Messinas Fellowship to Greece
in memory of Victor and Sylvia Messinas

2002 Fellow: Eyal Shani (Bezalel Architecture)

-> Eyal's proposal
-> Eyal's photographs from Greece (samples)
-> Eyal's exhibition at Bezalel (downtown Jerusalem)

-> Download proposal in .doc (.zip)


for the

Messinas Travel Fellowship to Greece

The Religious Site as Identity-Generator

In my view, understanding of a site includes both its documented and overt canonical cultural achievements, as well as the voices of the people – men and women of various statuses – who use the site. It is difficult to understand a site without understanding the community around it because each reciprocates in creating the other’s identity. In order to understand the concept of “community” we need to understand life that was, and still is, lived within it – one must recognize the complexity of the structure, composed of various aspects of communal and private life.

Based on Clifford Geertz’s definition, ethnography is a laden description or a variety of complex conceptual structures. Also, cultural categories are produced, comprehended and interpreted within a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures.

Based on Geertz’s theory for studying different communities, I would like to understand how a community defines itself through its sites. One of the basic social structures that create a community is its religion. Since religion consists of rituals, people congregate in specific locations in order to practice them. This being the principal assumption, I’d like to define my trip as “Ten days among Religious Communities and Structures in Greece – The Site as Identity-Generator”.

My analysis of the sites will include three aspects:

    1. The location of the sites.
    2. Study of various components at the site.
    3. The reciprocal relationship between the community and the site over time.

Therefore I prefer to concentrate on two islands such as Lesvos and Sifnos, where I believe authentic culture still exists. I would like to do this through writing, sketching and taking photographs.

Many of the old Monasteries of Lesvos are still in use. Some are destinations for pilgrims, while others serve the local people. In Lesvos I can find both communal and pilgrim rituals. This will allow me to observe different ways of forming identities of religious places. Overnight stays are possible in some of the Monasteries, for example in Leimonos Monastery or the Monastery of Agiou Raphael in Thermi. The site of the Monastery of Agiou Raphael, is sacred because of the bodies of the local martyrs found on there.

In Skala Eressos, one can see the different layers of religious building in the Church of Saint Andrew, located near an ancient basilica and a cathedral all dedicated to the same saint. The only thing that changed here is the type of structure chosen by the communities over time. I can assume that these choices were made as a result of changes in the relationship between the community and the site, which is one of the aspects I would like to study, as mentioned before.

Similarly, the Church of Saint Therapon in Mytilini, is believed to have been built over the ancient temple of Apollo. Nearby is the Church of Saint Nicholas, which used to be a mosque. It is worthwhile to see how communities treat religious sites of other beliefs and what are the things they chose to demolish or incorporate in the new building.

In Petra, Glykfylousa Panagia sits on top of a giant rock and can be reached only by climbing 114 steps. The church was built over 100 years in a place that, according to the legend, was the wish of the Blessed Virgin.

When examining the locations chosen for religious sites, a unique example is the Ypsilou Monastery, near the Petrified Forest, which was built on the crater of a dormant volcano in 1101. It is interesting to see whether the monastery is as “petrified” as its environment – if the building and the community have been frozen in time.

On September the 14th, at the Church of the Panagia in Aigassos, believers from all over Greece celebrate the festival commemorating the day that the Holy cross was brought back from Jerusalem, after being consecrated in Golgotha. Coming from Jerusalem, for a different reason, it could be interesting to witness this ritual in Aigasoss.

Finally, I would like to visit the less known religious sites. Relying on my childhood memory, the neighborhood synagogue was more than a place to pray. Almost all the community events took place there (Studies, “Brith-Milahs”, “Bar-Mitzvas”, Weddings etc.) and these things built both the synagogue and the community. I would be glad to discover if in the small villages of Greece it is the same.

For this same reason, I choose to visit the island of Sifnos, with its 365 churches. It is said that many of them celebrate the day of their particular saint with a service and feast with music, dancing and the singing that one might not associate with a religious festival. Both the variety of 365 churches and the uniqueness of their distinct rituals may expose the individual connections between a community and its church.

Many of Sifnos’ churches act as resting and refreshment points on the roads. This raises questions as to the nature of religious sites that do not have a constant congregation, but offer their services to passersby.

From the above-mentioned motivations I have compiled this plan, and I believe that the ability to understand the relationship between site and community depends on both of these dynamic factors. Therefore, most of the community-site relationships can only be sensed when one is present in the place. I did not build an hour-by-hour schedule because a place or a community which will be more inviting and interesting will require a longer, perhaps unexpected, stay.


The Final Project:

According to my field study, I will decide what would be the most effective way to transmit my experiences and the investigative process itself. I will rely on my documentation from the islands, both visual and literary.

* Recommendation letter by Prof. Zeev Druckman attached.

Sites to visit:


Leimonos Monastery

Monastery of Agiou Raphael in Thermi

Church of Saint Andrew in Skala Eressos

Church of Saint Therapon in Mytilini

Church of Saint Nicholas in Mytilini

Ypsilou Monastery near the Petrified Forest

Church of the Panagia in Aigassos

Glykfylousa Panagia in Petra

The temple for Apollo in Klopedi

Other small religious communities

The Byzantine Museum in Mytilini

Budget Estimate

Flight: Tel Aviv – Athens – Lesvos – Athens – Tel Aviv: $489 not including taxes
Accommodation: Between 30 Euro ($28) per night (hopefully stays at monasteries will be cheaper)
Meals: 30 Euros per day
Ferries: 30 Euro (very rough estimate)
Transportation: 60 Euro ($57) (mostly biking or walking)
Entrance to sites: 60 Euro

* The budget is estimated for September, as prices are lower.