The Isle of Patmos

This article is a preface to our new series that will take us through the seven letters to the churches in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. It was written by our brother after his recent visit to the Island on holiday.

This article is being written on the Isle of Patmos, not in a cave half-way up the mountainside but in a cafe half-way along the waterfront in the port of Skala on a beautiful October afternoon. The island is at its delightful best as almost all the summer visitors have now left and an ethereal atmosphere of peace and tranquility pervades. In the small harbour the water-ship which comes three times per week is pumping out its precious cargo of fresh water as there are no rivers, few wells and little rainfall on this island. The ferries to nearby islands such as Samos come and go. The tourist boats lie idle, the few fishing boats are seriously unbusy and the beach is deserted as it is quietly lapped by the waves of the Aegean Sea. This is all in stark contrast to the Patmos at which John the apostle arrived 1900 years ago when it was a desolate place of exile and punishment for those who were deemed to be enemies of the Roman Empire. It was well fortified and escape from it was totally impossible.

Up to now I had the impression that Patmos was a small rocky island with little life and few people, but that is far from the case. A most unusual shape, it is 12 miles long, about 5 miles across at its widest point, and has a coastline of around 45 miles. Lying in the Aegean Sea it is the most northerly of a group of twelve islands known as the Dodecanese. In it’s 24 square miles there are three small towns or villages (Skala, Chora and Kambos) and about 3,000 inhabitants mostly involved in fishing, farming and other traditional island trades, and in this case also the making of ecclesiastical garments. Religion is exclusively Greek Orthodox and there is an important theological college, The Patmian Seminary, teaching the Greek language and orthodox theology. It was founded in 1830. Chora is the biggest town and an asphalt road connects it with Skala though there still exists the old stone-paved road which is used by pack animals and provides a lovely walk for visitors. In Chora, lying in the shadow of the Monastery of St. John and the impressive yet forbidding medieval fortress, there are beautiful houses (all painted white), many squares, colourful streets and courtyards and the ubiquitous cafes and restaurants. There is an interesting museum close by with items from as far back as the year 1000. The illustrated books and manuscripts are particularly enthralling and the museum is being expanded. The island is readily and regularly accessed by ferries from Athens (a twelve-hour trip) and other Greek islands. The tourist season starts at Easter for special religious celebrations and ends abruptly in October. There are said to be over 400 churches on the island, most of them, naturally, quite small. In 1999 UNESCO declared the cave, the monastery and the area of Chora a World Heritage Site and in its citation said it was ‘one of the few places in the world where religious ceremonies that date back to early Christian times are still practised’.

History tells us that the apostle John was exiled here in 95-99AD, for 12-18 months, from his home in Ephesus about 60 miles away. This action was taken under the orders of Domitian whose cruel reign has been described as ‘a period of terror hitherto unsurpassed’. With other political exiles from the mainland he would have had a tough time on the island working in the stone quarries and probably finding his own accommodation. Legend says he used a cave in the mountain above Skala and on the outskirts of Chora. This cave, which now has the Church of St. John built beside it, is beautifully situated with stunning views over the island and the sea. John writes that he was ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day’. Certainly not the Day of the Lord, it could, however, be a reference to Sunday though the term then current among the believers was ‘the first day of the week’ and ‘the Lord’s Day’ did not become common until much later. The reference is probably to the annual Sebaste, or Emperor’s Day, the day on which all citizens were to burn incense and acknowledge the Roman Emperor as god. This many believers refused to do and suffered the consequences. On this special day John was given the vision of the One who was the real Almighty! On the day Christians were abused or tortured and suffered loss, John saw the future glory and the exalted Christ. The cave is now a shrine but it is wonderful to stand there and to think that this cave (or one like it) may have been the place of the divine revelation where God chose to show to men things that must shortly come to pass. Local historians claim that not only was Revelation seen in this cave but that the book was also produced there. Dictated by John it is said to have been written by his friend and scribe Prochuros (one of the seven deacons in Acts) and taken to Ephesus when they returned there after Nerva had succeeded Domitian and reversed many of his excesses. Interestingly, there is a natural rock ‘desk’ where this could have taken place, provided one uses one’s imagination well.

The main celebrations here are at Easter when on Sunday there are religious events at the monastery and a fabulous parade. This is followed on Easter Monday by a feast when roast lamb with stuffing is followed by wine and is offered to all locals and visitors after which there is dancing in local costumes to the accompaniment of musical instruments … all a long way from the spiritual revelation appreciated by John so long ago. The best thing about a trip to the island is to be able to set foot on a place where we know John was and received the Revelation of Jesus Christ. To stand where he may have stood and to take time to consider that on this small island God revealed the future of the world and the eventual mastery of His Son through John to an as yet unbelieving world. Yet, in a coming day, ‘every eye shall see him … and all the kindreds of earth shall wail because of him’. ‘Even so, come Lord Jesus’.

‘On the eve, just a little past midnight
‘I was in the isle that is called Patmos’.
As dawn began to break I found myself in Chora.
The sea, as motionless as metal, made fast the islands all around.

No one leaf was breathing in the strengthening light.
A completely flawless shell of peace.
I was transfixed by this dominion
and found that I was whispering, ‘Come and see …’

George Seferis


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