When you hear the words “castles” and “Greece” in one sentence, you might experience certain dissonance. The general image of the country with its warm turquoise sea, small settlements, sunk in the gold of the sun and olive groves, and the heritage of the Hellenistic culture are hardly fit the image of the obscure and dark medieval times. Nevertheless, Greece boasts a great number of castles. They are completely different from the image we used to draw in our imagination.
One of them is the Frankish castle of Zygou, which is now recognized as an inactive monastery.
This cultural and architectural heritage site stands 2 kilometers to the east of Ouranoupolis, not far from the bound of Mount Athos. People consider this building to be one of the oldest religious constructions at the Mt. Athos peninsula. It was discovered by the group of archaeologists, coordinated by Ioakeim Papaggelos in 1984.
According to his words,
Mount Athos is a place, which is being continuously updated since the establishment of the first settlements there. That is why if anyone has a wish to have a look at the appearance of the monasteries’ exterior many centuries ago, he will have to study the layers of centuries-old history step-by-step.
At present, you can see the building of the castle, the towers, and the Catholicon here. The majority of local constructions date back to 1211. The Monastery of Zygou initially had 11 towers, some of which have now been restored.
Monastery of Zygou brief history
The first reference about this construction dates back to the middle of the X century. In 958 Athanasios Athonitis, also known as the founder and the spiritual adviser of the Megistris Lavras Monastery, came here and settled down at one of the cells of the monastery. Under the guidance of the older monk, he practiced his first austerity. That is when the name of Zygou was first mentioned, but it is still difficult to state whether he used it to denote the monastery or the entire settlement.
The first exact mention dates back to 998, when this place was one of the most elite monastic centers, directly influencing the Athonite state administration.
The monastery began to flourish in 1018 after the appointment of Nephon to be the abbot. He promoted:
The monastery took leading positions within the religious hierarchy throughout the XI century.
The excavations showed that the building complex, including the five-sided castle and 11 towers, was established during only one century.
For reasons that remain unknown, the monastery appeared abandoned in the XII century. It was granted to the Hilandariou monastery for renovation. Among the official versions showing why the building is in decline are its proximity to the roads, settlements with high population density, and accessibility via the sea.
Later, the castle became the base for Catholics who attacked Mount Athos under the leadership of a Frank lord, trying to capture the authority over the holy place. The maps of those times refer to this area as Fragokastro.
In 1211 the Pope of Rome prohibited any invasion for peace and quiet thereby bringing the war to its end. The current name of Zigou Monastery appeared at that time.
After that, the destiny of the monastery was deplorable. The place, which was once a great meeting point for the religious establishment and festive celebrations, became the source of building materials. The locals were secretly stealing the stones and decorations of the castle, at the time when 4 huge chalky heaters were producing materials for the construction of hotels and taverns.
The building complex comprises the old central construction (western), which was doubled in the course of expansion in the eastern direction. The recent excavations showed that the foundation of the monastery was built in the IV century BC.
The Catholicon sits in the mid-east part of the building. The first stone was put into its foundation in the first half of the XI century. Its construction included four phases. This peculiarity has turned the Monastery of Zigou into a unique sample of architecture and planning of the early Athonite monastery. Every visitor has a great opportunity to have a look at the monastery’s structure 1,000 years ago thanks to a small scheme placed near the building. The first phase of the building construction included the establishment of a complex temple with a narrow narthex. The second – added the northern chapel with a shrine. The third – expanded its area with three more shrines. There are three more shrines by the southern wall. Right by the main entry, you can see the grave. You might consider it to be strange but the monks have another opinion on that. Quite probably that it was the decision of the buried monk who wanted to show his humbleness and will to expiate his sins.
At present, the monastery is partially reconstructed. Unfortunately, the majority of its marble relics were either destroyed or stolen. The four marble columns, which were holding the dome, are absent now but the marble diaphragm has survived until nowadays. The interior of the monastery was covered with fine-grained stucco one might see in the temples of Mount Athos and features a large number of frescoes. The narthex has partially preserved the Annunciation fresco, adorned with gems. In the niche of the south chapel, you can see two layers of frescoes, depicting the life of Saint Nikolas.
The floor of the Catholicon northern chapel has perfectly preserved until present times. It was made of marble using a specific technique of stone carving, which provided us with the possibility to admire the works of the architects from the XI century at present times. The floor is decorated with one of the best mosaics of the first part of the XI century.
While exploring the beauty of the monastery, you might occasionally see some strange ruins, which are not typical to this type of building. The thing is that in the XVI–XVII century, people built an oil mill inside the narthex. Olive oil was one of the key components of the daily ration of the locals during that period. People ground olives using the stone mill and put the obtained pulp into bags. After that, they obtained olive oil, using hot water and the press, which was kept in the jars.
People also constructed the mill in the yard of the monastery. It stopped to operate only in 1858.
The archaeologists found a lot of artifacts here, which are now included in the exposition of many historic museums in Greece. Among the artifacts are:
The monastery stands 2 kilometers from Ouranoupolis. There is no transport available in this direction. You will have to get there on foot. Along the route, you will see the trident marks. They will significantly improve the navigation and point at the walking path.