August 24, 2010

Strofades Monastery and the Massacre of 1537

By John Sanidopoulos

The quiet islands of Strofades and its monastery were for centuries the target of brutal pirates, Turks and Algerians looking for treasures. One of the most horrific acts of terror occurred on 29 July 1537. It was on this date that Turks, who were at war with the Venetians over the island of Kerkyra (Corfu), came and burned Strofades Monastery down and massacred the monastic fathers within.

Their memory is commemorated annually with a feast at Strofades Monastery and the Monastery of Saint Dionysios in Zakynthos on September 29th. The contemporary scholar monk Pachomios Rousanos (1508-1553) wrote the Service in their honor.

Strofades (also Stamphane Islands; Strivali) is a group of two small Greek islands in the Ionian Islands. They lie about 44 km (27 miles) southeast of the island of Zakynthos. Administratively they are part of the Municipality of Zakynthos. The larger island, Stamfani, is inhabited by one person, a monk who lives in the islands' only real structure, an impressive old monastery. The smaller is Arpia. Both are sparsely vegetated and rocky. The islands currently belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, which has prohibited hunting on the islands.

In 1241 the Roman princess Irene, daughter of Emperor Theodore Laskaris I of Nicaea, established an impressive fortified monastery dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ on the bigger of the islets. She did this after being saved from a shipwreck by the two islands as a thanksgiving to God. Dedicated also to the Virgin Mary, the monastery is also known as the Monastery of “Panagia Pantochara” (The Joy of All). In 1440 Emperor John Palaiologos restored the monastery to make it into a fortress for protection. It is in this monastery that Saint Dionysios of Zakynthos, the patron saint of the island, lived as a monk and served as abbot for several years.

In 1570 Saint Dionysios was abbot of the Strofades Monastery. Following his death in 1622 he remained its protector through his miraculous holy relic which remained there until 22 August 1717. His relic was removed for safe-keeping since other Hagarene invasions were taking place as well as massacres of monastics. His incorrupt relic was brought to the island of Zakynthos on August 22 and they arrived on the 24th, where they remain till this day and are annually commemorated on the 24th.

The complex of the buildings is really impressive. In fact the monastery is strongly fortified to avoid the pirate invasions, very common in the past; Strofades Monastery has always been an ideal shelter for the pirates in cases of bad weather. The walls of the monastery, 25 meters high, were really a good protection for those invasions and an impressive spectacle for the visitors of today. Stamfani has also an old lighthouse, constructed in 1887, one of the older lighthouses of Greece.

Before World War II the monastery was only inhabited by a few monks and two or three lighthouse keepers. After the war it was uninhabited until 1976. The building of this historic monastery suffered great damage from a violent earthquake (6.6 on the Richter scale on the 18th of November 1997).

Below is a video about Fr. Gregorios Kladis, who since 1976 has lived alone at Strofades Monastery and preserved its inheritance. Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos also speaks in this video about his sorrow in not fully restoring this monastery. This is from a news report on "Mega" in March of 2008.

A 93-page study of the Strofades Monastery can be read at this PDF file (in Greek).

Apolytikion in the First Tone
You lived at Strofades Monastery in a divinely-pleasing manner, and being dispassionate in Christ treasures ambushed in the barbarian assault, O Fathers, together you received martyrdom as abhorred slaughtered lambs, O venerable athletes. Glory to Him Who gave you strength, glory to Him Who crowned you, glory to Him Who granted you most excellent faith.

Kontakion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
Seeking the treasured prize of the virtues and the most brilliant alabasters of the contest, and on the island of Strophados violent hands were stretched out against the ascetics, let us praise the sacred Fathers and divine assembly crying: Rejoice, gathering of Saints.

Rejoice, the revered choir of Fathers, who were killed mercilessly in Strophades; rejoice, bright columns of venerable athletes, trampling on the brows of the barbarians.

The translation of the relics of St. Dionysios from Strofades to Zakynthos

The battered skulls of the holy martyrs of Strofadon

The memorial to the martyred fathers of Strofades Monastery