A beautiful celebration on Elias the Prophet's name day celebration, in a Monastery at the highest peak of Sifnos island, a typical small island in the heart of the Aegean. Evening Mass is followed by dinner, drinking, and loads of music and dancing till the next morning.
Sifnos is a small island, part of the Cyclades complex in the heart of the Aegean sea of Greece. The Cyclades have a unique architectural style, an iconic Greek style with white houses and blue windows. I had never been to Sifnos before and all I had in my mind about the island was the local famous pottery and one picture by H.C. Bresson in an island's alley.
The island's capital, Apollonia, sits 5km away from the main port, where I had arrived. Wanted to explore the island, I've decided to walk this distance and also have the chance to stretch a bit from the boat trip. After passing by the main tourist shops of the port town, Kamares, I took the connecting road to Apollonia. The scenery was quite green, not too typical for Cycladic islands, planted with olive trees and vines, heavy with juicy, yet still sour grapes.
Luckily enough, I have met a few people in Apollonia who were involved in organizing this celebration. Elias the Prophet is celebrated at the highest peak of the island, at a very old monastery, named after the Prophet. This monastery sits at 682m above sea level. It is a tradition in Greece to build churches and monasteries named after Elias at the highest possible peaks in the areas. There is one at the peak of Mount Olympus, now ruined, at 2803m.
They gave me directions, shared the celebration program and even found me a place to stay at the monastery, in a monastic cell. I had decided to reach the monastery on foot. I heard that some pilgrims make a vow to come every year to the monastery on foot from Piraeus, so since I had already done half the way, I thought why not?
I had to walk for maybe another hour to reach the point where the climb of the mountain starts and then another hour of a climb to reach the monastery. Along the way, I met many people climbing, some on a horse, some on foot and some with the help of donkeys to carry food and supplies. They were all used to doing that so they were making it look too easy. Luckily enough one of them offered to carry my equipment on his donkey so he made the rest of the climb feel much more comfortable.
What everyone kept saying was that as soon as we pass the monastery's door we will feel relaxed and forget all the effort we made to climb, since the monastery and its yard make you feel very calm. I didn't expect this to be true, but it was a great comfort thinking about it. To my surprise, the monastery was indeed so beautiful and the yard had a large open space which would make you feel calmer in no time.
The preparations had already begun although I had arrived one day earlier and the cooks and their helpers were already preparing the food for the next day. I had the time to explore the monastery and the catacombs and also sit with the organizers and have a really cosy dinner and lots of wine to drink in the dining room of the monastery. A long room built of stone with a single long table in the middle, where everyone sits together. The team was raising glasses all the time, praising everyone who had helped in the celebration. The most common toast you would hear would be "Eviva ton ma'eron" (Cheers to the cooks!).
The next morning, I woke up and had a coffee in the same dining room. The preparations now were much more intense and more people were helping the cooks to peel the potatoes and so on. Outside, more people were hanging flags and cleaning the place. People would start gathering in the afternoon, probably around five.
After the preparations, lunch was served to whoever was in the monastery, and then I decided to go have a quick nap to save energy for the celebration in my monastic cell.
The priest, papa-Yannis, arrived early in the afternoon on foot, along with his best friend, his dog. His cell was next to mine. At this time of the day, an interesting phenomenon takes place, where the mountain casts a pyramid-like shadow on the sea.
Soon, papa-Yannis would ring the bells of the church to start the evening celebration mass. The Mass takes place both inside the church and outside where most of the flock is gathered and lamps are installed as well as a stand with the icon of the Prophet. After the Mass is complete, papa-Yannis goes to his cell to rest before dinner and music begin.
The dinner is served in the dining room and the music begins. Due to the small size of the room, the visitors have to eat and then move out to the yard, so that the next ones will go and have their dinner. The music then goes on and a big dance starts inside the monastery's yard. The celebration holds until early the following morning!