Catacombs of St Onourphrios


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To find the Catacombs of St Onourphrios take the Pylos to Methoni road, do not turn onto the by-pass, but keep straight on until you find the church pictured, Agios Athanasius, which is off the road to the right.

Turn off the road and park up. Then take the dirt track up the St Nicholaos Mountain, the track disappeared for me after a while but I eventually reached the catacombs, continuing up a grass covered slope.

They are quite difficult to find but if you look to almost the top of the hill you can just make out that there is something there.

There is a fence and an information board there at the top, but nothing from the road.

The catacombs of St. Onouphrios is an early Christian Cemetery which dates to the mid 4th-5th century AD and probably used until the 6th century and is the oldest and the only such cemetery that has been found in the Peloponnese.

It was probably used until the 6th century and the catacombs are unique to the Peloponnese and and one of the few known examples of its kind in Greece.

The structure is carved into the natural porous stone within a large rock.

The catacombs were invisible initially and the underground chambers could be only accessed by carved stairs leading below.

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The eastern part of the structure was destroyed by the Franks and then by the Venetians as the stone blocks from the mountain were used to build the fortifications of the castle of Methoni.

The rock that was taken exposed the western side of the catacombs which now consists of six chambers that include both arches in which the tombs were opened and many pit graves dug into the ground.

Small niches for the placement of lamps are cut into the rock at the base of the arcosolia arches, while benches and offering tables, structures associated with the funerary cult, are on the sides of the chambers.

The roof of the chambers are flat and the arcosolia have the form of relatively high blind arches.

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An arcosolium (or arcosolia) is an arched recess used as a place of entombment. The word is from Latin arcus, 'arch', and solium, 'throne' (literally: 'place of state') or post-classical sarcophagus.

Early arcosolia were carved in rock in catacombs. and in the very earliest of these, the arched recess was cut to ground level.

Then a low wall would be built in the front, leaving a trough (the cubiculum, 'chamber') in which to place the body.

A flat stone slab would then cover the chamber containing the body, thus sealing it. The stone slab occasionally also served as an altar, especially for Christian who celebrated Mass on them.

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In the later arcosolia, the arched recess was carved out to about waist height. Then the masons cut downwards to make the chamber into which the corpse would be placed.

In effect, the trough was then a sarcophagus with living rock on five of its six faces. As before, a flat stone slab would then seal the cubiculum.

During the late Byzantine period,(12th - 13th century), the catacombs of St. Onouphrios had been converted into a place where ascetics were gathered together.

At that time, a wall in front of the first chamber was built. That wall was further adorned with new wall paintings, a few parts of which have survived until today.

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The cemetery has several similarities with the early Christian catacombs of Milos, of Southern Italy and Sicily as well.

The caves of Saint Onouphrios were known to foreign travellers and to the local people as a place connected with Christian worship.

Some foreign travellers referred to it it as hermitage, others as a cloister.

Official recognition of the catacombs came around 1960.

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Segments of galleries with several archosols and pit tombs are still preserved. In one of the arcasolium tomb there are still many human bones.

The locals, seeing the murals which adorned all the walls regarded it as an old church" and visited it sometimes to light a candle.

There are testimonies that till 1910 and once a year, on June 12, the day of Saint Onouphrios, the priest-Thanasis (1883-1928) held a service there.

From the 1940s the chambers were used for keeping sheep and goats and the frescos were destroyed by fires lit within the caves.