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Riding With the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Greece: Going Divine on the Looney Front

12/17/2013 12:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2014

From out at sea, the mystic mountains of Patmos rise on the horizon, seductive yet darkly ominous. For this is where the end of time begins, where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse first rode out of the starting gate, where the Seven Seals were opened and the Seven Angels sounded the Seven Trumpet blasts, where the blinding vision of Armageddon, final battle between good and evil, first burst forth.

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Patmos from out at sea

It's just over there, in that cave about a third of the way up the mountain side from Scala, main ferry port and largest village on Patmos, northernmost of Greece's Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea, by that olive grove, the one over there - destination for many a Christian pilgrim.

For that's the Cave of the Apocalypse, home to St. John the Divine, 1st century author of the Book of Revelation, the New Testament's final tome, with its aforesaid visions and blood-soaked prophecies of the millennium of a New Earth and a New Heaven, and of Satan cast into the Lake of Fire.

The walk up to the cave along a stone Byzantine track sporting purple flowers and golden gorse is perfect -- Patmos is very green in springtime, with plenty of trees. The mountain's summit is crowned by the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, another name for St. John the Divine, a massive fortress-like building founded in 1088 that from Scala looks more like a giant water works.

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View of Skala with hilltop 'waterworks' monastery

It is a UN World Heritage site, along with the cave and its Monastery of the Apocalypse, a nondescript white building upstaged by the large tiered habitat-like priests school just above it.

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Byzantine stone path up to the cave

The closer you get to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, however, the less like a water works and the more impressive it appears. Its thick walls and crenellated battlements fortified against the true-life mediaeval pirates of the Aegean -- centuries before Johnny Depp started mincing about in Pirates of the Caribbean -- loom above the ancient hilltop town of Hora, the island's capital.

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View towards Hora and St. John's monastery, with priests school on right

The cave itself has a tiny church built onto its side. It is only about 24 feet long and 18 feet wide, and has seven lamps (for the seven seals, seven angels, seven trumpets?), the largest hanging over a niche in the rock where the Divine is said to have rested his head under the fissures through which the voice of God thundered forth beneath the craggy roof.

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Tradition identifies the Divine with the John who was one of Christ's 12 Apostles and author of the Gospel of John, in which case he must have been mighty old by the time he got round to having his revelations, apocalypse in Greek, about the year 95. Others posit him as an otherwise unknown John of Patmos.

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View back towards Skala from steps above cave

The more profane think he was just a plain nutcase, but my own professional if equally profane bet is that it was not St. John, be he disciple or nutter, who was so much divine as the stuff he'd just bought from that 1st century Jewish trader in the agora and was now smoking in the privacy of his cave.

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Site of Revelation

Yours Truly has been sitting here for 15 minutes now, right by the niche in the rock - and nothing, zilch, nada. No voice of God thundering forth, no Satan in a Lake of Fire, none of the other delights mentioned in Revelation, no Whore of Babylon representing the Antichrist, no Beast 'rising out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.'

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Icons in the cave

As for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing Conquest, War, Famine and Death, fuhgeddaboudit, as they say in New York. I don't even see a riderless horse, not the white one, red one, black one or pale one.

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Part of the cave shrine

The closest I come is a braying brown donkey down the hillside having an enormous dump. For Yours Truly eschatology is being alchemized into scatology. Clearly I'm not about to become St. Mike The Divine.

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Another view of shrine

I can't even find a trader in the agora for that extra divine smoke, though I did have a crazy dream during the night of a walking, talking skull, even if I can't remember now what it was spouting.

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Part of the shrine

On the other hand I do have dozens of photos of gold painted icons and frescoes, rocky ceilings, craggy walls -- and seven lamps, if not seven seals, angels and trumpets. It's only on leaving that I see the writing on the wall, a totally unmissable notice by the entrance proclaiming 'photos forbidden.' Honest, officer, I didn't see it...

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Entrance to cave and tiny church with the writing on the wall

Perhaps that's why no voice came to me through the three fissures.

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Writing on the wall writ large

Once Yours Truly has finished trying to reprise the Divine in his cave, there's much else to capture one's attention on Patmos as you move onwards and upwards. The square houses of Hora clamber up the hillside to the very battlements of the monastery, dazzling white against the fortress's more subdued dun tones.

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Monastery walls

The winding lanes descend the summit, meandering maze-like as they afford views across the green hillsides and down to the sparkling azure Aegean.

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Partial view of Hora with monastery

The monastery museum contains fine church silver ware, gold icons, incense burners and vestments dating from the 15th century onwards. A priest's crown in silver, gold and copper forms one of the centerpieces.

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Getting directions in Hora -- revealing the pathway to God?

This time Yours Truly pays due attention to the signs on entering: no photos or cell phones. That's interesting. The one in the Cave of the Apocalypse only mentions photos. Which raises an enthralling issue. Are cell phones permitted in the cave? In which case, if the vision of then were to burst forth now, would the Good Lord forsake the three fissures of yore for a neat little iPhone of today?

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Roadside shrine

The museum attendant does not know if there's cell reception in the cave or if it's a dead zone, though he assures me there's reception in the area roundabout. There's a bit of a linguistic hiccup with the attendant at the cave and he hasn't the faintest idea of what I'm getting at. Besides, neanderthal me doesn't even possess a cell phone, nor ever has, so I can't experiment.

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A Patmos beach

But it does raise the tantalizing question of contemporary context for biblical visions and miracles. If the Bible of 2,000 or 3,000 years ago used the subjects, environment and communications technology that were familiar to its targets then, would it -- mutatis mutandis -- do likewise in the cyberspace and Twitter age of today?

How many zillions of tweets, at 140 characters per tweet, would be needed to reveal the revelations in the Book of Revelation? Would the visions overload your iPhone?

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Priest near Skala port

For more travel experiences see www.looneyfront.blogspot.com

Also by the same author, Shakespearean spoofs on modern politics at www.shakespeareredux.blogspot.com