FEATURE by Willard Manus

Tinos turned out to be a revelation, a delight.

We knew from our friend Lilly Kristensen, who had a house on Tinos, that it was a holy island, the "Lourdes of Greece" thanks to its famous icon of the Virgin Mary which annually drew tens of thousands of Greek Orthodox faithful seeking miracle cures.

What we didn't know was that Tinos was also a stunningly beautiful island, in a rugged, wild, alpine kind of way--the Mani of the Cyclades.

Tinos also had a long and rich history behind it, one which explains how religion came to play such an important part in its fortunes. A Christian community existed on the island from as early as the 2nd century. Prior to that and throughout the reign of Constantine the Great, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state, the islanders had been mostly pagan, adhering to the cults of both Dionysos and Poseidon. Temples had been dedicated to these Greek deities in the 6th century BC and were still flourishing as late as the 4th century AD.

The Byzantines, Saracens and Venetians took turns ruling the island; with the latter came Catholicism, a religion that took deeper hold here than anywhere else in the Cyclades. When the island fell to the Turks in 1715, the Eastern Church supplanted Catholicism and maintained a bishopric all during the Islamic reign.

When the ikon of The Virgin was discovered in 1823, it fulfilled a vision which a 72-year-old Tiniot nun, Pelagia Negropontis, had had a year earlier. She had dreamt that the Holy Mother appeared instructing her where and how Her ikon was to be found, and even threatening to inflict a severe punishment upon the islanders should Pelagia not carry out her instructions.

The ikon also came to be associated with the Greek struggle for indpendence, its discovery being a sure omen that victory over the Turkish crescent was not only inevitable, but sanctioned by the divine intercession of The Theotokos herself, champion and protectress of the Greek nation. Hence the ikon came to have both religious and political significance.

Today a copper representation of the ikon can be seen in the vestry of the Church of the Virgin. The original, covered by glass and framed in an ornately-worked gold casing, is in display in the church just a few steps to the left of the main entrance. It is, however, so lavishly ornamented with precious stones and jewels, that only the tiny heads of the Archangel Gabriel and The Virgin Mary remain visible.

The Evangelistria, the church itself, has grown into a sizable complex. The nun Pelagia's skull and the spartan cell in which she lived are displayed for veneration. The grounds also hold church offices, an archaeological museum, an art gallery, confessional rooms, a bookshop, workrooms and guest cottages.

The annual feast of The Assumption of the Virgin commences on Aug. l5 and ends eight days later. Vast numbers of pilgrims come to the island from all over Greece in hope of being cured by The Virgin. They cram into the island's port capital, filling its streets, hotels, restaurants, beaches and parks. Some bring their own bedding and camp out under the stars. Caravans of gypsies arrive, selling plastic chairs and utensils off the backs of pickup trucks. Other merchants hawk toys, books, candy and religious trinkets from makeshift booths lit by pump-up lanterrns. Pop music blares from tape decks and CD-players.

In the midst of all this tumult, chaos and heat, black-clad women of all ages creep up the long, steep steps to the church on their knees, either singly or in groups, taking turns at kissing the holy icon. Cripples and blind people take the same path, helped by family or friends. Tourists line the walkway snapping photographs like Hollywood paparazzi.

Part of the religious ceremony includes a requiem in honor of the battleship Elli, which was sunk in Tinos' harbor in mid-August, 1940, while the panagyri was underway. An unidentified submarine (probably Italian) fired several torpedos into the Elli, killing one sailor and injuring 29. The cowardly attack (Greece was not yet officially at war with the Axis) shook the country up and outraged the islanders.

Today Tinos exudes an air of tranquility, the landscape dotted with countless churches, monasteries, white-washed villages and dovecotes. The latter are an island specialty, a folk art. They can be seen wherever one drives, miniature castles, whimsical bird hotels.

The driving is spectacular. Tinos is mostly mountains, noble, towering specimens that take you up into the heavens and afford breathtaking vistas. Up here the winds blow hard and cool, the air is pungent with the smell of thyme and oregano. In the valleys are patches of farms, houses where old men and women sit weaving baskets that are as snug and elaborate as the dovecotes.

Lilly, an artist and weaver herself, showed us Pirgos, an oases-like village tucked in the cleft of a mountain range. Here potters, painters and silversmiths from Greece and abroad came together every summer to study and work in an art school subsidized by private and public patrons.

Lilly's house, which she had bought in the early 80's when her primary residence, Mykonos, began to be overrun by hordes of tourists, sat several miles away on a cliff lined with maybe half a dozen other houses. It was a simple place--three rooms and a balcony. There was neither electricity nor running water, though a cistern provided non-potable water. From here there was no highway down to the distant, alluring wisp of beach below; to reach the sea one would have to hoof it, a forty-minute hike each way.

We wouldn't have bothered to make the trek even if it were only a five-minute walk. Who needed the sea when one could sit up here with almost all of the Cyclades in view, with hawks gamboling overhead, dropping like divebombers one minute, then popping their wings and floating motionlessly on the winds, floating far and free.