It is impossible to write about the Old Monastery of Panagias Vulcano without mentioning the sanctuary which graced the very same site beforehand. In the ancient times the whole mountain range of Ithome was dedicated to Zeus and on its highest peak a temple with an altar has been raised worshipping Zeus Ithomatas dating at least from 900 to 700 B.C. ( so called Geometric period). In 369 B.C. a city called Messene or Messini was built in the fertile valley at the foot of the dominating bare limestone mass of Ithome mountain. It was a new settlement for the Messinians who freed themselves from the Spartan hegemony after a great victory of the general Epaminondas from Thebes at the battle of Lefktra. The city became the capital of the free Messenian state following four centuries of occupation of the Messenian territory by the Spartans. After many centuries of greatness, expansion and then a slow decay, the city fell victim to a raid of the Goths in 395 A.D., and hereafter it gradually became deserted.
In the early 7th century some monks arrived in the area, fleeing the Iconoclasts and chose to settle on the inaccessible Ithomi hilltop. They founded the monastery dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Monastery of Vulcano or Panagias Voulkano. The building materials were the stones taken from the temple of Zeus Ithomatas. The remains of the ancient temple of Zeus are still visible east of the monastery (as on the photos below-the spot with the grazing goats!). The building is a three-aisled vaulted basilica, today two-aisle, with many subsequent interventions. At the junction of the southern and western wings of the cells of the monastery there is the byzantine “fotanama”, a special area with a bond fire pit and benches where the monks could stay to warm up in winter time. The interior of the church has been covered with frescos painted in 1608 by renown brothers from the city of Nafplion, Demetrios and George Moschos. Unfortunately the frescos have been vandalized. They can be seen on rare occasions such as the celebration of the Assumption Day on August 15. Despite and because of my great love for Messinia I have to point out the great irony in the history of the monastery… as I look at these impaired frescos remembering that the monastery was founded by the monks fleeing the iconoclasts!In 1625 the monks left the mountaintop monastery because of the unbearable cold of the winter months and the difficulty of pilgrims to arrive and founded a new monastery which can be seen from the mountaintop to the South (as on the photo below).
- The first evidence of human settlement on the top of the Mount Ithomi dates back to the Late Neolithic period, from -4300 to -3000, and the Early Bronze Age, from -2800 to -1900. The prehistoric fortified this position obviously bring Ithomi name until the end of the Messenian Wars and building of the the city Messene/Messini in 369B.C.
- Ithome was the strongest natural and man-made fortress in Messinia. Remains of the walls are extant along its entire course (9.5km). Large rectangular limestone blocks were used for its construction quarried on the spot on the rocky body of Mt. Ithome which at places preserves evidence of ancient quarrying activity.
The top of Mt. Ithome was also fortified. The towers are normally square- shaped with the exception of one horse shoe-shaped and a circular on.
- The fortification walls are best preserved on the north- northwestern side, on either side of the Arcadian Gate.
- According to Pausanias the Messinians claimed that Zeus was born and raised in the region.
- He also mentions organized music events called Thymaris quoting a verse of Eumelos, the 6th century BC poet, “What the Ithomates had within his heart, the muse with immaculate lyre and free the cymbals)
- The name “Vulcano” and formerly “Vourkano” “Dorkano” and “Vulcan” is attributed to the name of a Byzantine ruler or founder, which owned the area around Mount Ithomi.
- The monastery was the first built in the area.