Many of the old Monasteries of Lesvos are still in use. Some have become destinations for pilgrimages while others carry on the spiritual traditions of long ago.
Built in 1523, Limonos Monastery is an important spiritual center on the island and its library holds an exceptional collection of ecclesiastical manuscripts that rival those in Mt. Athos. Visitors are welcome to overnight here and many Orthodox Christians visit on a pilgrimage. Aghios Ignatios is celebrated here on the 2nd weekend in October.
Myrsiniotissa Monastery is a Byzantine nunnery located near Kalloni and devoted to the Virgin Myrsinniotissa. It was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks and rebuilt in 1523 by Saint Ignatios Agallianos, the founder of the Limonos Monastery with which it is connected. The monastery played an important role in the education of girls during the Turkish occupation. Besides reading, writing and music, the nuns taught the girls to weave and embroider leading to marvelous creations that are on exhibit at Limonos Monastery. The grave of Saint Ignatios is in the sanctuary.
Archangel Michael, the miracle-working protector of the island is worshipped In Madamados at the Monastery of Taxiarches. The sacred relief icon is said to have been molded by a monk with clay made with earth and the blood of his fellow monks who were massacred by Saracen pirates. The monastery is the site of a national pilgrimage and festival that takes place on Myrrh-bearers’ Sunday. The celebrations attracts visitors from all over Greece and includes the slaughtering of a consecrated bull whose meat is shared among the worshippers.
The Monastery of Aghiou Raphael in Thermi is unique as it is a new monastery, built in the 1960s. Year-round, visitors come in search of a miracle from all over Greece to the shrine of the newly sanctified martyrs Raphael, the Igoumenos (Father Superior) of the monastery that stood there, Nikolas, the deacon, and the young Irene, who were tortured and killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1463. The complex has rooms to accommodate overnight visitors. The monastery celebrates on the Tuesday after Easter with a major panigiri.
Ypsilou Monastery was originally built on the crater of a dormant volcano (Mt. Ordymnos) in 1101 and is devoted to Aghios Ioannis (St. John). It was plundered and destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1462 and rebuilt in the 16th century. It houses some remarkable gold embroidered stoles and bible covers from 1588. It is located on the road to Sigri right past the turnoff to Eressos. Celebrations are held here on the May 8 and September 26.
The Perivoli Monastery sits in a beautiful green valley between Vatoussa and Antissa. “Perivoli” means garden and the amazing scent of the wild flowers and trees in bloom is everywhere. The monastery has wall paintings from the 16th century.
Pithariou Monastery near Eressos was founded in the 17th century. Surrounded by oak and sycamore trees in a dramatic gorge, it is dedicated to the Taxiarches (archangels) celebrated on November 8.
Panagia Glykofilousa sits on top of a giant rock formation in the center of the town of Petra . You reach the top of the rock by climbing the 114 steps carved into stone. From the church the view of Petra and the surrounding sea and countryside is spectacular extending all the way to the coast of Asia Minor. The legend holds that a long time ago a storm brought a boat captain to the shores in the area where he noticed that the Icon of the Blessed Virgin, which he always had with him, was missing. He was unable to locate it until that evening he saw a strange light seemingly suspended between earth and sky. He climbed up to the top of the rock and found his icon before a lighted lamp. He took it back to his boat but again it disappeared and again he found it on top of the rock. He decided to build a small church there since that was obviously the wish of the Blessed Virgin. The church was built in 1609 and the present one dates to 1747. The Blessed Virgin is celebrated, as everywhere in Greece, on August 15. Near the base of the rock sits the Church of Aghios Nikolaos with 3 layers of wall paintings of which the oldest one probably dates back to the 16th century.
In Agiassos, the Virgin Mary is venerated and everything revolves around the miracle working icon of the Panaghia Vrefokratousa. Pilgrims flock to the town from all over Greece during early August and up to August 15 slowly building up to a carnival-like atmosphere, peaking on the eve of the feast day. There is another panighiri here on September 14 commemorating the day when the Holy cross which Mytilenians brought back from Jerusalem after it was consecrated on Golgotha. Agathon’s Cross is believed to have been made with wood from the True Cross and is kept in the museum of the church.
The tiny Church of Aghios Andreas in Skala Eressos sits next to the cathedral of Saint Andrew and the ruins of the namesake ancient basilica. The saint himself, whose body lay in repose for many years until returned to his native Crete in the 19th century, died in a shipwreck off the coast of Eressos.
In Mytilene there are several important churches including the Cathedral of Aghios Athanasios which was built at the end of the 16th century. The saint has been credited with saving the island from a plague in 1836. The largest church is Aghios Therapon, built in 1860, located near the main harbour. Supposedly the church sits on top of an ancient temple to Apollo. Both churches are full of Byzantine icons and impressive wood-carvings.. Also nearby is the Church of Saint Theodora, a three-aisled basilica and the church of Saint Nicholas, a converted mosque.
One of the most photographed churches on the island, however, is Panagia Gorgona (The Mermaid Madonna), in Skala Sykaminias made famous in the book The Mermaid Madonna by Stratis Myrivilis, one of Lesvos’ and Greece’s greatest writers.
Every village has at least one main church and a number of smaller ones and there are also small churches scattered around the countryside. Some of the churches in the traditional villages are as impressive or more so than those mentioned here. Exceptional churches can be found in Megalohori near Plomari and in Vatoussa. Keep in mind that most churches will celebrate on the name day of their patron saint and the panigiria (festivals) that take place on that day (and sometimes on the days leading up to the main event) are worth visiting if only to take in the local color. It is also interesting to note that many such panigiria, though celebrating a Christian saint, can involve interesting pagan aspects.