From Syria to Greece to Corbusier: Hozoviotissa monastery



Earlier this summer a number of the Syrians fleeing civil war landed on the Greek island of Amorgos. Amorgos is not a common landing point in the exodus—most people are now landing on Kos not far from the Turkish coast. But Amorgos is the easternmost of the Cycladic island group, so I am guessing people coming west from Turkey through the Dodecanese islands reached it first (see map at bottom). Because Amorgos is a remote island with a small population and few resources, it transferred the Syrians to the island of Naxos. Greece of course has had plenty of its own problems this year, though these are dwarfed by the war that is convulsing Syria and the destabilization that is causing people to flee other places.

I lived on Amorgos in the 90s, picking olives in exchange for use of a small white cycladic house while also teaching English and watching over two very old women. On the island there is a beautiful and unusual monastery, the Panagia Hozoviotissa.* It is over 900 years old. When I first moved there I was told by a Greek neighbour that the monks who built it had come from the Syrian desert, and you can feel that in the architecture. Today 10% of people in Syria are Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox, so the Greek connection to Syria is very old. (At least, those were the stats before the Syrian civil war, and I imagine the Syrian Christians are fleeing too.) This architectural crossover is just another reminder of Europe’s proximity to Syria and the Middle East, and of the long history of mutual influence and mixing. These cultures have always met.

Mar Musa.jpg
Monastery “Mar Musa”  in Syria, Wikimedia commons

Corbusier once saw the Hozoviotissa monastery from the water below while on a boat trip in the Aegean. It later inspired the design of one of his greatest buildings, the church at Ronchamp. (Notice the organization of the windows. For Ronchamps it is said he was also influenced by the Sidi Ibrahim Mosque at Al-Atteuf, Algeria, which is similar in structure and age. Certainly he riffed heavily on Islamic North African vernacular architecture.) Why do I bring this up? I don’t know. It’s just that architecture has always traveled, and so have people and their ways. I can’t stop thinking about all the branching connections between people and traditions, especially now that Syrians are landing on my island, with its Syrian-influenced place of refuge, as one step in their desperate trek to western Europe.

And then there’s the historical movement in the other direction, the European colonial advance on the Middle East for over a century, in other words the path that led us to this disastrous and sorrow-filled present. We don’t seem able to connect the dots on any level, certainly not between the illegal 2003 War on Iraq by the US and the UK, and the Syrian civil war that it unarguably helped spark.

Because the monastery on Amorgos was built from the surrounding stone and remained unpainted for many centuries, it was safely camouflaged against the pirates and colonizers who endlessly harassed the Greek islands. Even if discovered, the monastery’s position on the cliff face made it well-defended. We used to visit it on holidays, and looking out the high windows you could quite easily imagine monks dropping rocks or hot oil down down on armies or bandits (and those two are often the same). Only in the last 100 years was the monastery whitewashed and buttressed against falling rock, losing a form of protection it no longer needed and adding another. Fortunately it still stands, meanwhile Syria and Iraq and Yemen are being blown to smithereens and their inhabitants forced to flee.

Maybe I’m thinking about peaceful places of refuge because the thought of Alan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach—and the rest of the tragedy—is unbearable.

Window view

The crossing from Syria to Greece has never been safe. In the monastery of Hozoviotissa, there is a painted icon of a ship at sea, caught in a storm. The monks are hailing Mary for help. She appears to answer their prayers as they reach land in safety.


The west’s focus should be on humanitarian aid everywhere, not more military intervention which as we have ample proof only exacerbates the problem. Stop the “anti-Isis” barrel bombs that have flattened cities. There are many ways to help with the Syrian refugee crisis. Personally I like Médecins Sans Frontières and you can follow MSF’s relief boat efforts on Twitter. For an overview of the world’s current humanitarian crises at any given moment (read about Eritrea) see UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Canada’s response to the refugee crisis has been an idiot “war on terror” attitude, our closed doors contributing to the drowning of the child Alan Kurdi and his brother and mother who wanted to make their way to join their aunt in Vancouver. But Canadians with means can sponsor a Syrian family (or family from other stricken areas). Meanwhile rich oil nations like Saudi Arabia have taken in no refugees, and destitute Greece struggles on. As for Western Europe, the UK and the US, it is as if they don’t understand any of the meanings of the expression “empire comes home.” Their victim-blaming and anti-immigration posturing is either an ignorance or a refusal of history.

Postcard - Monastery, Greece

For those who are interested, more information about the monastery, via here: “The Monastery of the Chozoviotissa is one of the most extraordinary sights in the Aegean… The monastery hangs on an almost vertical cliff-face like an icon on a wall. Originally there would have been no whitewash to pick the monastery out from its improbable setting, and it would have receded almost invisibly into the rock-face from which it grew. The cliff at this point is almost 400m high, and the monastery is situated at about 260m above sea level. The buildings are in parts constructed, and in parts cut out from the rock-face. The botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who visited in 1718, described the monastery as an ‘˜armoire’—a wardrobe or hanging cupboard—accurately describing how it consists of narrow shelves, one on top of another, closed by a façade, ‘˜appliquee vers le bas d’un rocher effroyable’. It is a model often used in Buddhist monasteries, less frequently with Orthodox monasteries. Its improbability as a structure and the imposing rock-face behind evoke the world of the Desert Fathers, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the first monks who took refuge here were from the Syrian desert. Chozoviotissa has always been prone to damage from falling rocks; today it is strengthened by two massive buttresses on the front façade which have been added in the last century. In the summer of 1933, the Swiss French architect, Le Corbusier visited Amorgos on a Mediterranean cruise: the flat white expanse of the monastery’s façade, perforated with small windows, and the building’s modular structure clearly left an impression on him whose influence can be seen in his work, especially the church of the Virgin at Ronchamp, begun in 1950.”

*On Amorgos I always saw it spelled Hozoviotissa but it’s sometimes written Chozoviotissa, as above, or  Χοζοβιώτισσας μοναστήρι in Greek.

Amorgos: Donkeys on the kalderimi

All photos of the monastery are Flickr creative commons except the grainy postcard (last one). I took the shots of Amorgos donkeys and my village of Langada.

Amorgos Donkeys and Kolofona Olive

Donkeys in Greece, by Lindsay Brown

langada, amorgos

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 6.14.47 PM

Amorgos, Kos

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One Response to “From Syria to Greece to Corbusier: Hozoviotissa monastery”

  1. Nic Slater Says:

    Growing up, the name Le Corbusier was mentioned often by our Arch Father who had visited the Greek Islands in 52 where he took many photos of Santorini, including the donkeys and the ever present whitewashed structures. As a result, we did a pilgrimage via Naxos in 09 and was able to see how this area affected a young Architects design sense and our Father ever insisting that our house was only to be painted white, inside and out. To this day, our house is also mostly white, inside and out as well.

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