part of her dowry at her marriage, and the relics of Saint Spyridon were later housed in a private chapel in the San Rocco area of Corfu that was owned by the Voulgaris family.

The Voulgaris church was demolished when the outer city fortifications were built by the Venetians to protect the citadel after the first great siege of Corfu by the Ottoman Turks in 1537.

After the Voulgaris family church was demolished, the saint’s remains were moved to a new church that was built in the 1580s within the city fortifications in the Campiello district of the old town.

Saint Spyridon is buried in a double sarcophagus behind the icon screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The church is located just behind the Liston. The design of the church is typical of the Venetian architecture found throughout the Old Town of Corfu. This is a single-nave basilica and the bell tower, the highest in the Ionian Islands, is similar in design to the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice.

Inside the church, in a small chapel to the right of the iconostasis, the remains of Saint Spyridon are kept in a double sarcophagus. The larger of the two contains the smaller one in its interior and is wooden with silver leaf trim. The smaller sarcophagus is surfaced in red velvet and has a removable bottom to facilitate changing the slippers of the saint.

Because the church has no underground chamber, the small chapel was part of a deliberate design plan to make the relics as accessible as possible. In this small chapel, 53 incense burners hang from the ceiling; 18 of these are golden and the rest are made of silver.

The front of the marble iconostasis resembles the exterior of the entrance of a baroque-style church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The front of the marble iconostasis resembles the exterior of the entrance of a baroque-style church. The ceiling of the church is divided into segments depicting scenes from the life Saint Spyridon and his miracles.

The Venetian Senate offered a gilded silver lamp bearing the reliefs of Saint Spyridon and the lion of Saint Mark to commemorate miracles attributed to Saint Spyridon during the second great siege of Corfu in 1716. The lamp hangs at the west corner of the nave near the women’s quarters.

The inscription on the lamp reads: Ob servatam Corcyram divo Spvridioni tvtelari Senatvs Venetvs Anno MDCCXVI. This translates: ‘For the Salvation of Corfu, to the Patron Saint Spyridon, the Senate of Venice, 1716 AD.’

The largest lamp in the church is near the pulpit. This was offered to the saint by the Venetian High Admiral Andrea Pisani and the other Venetian leaders. The inscription reads: Divo Spvridioni tvtelari vtraqve classe protecta Andrea Pisani svpremo dvce vtrivsqve classis nobiles ex voto Anno MDCCXVII. This translates: ‘To the Patron Saint Spyridon for having protected the two fleets under the leadership of Andrea Pisani, Commander in Chief of the two fleets, the noblemen in votive offering, 1717 AD.’

The people of Corfu come to the church to have children baptised, engagement rings blessed, for weddings, and to pray and light candles every day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The ceiling was originally painted by Panagiotis Doxaras, who worked here in 1727. The work by Doxaras decayed over time, and they were replaced by later by copies painted by Nikolaos Aspiotis. The only remaining trace of Doxaras’s work is the gilded border of the iconography.

Above the west door of the narthex, the imperial coat of arms of the House of Romanov stands as a reminder that the church was under the nominal protection of Russia from 1807 until 1917. Nearby, a painting depicts Saint Spyridon touching the head of the Emperor Constantius II and curing him from illness.

As well as protecting Corfu during the Venetian presence, he is also said to have protected Corfu when it was occupied by the French, Russians, British, Italians and Germans.

Spyridon, or Spyros, is a common name across the island. The people of Corfu come to this church to have their children baptised, their engagement rings blessed, for weddings, and to pray and light candles every day. His remains are carried around the town of Corfu four times a year to celebrate his miracles: Palm Sunday, Good Friday, 11 August, and the first Sunday in November. His feast day is celebrated on 12 December.

Visitor information:

The church opens at 6.30, Matins begin at 7.30 from Monday to Saturday and at 7 on Sundays. The Divine Liturgy begins at 8.30, Mondays to Saturdays and it ends at 9.30 and at 10.30 on Sundays. Saint Spyridon’s relic can be venerated every day after the Divine Liturgy until 1 pm and in the afternoon at 17.00 until the beginning of Vespers.

Vespers begin at 18.00 in October, November and February until March, at 17.30 in December and January and at 19.00 from April until September.

The church closes 30-60 minutes after the end of the Vespers from October to March. From June to September, it closes at 20.30 and in August at 21.30 to 22.30.

Visit the church website HERE.

The Church of Saint Spyridon is open every day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)