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The monasteries of Lesvos

The impressive monastery of Pithari

The rich religious heritage of Lesvos on display at island monasteries

Wall paintings of Perivol monastery
Courtyard at Ypsilos monastery
Richly decorated monastery of Limonos

It is thought that the Apostle Paul first brought Christianity to Lesvos in 58 AD and the island has a wealth of Christian and Byzantine churches, testimony to the spiritual leanings of its inhabitants since ancient times.

The first Christian bishop Gregory had his pastoral seat at Mytilene in 325 AD and many religious centres were built on Lesvos between the 9th and 14th centuries.

The wealth of religious buildings and the island's heritage makes Lesvos a top destination for many pilgrims and its monasteries make ideal places to visit, not only to see the ancient buildings but also to admire the church treasures and works of art as well as to savour the unique atmosphere.

Limonos Monastery near Kalloni

The Monastery of Limonos is the largest and most important on Lesvos and it's found about four kilometres from the village of Kalloni. Built on the ruins of a Byzantine monastery it was closed for 100 years after the Ottomans conquered Lesvos 1462.

Reopened in 1526 by Agios Ignatius Agallianos and dedicated to Archangel Michael the monastery became a famous centre of learning and today its library is considered one of the best in Greece with more than 5,000 books, some dating from the 5th century.

Set in a beautiful landscape (the name 'limonos' is Greek for meadow), visitors can enjoy not only the ancient architecture but also displays of rare manuscripts, ecclesiastical robes, well-preserved icons and jewellery. A place of pilgrimage, stalls are often set up outside the monastery gates selling religious wares and is the centre of a major religious festival on October 8.

Ypsilos Monastery on Mount Ordymnos

This monastery is dedicated to Agios Ioannis Theologos and its located on the top of Mount Ordymnos in western Lesvos about 80 kilometres from Mytilini. A former Byzantine monastery was abandoned and eventually destroyed by fire. The current katholikon , built in 1832, forms the centre of the monastic complex that dates from 1100 and perches on the crater of a dormant volcano.

The name 'ypsilos' translates as 'lofty' and visitors can enjoy panoramic views over the hills and valleys of the Petrified Forest of Lesvos, now virtually treeless except for the preserved prehistoric stumps of the ancient forest that were petrified when Mount Olympus erupted some 20 million years ago.

A small courtyard is built around an ancient well and a small museum has displays of religious artefacts from all over the island including some remarkable gold embroidered vestments and bible covers that date from 1588.

The monastery of Perivoli at Antissa

The monastery of Perivoli is near the mountain village of Antissa on the banks of the Voulgaris river and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Built around 1350 it has suffered several fires and demolitions over the years, particularly in the 17th century.

A destination for pilgrims from across the world, Perivoli is prized for its complete cycle of 16th-century wall paintings depicting the life of Christ.

Built as a two-aisle wooden roof basilica, the katholikon may be small but the frescoes alone make a visit more than worthwhile. The monastery sits in a charming green valley between Vatoussa and Antissa and surrounded by trees. Perivoli means garden in Greek and there are picnic tables outside the outer wall that encircles the complex that seems permanently scented by the surrounding flowers and herbs.

The monastery of Pithari near Eressos

Close to Eressos, located in a dramatic gorge and encircled by groves of oak and sycamore, the Monastery of Pithari was founded in the 17th century. Smaller than Limonos and Agios Raphael, all the buildings except priests' private quarters are open to the public. Visitors can wander through small chapels full of religious artefacts and some very fine wall paintings.

The monastery is dedicated to the Taxiarchis (Archangels) and is not only very beautiful but also has the remarkable Stone Room with displays of rare geological finds from the area. On show are several good fossils and some precious stones.

Other religious sites worth a visit.

Other sites worth a look while on holiday on Lesvos are the Christian Temple of Chalinados located in the rich farmland of Chalinados, near Agia Paraskevis. The ruins of an early Christian triple aisle basilica of Agios Georgios were restored in 1937.

The Yeni Mosque in upper Skala of Mytilini is a very fine example of Turkish architecture studded with distinct Greek features. Built between 1823 and 1828 it has undergone a recent facelift and is now used as an exhibition centre.

The ruins of the 5th-century church of Agios Andreas is flanked by a good archaeological museum with relics the archaic era to the Byzantine. The nearby hill of Vigla has an ancient wall, ruins of a medieval castle, a Roman cistern and two turrets, one Genovese and the other Ottoman.