PATMOS, Greece – When John wrote the last book of the New Testament, he gave the Greek tourist board a gift, mentioning early on that he had received his apocalyptic vision while “on the island called Patmos”.
This single reference, in Revelation 1:9, turned the small, sparsely populated island into a tourist attraction, a place of pilgrimage for more than a millennium.
Along the way, Patmos was attacked by pirates and ruled or occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians, Italian Fascists, and German Nazis, among others.
In 1948, Patmos became part of Greece.
Like so many of the country’s 227 inhabited islands, Patmos is beautiful, but small. The 13 square mile island, not far from the Turkish mainland, has a population of around 3,000 people. The medieval Monastery of St. John the Theologian occupies the heights, hundreds of feet above sea level.
To get to Patmos, visitors must travel as John would have traveled – by boat.
The nearest airport is on the island of Leros, about 20 miles to the southeast.
“It’s a quiet island and a lot of people come for its spiritual essence,” said longtime resident Doris Vasilos.
Given Patmos’ stunning views of the Aegean Sea and its mild climate, it feels more like an oasis than a place of punishment.
Grapes, figs, pomegranates and olives are abundant. Bananas are also sometimes spotted.
“Patmos has amazing beaches. … They are beautiful and the sea is crystal clear,” said Theo Gonidakis, a businessman in Skala, the island’s port village.
Church tradition holds that John received his vision after being forced into exile by the Roman authorities.
In the text, John says he ended up on Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
Ben Witherington, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, said Patmos was a “Roman penal colony, and it appears there were mines there that the prisoners worked “.
“Rome had two kinds of exile – island exile and island confinement exile. In the latter case, one was incarcerated,” he said.
Witherington, author of the New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Revelation, said the water made the leak unlikely.
“Much like Alcatraz, exile to a place so far from the Turkish coast meant you were probably stuck there,” he said.
Despite the isolation, the fate of the prisoners was not hopeless.
“The way Roman law worked was that when an empire died, the exile expired and you could come back where you came from,” Witherington said.
APOCALYPSE OF JOHN
Little is known about the author of the Apocalypse, also called the Apocalypse of John. “Apokalypsis” – Koine Greek for revelation or unveiling – is the opening word of the book.
If the scientific consensus is correct, it was written before the end of the first century.
The identity of the author has long been debated.
“John of Patmos is an apocalyptic prophet similar to the exilic prophets – Daniel, Ezekiel and, to some extent, Zacharias. He tells us in the very first chapter of Revelation who he is. He is not called the disciple well -beloved or an apostle or one of the Twelve,” Witherington said.
“There was a debate in the early church about her relationship to John son of Zebedee,” Witherington said, referring to the New Testament apostle.
He considers that unlikely.
Not everyone was thrilled to see the book included in the Christian Bible.
NEW TESTAMENT DEBATE
“There was a great debate as to whether Revelation should be in the [New Testament] cannon or not. Eusebius, the father of church history didn’t like much and spoke about the church fathers who spoke out against it,” Witherington noted. “Nevertheless, it made the cut, and I’m glad he did. It is the only book of any kind of prophecy in the [New Testament]including any kind of Christian prophecy.”
Skepticism regarding Revelation was not limited to certain Catholic saints and scholars.
Martin Luther also had initial apprehensions, describing the scripture as “neither apostolic nor prophetic”.
Others, however, quickly adopted the book.
In the fourth century, Christians were building places of worship on Patmos. An ancient temple of Artemis has been replaced by a Christian basilica.
It will also eventually be destroyed.
Almost 2,000 years after it was written, Revelation continues to fascinate readers, with its seven seals and seven trumpets, its cataclysms and the Antichrist.
In John’s vision, the sun turns black as a bag and the moon red as blood. Stars fall from the sky, the earth shakes, mountains and islands move, and death and hell are unleashed.
Finally, the dead, “small and great”, stand before the throne of God and are “judged according to their works”.
The righteous enjoy “a new heaven and a new earth.”
Others are consigned to a lake of fire.
In Patmos, visitors will see the Greek-Orthodox monastery and its chapels, decorated with centuries-old wall paintings. Later, they can follow a windy road to the Cave of the Apocalypse, about 2.5 km away, and spot where tradition says the writing actually took place.
At the monastery, candles burn, roses bloom and the smell of basil sometimes wafts through the air.
“Patmos is a sacred island. It’s the second place where God has shown himself,” explained my guide, Ioannis, as he showed me around the chapels.
In Exodus, “Moses saw the back of God,” he said. In the Apocalypse, “it was a vision. It is thus that Saint John saw God”.
The Monastery of St. John the Theologian has existed for almost 1,000 years.
“A monk from Asia Minor called Christodoulos came here in 1088 to build a monastery for himself and his brotherhood…and it has been an active monastery for nine centuries [later]“, said Ioannis.
Built to repel attackers, it looks more like a fortress than a cathedral.
Inside its walls, monks offer prayers and praises.
“It’s still very active, the church, in Greece. It’s very important to us,” Ioannis said.
Jesus, he said, “gave us a new purpose for…life and all that meaning.”
“‘Love one another.’ This, I believe, is the basis of the message of Christ,” he added.
Before leaving, visitors are encouraged to visit the monastery museum, which features 9th-century scrolls, 15th-century books, and a variety of paintings, icons, and various ecclesiastical artifacts.
Saint Christodoulos, who is sometimes called the Wonder Worker of Patmos, is also credited with helping to protect the Cave of the Apocalypse, the island’s other major tourist attraction.
THE CAVE OF APOCALYPSE
Outside the site, weathered signs in Greek and English state “Please note that you are in a sacred place of worship. Appropriate attitude and dress are therefore required”.
Newer signs inside say, “Sanitize hands” and “Please wear a mask.”
The Cave of the Apocalypse was decorated with frescoes at the beginning of the 12th century; a chapel was added five centuries later, explains a sign on the wall.
Some visitors stop to pray. Others stop to take pictures or buy souvenirs. A 200ml bottle of olive oil, made by the monks, costs 6 euros. The soap they make sells for 3 euros a loaf.
Visitors from all over Europe and the United States flock to the site, eager to see what John saw nearly 2,000 years ago.
The views, now as then, are extraordinary.
Nicholas Verdaris, the priest in charge of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Little Rock, described a visit to Patmos as “a moving and transformative experience”.
“Early Christians were very aware that they needed to preserve and protect places that would unite Christians through the ages,” he said. “This place on Patmos has been protected and preserved so that future generations… can come into contact with the earliest times of the Christian faith.”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who leads tour groups through the region, has visited the island from time to time.
“I love Patmos,” he said; Huckabee’s most recent stoppage was in October. “[It’s a] very special place partly because it is not overdeveloped with garish commercialism. [There’s] there is still a lot of small community charm.”
Patmos is worth savoring, he suggests.
“[It] would be the kind of place I would love to go to spend a month enjoying the beauty, the people and the serenity,” Huckabee said.
Gallery: Pictures from Patmos, Greece