In the south of the Mesopotam village in the outskirts of Saranda, very close to the ancient city of Finiq (Phoenice), you can visit one of the world’s pearls of Byzantine architecture.
One of the oldest and largest churches of the Byzantine era, St. Nicholas Monastery (Manastiri i Shën Kollit), also known as the Monastery of Mesopotam, is a must visit for just about anyone, especially those who love very well-preserved ruins and byzantine art. Having withstood the test of time, the traces of the monastery’s centuries-long history along with its gorgeous mosaics are ready to be explored by the curious traveler.
History and Architecture
The church was built in the 11th century, specifically during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos which lasted from 1042 to 1055. The Orthodox Monastery consists of a typical Byzantine architecture, surrounded by the ruins of a former temple’s circular wall, built before the church. The exterior is constructed in bricks while the interior rooms are divided by gorgeous arches. In the monastery’s interior walls and columns, you will find spectacular floral designs as well as some beautiful mosaics depicting mostly animals and mythical creatures. Four circular roofs, built one over the other, hold the grand entrance of the church’s portico while the garden sits beautifully under the shade of century-old cypresses and olive trees. Its architecture easily places the monastery in the category of rare architectural objects and it is precisely its double apse that makes it a truly singular structure in its genre.
St. Nicholas Monastery, photo by IntoAlbania.
Restoration and Excavations
The church has been renovated several times in continuous attempts to safeguard it against the deteriorating effect of natural phenomena. The first renovation was undertaken in 1793 with another in 1845 while the most recent effort in protecting the church and reviving its interiors occurred in 2018. This last restoration mainly concerned the interior walls, the arches above the windows, and its roofs. The most difficult and time-consuming aspect of this renovation was the uncovering of Byzantine symbols, scattered throughout the church, but which had been hidden under the dust. Fairly recently, archaeologists also found Hellenic stones from the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. in the site, one of them having the name of King Menelaus inscribed on it. For more treasures from antiquity, you may consider visiting the ancient city of Finiq (Phoenice), located only 3 km from the monastery.
St. Nicholas Monastery is located in the Mesopotam village. Visible from the southern valley, the destination is easily reachable. The locals extoll the beauty of the landscape, especially during spring and fall!