Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

When you visit the magnificent island of Santorini, you will notice there are many churches and chapels. The oldest church in Santorini, however, is not a blue-domed church and you can not find it on the cliffside with splendid views. The oldest church in Santorini is Panagia Episkopi church in Mesa Gonia, a small village close to Kamari on the foot of mountain Profitis Ilias.

When you visit the magnificent island of Santorini, you will notice there are many churches and chapels. The oldest church in Santorini, however, is not a blue-domed church and you can not find it on the cliffside with splendid views. The oldest church in Santorini is Panagia Episkopi church in Mesa Gonia, a small village close to Kamari on the foot of mountain Profitis Ilias.

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

Panagia Episkopi church, a Byzantine-style Orthodox church

The oldest church in Santorini is dedicated to Panagia ('All Saints'), a Greek Orthodox name for Holy Mary, the epithet means 'related to a bishop'. It is a significant site to visit, not only for the faithful in the Orthodox religion.

Panagia Episkopi church, a former bishop's church from the Middle Byzantine period, was the seat of the Orthodox diocese of Santorini until 1207 and from 1537 to 1827.

Nowadays, the church is open to pilgrims. You can go to visit the oldest church in Santorini every day from 10 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 5 pm.

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

How to get to the oldest church in Santorini

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini, is located in Mesa Gonia, a small village, which is just walking distance from the famous beach village Kamari. Leaving Kamari along the main road, you have to turn left to reach the Panagia Episkopi church.

You can get there by local bus from Fira as well. Get off at the last stop before Kamari and walk uphill to find the oldest church in Santorini.

It is also possible and quite simple to reach Panagia Episkopi church by car. You have to go direction Kamari and shortly before you enter the village, you turn right to take the short uphill drive, which leads you right outside the oldest church in Santorini. There you can find enough spots to park your car.

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini


The history of Panagia Episkopi church in Santorini

There are two stories as to why the Panagia Episkopi church was built at the end of the 11th century.

The first is a myth which says that an icon of Panagia repeatedly moved from its place on a hillside chapel close by to appear again in a different location. The locals understood this as a sign to build a new church for the icon.

Another legend says that the Emperor Alexius I Komnenos was the donator of the church. He supposedly passed on the entire countryside outside the villages of Gonia and Pyrgos to the church. A traditional almost destroyed inscription says, the church replaced the predecessor of a three-aisled early Byzantine basilica. This replacement happened at the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century.

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

Since 1207, we can follow the recorded history of this magnificent oldest church in Santorini. Back then, the island became part of the dominated by the Republic of Venice Duchy of Archipelago in the wake of the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians expelled the Orthodox bishop of the island and appointed a Latin bishop. The church was called Panagia Episkopi church, as the seat of the expelled Orthodox bishop, while his Latin successor took his seat at Skaros Rock on the cliffs of the caldera.
Next to the Orthodox altar in the Panagia Episkopi, a Catholic one was built.

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The next conqueror was the Ottoman Empire in 1537, where the island, as well as the whole Aegean, was taken over.

After that, the Orthodox bishop returned to Santorini. He retook the Panagia Episkopi church as his episcopal seat, which the Catholics did not accept. The main reason was the valuable property of the church and the income from it. Until 1614 this dispute escalated when the church's lands were shared. Both denominations were now allowed to hold their services in the church.

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

The disagreement between Orthodox and Catholics broke out again about who was allowed to hold the first evening church service before and on the central feast day of the Dormition of Mary. In 1767, an order was issued requiring Catholics to build an annex to the church for their worship. So, they constructed a small room in the southeast of the church with a simple barrel vault. It is accessible through a door in the south wall and has a breakthrough to the sanctuary, where both altars stand.

The diocese moved to the new church in Fira, the capital of the island, in 1827. The possession of the oldest church in Santorini was gradually expropriated after the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1832. From 1850 to 1902, the church sold her remaining property.

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A fire in the building of Panagia Episkopi church in 1915 destroyed most of the books, church documents and priestly vestments. Fortunately, the icons of the church stayed undamaged.

The earthquake of 1956, which destroyed large parts of Mesa Gonia, caused severe damage to the church building. The reconstruction and a major restoration of the Panagia Episkopi church lasted until 1986.

While the reconstruction works took place, in 1982, all 26 wearable icons were stolen and have not been found until this day.

The architecture of Panagia Episkopi church

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

The Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini, is a beige whitewashed cross-domed church with extensions. The central building on the ground represents the plan of a Greek cross with a length of 14 meters and a maximum width of 11.10 meters. It carries a dome in the middle of the building, which is placed on the crossing through a tambour. The roofs of the oldest church in Santorini are covered with red tiles or plastered. The building has a total of five entrances, two each in the south and north, and the main entrance to the west. In the interior of Panagia Episkopi church, there are several larger and smaller rooms because several parts and the bell tower have been added throughout the years, giving the church an acutely angled appearance.

The decoration of Panagia Episkopi church

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

The interior of the Panagia Episkopi church was decorated with frescoes during its construction. They were covered with plaster in Ottoman times. Unfortunately, moisture destroyed most of them over the centuries. However, some of the frescoes could be uncovered and restored. The frescoes depict various hierarchs, martyrs and saints as well as scenes from the life of Jesus and other biblical stories.

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

On the walls of the interiors, you can find various icon stands lined up. The most famous icon that remained in the oldest church in Santorini is that of Panagia Glykofilousa, which is kept in a particular glass case under controlled conditions on the south side of the central church space. The 12th-century portrait is considered the most valuable icon of the church as it refers to Mary as "Sweet Kissing Madonna." The icon shows her embracing Jesus, who caresses her chin.

Celebration of Panagia Episkopi church on August 15th

Panagia Episkopi, the oldest church in Santorini

A Great Vespers is held the evening before the Feast. In Santorini visitors are offered the local Fava and a bowl of very delicious bean soup. All accompanied by local wine of course. Many faithful come from all over the island to spend their evening close to the Panagia Episkopi church.

The day of the Feast is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy in the morning.

Book a private tour with us, if we have awakened your interest in the oldest church in Santorini. We would love to take you there.

Literature reference: Wikipedia

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