The Thermopylae Gardens at Kilwarlin Moravian Church

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Kilwarlin Moravian Church is situated in the countryside of Co. Down, near Hillsborough.  As a member of University Road Moravian Church, Belfast, I first visited Kilwarlin some 40 years ago during a Sunday School outing and followed the rest of the children in climbing to the top of the mound and down again amidst much screams and laughter.

20190511_125808On Saturday 11th May, I arrived at Kilwarlin, with my CANI colleague, Dr Katerina Kolotourou, to a very different gathering. The church had received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the “Finding Zula’s Hollow” project, established by Kilwarlin minister, Rev. Livingstone Thompson, and project chair, Mark Kernohan, to discover more about Rev. Basil Zula and the unusual ‘Thermopylae’ garden at Kilwarlin. The project has been managed by Peter Dornan, with research being carried out by Rachael Garrett. The visitors were treated to lunch followed by videos and talks detailing the work which had been undertaken to reveal the secrets of Zula’s Hollow. The event was open to the general public and in addition was attended by Anna Carragher from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Stella Xenopoulou and Paddy Sammon from the Hellenic Community in Ireland, a number of archaeologists, those with an interest in local heritage, and members of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland.

After proceedings were opened by Rev. Thompson and Mr. Kernohan, research co-ordinator,  Rachael Garrett, presented a lecture the findings so far. Rachael began by undertaking a “This is Your Life” investigation about Basil Patras Zula. Archaeological excavations were carried out in the gardens, and members of the team undertook a research trip to Greece to visit Thermopylae itself and compare the landscape with the garden at Kilwarlin.

index5The story of  is fascinating, moving and inspirational. Rev. Zula is believed to have been born Vasili Zoulas in Parga, Epirus, in north-western Greece, c.1796. Historical sources on the history of Parga revealed that the Zoulas family was among the most prominent clans in the area, one that had political authority, was actively involved in the resistance to Turkish rule and the Greek War of Independence, and fostered connections with leading revolutionary figures. Rev. Zula may himself have served as a captain in the Greek army.

A member of the Greek Orthodox Church, Rev. Zula came to Dublin in 1828 and attended a prayer meeting where he met Ann Linfoot who introduced him to the Moravian Church. Ann became his wife and Rev. Zula was ordained into the Moravian church. He found himself drawn to the Kilwarlin congregation which was struggling with only six elderly members and a church building in ruins. Within a few months of his establishment as minister at Kilwarlin in 1834, Rev. Zula had rebuilt the church and welcomed 26 new members into the congregation. He gained the support of the Marquis of Downshire, the local landowner, and the local community, and during the ten years he spent as minister of Kilwarlin, the congregation grew to over 200.

20190511_162431Ten years later, Basil Zula died unexpectedly on a business trip to Dublin and his body was returned for burial in the graveyard at Kilwarlin. His success in the rejuvenation of the congregation ensured that he continued to be celebrated long after his death. Minutes from the 1847 Synod of the Moravian Church in Great Britain noted his dedication to the community and the local poor.

Zula’s Hollow is an ornamental garden which sits a metre below the level of the rest of the grounds. It is believed the garden was built between 1839 and 1841. Excavations have revealed the remains of flowerbeds, an ornamental pond and the foundations of a summer house. At the southern end of the hollow are large scale earthworks forming hills, ridges, mounds and gorges. An additional mound is located to the west of the ornamental pond. Documentary evidence in the form of Zula’s obituary and his wife’s will confirms that the features in Zula’s Hollow date from the time of the garden’s construction by Rev. Zula around 1839/1840. In particular, Ann’s will (she died in 1858 and was buried in the grave next to her husband) earmarks funds specifically for the maintenance of Basil Zula’s grave and the features of the Hollow “cut and formed by him [Rev. Zula] to be kept in the same order and faithfully looked after.” (Garrett (2019), 31).

Thermopyles-GreeceBoth documents clarify that the earthworks were conceived of as being representative of Thermopylae as it was during the famous battle in 480 BC. An account of the events surrounding the battle is found in the Histories of Herodotus and in the works of Diodorus Siculus. The Greek fighters led by Spartan king Leonidas faced a massive Persian army led by Xerxes at Thermopylae. This was a narrow passage along the coast of the Malian gulf which was bordered by Mount Callidromos to the south, the sea to the north and narrow paths to the east and west. The Greek Ephialtes betrayed his countrymen by telling the Persians about the alternative route through the mountains. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans remained, along with some Thespians and Thebans, to delay the Persians as long as possible. Their heroic sacrifice has inspired many poems, documentaries and films.

The research committee’s trip to Thermopylae revealed that the current landscape has changed in the last 2,500 years due to sedimentary deposition and shifting sea levels, meaning that the present-day shoreline is several kilometres away from its location in 480 BC. The Thermopylae battlefield has been entirely obscured by up to 20 meters of sedimentary deposits. By examining ancient sources, historical maps and archaeological/geomorphologic research of Zula’s Hollow, it was concluded that the reconstruction of Thermopylae at Kilwarlin matches the topography of the battleground as it would have appeared in the fifth century BC and as it was described by Herodotus.

indexAt the same time, the layout of Zula’s Hollow accommodated ornamental features appropriate to contemporary mid-19th century tastes, as well as an additional enigmatic mound at the north-west named ”Karouli.” Rachel Garrett interpreted the term as a corrupted version of the word “Karaoúli” (meaning “guard”). This name was historically applied to Mount Callidromos at Thermopylae, but it also given to Mavro Oros, a mountain on the coast of Epirus near Zula’s believed birthplace, Parga. She further argued that if Karaoúli was indeed intended to symbolically allude to the topographies of both Thermopylae and his own homeland, Zula could thus ”align or even merge the story of the battle of Thermopylae with that of his own life.” (Garrett (2019), 57)

Seeking the reasons why Zula might have chosen Thermopylae as the model for the Kilwarlin garden, Rachael concluded that the ancient battle held particular meaning for him. Zula came from Parga, where a strong tradition of political and armed resistance to Turkish rule was deeply embedded long before the Greek revolution. Unlike most of Greece that was under Ottoman rule since the 15th century, Parga was part of the Venetian Republic largely unbroken for 400 years until 1797, when it briefly passed under France’s control before rebelling and accepting British suzerainty. Despite the incessant resistance of the people of Parga, the city was eventually ceded to the rule of the Turkish Vizier Ali Pasha in 1819, a fact that led a large part of the population, including Zula and his mother, into emigration. (Garrett (2019), 74-76)

Lord_Byron_at_MissolonghiLong-standing conflict, refusal to submit to Ali Pasha, and a longing for liberty and freedom were central themes in Zula’s early life. He had fought during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), and may have taken part at the infamous Third Siege of Missolonghi in 1825/1826, possibly side by side with his own family. Formerly under Venetian rule, this city-stronghold in Western Greece had also come under the control of Ali Pasha in 1804, just as Zula’s birthplace would. The subsequent Turkish atrocities and subjugation of  Missolonghi despite the heroic struggles of its defenders must have been evocative of the fate of Zula’s own homeland.

Repeatedly besieged by huge Turkish forces, Missolonghi came to be regarded as ”a new Thermopylae” in the wake of the philhellenic movement. Leading up to the outbreak of the Greek Revolution, the story of Thermopylae had been used to promote the idea of Greek independence from the Turkish state and became associated with civic virtue, patriotism, anti-despotism and liberty. (Athanassoglou (1981), 633-649) It is likely that Rev. Zula, a learned man influenced by philhellenic and revolutionary ideologies, intended to evoke these ideals in his parish. Zula’s own claims of a connection to Lord Byron, the most famous of the philhellenes who served and then died at Missolonghi in 1824, strengthens this view.

Lord_Byron_in_Albanian_Dress_by_Phillips,_1813At the same time, it is important to consider that Rev. Zula was unable to ever return to his homeland, a fact that he may have tried to offset with the recreation of a tangible piece of his native land in Hillsborough. The iconic topographical choices of Thermopylae and Mavro Oros may have served as a reference to his own personal journey and as a perpetual celebration of those who had selflessly fought for Greek freedom, himself among them. While the symbolic meaning of Zula’s Hollow will remain speculative, the beautiful grounds that he created provided the local community of Kilwarlin with employment opportunities and with a charming open space for their enjoyment and spiritual reflection.

Zula’s Hollow is unique in the British Isles and possibly further afield. Certainly there is nothing like it in Greece to celebrate the bravery of those who fought at Thermopylae two and a half millennia ago. We await with interest the next stage of the project: the creation of a visitor centre.

Helen McVeigh and Katerina Kolotourou


Athanassoglou, N. ‘Under the Sign of Leonidas: The Political and Ideological Fortune of David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae under the Restoration’, The Art Bulletin 63 (1981), 633-649

Garrett, R. ‘Discovering Zula’s Hollow,’ Historical Research Report (2019)

Further Reading

Day, J. ‘Rev. Basil Zula and the Thermopylae Garden at Kilwarlin, Co. Down,’ in John V. Luce, J.V., Morris, C. and Souyoudzoglou-Haywood, C. (eds.) In The Lure of Greece: Irish Involvement in Greek Culture, Literature, History and Politics. Dublin (2007), 19-31

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