Annual pilgrimage to island of Tinos draws mass crowds

The ship docks a short distance from the Avenue of the Virgin (Megalohari) and the faithful – pilgrims from every corner of Greece and from even further afield – step out onto the island of Tinos. The road uphill to the Evangelistria Church has been swept clean and police direct the flow of pedestrians and vehicles. It is August 14, the eve of the Dormition of the Virgin, the most important religious festival of the summer. Everywhere people are carrying candles of all sizes, votive offerings, plastic bottles for holy water, souvenirs and marzipan sweets. As the temperature rises, the pilgrims begin to make the climb up the right-hand side of the road, most of them on their knees, many of them wearing kneepads. On the steps of the church, queues of people wait their turn to kiss the holy icon while others pose for photographs on the red carpet laid over the church steps; the first mats are strewn behind the church for the all-night vigil. As the shadows lengthen, the atmosphere of devotion mounts, but a little further away island life goes on with fast-food outlets, cafes and shopping. It is still summer on the Greek islands. As dawn breaks the next day, the early morning light reveals crowds of people sleeping wherever there is open space, mostly Gypsies lying on multicolored blankets, stretched out in parks, in churchyards and on sidewalks. Signs declaring a ban on camping are ignored. Police blow their whistles to wake the sleepers and move them on, but the mood is light-hearted. It is just a few hours before the Virgin’s icon is to be paraded outside the church. A helicopter buzzing overhead announces the arrival of some official. People continue to crawl up the hill to the church as an elderly photographer hands out cheap Polaroid snapshots. The church forecourt is soon crowded to overflowing as the naval and municipal bands warm up under the hot sun. Crowds outside listen to the liturgy on loudspeakers set outside the church. As the first officials arrive to a blend of marches and chants, the line of pilgrims waiting along the road for the icon to pass by them has lengthened. Many are familiar with the procedure from previous experience. Shortly before 11 a.m. the icon is carried out by naval officers and seamen. Police line the route and watch out for children, the elderly and the disabled. Many of the more devout are in tears, trying to touch the icon. Everyone is drenched in sweat and all flinch momentarily in fright as the frigates in the bay fire a salute into the air. Pilgrims in hope of some kind of help from the Virgin bend under the icon as it is carried overhead. The most difficult part of the day is over. Soon the ships will set sail on the return journey; the discarded candles are gathered up; the last pilgrims dust off their knees, make the sign of the Cross and promise to return next year. (1) This article first appeared in the August 28 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.