Patmos—The Island of the Apocalypse


ONCE in a while, the people of Patmos gaze across the Aegean Sea toward a light flickering over the slopes of a mountain on the nearby island of Samos. Some say that the eerie light is static electricity, but religious residents of Patmos insist that they know better. They run to tell the neighbors that they have received another sign from the island’s most famous former resident, who was banished to this small Greek island just off the coast of Asia Minor almost 1,900 years ago.

That famous person was condemned, likely by Roman Emperor Domitian, to live on Patmos “for speaking about God and bearing witness to Jesus.” There he heard God’s voice, “like that of a trumpet,” which said: “I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . What you see write in a scroll.”—Revelation 1:8-11.

That scroll, or book, is the epilogue of the best-seller of all times. It has been described by some as one of the least understood works ever written—the Bible book named Revelation, or Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible. The writer was John, Jesus’ apostle. The visions that John received regarding the wicked world’s final cataclysm have interested readers for centuries. *

Patmos Today

Many visitors will agree that Patmos—the northernmost of the Dodecanese Islands—serves as the ideal backdrop for this book. Raised volcanic ramparts and plunging dark-shadowed chasms abut terraced green hills and flowering meadows that bake under the scorching Aegean sun.

To see how Patmos looks today, I sailed from Piraievs, the main port of Greece. After midnight, as the ferry came into the fjord-shaped harbor of Skála—Patmos’ port and largest town—the clouds parted and revealed the island in the light of a full moon.

The next morning, as I sipped bitter Greek coffee, I prepared to start exploring the island. The early morning scene revealed grandmothers, dressed in black from head to toe, trying to keep up with fleeing toddlers. A bewhiskered fisherman sitting nearby beat his lunch—an octopus that he had just forked out of the water—against the cement quay to tenderize it.

Instead of boarding a boat, I decided to climb the mountainside behind Skála for  a view of the entire island. The sight was remarkable. The island stretched out like a huge relief map adrift in the sea. Patmos gives you three islets in one—headlands that are joined by low isthmuses. One of these narrow strips of land is situated at Skála. The other is located at the aptly named Diakofti, meaning “Cut Apart,” near the unpopulated southern end of the island. Patmos is scarcely eight miles [13 km] long, and at one point it is only a stone’s throw across.

Through Tempestuous Times

Patmos has been considered sacred almost since the first settlers arrived there about 4,000 years ago from Asia Minor. Those early residents chose the second-highest point on the island as the site for their temple to Artemis, goddess of hunting.

About 96 C.E., when the apostle John is thought to have been exiled to Patmos, it was under the heel of imperial Rome. In the fourth century, the island became part of the “Christianized” Byzantine Empire. Then, between the seventh and tenth centuries, it came to be dominated by Islam.

In time, Patmos came to be deserted and barren. Then, late in the 11th century, a Greek Orthodox monk began building the fortified monastery of “Saint” John on the site of the pagan temple of Artemis. Settlers gradually returned and constructed an array of white cubical houses at Hora, the town that still huddles against the monastery’s protective walls.

The island flirted briefly with glory during the late 1800’s, when some of its citizens owned one of the richest merchant fleets in the Mediterranean. That fleet was indirectly responsible for a new invasion. In the 1970’s, several of the world’s rich discovered the beauty and inexpensive real estate of what was basically a forgotten island. They remodeled many of the sea merchants’ old mansions, and this along with new port facilities helped put Patmos on the tourist map.

Patmos has so far escaped the tourist stampede that has nearly ruined other Greek islands. The main reasons are its lack of an airport and the monks’ insistence that it remain largely a holy precinct.

Mixing History and Tradition

Helping me to plan my exploration of the island, my waiter directed me to the 400-year-old cobblestone road behind the town of Skála, which leads up through a scented pine forest to what is believed to be John’s cave and also to the monastery of “Saint” John. On the outskirts of town, I passed an ominous graffito freshly daubed in red on a stone wall: “Ohi sto 666” (Look out for 666), one of the misunderstood symbols of Revelation.

The Monastery of the Apocalypse, containing the tiny chapel of “Saint” Anne, was  built in 1090 to enclose the entrance of the grotto where tradition has it that John received his visions. I watched a lone woman kneel and attach a tama (offering) to the icon of “Saint” John. The Orthodox faithful, who believe the icon can perform miracles, offer it tamata—small metal likenesses of people, body parts, houses, and even cars and boats. I remembered having seen similar offerings made of clay near Corinth in the temple of the ancient Greek god-physician Asclepius. A mere coincidence?

Cultural Relics and Manuscripts

As I entered the courtyard of the monastery of “Saint” John, a friendly figure appeared from the dark labyrinth of corridors. “Papa Nikos” (Father Nick) took personal pride in showing several other tourists and me the monastery’s treasures. The monastery, which owns much of Patmos, is one of the richest and most influential in Greece.

We strolled through a cool, candle-blackened chapel, where the remains of the monastery’s founder lie, and then through the Chapel of the Virgin, built in part with stones from the temple of Artemis. In the museum, we saw a king’s ransom in gold and jewels that had been donated by the czars; the monks’ 11th-century deed to the island, signed by Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus; and a beautiful 6th-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, written on purple vellum with silver rather than ink. In addition to this fragment, the monastery houses a large collection of Bible and theological manuscripts.

Island Sights

The island also has natural beauty to offer. A few miles south of Skála, a pristine beach curves along a protected bay. The beach is flat and featureless except for Kalikatsou, meaning “Cormorant,” a boulder in the middle of the beach, which is five or six stories high and is riddled with caves like an enormous Swiss cheese.

The best way to enjoy Patmos is simply to ramble all over it. You may want to sit in the searing sun amid the nonexcavated ruins of the ancient acropolis at Kastelli and listen to distant sheep bells and the shepherd’s shrill whistle. Or some afternoon when the Aegean spreads its gauzelike mist across the sky, you may want to sit and watch the beaches where boats departing in the evaporating mist look as if they were climbing into the sky.

On my last day there, a beautiful red setting sun magnified the town below. Out on the bay, lamp fishermen were readying small motorless boats, which are known as gri-gri, ducklings, because they are pulled in a line behind a mother ship.

The whole island seemed to glow. A chill wind and high waves tossed the gri-gri dangerously. A few hours later, I saw the boats again, from the deck of the ferry returning to Piraievs as it slid swiftly past their fishing grounds a mile or so offshore. The men had ignited the blindingly bright lights that they use to attract fish. That night, until they and the island behind them disappeared from view, the picture of an exiled John penning his visions at Patmos remained in my mind.


^ par. 5 For a detailed explanation, see Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand!, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.

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The monastery of “Saint” John

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© Miranda 2000