Mobile Library - General information

  ANCIENT TIMES
  THE BYZANTINE PERIOD
  THE PERIOD OF TURKISH RULE
  BYZANTINE MONUMENTS IN THE ENVIRONS OF SERRES RULE

 


 

The city was known in ancient times under various names: Siris, Sirra, Sirae, Sarxa, Serra, Serrai, Serras, Sarra, Serra, Ser(r)e, Sirum, Seres, Fer(r)ai or Fe(r)rai, Serisk or Serski (slavonic), Siruz or Siroz (Turkish), Ceres, Saras, Serras, and most recently of all, Serres. As can be seen from the numerous variations above, the town's name has come down to us virtually unchanged from antiquity..

 

ANCIENT TIMES
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The first historical reference to the noteworthy pre-Homeric city is in Herodotus, who calls the city «Siris of Paionii», and its inhabitants «Siriopaiones». The latter were also known as the Siropaiones, or the Sirinopaiones, Sires, Sirinoi, and finally Sirraioi, and were to appear on the historical scene in 513 B.C.

Megabyzus, the Persian satrap of Thrace, campaigned against the inhabitants of Sirios in 496 B.C. on the order of Darius I of Persia. Beaten, their homeland handed over to the Thracian Odomantes, the Siropaiones were taken to Asia as slaves. The city was then renamed Odomantiki Siris.

Theopompos, the historian, describes the city as Thracian: «Sirra, a city of Thrace» (the national Sirraios), before it became part of the Kingdom of Philip II in 357 B.C. The Roman historian, Titus Livius writes that the Consul Emilius Paulus pitched camp in a plain near the capital of Odomantiki. Following its conquest by the Romans, Macedonia was divided into four sections, while the city lost its independence and was adjoined to the first of them, the capital of which was at Amphipolis.

The exact location of the ancient city of Sirios has been narrowed down to the impressive, fortified acropolis on Koulas Hill. The earliest archaeological finds there date from the late Archaic Period, and include the remains of the foundations of an ancient structure on the brow of the hill, along with the square construction made from re-used carved blocks of limestone; and the Greek black-figure potsherds (from 530 B.C. or thereabouts) that litter the site.

 
Ά View of acropolis (Koulas Hill) from the West.

But the ancient city was not confined to the fortified acropolis on the top of the hill; the main body of the city spread over the southern slopes of the hill, between two fast-moving mountain streams. The Roman cemetery covered the area between the northwestern slopes of the hill - the location, today, of the city's Third High School - and stretched as far as the First High School and the opposite bank of the river, to what is now Serres Cathedral and Eleftherias Square. A number of inscribed Roman burial mounds have been uncovered in this area, along with other monuments from the same period, whether honourary, votive, or to commemorate elections. These excavations have given us valuable historical information on the social, religious, and political organisation of the city. For example, we know that the now thoroughly urban city had its own government, as well as a municipality, councillors, market inspectors, an educational chief, a high priest, and a civic officer responsible for organising the city's games. During the reign of Septimius Severus (192 - 211 A.D.), the five cities of Odomantiki formed a federation - the «Pentapolis», under the leadership of the city of Siris.

Other settlements grew up during the Roman Period in the mountainous areas around the city of Sirios - areas recently reincorporated into the Municipality of Serres by the Kapodistria Bill - at (a) Eptamyloi (on the site now known as "Xerolakka"); (b) Oinousa (on the sites known now as "Ktimata" and "Vlaselnikos"); (c) Chionochori (the "Koula" and "Chania" areas); (d) Elaionas (at "Panagia", "Profitis Ilias", and "Chili Dousa"); (e) Vero (at "Agios Tryfonas"); and (f) Metochi (at the "Nisantasi" site).

 

View of "Nisantasi" Hill in Metochi.

 

 

 

THE BYZANTINE PERIOD
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During the early years of Byzantium, the city was part of the district of First Macedonia, and was the seat of a bishop. Maximinos (or Maximos or Maximianos) attended both the Synods of Ephesus in 449 A.D. and Chalkydona in 451 A.D. in his position as Bishop of Serres. Hieroklis listed the city among a further 32 in First Macedonia, which in turn was part of the Seventh Province of Illyria, whose capital was at Thessaloniki. The city walls were built at this time, which excluded only the city's early Christian cemetery.

The absence of ancient and early-Byzantine sources is made up for by the abundance of historical records on this significant Macedonian city from mostly literary sources from the mid and late-Byzantine periods. The city was renovated in 803, during the first year of the reign of the Emperor Nikiforos, and its population increased accordingly. The creation of the Theme of Strymona in the Ninth Century, with Serres as its capital, brought about a simultaneous increase in the city's religious importance; Serres became the seat of an archbishop, with Georgios its first archbishop. Its strategic location saw the city become a bone of contention between the Franks, the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and the Turks. 

In 976, Moses, the Bulgarian Voivode, was killed by a rock thrown at him from the city ramparts during his attempt to capture it. His brother Samuel's attempts to enslave the city in 980 also failed. Basil II, the Bulgar Slayer passed through the city on at least two occasions, shoring up its defences and transforming the city into a base for his operations against the Bulgarians. It was probably during his reign that the city rose in the religious hierarchy once more by becoming the seat of a Metropolitan. The city's location on the main route connecting Thessaloniki to Constantinople, meant it found itself in the position of having to provide supplies to the soldiers of the First Crusade who camped there in February 1097 on the orders of Bohemond, their leader. In May 1204, the city submitted to Baldwin, the Frankish emperor; while in October 1204, it became part of the Kingdom of Thessaloniki, with Boniface of Monferrat as its king.

 

The perimeter of the city's Byzantine fortifications

The city found itself under the jurisdiction of the Frankish Kingdom of Thrace from 1204 until the summer of 1206, when the city was totally destroyed and its fortress razed to the ground by Ioannitsi I of Bulgaria, known as Skylogiannis ("Ioannis the Dog") by the Byzantines. Boniface recaptured the city in late 1208, only to hand it over to Eric I, Emperor of Venice. Theodoros Doukas Aggelos Comnenus ejected the Latin guard to become lord of the city at the end of 1221, and Serres remained in his hands until 1230, when he was defeated by the Bulgarian Tsar, Ivan Asen II. Following the death of the twelve-year-old Tsar Caliman in 1245, the city became part of the Empire of Nicaea, with Ioannis III Doukas Vatatzes as its emperor, and remaining so for sixteen years. In 1261, it became a part of the Byzantine Empire once again. Things went well for the city, which became the capital of the Theme of "Serres and Strymona", under the rule of Michael VIII Palaiologos. It was under the Palaiologos family that the city enjoyed its apogee. During the lengthy dynastic struggles that followed between the grandfather and the grandson - and later Ioannis Cantacuzenus - the city of Serres was coveted by all involved because of its strategically important location. Stephan Dusan, the Serbian King, took advantage of the civil strife within the Byzantine Empire, and captured the city on September 25, 1345. Following Dusan's death in 1355, his son Uros ruled Serbia for five years before Eleni became Queen in 1360 with Ioannis Uglesi as emperor. Serres remained under Serbian rule until 1371. An architectural monument that has come down to us from this period is the well-known central Tower of Orestes on the acropolis. On the death of Uglesi and his brother, the Serbian state of Serres fell apart. After a brief spell under Manouil II Palaiologos, the Despot of Thessaloniki, the city was seized by the Turks on September 19, 1383.

The helmet and inscription executed in tiles on the western side of Orestes' Tower: + Πύργος  Στ(ε)φ(ά)νου Βασ(ιλέως) όν έκτησεν Ορέστης +

 

 

 

THE PERIOD OF TURKISH RULE
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During the period of Turkish rule, the city of Serres belonged to the sanjak of the same name, which in turn was part of the Vilayet of Thessaloniki. Serres was the capital of its kaza (district). The area's agricultural and animal produce, coupled with its strategically vital position, helped its inhabitants to prosper. Furthermore, the weavers and goldsmiths of Serres were famed throughout the land, while the Tuesday market (the pazari) and the yearly festival, known as the "kervani", both played an important role in promoting trade in the city. Major trading houses from Europe and the Danube states established trading posts here, and the Jewish community had already made its appearance by the beginning of the Sixteenth Century.

The local community and church seem to have been well organised in the city. The twelve-member community committee consisted of representatives of the city guilds who were elected by the ethnic Greeks of the city. For their part, the Ottoman Turks formed the city's relatively powerful ruling elite, made up of landowners and representatives of the state. Serres' population rose to in the region of 30,000 during the years of supremacy of Israel Bey, the city's progressive governor between 1795 and 1813. About half were Turks.

The people of Serres took part in the very first rebellion against the Turks in 1571, immediately after the Battle of Lepanto. Later, they were to be initiated into the Filiki Etaireia by Ioannis Farmakis. Metropolitan Chrysanthos was the first to show his support for the organisation's ideals, but other worthies were to follow, among them Emmanouil Papas, the commander-in-chief of the Macedonian forces between 1772 and 1821, who spent his entire fortune and sacrificed his family in the struggle to free his homeland.

The marble statue of E. Papa  (1772-1821)

From as early as the Seventeenth Century, Serres hummed with cultural and educational activity. The writings of Papasynadinos chronicle this century from the Greek point of view, and constitute a significant and reliable source of information. A Greek school was founded in 1735, which continued in operation until 1780. In 1834, Gregorios I Fourtouniadis, the Metropolitan of the city, was instrumental in setting up the first mutual teaching school, while the first Girls' School in the city opened its doors in 1853. And in 1872, Serres - or "the Athens of the North" as the city was now known - was the first enslaved Greek city on European soil to acquire its own Men's Teacher Training College, with the support of the Macedonian Pro-educational Association of Serres. Dimitrios Maroulis was appointed its first Head. The inhabitants of the city attended what were known as "Half High Schools" during the last years of Ottoman rule, but developments soon started coming thick and fast. A full six-year High School was opened in 1884, along with a well-stocked library; a nine-year Girls' Upper School opened its doors in 1880 (known as the Grigorias School from 1892 on); along with a four-year City School, four Primary Schools - two for boys and two for girls, and a central Nursery School. The city folk also began their struggle to found a Community Hospital very early on - in 1796 - with the active support of Metropolitan Konstantios.

During the Macedonian Struggle, Serres was at the very centre of the Metropolitan anti-Bulgarian propaganda machine. The “Orpheas” Sports and Music Association, which was founded in 1905, also made an important contribution to the nation. The Greek Consul helped the city folk to initially defend themselves against the groups of armed Bulgarian guerrillas in the area, and later to go onto the offensive. The blood of many local men was to be spilt in the struggle. One such hero was Mitrousis Gogalakis (otherwise known as Captain Mitrousis) who barricaded himself into the bell tower of the Church of the Euaggelistria in Kato Kamenikia and resisted 3,000 Turkish soldiers for the whole of July 14 1907 before he was finally killed.

 
A part of the  area burnt to the ground in the conflagration of 1913, photographed immediately after the Bulgarian withdrawal.

The Greek-Bulgarian-Serbian Alliance was signed in 1912. However, our northern neighbours’ first act of the First Balkan War against the Turks was to seize the city of Serres. Following the Greek victory, the withdrawing Bulgarian forces set fire to the city on June 28, 1913. The Greek army entered the city on June 29, 1913, thus marking the end of 530 years of bitter slavery for the long-suffering city of Serres. Rebuilding the city from the ashes must have seemed no easy task. Its inhabitants would have to face up to yet more trials and tribulations before calm once more settled over the city.

 

 

 

BYZANTINE MONUMENTS IN THE ENVIRONS OF SERRES RULE
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ELAIONAS

The village of Elaionas lies some 9 km to the northeast of the city of Serres, and some 90 minutes on foot from the Monastery of the Timios Prodromos. Set in beautiful countryside with abundant water, the village is built at an altitude of 400 metres. In times gone by, the village was a very popular resort for the people of Serres, and was known as Dutli (in Turkish, dut means mulberry) due to the masses of mulberry bushes there used to be in the area, along with olive and other fruit-bearing trees. Post-Byzantine sources refer to the village as Gorianis. The church of Agios Nikolaos stands on what is now the village square. It is quite small for a Byzantine church, measuring 5.7 by 5.8 metres without the apse. The church is cruciform in shape with a dome, and is of a four-column design. The dome is large, covering a significant part of the church, and is supported on the four columns and the arches between them. The apse is a continuation of the eastern section of the cross. There is an undulating double crenellated cornice around the outside of the octagonal dome and the three-sides of the apse. The church was constructed using bricks with added wood for support, while the dome is built entirely of bricks. The ugly narthex, added to its western side in 1851, along with the recently added concrete roof serve to considerably reduce the church's original aesthetic appeal.

 

The Byzantine church of Agios Nikolaos in Elaionas. The view from the north-east

The interior of the church has, for the most part, been replastered in the modern era and is covered in frescoes painted at the beginning of the century. However, in late 1970 the upper half of an original wall icon was discovered under a thick layer of plaster on the church's eastern wall, just to the left of the vestry niche. The accompanying inscription declares the fresco to be of Saint Damian. It is not in very good condition. The saint is depicted full length and full-face, and is in an upright pose. He has a bag of tools in his left hand. As far as the iconographic style is concerned, Professor E. Tsigaridas, who discovered and researched the picture, upholds that it was painted in accordance with older prototypes. From a technical point of view, he ascribes it to a local secular workshop. Stylistically speaking, during our research, we noticed a close resemblance with the rock painting of the Virgin (1382) in neighbouring Oinousa, both in the lines of the folds in the cloth, and the attempt to portray the weight of the face with the lines under the eyes. Recent support work on the monument necessitated the removal of large sections of the Twentieth Century frescoes from the inside of the church, which brought to light a further four paintings on the original layer of plaster; three saints on the southern wall, and Saint John the Baptist in the vestry apse. The design of the church, along with most of its characteristics, are those of the Constantinople school. It most probably dates from the Twelfth Century.

OINOUSA

Oinousa lies some 7 kilometres east of the city of Serres at an altitude of 130 metres on the slopes of Mount Menoikios. It became an administrative entity for the first time in 1927, but is now part of the Municipality of Serres. The rock icons: Just 1.5 kilometres north of Oinousa (known during Byzantine times as Trevesaina, and later on as Dervesiani) is a spot known locally as Faneromeni (which means "the place of revelation"). A Byzantine icon has been painted onto the steep limestone southern face of Vlaselnikos Hill some 5.5 metres above ground, and sheltered by a natural ledge in the rock above. It depicts the Panagia Odigitria holding Christ on her right arm, flanked by the two Archangels. The fresco is now in very bad condition, due both to ill treatment and the weather. The central figure of the Virgin, depicted in her full magnificence, is represented from the chest up. She is holding Christ with her right arm, her left hand resting on her breast. Her body is slightly turned towards the holy infant, and her head is gently bowed. Her left shoulder is slightly raised in a natural way. Christ - portrayed here as an infant - is presented full-length in three-quarters view. He is seated comfortably on the right arm of his Mother. His left hand is raised in a gesture of blessing, while he is probably holding a piece of brocade in his left hand. The two winged archangels-in-waiting are positioned symmetrically to the left and right of the Virgin (Michael to the right, and Gabriel to the left, in accordance with Byzantine protocol).

 

"Fanermeni", on the Southern slopes of Vlaselnikos Hill near Oinousa

They are depicted from the knee up in an upright position, their bodies slightly raised but painted on a smaller scale. Their arms are bent under the weight of a sceptre, which they are holding at chest height and which turns into a cross in its upper sections. With their other hands, they are offering up a blue sphere, which symbolises the world as a whole. The surface of the sphere - which has only survived on the side of the Archangel Gabriel - is decorated with the monogram representing Christ. The seven-verse inscription painted straight onto the surface of the rock on the western side of the icon, although misspelled and hard to read, clearly gives the exact date of its creation - 6890 years from the Creation of the World, which is to say in the year of our Lord 1382. The inscription reads as follows: «Ιστορήθη η αγία εικών της αγί/ας Θεοτόκου διά συνδρο/μής και εξόδου ιερομονάχου/ του Νικήτα, υιός και υιού αυτού/ ιερέως Χριστοδούλου/ 6890 έτους./ Χειρ του Κασταμονίτου», which translates as: “Depicts the holy icon of the Virgin Mother, paid for and with the help of the monk Nikitas, who was the son of the priest Christodoulos, and his son, in the year 6890 by the hand of Kastamonitis”.

The holy water: The presence of a natural cavity just below the out-door icon reveals its liturgical character. The trickle of water is clearly that of the blessed healing spring of the Virgin, which, in all probability, was in use prior to the painting of the icon. The holy well probably owes its existence to a divine revelation - probably by the Virgin - in this very spot; this interpretation is clearly supported by the name of the area - "the place of revelation". The water - which drips into the cavity drop by drop from a crack in the rock after the first rains of autumn - is believed by the faithful to be the tears of the Virgin. The water is therefore accredited with miracle-working properties. Pilgrims still visit the site to pay their respects and hang items of their clothing or their handkerchiefs - known as the "tzatzala" - on near-by bushes because, according to a folk tradition, once the sufferer has been treated with the holy water, their illness is transferred to inanimate objects in a way presenting no danger to others. Of course, the decision to represent the Virgin and Child with the two archangels in the icon above the holy water was not a random one. The decision to transfer this particular iconographic configuration from its normal position in the niche of the Sanctuary to the bare rock was undoubtedly of symbolic significance.

 

The central group from the rock painting

Just as that particular section of the church unites the roof with the floor, like "a bridge that spans the divide between Earth and heaven", in other words linking Earth to Heaven; in the same way it was the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ - She who was to reconcile the Creator with His creations; She who was to bridge the chasm created by Eve and play an active part in the salvation of the world - that was chosen once again to convey the prayers of the, in the main sick, worshippers to God. Built on flat land in the shadow of the southern foothills of Mount Menoikios, some 1,300 metres south of the hamlet of Oinousa (Byzantine Trevesaina), is a late Byzantine single-nave renovated church (internal measurements: 4.5 by 5.23 metres including the apses). It has three apses in all, and a dome. All the apses appear semicircular from the exterior. From 1341 on, it was in all probablity connected to the catholikon of Agios Nikolaos - known as the Xanthopoulou - a monastic dependency of the near-by Monastery of the Agion Anargyron in Chionochori, itself the property of the Athonite Monastery of the Ibiroi. This place, known for its numerous water mills during the Byzantine period, later became, in succession, a dependency of the Monastery of the Timios Prodromos of Serres, and a Turkish country estate. The monument remained buried under meters of earth and covered in thick vegetation until 1953. In 1956, it was dug out and renovated in a clumsy manner, its roof being replaced by a concrete slab. A few fragments of the original wall paintings remained on the eastern section of the Sanctuary apse until recent times. It is said that the modern representation of the Virgin on the apse frieze was an exact copy of the original on which it was over-painted. The same is said about the icons in the small recess in the northern side of the Sanctuary and the arch over the lintel of the Western exonarthex. The inscription stating the date of the church's foundation on the modern marble plaque south of the entrance has no firm basis in historical records.

CHIONOCHORI

The picturesque, mountain village of Chionochori, once home to stock breeders but now deserted, lies some 7 kilometres north of Oinousa on the southern slopes of Mount Menoikios at an altitude of 515 metres. It is an hour's walk to the southeast of the Monastery of the Timios Prodromos. The village was founded by inhabitants of the neighbouring village of Keranitsas (known as Keranitza in Byzantine times). Later on, semi-nomadic Vlachs from Abdella near Grevena settled in the village. Tradition has it that they had abandoned their homelands to escape further persecution at the hands of Ali Pasha Tepelenli. During the years of Turkish occupation, the village came to be known as Karlikioi -meaning "Snow Village" - because its inhabitants would store snow in holes during the winter to sell in the city during the summer months. Following liberation in 1913, the village became an administrative part of the Community of Agios Pneuma. In 1923 it became a community in its own right, but it is today part of the Municipality of Serres. The villagers started drifting away from the village in 1927 to settle in neighbouring Oinousa. The last inhabitant left the village for good in 1967. The church of the Agioi Anargiroi stands in the centre of the village. This post-Byzantine church dates from the first half of the Nineteenth century, and its basilica is of a three-aisled design, the central aisle being vaulted. The wooden rood screen contains fragments of a former carved and gilded screen from the early Eighteenth century. The masterly icons were painted during the second half of the Nineteenth century, as were the folk-art pictures on the walls. A small Byzantine chapel (measuring 3.67 by 7.77 metres) has survived, carved into the stone of the elevated western section of the church's exonarthex. The chapel is ascribed to the catholikon of the Byzantine Monastery of the Agioi Anargiroi. The entrance - with a wood surround - faces east. A narrow passageway leads from the entrance into the main section of the chapel with its two octagonal marble columns topped by capitals. The tops of the capitals are carved with a honeysuckle design, while the sides of one are decorated with rosettes, and the other with crosses. The small sanctuary is situated to the right of the passageway. The rood screen consists of a marble architrave with a cross in its centre flanked by decorative meanders and rhombuses. The screen is supported by two small pillars. Two marble portals decorated with crosses are attached to the lower part of the screen. A third, this time carved with crosses and rosettes, is built into the outside wall at the south end of the church. The architrave of the Royal Gate is also executed in marble. To the north of the entrance, the picture of the saint has survived. He is depicted holding a Gospel in his left hand, which he is blessing with his right. The passageway into the cave-like chapel is covered with wall paintings of the same saint and representation of the Beheading of the Baptist, while the Royal Gate in the rood screen is flanked by a depiction of Christ on the one side, and the Virgin holding the infant Christ in her left arm on the other.

 

A partial view of picturesque Chionohori  from the south

The painting of the Agioi Anargiroi can still be made out on the north wall of the main chapel: the two healer saints each hold an open chest in their arms containing the tools and medicines of their trade. There is an icon of an unidentified saint or martyr next to that of the Anargiroi, who is holding a martyr's sceptre or cross in his right hand. The icons in the central section and the passageway are among the oldest in the church, and are all painted directly onto the natural stone. Many ascribe several of the wall paintings in the important neighbouring monastery of the Timios Prodromos to this same anonymous artist. The interior of the church is covered with post-Byzantine wall icons, which were painted at a later date. The main frieze of the Virgin with Child, with Saint John Chrysostom, Christ, the Virgin, Saint Stephanos and Saint Grigorios arraigned around them is to be found in the carved niche in the eastern wall. The history of this Byzantine church is linked to Ioannikios of Serres, the founder of the Monastery of the Timios Prodromos. According to the first chapter of the Rubric drawn up by his nephew, the Blessed Ioakeim (later Ioannis), the Metropolitan of Zichne and second founder of the same monastery, shortly after his uncle's departure from Mount Athos, where he had taken his vows and been ordained as a priest, he returned in around 1260 to the city of his birth. Once there, he set off in search of a remote spot on the eastern slopes of Mount Menoikios to shut himself off from the world and continue his monastic existence. He found a small, abandoned, uncared for cell, with only its small church - which was dedicated to Saints Kosmas and Damianos, the Anargiroi - still intact. Having settled there with his two-year-old orphaned nephew, he took great care of it, rebuilt its cells and made it into a refuge for ascetics. He left a few years prior to 1279, leaving an older ascetic in his place, having succeeded in his goal of attracting other monks to the place, where he had built cells for them. He then set off with his nephew in search of another inaccessible area further to the west. He lived for a short time in a damp cave before descending lower down the mountain and founding the famous monastery of the Timios Prodromos. Later Byzantine sources, dating from between 1310 and 1357, refer to the church of the Anargiroi as a dependency of the Athonite Monastery of the Ibiroi, and ascribe to it the added epithet of "Leaskos". In time the monastery acquired its own dependency: the Monastery of Ioannis Theologos of Libobistos, near Serres. The Monastery of the Anargiroi seems to have enjoyed something of an apogee during this period, since a golden bull issued by Emperor Andronikos II in 1322 assigned both monks and a number of properties to the monastery, including land in Trevesaina (present-day Oinousa), Trevesenikia, and the area surrounding the monastery itself at Libobistos, near Serres Castle. These final grants of land, especially the ownership of the dependency at Keranitza, were to cause a great deal of animosity on the part of the neighbouring monastery of the Timios Prodromos. During the period of Serbian rule, two golden bulls issued by Stefan Dousan in 1346 confirm the monastery of the glorious miracle-working Anargiroi to be a dependency of the Iberite Monastery. A later golden bull of 1351 issued by Ioannis VI Cantacuzenus refers to the monastery as an “agridion”. We come across the last reference to the monastic dependency of the Agioi Anargiroi in a golden bull of confirmation issued by Ioannis V Palaiologos in 1357 concerning the possessions of the Athonite monastery of Ibiroi. In all probability, the monastery was destroyed shortly before 1371.

 

Petros K. Samsaris