December 12, 2007

Byzantine architecture

Byzantine architecture is the architecture of the Byzantine Empire. The empire gradually emerged as a distinct entity after AD 330, when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, which was later renamed Constantinople and is now Istanbul.

Overview of extant monuments

Early Byzantine architecture is essentially a continuation of Roman architecture. Stylistic drift, technological advancement, and political and territorial changes meant that a distinct style gradually emerged which imbued certain influences from the Near East and used the Greek cross plan in church architecture. Brick and plaster replaced stone, classical orders were used more freely, mosaics replaced carved decoration, and complex domes were erected.

Early architecture

Prime examples of early Byzantine architecture date from Justinian I's reign and survive in Ravenna and Constantinople, as well as in Sofia (the Church of St Sophia). One of the great breakthroughs in the history of Western architecture occurred when Justinian's architects invented a complex system providing for a smooth transition from a square plan of the church to a circular dome (or domes) by means of squinches or pendentives.

In Ravenna, we have the longitudinal basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, and the octagonal, centralized structure of the church of San Vitale, commissioned by Emperor Justinian but never seen by him. Justinian's monuments in Constantinople include the domed churches of Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene, but there is also an earlier, smaller church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus (sometimes referred to as "Little Hagia Sophia"), which might have served as a model for both in that it combined the elements of a longitudinal basilica with those of a centralized building.

The 6th-century church of Hagia Irene in Constantinople is a superb sample of the early Byzantine architecture
The 6th-century church of Hagia Irene in Constantinople is a superb sample of the early Byzantine architecture

Secular structures include the ruins of the Great Palace of Constantinople, the innovative walls of Constantinople (with 192 towers) and Basilica Cistern (with hundreds of recycled classical columns). A frieze in the Ostrogothic palace in Ravenna depicts an early Byzantine palace.

Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, St Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, Djvari in present-day Georgia, and three Armenian churches of Echmiadzin all date primarily from the 7th century and provide a glimpse on architectural developments in the Byzantine provinces following the age of Justinian.

Middle period

The Middle period of Byzantine history saw no ambitious architectural undertaking. From the years of Iconoclasm we have only the Church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. Another major building, the Assumption church in Nicaea, was destroyed in the 1920s, although the photographs survive.

The period of the Macedonian dynasty, traditionally considered the epitome of Byzantine art, has not left a lasting legacy in architecture. It is presumed that Basil I's votive church of the Theotokos of Phoros (no longer extant) served as a model for most cross-in-square sanctuaries of the period, including the monastery church of Hosios Lukas in Greece (ca. 1000), Nea Moni Katholikon in Chios (a pet project of Constantine IX), and the Daphnion near Athens (ca. 1050).

The 11th-century monastery of Hosios Lukas in Greece is representative of the Byzantine art during the rule of the Makedonioi.
The 11th-century monastery of Hosios Lukas in Greece is representative of the Byzantine art during the rule of the Makedonioi.

The cross-in-square type also became predominant in the Slavic countries which were Christianized by Greek missionaries during the Macedonian period. The Hagia Sophia church in Ochrid (present-day Macedonia) and the eponymous cathedral in Kiev (present-day Ukraine) testify to a vogue for multiple subsidiary domes set on drums, which would gain in height and narrowness with the progress of time.

Comnenan and Paleologan periods

In Constantinople and Asia Minor the architecture of the Comnenan period is almost non-existent, with the notable exceptions of the Elmali Kilise and other rock sanctuaries of Cappadocia, and of the Churches of the Pantokrator and of the Theotokos Kyriotissa in Constantinople. Much architecture survives on the outskirts of the Byzantine world, where the national forms of architecture came into being: in the Transcaucasian countries, in Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and other Slavic lands; and also in Sicily (Cappella Palatina) and Veneto (St Mark's Basilica, Torcello Cathedral).

The Paleologan period is well-represented in a dozen churches of Constantinople, notably St Saviour at Chora and St Mary Pammakaristos. Unlike their Slavic counterparts, the Paleologan architects never accented the vertical thrust of structures. As a result, there is little grandeur in the late medieval architecture of Byzantium (barring the Hagia Sophia of Trapezunt).

The church of Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki is often cited as an archetypal structure of the late period, when the exterior walls were intricately decorated with complex brickwork patterns or with glazed ceramics. Other churches from the years immediately predating the fall of Constantinople survive on Mount Athos and in Mistra (e.g. Brontocheion monastery).

Structural evolution

As early as the building of Constantine's churches in Palestine there were two chief types of plan in use: the basilican, or axial, type, represented by the basilica at the Holy Sepulchre, and the circular, or central, type, represented by the great octagonal church once at Antioch. Those of the latter type we must suppose were nearly always vaulted, for a central dome would seem to furnish their very raison d'etre. The central space was sometimes surrounded by a very thick wall, in which deep recesses, to the interior, were formed, as at the noble church of St George, Salonica (5th century), or by a vaulted aisle, as at Sta Costanza, Rome (4th century); or annexes were thrown out from the central space in such a way as to form a cross, in which these additions helped to counterpoise the central vault, as at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna (5th century). The most famous church of this type was that of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople. Vaults appear to have been early applied to the basilican type of plan; for instance, at Hagia Irene, Constantinople (6th century), the long body of the church is covered by two domes.

Interior of the Hagia Sophia, showing many features of the grandest Byzantine architecture.
Interior of the Hagia Sophia, showing many features of the grandest Byzantine architecture.

At St Sergius, Constantinople, and San Vitale, Ravenna, churches of the central type, the space under the dome was enlarged by having apsidal additions made to the octagon. Finally, at Hagia Sophia (6th century) a combination was made which is perhaps the most remarkable piece of planning ever contrived. A central space of 100 ft (30 m) square is increased to 200 ft (60 m) in length by adding two hemicycles to it to the east and the west; these are again extended by pushing out three minor apses eastward, and two others, one on either side of a straight extension, to the west. This unbroken area, about 260 ft (80 m) long, the larger part of which is over 100 ft (30 m) wide, is entirely covered by a system of domical surfaces. Above the conchs of the small apses rise the two great semi-domes which cover the hemicycles, and between these bursts out the vast lome over the central square. On the two sides, to the north and south of the dome, it is supported by vaulted aisles in two storeys which bring the exterior form to a general square.

The apse of the church with cross at Hagia Irene
The apse of the church with cross at Hagia Irene

At the Holy Apostles (6th century) five domes were applied to a cruciform plan; the central dome was the highest. After the 6th century there were no churches built which in any way competed in scale with these great works of Justinian, and the plans more or less tended to approximate to one type. The central area covered by the dome was included in a considerably larger square, of which the four divisions, to the east, west, north and south, were carried up higher in the vaulting and roof system than the four corners, forming in this way a sort of nave and transepts. Sometimes the central space was square, sometimes octagonal, or at least there were eight piers supporting the dome instead of four, and the nave and transepts were narrower in proportion.

If we draw a square and divide each side into three so that the middle parts are greater than the others, and then divide the area into nine from these points, we approximate to the typical setting out of a plan of this time. Now add three apses on the east side opening from the three divisions, and opposite to the west put a narrow entrance porch running right across the front. Still in front put a square court. The court is the atrium and usually has a fountain in the middle under a canopy resting on pillars. The entrance porch is the narthex. Directly under the center of the dome is the ambo, from which the Scriptures were proclaimed, and beneath the ambo at floor level was the place for the choir of singers. Across the eastern side of the central square was a screen which divided off the bema, where the altar was situated, from the body of the church; this screen, bearing images, is the iconostasis. The altar was protected by a canopy or ciborium resting on pillars. Rows of rising seats around the curve of the apse with the patriarch's throne at the middle eastern point formed the synthronon. The two smaller compartments and apses at the sides of the bema were sacristies, the diaconicon and prothesis. The ambo and bema were connected by the solea, a raised walkway enclosed by a railing or low wall.

The continuous influence from the East is strangely shown in the fashion of decorating external brick walls of churches built about the 12th century, in which bricks roughly carved into form are set up so as to make bands of ornamentation which it is quite clear are imitated from Cufic writing. This fashion was associated with the disposition of the exterior brick and stone work generally into many varieties of pattern, zig-zags, key-patterns &c.; and, as similar decoration is found in many Persian buildings, it is probable that this custom also was derived from the East. The domes and vaults to the exterior were covered with lead or with tiling of the Roman variety. The window and door frames were of marble. The interior surfaces were adorned all over by mosaics or frescoes in the higher parts of the edifice, and below with incrustations of marble slabs, which were frequently of very beautiful varieties, and disposed so that, although in one surface, the coloring formed a series of large panels. The better marbles were opened out so that the two surfaces produced by the division formed a symmetrical pattern resembling somewhat the marking of skins of beasts.

Byzantine legacy

Ultimately, Byzantine architecture in the West gave way to Romanesque and Gothic architecture. In the East it exerted a profound influence on early Islamic architecture, with notable examples including the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which required Byzantine craftsmen and mosaicists to decorate. In Bulgaria, Russia, Romania, Georgia, and other Orthodox countries the Byzantine architecture persisted even longer, finally giving birth to local schools of architecture.

Byzantine Culture
Aristocracy &

Neo-Byzantine architecture had a small following in the wake of the 19th-century Gothic revival, resulting in such jewels as Westminster Cathedral in London, and in Bristol from about 1850 to 1880 a related style known as Bristol Byzantine was popular for industrial buildings which combined elements of the Byzantine style with Moorish architecture. It was developed on a wide-scale basis in Russia by Konstantin Thon and his numerous disciples, who designed St. Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kiev, St Nicholas Naval Cathedral in Kronstadt, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, and the New Athos Monastery in New Athos near Sukhumi. The largest Neo-Byzantine project of the 20th century was the Temple of Saint Sava in Belgrade.

Zograf Monastery

The Zograf Monastery
The Zograf Monastery

The Saint George the Zograf or Zograf Monastery (Bulgarian: Зографски манастир, Zografski manastir; Greek: Μονή Ζωγράφου, Moní Zográphou) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos (the "Holy Mountain") in Greece. It was traditionally founded in the late 9th or early 10th century by three Bulgarians from Ohrid and is regarded as the historical Bulgarian monastery on Mount Athos, as it is traditionally inhabited by Bulgarian Orthodox monks.

The monastery's name is derived from a 13th or 14th century icon of Saint George that is believed to have not been painted by a human hand and to possess wonder-working powers.


The earliest written evidence of the monastery's existence dates from 980.

During the Middle Ages, the monastery was generously supported by the Bulgarian rulers, such as Ivan Asen II and Ivan Alexander, since it was a matter of pride for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to maintain a monastery on Athos. The Zograf Monastery has also received land endowments by Byzantine (the first donor being Leo VI the Wise), Serbian, and Romanian rulers.

The Zograf Monastery was plundered and burnt down by Crusaders, working under orders from the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, in 1275, resulting in the death of 26 monks. These included the igumen (abbot) Thomas, as well as the monks Barsanuphius, Cyril, Micah, Simon, Hilarion, James, Job, Cyprian, Sabbas, James, Martinian, Cosmas, Sergius, Paul, Menas, Ioasaph, Ioanicius, Anthony, Euthymius, Dometian, Partenius, and four laymen. The reason for this attack was the opposition of the Athonite monks to the Union of Lyons, which the Emperor had supported for political reasons. Since the emperor could not attack the Greek monks without incurring the wrath of his own people, he vented his frustration on the Slavic monks. Having hanged the Protos (the elected president of Mount Athos), and having killed many monks in Vatopedi, Iveron and other monasteries, the Latins attacked Zographou. Their martyrdom is commemorated annualy on October 10 (October 23 on the Gregorian Calendar) throughout the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Mercenaries of the Catalan Grand Company raided the Holy Mountain for two years (1307–9), sacking many monasteries, plundering the treasures of Christendom, and terrorising the monks. Of the 300 monasteries on Athos at the beginning of the 14th century, only 35 were left by the end.[1] But the monastery recovered quickly with the help of grants and support from the Palaeologue Emperors and the princes of the Danubian Provinces. The buildings were reconstructed in the late 13th century with the financial aid of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus. The monastery was also given numerous metochia (properties) in parts of Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, and modern-day Turkey, but retains today only those which are in Greece.

The monastery exists in its modern appearance since the 16th century, while its present-day buildings date from the middle 18th century. The south wing was built in 1750, the east in 1758, the small church was erected in 1764 and the large one in 1801. The north and west wing are from the second half of the 19th century and large-scale construction ended in 1896 with the Saints Cyril and Methodius Church and the raising of the bell tower.

Zograf Peak on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after the Zograf Monastery.


The Zograf Monastery owns a library of major significance to Bulgarian culture, preserving medieval manuscripts such as a 15th century copy of the passional of Saint Naum of Ohrid, the 14th-century passional of Saint Paraskevi, the original rough copy of Paisius of Hilendar's Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya and the History of Zograf. The monastic library houses 388 manuscripts in Slavic and 126 in Greek, as well as about 10,000 printed books altogether. Two medieval Bulgarian royal charters, the Zograf Charter and the Rila Charter, have been discovered in the monastery's library.


Zeyrek Mosque

The Mosque viewed from north east. From left to right, one can see the apses of the Church of Christ Pantokrator, the Imperial Chapel and the Church of the Theotokos Eleousa. Here is a computer reconstruction of the building in ca. 1200.
The Mosque viewed from north east. From left to right, one can see the apses of the Church of Christ Pantokrator, the Imperial Chapel and the Church of the Theotokos Eleousa. Here is a computer reconstruction of the building in ca. 1200.

Coordinates: 41°1′11″N, 28°57′26″E Zeyrek Mosque (full name in Turkish: Molla Zeyrek Camii), is a mosque in Istanbul, made of two former Eastern Orthodox churches and a chapel. It represents the most typical example of architecture of the Byzantine middle period in Constantinople and is - after Hagia Sophia - the second largest religious edifice built by the Byzantines still extant in Istanbul.


The complex is placed in the district of Fatih, in a popular neighborhood which got its name (Zeyrek) from the Mosque, and less than one km to the southeast of Eski Imaret Mosque. It is picturesque but (as of 2007) decayed and dangerous in the night hours.


Between 1118 and 1124 Byzantine Empress Eirene Komnena built a friary on this site dedicated to Christ Pantokrator.[1] The monastery consisted of a main church, also dedicated to the Pantokrator, a library and a hospital.[2]

After the death of his wife, shortly after 1124, Emperor John II Komnenos built another church to the north of the first dedicated to the Theotokos Eleousa ("the merciful"), and finally (the terminus ante quem is 1136 [3]) connected the two shrines with a chapel (dedicated to Saint Michael [4]), which became the imperial mausoleum (heroon) of the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties.[1] Besides many Byzantine dignitaries, Emperor John II and his wife Eirene, Empress Bertha of Sulzbach (also known as Eirene, and wife of Manuel I Komnenos), and Emperor John V Palaiologos were buried here.[2]

During the Latin domination after the Fourth Crusade, the complex was the see of the Venetian clergy, and the icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria was housed here. [5] The monastery was also used as an imperial palace by the last Latin Emperor, Baldwin. After the Palaiologan restoration the monastery was used again by Orthodox monks. The most famous among them was Gennadius II Scholarius, who left the Pantokrator to become the first Patriarch of Constantinople after the Islamic conquest of the city. [6]

Shortly after the Fall of Constantinople the building was converted into a mosque. The Ottomans named it after Molla Zeyrek, a scholar who was teaching in the nearby Medrese. [7] The Medrese occupied the rooms of the monastery, but these rooms vanished later. [2]

Until a few years ago, the edifice was in a desolate state, and as a result it was added to the UNESCO watchlist of endangered monuments. During the recent years it underwent extensive (albeit still unfinished) restoration.

Today Zeyrek Mosque is - after Hagia Sophia - the second largest extant religious edifice built by the Byzantines in Istanbul.

To the East lies the Ottoman Konak (Zeyrek Hane), which has also been restored and is now open as a restaurant and tea garden.


The apsis of the Imperial Chapel (in background), built with the technique of the recessed brick
The apsis of the Imperial Chapel (in background), built with the technique of the recessed brick

The masonry has been partly built adopting the technique of the recessed brick, typical of the Byzantine architecture of the middle period [8]. In this technique, alternate courses of bricks are mounted behind the line of the wall, and are plunged in a mortar's bed. Due to that, the thickness of the mortar layers is about three times greater than that of the bricks layers. [9]

The south and the north church are both cross domed with polygonal apses having seven sides, and not five as was typical in the Byzantine architecture of the previous century. The apses have also triple lancet windows flanked by niches [1].

The southern church is the largest. To the East it has an esonarthex, which later was extended up to the imperial chapel. The church is surmounted by two domes, one over the naos and the other over the matroneum (a separate upper gallery for women) of the narthex. The decoration of this church, which was very rich, disappeared almost completely, except for some fragments of marble in the presbyterium and, above all, a beautiful floor in opus sectile made with colored marbles worked in cloisonné technique, where human and animal figures are represented [10]. Moreover, fragments of colored glass suggest that the windows of this church were once made of stained glass bearing figures of Saints [11].

The imperial chapel is covered by barrel vaults and is surmounted by two domes too.

The north church has only one dome, and is notable for its frieze, carved with a dog's tooth and triangle motif running along the eaves line.

As a whole, this complex represents the most typical example of architecture of the Byzantine middle period in Constantinopl

Vefa Kilise Mosque

The Mosque (right) and the exonarthex (left) viewed from the south
The Mosque (right) and the exonarthex (left) viewed from the south

Vefa Kilise Mosque (Turkish: Vefa Kilise Camii, meaning "the church mosque of Vefa", to distinguish it from the other kilise camiler of Istanbul: also known as Molla Gürani Camii after the name of his founder) is a former Eastern Orthodox church converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. The church was possibly dedicated to Hagios Theodoros (St. Theodore)[1] (Greek: Eκκλησία του Αγίου Θεοδόρου), but this dedication is far from certain.[2] The complex represents one of the most important examples of Comnenian and Palaiologan architecture of Constantinople.[3]


The building lies in Istanbul, in the district of Fatih, in the neighborhood of Vefa, less than one kilometer to the northwest of the other great Byzantine building in Vefa (the mosque of Kalenderhane), and a few hundred meters south of the Süleymaniye Mosque.


The origin of the building, which lies on the slope of the third hill of Constantinople, is not certain. Judging by its masonry, it was erected between the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th centuries, during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos. The dedication to Hagios Theodoros[4] is also far from certain.[2] During the Latin domination of Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade the edifice was used as a Roman Catholic church.

Shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the church became a mosque, founded by the famous Kurdish scholar Molla Gürani, who was the tutor of Sultan Mehmed II and would become the first Mufti of Istanbul. The mosque is also named after him. In 1833 a fire ravaged the complex, destroying the wooden annexes. In 1937 the building underwent a partial restoration, and its surviving mosaics were uncovered and cleaned.

Architecture and decoration

The south dome of the exonarthex with remains of mosaics
The south dome of the exonarthex with remains of mosaics

The church proper, which has never been studied systematically,[2] has a cross-in-square (or quincunx) plan, with each side nine meters long.[5] Together with the Eski Imaret Mosque, provides an example of the Komnenian style in Constantinople. Its masonry consists of bricks, mounted adopting the technique of the recessed brick, typical of the Byzantine architecture of the middle period.[6] In this technique, alternate courses of brick are mounted behind the line of the wall, and are plunged into a mortar bed. Due to that, the thickness of the mortar layers is about three times greater than that of the brick layers.

The building has blind arcades, and the apse is interrupted by a triple lancet window with niches over it. The light penetrates into the cross arms through triple arcades. The exterior of the main church has occasional decorative motifs, such as snake patterns.

Besides the this building, the complex contains also an exonarthex to the west, a portico (which joins a parekklesion [7] with the bema) with columns and arches to the south, and finally a corridor to the north.

The exonarthex represents one of the most typical examples of Palaiologan architecture in Constantinople,[8] along with the parekklesia of the Pammakaristos, the Chora Churches, and Fethiye Mosque. The date of its edification should be placed after those of the parekklesia of the Pammakaristos and Chora Churches.[9] Its façade has two orders, both opened with arcades. On the lower order there are angular niches followed by triple arcades. The higher order is quite different from the lower, and has five semicircular blind arcades framing windows. The masonry is made of banded and colorful brickwork and stonework, especially visible on the north side. Overall, the execution is less refined than in the parekklesion of the Fethiye Mosque.[9]

The exonarthex is surmounted by three domes. The lateral ones are of umbrella type, while the central one has ribs. The internal decoration of the exonartex includes: columns, capitals and closure slabs which are all reused material from the Early Byzantine period.[2] The three domes were all covered with mosaics. Those on the south dome were cleaned in 1937 under the direction of the Ministry of Mosques,[2] but as of 2007 they have disappeared almost completely. The interior of the church proper, on the contrary, has never been de-plastered up to now.


View of Vatopedi monastery from the nearby beach.
View of Vatopedi monastery from the nearby beach.

The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos was built during the second half of the 10th century, by three monks, Athanasius, Nicholas, and Antonius from Adrianople, who were the pupils of Athanasius the Athonite. A legendary tradition says that its construction was ordered in the 4th century by Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius to honour the miraculous salvation by the Virgin Mary of his son from a shipwreck. The child is said to have been found in a brier bush--hence Vato (brier) Paidi (child).

From then onwards several buildings have been constructed, most of them were built during the Byzantine period and during the 18th and 19th centuries when the monastery reached its highest peak.

About 50 monks live in the monastery today, where extensive construction projects are underway to restore the larger buildings.

It is closed for public view, but is open for scientists with the permission of the monastery and the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities.

Sketes attached to Vatopedi

The following large Sketes are attached to Vatopedi: the Skete of Saint Andrew in Karyes and the Skete of Saint Demetrius near the main monastery. Other smaller sketes are also attached to the monastery.

Main buildings within the walls of the monastery

Orthodox monk in the Vatopedi monastery.
Orthodox monk in the Vatopedi monastery.

Treasures held within the monastery

The Monastery of Vatopedi holds a belt held by believers to be the actual belt of the Virgin Mary, which she wore on earth and gave to Thomas the Apostle after her death and during her transition to heaven. The monastery also contains the Iaspis, a jasper communion cup fashioned of a single piece of the precious stone, and various other icons.

Vatopedi's library also preserves a medieval Bulgarian royal charter, the 13th-century Vatopedi Charter of Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria dedicated to the monastery. It was discovered in the monastery's archives in 1929.

Miracle working icons within the monastery

There are a number of icons considered to be miracle-working in the monastery. One of the most well-known is the icon of Panagia ("Pantanassa", or the "Queen of All"), which is held to work miracles, especially to cure cancer. A copy was made and sent to Russia; this copy is also believed to be miracle-working.

Stavronikita monastery

Stavronikita monastery, South-East view
Stavronikita monastery, South-East view

Stavronikita monastery (Greek: Μονή Σταυρονικήτα) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery at the monastic state of Mount Athos in Greece, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It is built on top of a rock near the sea near the middle of the northeast shore of the Athonite peninsula, located between the monasteries of Iviron and Pantokratoros. The site where the monastery is built was first used by Athonite monks as early as the 10th century. Stavronikita was the last to be officially consecrated as an Athonite monastery in 1536 and ranks fifteenth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries and currently has 30 to 40 monks.


There are various conflicting traditions and stories regarding the monastery's name. According to one Athonite tradition, the name is a combination of the names of two monks, Stavros and Nikitas, that used to live in two cells at the site before the monastery was built. Another tradition recounts of a Byzantine army officer serving under the Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes, named Niceforus Stavronikitas that built the monastery and named it after himself. Yet a third tradition attributes the foundation of the monastery to a patrician by the name Nikitas. The patrician's name day according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar of saints is celebrated the day after the Feast of the Cross. Hence according to this tale the monastery got its name by combination of the patrician's name with the word "Stavros" (the Greek word for cross).

Apart from the traditional name, in some old documents the monastery is referred to as "Monastery of the Theotokos", which implies that the monastery was initially dedicated to the Theotokos. A more often encountered alternative name is "Monastery of Stravonikita" which is a corruption of the original name.


The many conflicting tales of the monastery's name hint to the obscurity of its historical origins. In a document by the Protos Nikiforos dating back to 1012 there is the signature of a monk who signs as "Nikiforos monk from Stravonikita" (Greek: "Νικηφόρος μοναχός ο του Στραβωνικήτα"), while in a 1016 document, the same monk signs as "from Stavronikita"(Greek: "του Σταυρονικήτα"). This alludes to the existence of a Stavronikita monastery as late as the first half of the 11th century. According to archaeologist Sotiris Kadas this means that the Stavronikita monastery was one of the monasteries that were founded or built during the first years of organized monastic life on Mount Athos.[1]

This early part of the monastery's history ended approximately during the first half of the 13th century when the monastery was deserted due to constant pirate raids as well as due to the tremendous impact caused by the Fourth Crusade to the whole of the Byzantine Empire. The deserted monastery came initially under the jurisdiction of the Protos and later under the jurisdiction of Koutloumousiou monastery and later Philotheou monastery and functioned as a skete. In 1533, The monks of Philotheou sold Stavronikita to the abbot of a Thesprotian monastery, Gregorios Giromeriatis (Greek: Γρηγόριος Γηρομερειάτης). In 1536, a patriarchical edict by Patriarch Jeremias I reinstated Stavronikita's status as one of the monasteries of Athos, bringing their total number to 20. Therefore Stavronikita became the last officially consecrated monastery of Athos and is usually referred as the last monastery to be added to the athonite hierarchy.

The chapel of Saint Demetrius, built in 1770.
The chapel of Saint Demetrius, built in 1770.

Gregorios Giromeriatis eventually left his monastery in Thesprotia and permanently settled in Stavronikita. In subsequent years he expended great efforts to rebuild and expand the monastery. He built a surrounding wall, many cells, as well as the monastery's catholicon. After the death of Gregorios in 1540, the renovation was continued by Patriarch Jeremias himself out of love and respect for Gregorios. An extraordinary feature of the monastery during this era is the fact that while most of the athonite monasteries had already largely adopted the so called "idiorythmic" lifestyle (a semi-eremitic variant of Christian monasticism) , Stavronikita was founded and continued to function long after as on the principles of cenobitic monasticism.

The subsequent history of the monastery was marked by the fact that it always remained small in comparison to other athonite monasteries, both in property and in number of monks. Despite the repeated aid by the athonite community as well as by important benefactors, such as archon Servopoulos in 1612, the monk Markos in 1614, the people of Kea in 1628, Thomas Klados in 1630 and the Prince of Wallachia, Alexandru Ghica from 1727 to 1740, the monastery's evolution was constantly hampered partly by quarrellings with nearby sketes and monasteries, most notably with Koutloumousiou monastery, over matters of land property and more importantly by two great fires in 1607 and in 1741 that burnt Stavronikita to the ground. However, the monastery continued to grow. In 1628 the catholicon was renovated and in 1770 the monastery's well-known aqueduct was built along with some of its chapels, such as the chapel of Saint Demetrius at the monastery's graveyard, the chapel of the Archangels and the chapel of the Five Martyrs.

During the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century, Stavronikita, as well as the whole of Mount Athos, experienced harsh times. The monastery faced a harsh economic situation due to extraordinary debt that helped fund the war, while its monks were scattered after the Ottomans invaded Athos. Therefore the monastery, along with some other athonite monasteries, was deserted and so were many of its holdings in Wallachia, Moldavia and elsewhere. This situation lasted for about a decade, after which the Ottomans left Athos and any monks that had survived started returning to the monastery.

However, the monastery's prosperity was again endangered by three great fires in 1864, 1874 and 1879 that caused great damage. The monastery was rebuilt but the monks became largely indebted again which led to further decline. This situation was partly reversed by the efforts of the abbot Theophilos, a monk formerly from Vatopedi.The election of Abbot Vassilios and the reversion of the monastery to the coenobitic style greatly influenced the revival of monastic life at Stavronikita which thus obtained a new lease of life.


View from the interior of the monastery. At the background, the peak of Athos
View from the interior of the monastery. At the background, the peak of Athos

Stavronikita is the smaller in size among all the athonite monasteries. Important landmarks of the monastery are its trademark tower at the monastery's entrance, its aqueduct, as well as its centuries old cypress outside the western corner of the complex.

The catholicon of the monastery is dedicated to Saint Nicholas and is the smaller catholicon among its other athonite counterparts. It was built during the 16th century over a pre-existing church dedicated to the Theotokos. The catholicon is decorated with frescoes and an iconostasis by the famous icon-painter Theophanes of Crete and his son Symeon. Apart from the catholicon, the monastery's refectory is located at the upper floor at the southern side of the complex and also bears some important iconography.

During the latter half of the 20th century the whole monastery complex had been largely abandoned and was slowly falling apart. Additionally the rock on which the monastery is built had been severely damaged by a series of earthquakes. The rock was found to be slowly crumbling and sliding towards the sea which lead to concerns about the future of the monastery's structural integrity.

The Center for the Preservation of Athonite Heritage (Greek: Κέντρο Διαφύλαξης Αγιορείτικης Κληρονομιάς, abbreviated Κε.Δ.Α.Κ.), a state organization under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for Macedonia–Thrace, undertook the task of renovating and restoring the monastery. Extensive renovating work took place from 1981 to 1999, while, utilizing a complex engineering method the underlying rock was stabilized.[2]

Cultural treasures

The monastery keeps a widely known 14th century icon of Saint Nicholas, known as "Streidas" (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος ο Στρειδάς, "Saint Nicholas of the Oyster") because when it was accidentally discovered at the bottom of the sea, an oyster had stuck at the forehead of St. Nicholas. According to the athonite tradition, when the monks of Stavronikita removed the oyster, the saint's forehead bled.

Stavronikita has a collection of notable icons and holy relics. The monastery also has in its possession priestly garments, ritual objects and other valuables. The monastery also has a collection of 171 manuscripts, out of which 58 are written on parchment. Some of the manuscripts bear notable iconography and decoration.

St Michael at Germia

St Michael at Germia was a Byzantine shrine of Michael the Archangel in Central Anatolia. Ruins of the shrine are located in the village of Gümüşkonak, formerly known as Yürme, 8km south of Günyüzü in Eskişehir Province, Turkey.

Simonopetra monastery

Simonopetra, southern view.
Simonopetra, southern view.

Simonopetra Monastery (Greek: Σιμωνόπετρα, literally: "Simon's Rock"). Also Monastery of Simonos Petra (Greek: Μονή Σίμωνος Πέτρας) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the monastic state of Mount Athos in Greece. Simonopetra ranks thirteenth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries.

The monastery is located in the southern coast of the Athos peninsula, between the Athonite port of Dafni and Osiou Grigoriou monastery. While the southern coast of Athos is quite rugged in general, the particular site upon which the monastery is built is exceptionally harsh. It is built on top of a single huge rock, practically hanging from a cliff 330 meters over the sea.[1]


The monastery was founded during the 13th century by Simon the Athonite, who was later sanctified by the Eastern Orthodox Church as Osios Simon the Myrrohovletes. Tradition holds that Simon, while dwelling in a nearby cave saw a dream in which the Theotokos instructed him to build a monastery on top of the rock, promising him that she would protect and provide for him and the monastery. The original monastery was called by Simon "New Bethlehem" (Greek: Νέα Βηθλεέμ) and is to this day dedicated to the Nativity of Jesus.

In 1364, the Serbian despot Jovan Ugljesa funded the renovation and expansion of the monastery. In 1581, Simonopetra was destroyed by a fire, in which a large portion of the monks died. Evgenios, the monastery's abbot, travelled to the Danubian Principalities hoping to raise funds to rebuild the monastery. The most important donor was Michael the Brave, Prince of Wallachia, who donated large portions of land as well as money to the monastery. In later years the monastery was also burnt in 1626 and the last great fire happened in 1891, after which the monastery was rebuilt to its current form.

During recent centuries, the monks of the monastery were traditionally from Ionia in Asia Minor. However, during the mid 20th century the brotherhood was greatly thinned out due to great reduction in the influx of new monks. The current thriving brotherhood originates from the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron in Meteora as in 1973 the Athonite community decided to repopulate the almost abandoned monastery.


The monastery consists of several multi-storied buildings, the main being in the place of the original structure, built by Simon. The main building has been described as the "most bold construction of the peninsula".[2] The monks of Simonopetra traditionally count the floors from top to bottom, thus the top floor is the first floor and the bottom floor the last. The monastery is built on top of the underlying massive rock and the rock runs through the lower floors.

The expansion and development of Simon's original structure almost always followed one of the monastery's great fires. Following the 1580 fire and with the funds gathered by abbot Evgenios, the western building was erected. The eastern building was built following the 1891 fire mostly with funds raised in Russia.

[edit] Choir

In recent years, the choir of Simonopetra has grown in reputation among Byzantine music specialists and enthusiasts. The monastery has published a series of collections of ecclesiastic Byzantine chants by the choir. Of these, Agni Parthene is the most popular and has earned the choir and the monastery widespread recognition.


  • Hymns from the Psalter (1990)
  • O Pure Virgin (Agni Partheni) (1990)
  • Divine Liturgy (1999)
  • Great Vespers (1999)
  • Paraklesis (1999)
  • Service of Saint Simon (1999)
  • Sunday Matins (Orthros) (1999)
  • Service of St. Silouan the Athonite (2004)