The monastery of Zaraka

A fortified monastery complex

Just outside the village of Stymphalia, next to the asphalt road, stand the impressive ruins of the Monastery of Zaraka with its striking boulders.

It is a fortified monastery complex, a rare example of western architecture in our country. The most important of the traces of the past is the ruined church from the time of the Frankish occupation (13th century) and part of the imposing tower-shaped pillar of the complex. The locals call the area "Kionia" because of the many small columns preserved by the church, a name they gave to the neighboring small settlement too. Foreign travelers (Gell, Dodwell, Ross, Brusian) also refer to Lake Stymphalia as Lake Zaraka!

The foundation

The date of establishment and construction of the complex dates back to before 1236. Pope Innocent III, after the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, called, in 1205, for the monastic orders of the West to settle in Greece, in an attempt to proselytize the local population and the Byzantine clergy. From those, he chose the Cistercian Order – founded in 1098 in Citeaux, France, as a reaction to the luxury that characterized the life and architecture of the buildings of the Benedictine Order – with the aim that their strict principles would win the respect of the Greeks.

The founder of the Order was Bernard de Clairvaux, a saint of the Catholic Church, who at the beginning of the 12th century imposed strict rules on the Order, like humility, simplicity, hard manual labor and contact with nature. In the context of these rules, the Cistercians established their monasteries away from populated areas, in isolated valleys and near springs, such as Stymphalia. In 1225, the Frankish prince Geoffrey of Villehardouin invited Cistercian monks to establish a monastery in the Peloponnese.

However, the first historically reliable reference to the monastery is made in a letter addressed by Pope Gregory IX, in 1236, to the abbot of Zaraka, Peter, entrusting him with the task of collecting a tenth of the revenues of the Latin Church of the Peloponnese for Geoffrey of Villehardouin and organizing the defense of the Frankish principality of Achaea. According to another version, the monastery was established in 1098 by Saint Robert of Molesme and a group of Benedictine monks, but its reformer was Saint Bernard.

However, with the fall of the Latin Empire of Constantinople in 1261, the Catholic monasteries in Greece closed and Daphni is mentioned as the only Cistercian abbey remaining in Greece in 1276.

The excavations

The church was excavated in 1928 by A. Orlandos and in 1962 by E. Stikas. It is rectangular, measuring 35x15.70 m. The philosophy of the Order is also applied to the architecture and sculpture of the church of Zaraka, since they established a simple church without sculptures and icons. The form and arrangement of the columns and pilasters of the church suggest that its covering was made with built-in ribbed cross-vaults. The central aisle would have been higher than the side ones and illuminated by pointed windows as shown in Orlandos' representation.

The walls of the church are built mainly of large ancient blocks reused from the buildings of the neighboring ancient city of Stymphalos. Stepped buttresses neutralized the loads of the cross-vaults. The sculptural decoration of the church (column capitals, pilaster capitals, vault keys) is extremely simple, impeccably refined and stylistically closer to the Romanesque style of the 12th century than to the Gothic of the following century. For the construction of the church, local builders were used, but the sculptures are definitely the work of French artisans.