The sanctuary with the synthronon, that reminds us of an ancient Greek theatre, the altar and the cubicle above it are some of the unique early Cristian elements of Ekatontapiliani.
The paintings on the walls of the sanctuary date since the 17th c. and represent the 24 stanzas of the Acathist Hymn.
More than 2500 architectural members, spolia, from the ancient monuments of Paros along with many sculptures and inscriptions, have been used in the construction of Ekatontapiliani.
The baptistery, a separate chapel of the 4th century with its unique cross shaped baptismal font, is the best preserved in the Orthodox East.
The sunlight pours in from the windows of the dome, passes the upper gallery and joins the light of the candles lit by the faithful, creating a transcendental atmosphere.
The upper gallery with remnants of some of the oldest wall paintings of the church. It was from up here that women watched the holy mass in the old days.
The façade remains intact from the times of Constantine the Great, when the church of Ekatontapiliani was built. South of the main church lies the early Cristian baptistery.
The marble gate was made in the 17th century and was once the main entrance to the church before the restoration by An. Orlandos (1959-66). At the columns’ base we see the figures of the architect of the church Ignatius and his master, reported in the relevant tradition.
The oldest votive offering is the sailing boat on the Icon of Panaghia Ekatontapiliani which is kept at the Museum. This icon is an offering by the ship’s captain who, at a time of danger, made a vow to the Holy Mother.
(Our Lady of the Hundred Gates)
Text: Avgi Kalogianni Καλογιάννη | Photos: Dimitris Vranas (A.I.F.)
The historic Byzantine church of Ekatontapiliani (also known as the Church of the Hundred Doors) is located here in the heart of the Aegean, not far from the port in Paroikia. It is architecturally unique and one of the oldest, most significant, and best-preserved monuments in Greece. It can be only compared with its equivalents in Constantinople or Thessaloniki.
But should we call it “Ekatontapiliani” or “Katopoliani”? Both are correct as both names can be found almost simultaneously from the middle of the 16th century. Katopoliani generally refers to the location of the church facing the old city of Paroikia. Ekatontapiliani means 100 doors or gates.
Τhe first thing the visitor sees approaching the church is the tall white “parvis” or protective wall surrounding the complex. The wall has a height of 8.5m and a length of 252m, and has two distinctive Aegean bell towers. Such protective walls were built around sacred and important structures to safeguard them from invaders and pirates. Prior to this, the church sat free of other encumbrances, proudly displaying its pure harmonic lines and perfect proportions. This wall was built in the 17th century along with the monk cells that adjoin the inner wall. This markedly changed the look, but gave sturdy protection. It also allows space for the beautiful meditative gardens and is a perfect frame for the large and capacious arcades that mark the entrance. Ekatontapiliani rises majestically behind, elegant in its severity, its exterior façade basically unchanged since the beginning of the 4th century. But, like most archaic constructions, Ekatontapiliani has seen the work of other hands during its 17 centuries of existence. Natural disasters, fires, earthquakes, invaders as well as two of the greatest Byzantine emperors (Constantine and Justinian) have put their mark on the creation of this magnificent church. Construction dates back to the years of Constantine the Great and the Byzantine Empire. It was an empire that played a major role in saving the precious literature of ancient Greece, and was a contributing factor to the vitalization of the Renaissance and the re-birth of Classic Philosophy.
Legend tells us that, Constantine’s mother, Saint Helen, while on her way to Jerusalem to find the True Cross, was waylaid here on Paros due to a severe sea storm. She took refuge in the small shrine of the Virgin Mary (today it is known as the Chapel of Saint Nicolas). She made an oblation, promising to build a great church if she was successful in her Quest. Helen did find a piece of The Cross but died (328 AD) before fulfilling her Parian promise. Her son Constantine took up her pledge and fulfilled it utilizing the greatest masters and architects of his day. The original form was a cruciform basilica with a wooden gabled roof. There was also an impressive gallery with a “seraglio’ (a separate women’s section), balconies and a marble baptistery. This was all built on top of an ancient gymnasium, which according to the archaic inscription found in modern times, belonged to “the Magnificent City of the Parians”. This along with many other artifacts, marble pieces and forms, were found during intensive restoration works led by the eminent archaeologist, Anastasios Orlando (1959-1966). Much of the present-day form was returned to its original character, mostly the 18th century renovations that made it appear to be post-Byzantine. We owe much to Orlando’s determined dedication.
Panagia Ekatontapiliani is the oldest Greek Orthodox Church of the Mother of God still in use. Built after the 1st Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 AD), it is quintessentially Byzantine. The church (and Paros) played a significant role in supporting the emerging Byzantine Empire. There are many stories, myths and legends associated with its long history. It was turbulent and exciting times, with many conflicting influences. There was the flowering of Christianity, the budding Byzantine Orthodox Empire and the decline of the old ways and gods.
The sanctuaries of Apollo and Artemis here and on Delos as well as the neighboring islands fell into disuse and were abandoned.
In the latter 4th century the church was damaged, again. It was reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century (527-565 AD). He replaced the damaged wooden roof, rebuilt, and repaired where needed. The new roof was made with the magnificent cupola it has today. Justinian originally appointed the famed master Isidor to refurbish the church. However, Isidor sent his best pupil, Ignatius to perform the task. He did an exemplary job. It was a major reconstruction. The cupola, the favorite element of Justinian, was given special attention. The side vaults were built of colorful tufa trimmed and arranged according to chromatics. This allowed the light from the eight windows at the base of the cupola to pour into the inner sanctuary. This light, reflected off the translucent Parian marble is considered especially inspiring and transcendental. It was for this reason Justinian considered the cupola an essential element. It is “a part of Heaven that hangs over the earth”. The roof of the baptistery and the older temple were also replaced by cupolas. When Ignatius finished the cupola, he called his teacher to inspect his work. Isidor arrived on Paros and found the work so amazingly beautiful that it brought about his instant envy and jealousy. Lore has it that he pushed his pupil from the roof and the two men tumbled to death together.
Justinian had many motivations for assisting the existent church. He wanted to strengthen and boost the religious and political sentiments of the Parians and to benefit from its natural resources.
And Paros did have its own wealth- the most exquisite, rare and diaphanous marble in the world. Many significant works of art have been fashioned from this very famous “lithos”. He later supplied the marble for other important works but notably the pillars, columns and cupola of the “Panagia ton Vlahernon”, located in Constantinople.
In eras less glorious for the islands of the Aegean, when they lay almost desolate, a small miracle occurred. A nun from Lesbos arrived, the Holy sister Theoktisti. For 35 dedicated years she was a pillar of the church. Her life and a picturesque description of Ekatontapiliani are given by Byzantine officer and minister, Nikitas (902 AD). He too sought shelter from a sea storm. His is the first literary attestation of the church that we have. He describes the marble on the walls as so masterly wrought that they looked like gauze: “the glint of the marble had such a great brilliance that it was greater than the gleam of pearls!”
Many centuries later when the Turks ruled, Nicolas Mavrogenis, a locally born Parian, returned to the island to repair more damage to the church and donate two silver icons. Mavrogenis originated from Paros and became the prince of Moldova and dragoman (interpreter) of the Sultan. These ministerial posts were often held by Greeks, mainly because of their education, administrative and diplomatic abilities. But Mavrogenis was a great benefactor to the island. He constructed the three marble fountains that can be seen in Paroikia. He was also the ancestor of the great Parian heroine of the Greek Revolution, Manto Mavrogeni, whose bust is in the central square of Paroikia.
Over the 17 centuries of its existence this ancient memorial has been a source of inspiration, strength and hope to many. From Byzantine Emperors to modern day archaeologists, all have played an important role. The uniqueness of this majestic monument and the deep impression it gives to the believer and the visitor is apparent. The liturgy is celebrated in Greek, the first language of the New Testament. The experience touches heart and soul. It is well worth the excursion to see the Church of the Hundred Doors.
Dimitrios Kydonieus Ι priest
What is the social, educational and publishing role of Ekatontapiliani‘s Holy Pilgrimage (HPE) today?
Ekatontapilani (The Church of a Hundred Doors) is a spiritual centre with a Pan-Hellenic and worldwide influence. For 17 centuries it has acted as a beacon of spiritual light that has helped shape our culture and it continues to do so. The site, the buildings, and the entire centre of the cathedral of our Virgin Mary inspire those who seek wisdom, the beautiful and the delicate. It gives rest to souls that seek a peaceful spiritual port. To promote this unique monument, significant publications are released from time to time; they are available in the back of the church. The visitor can also learn more from the website of the Holy Pilgrimage www.ekatontapyliani.gr
How does the HPE help the society of Paros in the difficult days that we live in?
In these hazy days, where self-interest and distrust rule, the HPE conducts great social, charity, and pastoral work. It is of course with the help of the Virgin Mary, and the guidance and blessing of our pastor Mr. Kallinikos, as well as the aid of all the faithful. We run a nursing home, “The Virgin Mary of the Hundred Gates.” It is home to twenty-five seniors. It provides daily medical care, therapy, plus special diets (based on the needs of each individual) as well as entertainment, and pastoral care.
All this takes place in the facilities. The center is fully modern and observes and fulfills all the current specifications that are needed to maintain this service. Twelve people are employed, indicating the dedication and care that we have towards the elderly. It also means that twelve families can live thanks to this work. We wish to highlight the importance of the many wonderful volunteers that support this effort with joy and who show their love towards those in need. We thank them all.
With this opportunity we invite the readers of this journal to visit the nursing home, take a tour and to see for themselves what this loyal local church service has accomplished for our respected elders.
The charity work of the Ekatontapilani is not limited to the administration of the nursing home. From the early years when it was established as a charitable enterprise, it set up a food allowance for the poor. This food allowance is still in effect in collaboration with the municipality of Paros and gives out forty-five to fifty portions of food daily. For the smooth operation of the HPE we utilize our volunteers and the twelve people who work on the site. This is also an important contribution of the HPE is towards tackling local unemployment.
Which books – except the Holy Scriptures – would you put in your travel bag for a long journey?
First, I would pack and read all the issues of your journal, “Parola Free Press” just to remember all the beautiful places of Paros that are described so elaborately and eloquently- especially when I am in those faraway lands. I would also bring a first-grade speller, published in 1965, and other primary school books of that period. I want to remember all that is written in them, from A to Z, their referrals to faith, family, homeland, tradition, respect for the environment, and all other ideals with which we grew up. These are subjects which are lost, forgotten or threatened nowadays in our daily lives.
How do you feel officiating in a church with a history of 1700 years?
I feel awe! I think about all the people who have celebrated and officiated in this holy place. All the prayers that have been said, tears of joy, regret, pleading, celebration and blessing. The inspiring icon of the Virgin Mary of the Hundred Gates! One feels astonishment in this old Christian monument; it is the Saint Sofia of Greece. Especially during the period of the Holy Easter Week but also during the Holy Pilgrimage days of 15th August when we celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The entire vestibule resounds and reverberates with the wonderful music and hymns that the church has dedicated to Jesus and his mother; there is the aroma of incense in the air, the soft light, the graciousness, beauty and antiquity of the church which all guide visitor to spiritual ascension.
Α last word for our readers?
Without a doubt we are experiencing a difficult and cruel era with many deprivations and problems characterized by an evil insistence on destroying authentic values. But we must not despair. There are many redeeming things worth living for. Some are hidden, like diamonds. They are well hidden, and not easily found. A sure struggle and much effort is required. That is why these things have such value. A source where one can find these diamonds of life are found in the words of Jesus and the teachings of our church.
Finally, I wish to bestow the light of Jesus, who has risen from the dead, to illuminate, protect and give peace to you the reader, and to the whole world!