Two New Byzantine Churches in the Corinthia?

The southeastern Corinthia is a not a particularly well known area to most visitors to Greece.  It’s rugged country, with few amenities of interest to the casual tourist (although the small harbor town of Korphos is lovely).  To put it in perspective, it is so far out of the way that the Regular Program of the American School of Classical Studies doesn’t even go there — although there is a fine ashlar tower at a place called Are Mbartze.  Unlike the much visited Corinthian plain, however, the southeastern Corinthia has Byzantine churches.  In the immediate vicinity of the town of Sophiko there are at least 5 of them.

 

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The southeastern Corinthia

To my mind the Koimesis at Steiri is the most scenic and perhaps the most important.

PanayiaSteiri
The Panayia at Steiri

Byzantinists are attracted by churches like moths to a lamp.  The churches of the southeastern Corinthia attracted among others A. Orlandos and Tim Gregory.  The former provided a basic chronology of the churches there and the latter conducting an intensive survey there in the mid 1980s treating among other things a curious system of fortification at Mt. Tsalika which towers above the village of Sophiko and overlooks the main road south from the Corinthia in the Epidauria. (Orlandos, ABME 1 (1935), 1ff., Gregory, “The Medieval Site of Mt. Tsalika near Sophiko,” in P. Lock and G.D.R. Sanders, The Archaeology of Medieval Greece (Oxford 1996), 61ff. For this route in antiquity see: M. Dixon, Disputed Territories: Interstate Arbitration in the Northeast Peloponnese, ca. 250-150 B.C., Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Ohio State 2000;  The area was investigated intensively by Michael Dixon in the late 1990s, by the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey in the early 2000s, and now by the Saronic Harbors Exploration Project).

In any event, in an article in the 2006 Deltion of the Christian Archaeological Society (M. Kappas and Y. Fousteris, “The Reassessment of Two Byzantine Churches at Sophiko, Corinthia,” DChAE 28 (2006), 61-72), M Kappas and Y. Fousteris make the argument that two of the churches in this area that Orlandos dated to the 17th or 18th century should be considered late-13th century in date.  They are of unusual design: Ay. Antonios at Tourla and Hypapanti are both single-aisled cross-in-square church with cross arms of unequal length.  The eastern and western arms of the cross are longer than the north and south arms.   They argue that the Hypapanti has traces of 13th century wall painting in the tympana of one cross arm.  St. Antonios has a number of architectural features that have parallels with other 13th century churches in the vicinity.  Of particular interest are circular recesses cut in limestone for the insertion of decorative plates around the west door which is further defined by a single-arched, dog-tooth frieze.   The cuttings in stone for the insertion of plates appears also at the known Byzantine church of Taxiarchs and the Koimesis nearby.  (A better-known example of this technique can be found at the much-discussed 13th century church at Merbaka in the Argolid). 

The most interesting thing about the possibility of two “new” Byzantine churches in the area is that they would date to the same period as much of the pottery discovered by Gregory’s survey of Mt. Tsalikas.  Gregory argued that the fortifications there might be of Frankish foundation.  It would be intriguing to consider the two small 13th century churches (the Hypapanti is on its slopes) as contemporary and perhaps even Frankish in foundation (as some would argue for the church at Merbaka). 

This is as good an excuse to visit the southeastern Corinthia as any that I have heard (although probably not enough to put it on the tourist itinerary!).

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