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Panagia Episkopi is the oldest church in Santorini, built at the end of the 11th century by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. The church is dedicated to the Panagia, meaning the “All-holy”, the Greek Orthodox given name for the Virgin Mary. Episkopi means “episcopal”. It is located at the foot of Profitis Ilias Mountain, about 800m southeast of Mesa Gonia village, which is also referred to as Episkopi Gonias. The village of Kamari is about 2 km away and Fira, the capital of the island, is about 7 km away.
The recorded history of the church starts in 1207, the same year the island became part of a maritime state created by the Venetian Republic following the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians drove the Orthodox bishop from the island and put a Roman Catholic bishop in his place. At that point, a Catholic altar was erected next to the Orthodox one at Panagia Episkopi. Today, the west side entrance is for the Greek Orthodox church and the southeast side is for the Catholic church. In 1537, the island was captured under the Ottoman Empire rule and that same year, Panagia Episkopi was once again the episcopal seat of the Orthodox diocese of Santorini until 1827.
In 1827, a new church in Fira was established and the seat moved there. After 1832, the property of the church started diminishing. In 1850, the remaining land was sold, including the last of its vineyards in 1902. In 1915, a fire destroyed the majority of books and church documents. The icons survived without damage. In 1956, an earthquake caused severe damage to the church. The reconstruction and restoration continued until 1986. During this, many icons were stolen, 3 of which were framed frescoes that were separated from the walls. They have never been recovered.
Today, the church still houses many interesting frescoes and holy icons from the 11th and 12th centuries and 17th-century wood carved door panels at the Greek Orthodox Church. Originally, the central area was decorated entirely with frescoes. They were covered with plaster during the Ottoman Empire rule in Greece (from 1453 to 1821). Some of those were successfully rescued and restored. Over the centuries, most others were destroyed by moisture.
The most famous icon at this church is the Panagia Glykofilousa, referring to the Virgin Mary as the “kissing Madonna”. The 12th-century portrait depicts the Panagia embracing Jesus with his hand on her chin. It is kept in a glass case under controlled conditions inside the central church space.
Every year, on August 15th, the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Mary, mother of Jesus) is celebrated in Greece and is a national holiday. It commemorates the “falling asleep” or death of the Virgin Mary and her resurrection. On this annual feast day, the church gathers extremely large crowds of locals and visitors.
Panagia Episkopi Hours and Information
- Season: Open year-round.
- Hours: Visiting hours are daily from 10am-12pm and 2pm-5pm. The church and its grounds can be seen in less than an hour.
- Location: Mount Profitis, Mesa Gonia, Santorini 847 00
- Telephone: +30 228 603 0399
- Admission Fee: Free admission.
- Bus: On the Fira-Kamari bus route. Buses don’t always stop at every scheduled stop, so inform the bus driver that the final destination is Panagia Episkopi. There are 2 bus stops, both on the main road outside Mesa Gonia and Kamari and about 450m apart. One is in front of an EKO gas station. From there, it’s about a 10-minute walk (600m), slightly uphill on a quiet road, so it’s safe to walk on. The second stop is in front of Santorini Brewing Company, about 15 minutes (1 km) away. There is a road, with signs, just off the main Fira-Kamari road west of the winery that takes you to the church. The winery is about 850m from Panagia Episkopi.
- Parking: Free parking available outside church grounds.
- Transfers: Some hotels provide transfer and pick up services, speak to the concierge.