Letter from Patmos

The factual apocalypse arrived in the form of yet another big story on TV concerning the Middle East shortly after I had already left Patmos, the isle of the Revelation, sometimes also called the Jerusalem of the Aegean. Another suicide bomber killed 16 Israelis in a pool hall in a town near Tel Aviv, the newscaster reported. Now, retaliatory military action against Gaza is expected – any moment now. Apocalyptic fever has not only infected the Israeli and the Palestinian sides. Equally trapped in doomsday hysteria during Holy Week was the northernmost island of the Dodecanese island group. On the Saturday before Easter, during the exultant Matins of the Resurrection at Easter midnight, I heard someone behind me at the Zoodochos Pigis Monastery in Patmos whispering reverently, «Have no doubt, we’re living in the days just prior to the Lord’s coming.» Sadly, she did not seem to be able to give an estimated time of arrival as she did not elaborate on the approaching Armageddon. This reminded me very much of the arrival – and the departure from the island – of the ferryboat Rodos, which did not seem keen on keeping schedules either. The whole thing evoked St John, who, in his Book of Revelation, said: «What thou seest, write in a book, and send [it] unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea» (Revelation 1:9-11). Now, it is an unwritten rule that Kathimerini columnists returning from vacation share with readers what they did while they were away. And that is what I am doing here and now. Invited by heir Fotis Athanassopoulos, member of a leading family dealing in tobacco in northern Greece, I was on Patmos, a normally barren, rocky island in the shape of a horseshoe, unusually green at this time of the year, Easter that is. The sacred nature of St John the Theologian’s island, with the summit crowned by the famous monastery whose belfry is so prominent that it can be seen from everywhere on the island, has acquired many fanatical worshipers among the international and Greek jet set, such as computer wizard Negreponte, Sadruddin Aga Khan, etc. This helps the island to avoid mass tourism, and to maintain its traditional character. Incidentally, it was here, some 40 miles off the southwest coast of Turkey, that St John the Evangelist (not necessarily the same John who was one of 12 original disciples of the founder of the sect) claimed he had heard God’s voice. This event inspired him to write his visionary letters to the seven churches in Asia, known as the divinely inspired Book of Revelation – Apocalypse in Greek. That happened as soon as he was turned out of Ephesus on Asia Minor, in AD 95. That is exactly 22 years after Masada. I first heard Masada mentioned in the middle of the recent bitter battles in Israel’s occupied territories. An Israeli commander proclaimed, «This is Palestinians’ Masada.» He was referring to the battle, waged by Jewish zealots in AD 73 against the Romans, in which the defenders committed suicide rather than surrender. The defenders of Masada are generally believed to have belonged to an apocalyptic sect for whom the war against the Romans would usher in a new age. Christians interpret the Revelation in different ways. Speaking the other day from the pulpit, Archbishop Christodoulos, with his usual priestly eloquence, exhorted churchgoers to «make your neighbor fear you, if he does not respect you,» claiming that our territorial integrity was at risk. Yet, if judgment day is at hand, who cares? According to the Bible, Christ will defeat the Antichrist – any moment now, as the pious lady on Patmos had maintained – at Armageddon, 55 miles north of Tel Aviv. The wicked (mainly the non-Christians?) will suffer horribly. Armageddon: the war to end all wars. It stirs up images of inevitable conflict, the final throw of the dark side of human nature, the ultimate catharsis that ushers in an age of peace. «The armed forces should continually be on the alert,» our unrelenting archbishop persevered. Since Greek public money goes mostly on defense anyway, should we worry more than others «who have no experience of threats, but we Greeks do»? Yet our state educational system has been allowed to deteriorate because of funds. Who cares?! A recent Eurobarometer survey on Europeans’ involvement in cultural activities shows that Greeks avoid books, newspapers, the theater, cinema, museums and choose to glue themselves to television. Yet the main question is whether the majority of the Greeks actually believe what they hear and watch. The answer is probably yes, on the simple grounds that no other information gets to them anyway. The same Eurobarometer poll stated that only 20.3 percent of Greeks read newspapers. Plainly, this is the lowest figure in Europe. Needless to say, Greek TV – and press – in last weekend’s reference to current internal politics, homed in on the charismatic presence of one Yvette Jarvis, a singer, model, and the first «non-white» candidate – hear, hear – for a municipal post in Greece. Patmos’s low barren hills, its lacy coastline, forming countless bays and coves, are picturesque enough places, yet the Sacred Grotto of the Revelation dominates the island’s tourism. Two thousand years after the Apocalypse was written, it can still shock the living daylights out of a casual reader – or viewer. «You can never tell where logical associations might lead you to when you write an article,» concluded columnist Antonis Karkayiannis last Saturday in Kathimerini, thus ending his reference to the 76th emperor of Byzantium – and benefactor – Alexius I Comnenus, who, incidentally, was the one that granted, in 1088, the whole island of Patmos to scholar and monk St Christodoulos, who promptly founded a monastery there in honor of St John. Nowadays, we seem to be rather interested in a futuristic view of Revelation. Take the Beast in the Book of Revelation, which, 2,000 years after it was first depicted, still seems to be snarling out at us from the pages of that good book. Chilling analogies abound. In what other guise might it appear today? Terrorism, perhaps? Urban sci-fi apocalypse? Should one believe in visions of toxic apocalypse along with other classics of postmodern apocalypse? Yet you can’t live in permanent expectation of an apocalypse. Or can you?