A Greek monastery clanged its bells in warning Monday as an out-of-control wildfire raced down a mountainside, elderly nuns were evacuated from its threatened convent and the remains of Saint Ephrem were removed to a safer location.
At the Saint Ephrem* Monastery near Nea Makri, north of Athens, buildings were silhouetted against a red sky lit up by the glow of nearby wildfires. Workers shoveled sand and sprayed areas with limp garden hoses in apparently fruitless attempts to battle the inferno.
"The flames were 30 meters (100 feet) high," said one of the dozen nuns evacuated, wearing a black habit and a surgical mask to ward off the smoke and grit. "Thankfully they came and rescued us."
This story piqued my interest. While mopeds, taxis, and subway trains whiz through Athens, much of the rest of the country, with its small, antiquated villages, seems to have remained untouched by the hustle-and-bustle of modern-day life. If one ever needed a retreat from civilization, Greece would be an ideal place to escape to. Tiny monasteries dot the mountainous landscape of the Orthodox country.
One such hermetic abode is the Monastery of St. Ephraim* of Mount Amomon. The closest city to the monastery is Nea Makri, which is one of the areas the famous Marathon race passes through. Just northeast of Athens, Nea Makri is considered prime property, which is why many are blaming the current crop of fires on arsonists who want to free up the land for development. Nestled near the forests of the Panteli Mountains, at Mount Ammon, and in a dry area akin to California, it’s no wonder the fires are rapidly spreading.
The Monastery of St. Ephraim of Mount Amomon is reportedly one of the oldest in Attica. It used to be a place where priests and religious followers could come and pray. Although the Turkish Empire, which practiced shamanism and then followed the Muslim religion, was generally thought to be tolerant of Greek Orthodoxy, during the Ottoman rule, a group of barbarians attacked the monastery.
One of the people said to have been killed at the monastery was St. Ephraim. He was born on September 14, 1384, in Trikala, Thessalia, as Konstantionos Morphes. He moved to the monastery in Attica, taking on the name Ephraim. He survived one attack on the monastery, but in September 1425 was captured and tortured for eight months. He was hanged on a mulberry tree outside the monastery on May 5, 1426. These exact details come to us through Makeria Desipri, a nun who dreamed them in 1950. A body believed to be his was consequently found on Mount Amomon, and kept as a relic. The Synod of the Orthodox Church in Greece declared him a saint, but since there are no historical sources to verify the account dreamt by the nun, Ephraim’s saint status is controversial. It has yet to be approved by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
His remains, however, are still considered holy and were transported to safety during the fires that are currently ablaze.
[Photo of remains of Ephraim via Orthodox Wiki]
If you are looking for Ephraim in art, note that he is remembered through iconography as having a black beard and wearing a black robe.
The monastery was destroyed during the Ottoman Empire, but has since been re-erected. Today, many Orthodox believers pilgrimage to the site. (For information on tours, visit Premier Taxi or VIP Taxi.) Prior to the fires, the monastery was most recently in the news in 2005 when the bishop of Attica and the nuns of the monastery accused each other of embezzling pilgrim's donations.
[Photo of monastery via Premier Taxi]
Unlike houses of worship, which are built to inspire awe of God, St. Ephraim Monastery is humbly made, probably as a means to promote the nuns’ efforts to live modestly and without distraction. The monastery is built of rough stone. It reminds us that none of us, not even nuns, are perfect. We are coarse and jagged, but God allows us to come as we are, and uses us despite our imperfections. That no two stones are alike also reminds us that no two people are alike. Each of us, even if we dress uniformly in a habit, are unique. Still, we come together, like these stones, to build up the body of the church.
[Photo of monastery via VIP Taxi]
Typical of Greek Orthodox cathedrals, the monastery features a domed roof. This architectural feature is designed to make God feel close, as it encircles the viewer.
There is much shrubbery around the monastery. The mulberry tree on which Ephraim was believed to have been hanged is on view within the confines of the monastery.
[Photo of mulberry tree via Orthodox Wiki]
*The reports indicate that the monastery is question is affiliated with Saint Ephrem, however the only monastery in Nea Makri I could find is affiliated with Saint Ephraim. Ephrem the Syrian was a hymn writer who died of natural causes in Edessa. The biography of Ephraim differs and is given above. If I have reported inaccurately which monastery was evacuated, please let me know.