Zagoria is an area located the wooded Pindos mountains of Epirus, a province that had only been incorporated into the Greek state in 1913 from the dying Ottoman Empire. Much of Zagoria is now a Greek National Park north of the city of Ioannina. It consists of numerous traditional mountain villages, many with large stone mansions (archontika), schools and churches dating back a few centuries. Today, the villages are slightly crumbling, but some houses are being restored by Zagori families who now live in the metropolitan cities to the south and return in the summer. Tourism is beginning to make its mark as well: well marked and maintained hiking trails that go up and down the mountains incorporating old calderimi (cobbled road) systems and into gorges with marvellously preserved 18th and 19th century stone arched bridges. It is also an area of sheep and goat herding – an activity that has long been identified with this Vlach region and is still quite active. It is not unusual to be stopped on the road by a herd of mixed sheep and goats guarded by large Vlach dogs (possibly descendants of the ancient breed of Molossian hounds) and guided by their solitary shepherd complete with distinctive crook (glitsa).
However, back in the late Ottoman times, the area’s wealth came from trade – hence the mansions, schools and the large well-constructed churches. Most of the churches date from the 17th to 19th centuries and have a similar style – large rectangular bodies (that look like stone sheds), apse on a short east side, a colonnaded porch on at least one long side with a decorated doorway into the church. Most of the churches are closed to visitors for security reasons, but open on Sundays for worship.
In many of the villages we went to, I was enamoured of the odd shaped and wonderfully decorated church doorways. The church below is Ayios Athanasios in Monodendri. It dates to 1801, just in the beginning of the 19th century. It has the usual porch on one long side with a wrap around portion to the west. A bell/clock tower marks the west end.
Embedded in the wall of the tower is a face with reminded me of Frankish churches – flat face with a “T” shaped nose, almond eyes and an odd moustache (at least it looks like one from below!).
The old door to the church is on the south side with its typical shape – a distinct form of arch with a beautiful and slightly unusual carvings in the stone surround.
The left and right sides of the archway show animals, plants and a horseman above. A lion appears on the left and a bee on the right leading me to wonder if it has the any significance to the biblical story of Sampson’s Riddle. On top of the bump in the arch are two angels and what appears to be a crown.
Ayios Athanasios in Monodendri has a few other doors – a well-studded wooden door to the church office to the left of the bell tower, a metal one near it with a traditional door pull, and simple metal one flanked by modern frescos around near the back of the church.
More of these wonderful arched doors, simpler than the Monodendri example, can be found in Dilofo built in 1850 (left) and Koukouli reconstructed in 1854 on the site of an earlier church (right). Both churches are dedicated to the Assumption – Ayia Panagia Theotokos.
The largest of these type of churches in the Zagori area is in the village of Negades, constructed in 1795. This church is generally known as Ayios Giorgos (Saint George), but it actually is a triple apsed church with three aisles with three dedications: Ayios Demetrios (north), Ayios Giorgos (central) and Ayia Triada or the Holy Trinity (south). It has colonnaded porches on both long sides and the west front.
A belltower with a clock is situated just to the north-east on the side of the three apses. A face similar to the one on the Monodendri belltower, but more recognisable as a skull, is carved on one of the apses.
There are doors on all three of these sides leading to each of the three aisles. The door on short west side is simple with an elaborate painting of George in his usual stance – on a white horse with a lance piercing a dragon.
The door on long south side leads to the Ayia Triada aisle and is more like the older church doors shown above at Monodendri, Dilofo and Koukouli. It is decorated with round and fat examples of the double eagle, a symbol of the Orthodox church.
Although the door on the long north side is similar in shape, it is distinctive by its blue paint with similar decoration to the south door.
Even the belltower door has a similarly shaped arched doorway, although devoid of decoration.
Above Negades is the little Panagia church – another Assumption or Theotokos – just outside the village limits on the hill. It has a colonnade on one long side and the short west side opposite the apse. Naturally, there is also a distinctive arched door, decorated like those on the north and south sides of the main Negades church.
Although the churches are generally shut, we did manage to see inside the main Negades church with the triple apse, but photography was prohibited. A team of restorers were busy stabilising the frescos inside. We were awed by the decoration – the lovely 18th century frescos so different from the more familiar Byzantine ones. They show biblical stories, saints and other themes including the ancient authors Aristotle and Plato. Also depicted is a portrait of the donor who had the church built: Chatzimanthos Ginos who had been a supplier to the army of the Sultan – perhaps to wipe the slate clean from his past in arms dealing. They were painted by the renowned fresco painters from Kapesovo (another Zagori village) who painted many of the churches in the region as well as further afield in Ioannina and Metsovo. Icons were also imbedded in carved and gilt woodwork of the the altar screen. A similar carved pulpit wrapped around one of the columns. Intricate woodworking is a traditional craft of the area. Even the layout was interesting – three aisles separated by plastered ionic columns, a wooden ceiling with diamond shaped coffers painted an alternating blue and red, high windows decorated with plaster painted to look like marble and a section at the west end marked by slatted windows that separated the women’s area (Gynaekeion), complete with its wooden balcony, from the rest of the church. Perhaps one day, I may be lucky to see inside other churches of the Zagoria.
Check out Norm’s Thursday Doors for many more posts on fascinating buildings and their doors.