On my first trip to Greece thirty years ago, I became fascinated by the little shrines that appear every few kilometers along roadways in the Peloponnese peninsula and, more sporadically, in other parts of the country. Why are they there? What do they mean? Last spring I returned to the area with a mission to find out more about this curious tradition.
Spend any time in Greece and you will understand how much respect Greeks have for their ancestors, family and religion. Honouring those who have gone before and thanking God and the saints for life’s blessings are natural tenets of Greek society. Roadside shrines are a direct extension of that belief system.
Called kandylakia, they range in style from simple boxes to ornate reproductions of Byzantine cathedrals. Traditionally they are made from whatever material the maker has available. I saw metal, wood, rock, marble, stucco and brick creations.
Most shrines, especially in rural areas, are handcrafted with unique features. But closer to cities certain designs appear over and over again. Turns out nowadays you don’t have to build your own monument. You just need to visit the local garden centre to pick up your own perfect mini church replica where they are lined up, row upon row.
Kandylakia may vary in outward appearance but each one shares two key aspects. Every shrine has a cross and an interior space behind a glass door that contains an icon of a saint or deity, a candle and candle oil, and oftentimes some small trinkets. They mark a sacred spot where anyone can stop to say a prayer.
Shrines are erected for different reasons. In the Peloponnese peninsula, where there are precarious narrow roads with hairpin turns and few guardrails, kandylakia may mark the location where someone has perished. Family members build the shrine to honour the memory of their lost relative and to serve as a warning for other drivers to use extra caution.
Other times kandylakia are built by car accident survivors to thank their patron saint for sparing their lives.
Some churches also construct kandylakia in front of their holy buildings so that worshippers who pass by after hours have a place to pray.
So if you find yourself in Greece and come across these small shrines know that each has a story to tell. Some are tragic reminders of loved ones lost, some are concrete acts of gratitude, but all reflect the legacy of the people who have lived and travelled here. It’s a beautiful custom that makes history come alive.