The Bells of St. Sykia

I’ve heard church bells pealing over the rooftops of Paris, been enchanted by the sonorous tolling from the church towers in Venice echoing down the canals, experienced a magical moment on a hilltop on Folegandros when the Sunday morning bell ringing spread like sunshine from church to church across the valley below. And, of course, I’ve heard the loudspeaker “bells” of the churches in Gambrills. But I’ve never heard anything like the bells in the church behind our apt. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know the name of the church so I’ll call it St. Sykia for now.

I guess the original idea behind church bells was to let people know when it’s time for church. The priest here has plainly updated the idea to the modern era: church bells as alarm clock.

Our first night in our new apt., after a very busy day, we were sound asleep (on a mattress on the floor) when these bells went off at about 7:35am. It didn’t occur to either of us that they were intended to call people to church. The time wasn’t on the hour, the half-hour, or the quarter hour, and it sounded like no church bell we’d ever heard. We thought they were signalling an emergency — a wildfire, a tsunami, a sighting of the Turkish fleet — but it never dawned on us that the purpose of ringing bells like this could be simply to wake everyone up. We were up, out of bed, peering out of the windows and craning our necks over the balcony in a flash. Amazingly, none of our neighbors seemed to have noticed or responded to the call to action. In fact, no one was moving about at all.

Of course one can’t go back to sleep when convinced that some sort of civil emergency is imminent so we started the day, keeping one eye out the window. The penny dropped about 15 minutes later when the belfry went off again. It clanged its final warning about 5 minutes before services (it’s a small village). We were drop-jaw stunned to think that any church on the planet would be rude enough to produce a noise so irritating and so loud so early on Sunday. Boy, did we have a lot to learn.

This clanging began at 8:35am on Saturday morning. It went on for 90 seconds — the video’s a bit dull so I’m sparing you the full effect. I think there are two bells in the tower. The bells are stationary; the clappers are driven by some sort of electro-mechanical device. Whoever dreamed up this particular sequence has done more with two bells than I would have imagined possible, even if it does come across with kind of a  clang-bong, clang-bong, “broken leg” rhythm.

Under Turkish occupation, Greeks were not allowed to ring church bells — only the muezzin in minarets could call people to prayer. Other places in Greece seem to have got over it. Here in Sykia, the priest is apparently trying to make up for the 400 lost years.

Edit:  The name of the church I refer to here as St. Sykia is actually Agios Koimiseos Theotokou.  And that’s probably why it slipped my mind.

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