The legend of Kera Panagia and the tragic story of the hermit monk Vasilis

The beach at Kera Panagia

The idyllic beach at Kera Panagia is said by many to be the most attractive on Karpathos with its crystal-clear waters and the beautiful church of the Panagia perched on the heights above.

But how many visitors know the legend of the origins of the church and the tragic story of the hermit monk, Vasilis, who looked after it?

In 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent spent 6 weeks on Karpathos and, on Friday March 6th, they visited Kera Panagia where they met an aged Vasilis, who told them his sad story.

Theodore wrote about their visit in an article, On a Far-off Island, published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Vol. 139, Feb 1886), 233-244), while Mabel, as ever, took to her diary to pen a colourful account of the day.

Theodore’s account of the visit

This account is taken from the book The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks (get the book or download the e-book).

“… our other friends arranged a sort of picnic for us, to a lovely spot called ‘Mrs Madonna’ (Kera Panagía), where a church contains a miraculous picture, and is looked after by a well-known old hermit-monk called Vasili.

The church of Kera Panagia
The church of Kera Panagia

The church is at the foot of a narrow gorge down by the sea, amidst tree-clad heights, which culminate in Mount Lastos, the highest peak in Karpathos, 4000 feet above sea-level. Close to this church there is a water source, which springs right out of a rock: it is icy cold and clear, and all around its egress the rock is garlanded with maidenhair; mastic, myrtle, and daphne almost conceal it from view. To this spot, the most favoured one in the island, our friends took us.

a miraculous picture
“a miraculous picture”

“In 1821 a Cretan refugee whose flocks had been destroyed by the Turks, vowed a church to the Panagià if she would lead him to a place of safety. So, says the legend, she conducted his boat here, where he found water, fertility, and seclusion, and here he built the church he had vowed.

“Once a year, on the day of the Assumption, the Karpathiotes make a pilgrimage to this spot; for the rest of the year it is left to the charge of poor old Vasili, who told us the very sad story which had driven him to adopt this hermit life.

“A few years ago he lived in the village, with his two sons and one daughter. She married a sea-captain, a well-to-do sponge-fisher, who owned a boat and much money he said.

“On one of his voyages, the sponge-fisher took with him Vasili’s two sons, and on their way they fell across a boat manned by pirates from Amorgos. The pirates shot the captain, boarded the caïque, and strapped the two brothers to the mast. After they had cleared the boat of all they could find, they sank it, and shortly afterwards some other sponge-fishers found the two brothers fastened to the mast at the bottom of the sea. They gave notice to the Government, and a steamer was despatched from Chios in pursuit of the pirates, and the bodies were brought home and buried. It was but poor satisfaction to old Vasili to hear of the capture of the murderers.

His daughter shortly afterwards married again, and left Karpathos, and he, with his broken heart and tottering step, donned the garb of a monk, and came to end his days at Kera Panagía, where he lives in a little stone hut alongside the church, and tills the ground, lights the lamps before the sacred pictures, and rings the church bell.”

Mabel’s diary entry for the day

This account is taken from the book World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I.(Get the book or download the e-book).
While Theodore, in his article, recounted the history of the church and Vasilis’ story, Mabel opted for a gastronomic account of the ‘picnic’. On the following day she wrote:

“Yesterday was really a day to be marked with a white stone. We had a delightful picnic to Kyriá Panagía. The company were 3 Turks, one of whom could speak no Greek, 2 English, 4 Greeks, 3 of whom could speak Turkish. There was also an Albanian cook who could speak no language but his own and that no one understood, and 2 soldiers.

Theodore and Mabel might be described today as foodies. Theodore’s writings and Mabel’s chronicles are peppered with details of food and drink. Read about their passion for mizithra cheese and about Mabel’s menus.
“We arrived first. I riding 2 hours on a bone-shaking road. The latter part was through pine woods smelling sweetly and with big single white peonies and arums. M 1 at once set to work to cook a chicken, or rather aged cock, and was ready with brandy to offer the Turks on their arrival, and at one o’clock we all were seated round a waterproof rug of ours with 2 glasses, few plates, and a moderate amount of forks and spoons. We talked English together. The Turks talked Turkish together, but of course then and there determined to send the soldiers off for a lamb to be eaten à la Palikári 2 for dinner. We 2, the 2 Sakolarides 3 and a certain Manolakakis 4, in whose house the Kaïmakam 5 lodges, went on a long hot rocky walk, and I think I got a little sunstroke, for I had a great pain in the back of my head which is gone today very nearly. We at length found ourselves at the source of a stream springing out of a bed of maidenhair under great big myrtle trees. It was such an enchanting spot.

A spring close by
A spring close by

“At 4 o’clock we sat cross-legged round a heap of mastic bushes and rosemary, and on this bed was laid the lamb who had been borne on a spit through his head and his hind feet tied to it.

“We then tore him limb from limb by hand and all gnawed. I never saw a funnier scene or a merrier meal. After the lamb’s bones were cleaned by the 8 sets of teeth, the Kaïmakam examined the shoulder blades and prophesied peace and quietness, then more sheep’s cream and then home.

“We went half way together and the Kaïmakam and Co. went to Apéri, and we and Mr. Frangisko Sakolarides to Volátha. Having been taking lessons from Hassam Tachrí Effendi, the secretary, I was able to say ‘Teshekür edérim’, ‘Thank you’, to the Kaïmakam. We were led to the café by Mr. Frangisko Sakolarides and given coffee and were very glad to get home safely with only starlight to help us, and I had to walk some way.

“In the little church at Kyriá Panagía, which is quite good and not ruined, there were lots of scribbled names and one of the Greeks said, ‘Now we will write up your name’ and I said ‘Oh, not my name please’, they said ‘Why?’ and I said it was not our custom in England to write our name in churches.”

Research and contributeWe’re always searching for more information on the topics and people we write about. Can you add more information about Kera Panagia or old Vasilis, or about the Sakolarides or Mr. Manolakakis? Please contact us using the ‘Comment’ form on this page or on our ‘contact us’ page.

References and copyright

The account from Theodore is taken from the book The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks: The Selected Writings of J. Theodore & Mabel V.A. Bent, 1885-1888, edited, with additional material, by Gerald Brisch. Copyright ©2015 Gerald Brisch and Archaeopress. Reproduced by kind permission.

The extract from Mabel’s diary is taken from the book World Enough, and Time: The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent Volume I: Greece and the Levantine Littoral, transcribed from Mabel’s original hand-written chronicle, with additional material, by Gerald Brisch. Copyright ©2006 Gerald Brisch and Archaeopress. Reproduced by kind permission.

Pictures copyright ©2019 Alan King and inAid Ltd.

Notes

Note 1: Mabel uses ‘M’ to refer to Manthaios Simos, the Bents’ dragoman for many of their travels throughout Greece and beyond. Manthaios was a native of the island of Anafi. Return from Note 1

Note 2: Palikári (‘rogue’, ‘bandit’) is much used in a familiar form to mean ‘pal’, buddy’, etc. Lamb ‘banditstyle’ exists in older recipe books for a slow-cooked dish of lamb chops, oregano, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cheese and potatoes, similar to kokinistó. It seems, however, that Mabel and her pals devoured their lamb spit-roasted. NOTE: See the comment below, received after the publication of this article, from Deppy Karavassilis-Patestou, the Greek vblogger. Return from Note 2

Note 3: Mr. Frangisko Sakolarides was the Greek dragoman and interpreter for the Turkish Kaïmakam, or Governor. It seems he was present on the day with his wife. He and his family are mentioned several times throughout Mabel’s chronicle. Return from Note 3

Note 4: The Manolakakis family was prominent on Kárpathos at the time. An Emmanuel Manolakakis published Karpathiaká (1896), a valued monograph on the history and culture of the island. Return from Note 4

Note 5: The Kaïmakam was the Turkish Governor of the island. Return from Note 5

Woodcock and mizithra

Gerald Brisch’s blog ‘Mabel’s Menus: the culinary notes of an archaeologist‘ sheds a fascinating light on an otherwise little-known area of the Bents’ lives.

Of course, back home in London, Theodore and Mabel would have dined very well. Unfortunately, Mabel’s chronicles only cover their travels and it’s a shame we know nothing about their day-to-day lives when they were not on their travels. They almost certainly would have had house servants and one doubts they would have cooked for themselves, but we have little insight into what gastronomy they may have enjoyed at home.

However, we DO know from Theodore’s writings, and from Mabel’s chronicles, that food and gastronomy were high on their list of survival strategies on many of their arduous journeys.

The Bents were clearly partial to woodcock and Theodore writes enviously while delayed in Milos waiting for the steamer:

We frequently visited Consul Brest, and had interesting conversations on Melos. Moreover he gave us an excellent pot of vegetable-marrow and almond jam to help us in our evil day; but we looked grudgingly at some woodcock on his stairs, which we longed for, and could not get, as they were to be sent to Syra by the steamer; and it was our one consolation in the eventual delay to learn that all these woodcock went bad and had to be thrown away.

We certainly know that, during the Greek explorations, the local mizithra cheese was something they relished. As Theodore wrItes:

Ios is celebrated for its flocks and herds, and of all islands Ios is the most celebrated for its mysethra, ‘food for the gods,’ as they call it. It is simply a curd made of boiled sheep’s milk, strained and pressed into a wicker basket called tyrobolon, just as they are spoken of in the ‘Odyssey’; from this basket it gets a pretty pattern before being turned out on to a plate. When eaten with honey it is truly delicious. I have tasted the same in Corsica called broccio but not so good as those of Ios; in fact, the mysethra of the neighbouring islands does not approach that of Ios — there is something in the pasturage which produces the proper flavour. They make mysethra cakes, but they are inferior to the original thing, and the peasants most frequently salt them, in which condition they are perfectly horrid.

Some of this excellent mysethra we had for our breakfast next morning, and some of it, together with cold fish and plenty of wine, the demarch put into a basket for us to take with us on an expedition … The three brothers and the three girls went down with us to the harbour, where our boat was waiting, bringing with them a fresh mysethra, wine, and figs for our journey.

And on Kea, Theodore writes:

The people at the convent, the old man and his granddaughters, who till the ground around and look after the church, were most hospitably inclined, and provided us with an excellent mysethra, hot and fresh, for our midday meal, and we had the further charm of watching it made. They poured fresh goats’ milk into boiling whey and then squeezed it and compressed it into a wicker basket until it was compact and beautifully white

The following video is a portrait of Manolis Farm Guesthouse on Naxos, featuring the making of traditional mizithra cheese. Produced, filmed and edited by Anneke Verschave.

Stay at Manolis Farm Guest House on Naxos.

Buy mizithra and feta products from Amazon.

Read about mizithra cheese on Wikipedia.