Head to holy Patmos
Patmos: Monastery founder St Christodoulos is pictured with St John in a mosaic in the courtyard.

For visitors who come to the small Greek island of Patmos today, it is a holiday place of back lanes and waterside restaurants with tasty food.

Of white buildings and blue shutters, domed Greek Orthodox churches, and gardens planted with tomatoes and herbs. Of hill paths looking down into the cup of the harbour, timber fishing boats and a sense of creativity.

Related: GUIDE TO ISLAND HOPPING IN GREECE

For English ceramicist Barbara Scales, it has been home for 22 years, after teaching in Athens and deciding to move away from city life.

Patmos is a small island, home to about 5000 people and, she says, she knows most of them. "It's a warm, friendly, safe place. Everyone looks out for one another."

But for Christ's disciple St John, Patmos was the place of exile where he wrote the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Holy Bible.

In 1088, for St Christodoulos, it was the place to build a monastery dedicated to St John high on the hill and fortified against constant raids from pirates. On the site of a previous ancient temple for the Greek huntress goddess Artemis, the monastery has five water cisterns underneath, and had a bakery, so that the 250 monks could hold out against sieges. Burning oil could be poured from its high eyrie.

The Monastery of St John the Theologian, to which 50 monks are still affiliated and which still owns half the island, has what is often recognised as the most important collections of religious icons in the world. The monastery also has an important Christian library, with the fifth century Book of Matthew written in silver on purple vellum.

In AD95 St John, who had been to Ephesus, near the Turkish coast (where I have also just been following in his footsteps) was exiled to Patmos, which the Romans were using as a penal colony. During his 18 months on the island, with a scribe to write his words, he had prayed in a cave and been instructed to write down what he heard and saw and send it to the seven churches of Asia Minor.

The result - the Book of Revelation - is apocalyptic, about the end of the world but with hope for the future.

John was, perhaps, the apostle with the closest ties to Jesus Christ and his mother. He was the apostle who heard Christ's last words, and to whom was entrusted the safekeeping of Mary. A widely travelled evangelist, he was also the only one of the 12 apostles to die naturally, at the age of 105.

And all these lives of this volcanic island come together as Barbara Scales leads us down narrow steps and along a passageway to meet Yanni Sotiriou. Mr Sotiriou is the head restorer of the monastery's icons and his workshop is rarely seen by the public. In fact, Mr Sotiriou says it is probably the only workshop of this kind that is ever opened to the public.

"It is responsible for the restoration of the icons and frescoes in the whole of the monastery and all the icons of the churches of Patmos and the surrounding island."

An icon is a painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, in a rigid and traditional style, often on wood, which is venerated and most associated with the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches. They are used as an educational tool, to depict biblical and moralistic moments.

"There are so many treasures that need restoring," says Mr Sotiriou. Some of them cover the table in the middle of his small studio, awaiting work.

There is a wooden carved cross from the 1500s under restoration, and an icon on a stand which is complete but has taken many months of work using chemicals and a lot of medical equipment. Another that is half done - the picture revealed from under a layer of soot.

Candles burn as an important part of ceremony in the little church, and over years soot covers the icons and frescoes. Mr Sotiriou, in this case with some help, has spent years cleaning frescoes that date back a thousand years.

In an earth tremor in the 1950s, parts of the frescoes came off, revealing more underneath. In his studio, Mr Sotiriou, who has a degree in restoration from Athens University, uses X-ray as often icons are painted one over the other, and it helps him access the images.

The monastery's museum is full of more treasures, the most famous being an icon painted in the 16th century by El Greco, who was born on the island of Crete in the 1500s. His real name was Dominikos Theotokopoulos, but when he moved to Italy, he simply became known by his nickname - "El Greco", the Greek. Barbara Scales expertly takes us through it all.

Outside again, under the blue of the Mediterranean sky and surrounded by the inky Aegean Sea, I look down into the cup of Skala harbour set in a landscape layered in human history.

Patmos was mentioned by Thucydides in the fifth century BC. Its first full-time inhabitants were the Doriens, then there was Roman occupation, the Venetians succeeded the Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks controlled the island for more than 400 years, Italians took over in 1912, it was briefly administered by the British in 1948 with author Lawrence Durrell in charge and writing about it in Reflections on a Marine Venus, and then became officially part of Greece. Just over 30 years ago, the Greek government proclaimed it a sacred island.

For most visitors who come to Patmos today, it is a place of beaches and baklava, Mythos beer and sunbaking. But Patmos is, indeed, sacred.


FACT FILE

• Stephen Scourfield visited Patmos on Star Clipper's seven-night cruise through the Greek islands. It is from Athens to the Turkish coast then Patmos, Amorgos, Mykonos, Monemvasia and back to Athens. It starts at $2725pp, with a mid-range cabin at $3705 each. The Icons of Patmos tour was a

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