Arguably the most beautiful, certainly the best known of the smaller Dodecanese, PÁTMOS has a distinctive, immediately palpable atmosphere. In a cave here, St John the Divine (known in Greek as O Theológos, “The Theologian”, and author of one of the four Gospels) set down the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. The huge fortified monastery that honours him remains the island’s dominant feature; its monks owned all of Pátmos until the eighteenth century, and their influence remains strong.
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For those visitors not motivated by religion, Pátmos’s greatest strength is its beaches. With so many attractive strands, you can usually escape the crowds even in high season, though you may need a vehicle to do so. Day-trippers exceed overnighters, thanks in part to the island’s lack of an airport, and Pátmos feels a different place once the last excursion boat has left after sunset. Among those staying, no single nationality predominates, lending Pátmos a cosmopolitan feel almost unique in the Dodecanese. The steady clientele can be very posh indeed, with assorted royal and ex-royal families among repeat visitors.
Home to most of Pátmos’s 3200 official residents, SKÁLA seems initially to contradict any solemn image of the island; the commercial district with its gift boutiques is incongruously sophisticated for such a small town. During peak season, the quay and inland lanes throng with trippers, and visitors still tend to be arriving after dark, including from the huge, humming cruisers that weigh anchor around midnight. Skála becomes a ghost town in winter (which here means by early October), when most shops and restaurants close.
Given time, Skála reveals more enticing corners in the residential fringes to its east and west, where vernacular mansions hem in pedestrian lanes creeping up the hillsides. At the summit of the westerly rise, Kastélli, masonry courses from an ancient acropolis enclose a more recent chapel. An easy ten-minute walk southwest across the flat isthmus, starting from the central market street, brings you to pebbly Hokhlakás Bay on the island’s west coast. More of a quiet seafront suburb than a beach, it enjoys wonderful sunset views.
Saint John on Pátmos
Pátmos has been intimately associated with Christianity since John the Evangelist – later John the Divine – was exiled here from Ephesus by emperor Domitian in about 95 AD. John is said to have written his Gospel on Pátmos, but his sojourn is better remembered for the otherworldly voice that he heard coming from a cleft in the ceiling of his hillside grotto, which bid him to set down its words in writing. By the time John was allowed to return home, that disturbing finale to the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (aka the Apocalypse), had been disseminated as a pastoral letter to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.
Revelation followed the standard Judeo-Christian tradition of apocalyptic books, with titanic battles in heaven and on earth, supernatural visions, plus lurid descriptions of the fates awaiting the saved and the damned following the Last Judgement. Hugely open to subjective interpretation, Revelation was being wielded as a rhetorical and theological weapon within a century of appearing. Its vivid imagery lent itself to depiction in frescoes adorning the refectories of Byzantine monasteries and the narthexes of Orthodox churches, conveying a salutary message to illiterate medieval parishioners.
John also combated paganism on Pátmos, in the person of an evil wizard, Kynops, who challenged him to a duel of miracles. As the magician’s stock trick involved retrieving effigies of the deceased from the seabed, John responded by petrifying Kynops while he was under water. A buoy just off Theológos beach in Skála today marks the relevant submerged rock.
Forever after in the Orthodox world, heights amid desolate and especially volcanic topography have become associated with John. Pátmos, with its eerie landscape of igneous outcrops, is an excellent example, as is Níssyros, where one of the saint’s monasteries overlooks the volcano’s caldera.