Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The miraculous icon of the Theotokos "Holy Sion", or Panagia of Agiasou

The exterior of the church of the Theotokos, Agiassou, Lesvos (taken from:
History of the village [of Agiasos]
The history of the village is identified with the history of Panagia of Agiassos.
Turning back the pages of time 1200 years we pause in the Byzantine Era, toward the end of the 8th Century during the time of the wars on icon. In Constantinople, Agathon the Ephesian, priest of the Chapel of the Palaces, who was an iconophile, falls into the disfavour of Emperor Leo I and is self-exiled to Jerusalem. In the early 802 b.C. Agathon hears that Empress Irene the Athenian, who is also an iconophile, lives in exile on Lesbos island. Wishing to meet her and be nearer to Constantinople, he sets off for Lesbos, taking with him an icon of "Panayia I Vrefokratousa" [Panagia holding the Infant], a Silver Cross with wood from the True cross, a manuscript Gospel, and other relics.

He arrives on the island. Meanwhile, Irene the Athenian has died. Agathon, follows the current of a stream and reaches a remote wooded area which is a safe environment in which to stay. This site in Carya where the chapel of Zoodochou Pigis (the life-giving source) with the Holy Water stands today, is where Agathon hid the Holy Relics and built his hermitage.
He becomes familiar with the local inhabitants of the nearby villages of Karyni and Penthili, and gains their trust and respect. He reveals his secret and vows that the icon of Panagia (Our Lady) measuring 0,86 X 0,62 was painted on wax and mastic by the evangelist Lucas. The icon bore the inscription "Mitir Theou, Agia Sion", that is, "Mother of God, [Holy Sion]". In those times Jerusalem was called "Agia Sion". With the passage of time, the small, humble hermitage evolved into a monastery, where devout men from the neighboring villages came to live.

The elderly Agathon passed away on February 2 in the year 830. The monks, respecting his last wish, continued to keep the icon of Our Lady and the other relics in the monastery crypt. The monks feared the iconoclasts and pirates who ravaged the islands and coastal towns of Asia Minor. In 842, Orthodoxy triumphed and holy icons were raised all over the territory of the Byzantine Empire. From then on the hermitage of Agathon became a pilgrimage. The icon of Panagia by evangelist Lucas became renown not merely on the island but all over facing Aeolis. Two pilgrimages to Agia Sion were equivalent to one pilgrimage to the Holy Land. [Note: I have never heard this anywhere else, but it is true that this pilgrimage of the Theotokos is very sacred. Many healings and miracles occur to those who approach with faith. It has been said numerous places that after the Megalochari of Tinos, Panagia of Agiassou is held next in reverence according to many Greeks.]

The interior of the church of the Theotokos, Agiassou, as it appears today (taken from:
The Church of Panagia (Our Lady)
The first church of Panagia
In 1170, Constantinos Valerios granted the monks of Karya permission to erect the Church of Panagia on the elevation where the holy relics of Agathon lay. The church endured the tests of time, surviving 636 years. A small settlement named Agia Sion [which over time became "Agiassos"] developed around the church. This settlement gradually grew, becoming an important provincial town. When the island was subjugated by the Ottoman Turks, many Christian families sought refuge inside the protective walls of the Church of Panagia.
In 1701 a Sultan firman (decree) vested Agiassos the right not to pay taxes. The Turkish Governor of the region, who's headquarters were in Sykounta, fell seriously ill. In despair, he agreed to be incensed and aspersed with the Holy Water of Zoodochou Pigi, and he was saved by a miracle. The Ottoman Governor was so taken by enthusiasm and gratitude that he felt the need to make a very valuable offering to the Church of Our Lady, however this was forbidden by the Koran. So, he went to Constantinople and passed a firman (decree) exempting the inhabitants of Agiassos the obligation to pay taxes to the Ottoman government or to the Dignitaries of Mytilene. This exemption was a strong incentive for inhabitants from the vicinity to move to Agiassos in order to avoid tax-paying.
Agiassos became a renowned centre of handicraft. In 1729 the number of families in the village had risen to 500.
The firman was abolished in 1783.

The second church of Panagia
However the church was now very old and derelict so it had to be torn down. In 1806 reconstruction work was initiated by the Metropolite of Mytilene Ieremios and the dignitaries of Agiassos. A new church was built in its place, only larger than the first, despite the strict Order issued by the Turkish authorities stipulating that the new church must be built exactly where the old foundations lay. The work to decorate the exterior and interior of the church took many years to complete. The d�cor of the interior of this church, like the first church, was very heavy, so rich it was in offerings made by the believers. The church acquired a number of fine ecclesiastical wood carvings, such as its iconostasis, throne, pulpit and the icon-stands.
The third church of Panagia
The craftsmen were still working on the wood carving when suddenly, on the 6th night of August 1812, the church went up in flames in the great fire that destroyed a large section of the town. Fortunately, all but one icon on the iconostasis were salvaged. The only icon that was destroyed was the icon of Our Lord. Indescribable was the sorrow and anguish of the devout Christians of Agiassos and the deep mourning all over the island at the loss of such a unique monument of the Christian faith.Nonetheless, the donations which believers of Agiassos so open-handedly offered and the fund-raisers initiated by the Metropolite of Mytilene Callinicos and his emissaries who carried his word to the rural areas and to the opposite coasts of Asia Minor, enabled a third church, which is still standing today, to be built in 1815.

Sultan Mahmut B' granted permission for the church to be built as requested by the inhabitants of Agiassos, on condition that the size of the building would not exceed that of the previous one. The church was 32,20m long and 26,2 m wide. This three-aisle basilica had three apses and three Lord's Tables; the one on the right was dedicated to Saint Charalambos, the one on the left to Saint Nicolao.
Almost all of the glebes had to be sold in order to finance the reconstruction work of the Church. In 1816 a second fund-raiser was held among the Christians in the towns and villages of Aeolis, in order to finance the completion of the interior decoration work. The construction of the iconostasis, the throne and pulpit by fine craftsmen lasted twenty years.

The church of Panagia is a true palace of faith. The offerings are treasures of priceless worth. Icons from Byzantine and Post-byzantine era adorning the church, create an impression that one is in a place of divine byzantine beauty.

A second fire, which broke out in 1877, almost destroyed the entire village. However, the church remained intact. Up until then the upper section of the houses that projected onto the narrow roads were made of wood. After the fire these houses were rebuilt, only this time the upper section was made of stone rather than wood and the roads were widened. The village took its present form.
Agiassos has a population of 3000 permanent residents, while it had 8000 in the 60s.

Old picture showing the great mass of clergy and faithful at the Church of the Theotokos in Agiassou (taken from:
The 'Panigyri' of Panagia (Feast day of Our Lady)
The feast day of Panagia takes place on the 15th August . Pilgrims begin arriving weeks before the 15th not only from Lesbos but from all over Greece in order to spend the first fortnight of August ("dekapentizo") in the monk cells or camp out in the churchyard. A carnival-like atmosphere slowly builds up, peaking on the eve of the feast day.
The pilgrims arrive by all means of transportation. In fact many pilgrims walk all the way to Agiassos from Mytilene and other villages on the island, admiring the scenery along the way on the warm summer night in August. Most of the pilgrims walking to Agiassos make a stop at Karyni, in order to catch their breath and cool off under the shade of the perennial plane trees joining in the traditional festivities and merry-making. At this point of the walking trip the more daring and determined pay special tribute to the icon of Panagia Vrefokratousa by taking the old cobblestone path called "patomeni", a shortcut through the olive groves leading to Agiassos. The village comes alive with ceremony on the eve of the Feast Day of Panagia (15 August). The town of Mytilene is literally a ghost town for a couple of days, since everybody has set off for Agiassos in order to promenade and frolic through the cobbled lanes around the church, the squares and the Garden of Panagia. This large religious celebration -market fair attracts many stall-holders who display their merchandize anywhere they can and the shop-keepers advertise their local products such as halva, sour apples, pears as best they can, while the spicy fragrance of oregano and aromatic leaves of sage leave no-one unmoved.
Many people are still awake when dawn breaks and the fresh morning breeze blows from the mountain. The festive atmosphere is unique for all those who happen to experience it.
On the Feast day of Panagia, after the observance, the holy icon is circulated round the church.
(taken from:; see also the following link for an article in Greek:

The Holy and Wonderworking Icon of the Theotokos Vrefokratousa, of Agiassou (taken from:
ΤΗ ΚΓ΄ (23η) ΤΟΥ ΜΗΝΟΣ ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΟΥ - Ἡ Μετακομιδή τῆς Ἱερᾶς καί Θαυματουργοῦ εἰκόνος Κοιμήσεως τῆς Θεοτόκου ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων εἰς Ἀγιάσον καί Ἀγάθωνος τοῦ Ἐφεσίου.
Ἀπολυτίκιον. Ἦχος δ΄. Ταχύ προκατάλαβε.
Τῆ θεία Εἰκόνι σου ἡ Ἀγιάσος ἁγνή χορεύει καί γάνυται καί μεγαλύνει ἀεί. Τήν δόξαν σου ἄχραντε, ταύτην γάρ μεταχθεῖσαν ἐκ Σιών τῆς ἁγίας κέκτηται πλοῦτον μέγαν, καί βοᾶ καυχωμένη. Χαῖρε Κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ Κύριος μετά σοῦ.

The 23rd of August
The Translation of the Holy and Wonderworking icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos from Jerusalem to Agiasou, and Agathon of Ephesus
Apolytikion – 4th Tone (amateur translation)

Of your divine Icon, O Pure one, Agiasos dances and rejoices and ever magnifies. Your glory, O immaculate one, now translated from Holy Sion, possessing this great wealth, and cries out with boasting. Hail O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.
Most-Holy Theotokos save us!

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