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Formerly a monastery and pilgrimage center, today the Forty Saints Monastery is a fairly popular tourist destination, though it is partly shattered from time and negligence. The ruins of this 6th century Byzantine monastery lie across from the bay where Lëkurësi Castle stands. Overlooking Saranda, this monastery is a significant object of history and tradition which closely link it to the story of the beautiful coastal city. In fact, this may be one of the only monuments of its kind in Albania and the Balkans. Declared a cultural monument of the first category in 1970, the monastery is located only a few kilometers from Saranda.
This monastery’s significance for Saranda is evident as the city’s very name hails from it. Saranda was originally named Agi Saranda, which means “forty saints” in Greek, the official language of the Byzantine Empire. Subsequently, “agi” was taken off and the name was shortened to include only the number forty, or “saranda.”
The structure extends over the hillside and most noticeably features columns, symmetrical rows of windows and arches above them, and several halls constructed in stone. The monastery famously includes 40 rooms, one for each of the martyrs it is named after. It is thought that the church was functional until the 19th century. Though originally it had two floors, one of them was destroyed during the bombings of World War II.
The iconostasis of the church consists of a row of columns over which extends an elegantly decorated epistyle, while the stones in the bottom are all decorated throughout. Murals of Byzantine disciples adorn the walls of the monastery with one of them thought to be the oldest Byzantine mural in Albania. From the two symmetrical rows of windows, you can have a gorgeous view of the city below.
A legend haunts the halls and the forty rooms of the Forty Saints Monastery. It tells of 40 Christian soldiers who were once asked to renounce their faith in exchange of shelter from a severe sea storm. Loyal to their faith, the soldiers refused, choosing martyrdom instead by returning to the fatal storm. The setting of this story is thought to have been Sebaste, Armenia but, as with many legends, neither the story nor the setting is definite. What is certain is that the martyrs never sacrificed their faith and were thus honored by having the monastery named after them.