Been There. Done That.
The long, narrow peninsula known as Mt Athos extends south-east like a gnarled finger from the northern mainland of Greece and its region of Halkidiki. Unlike its two neighbors to the west, Mt Athos does not feature beaches or resort hotels. In fact, there is hardly any commercial development of any kind. It stands apart, as it has for centuries, sheltering hundreds of Eastern Orthodox monks among its twenty monasteries and other hermitages. Its terrain is rugged and dense with small trees and vegetation. It even has a true mountain with a soaring peak that looms grey over the green growth below.
Mt Athos is also known to its inhabitants as The Garden of the Mother of God, so called because of a legend that had Mary, traveling by sea to Cyprus, blown off course and landing on the peninsula. She so loved the place that she asked her son to give it to her for her personal domain.
It is not possible to wander casually onto Mt Athos, for it is an autonomous world unto itself, governed by its own monastic council. I’ve been intrigued by the place ever since I once saw a documentary that featured visitors to a cliff-side monastery being hoisted up from the sea in a basket at the end of a rope. It must have been an old doc because I don’t think that approach exists any more.
Over the years, when I’ve thought of making a visit to Mt. Athos, I’ve been put off by the requirements needed to do so. It took the suggestion of my friend Bill, who never passes a church or a monastery he doesn’t want to enter, to finally set us both on the path to the Holy Mountain. First of all, we had to pick our dates. Entry by non-Orthodox men — men only are allowed to visit — is limited to ten per day and must be approved in advance. Next, we had to choose the monasteries where we wanted to stay for a night each and request their permission. Because our stay on Mt Athos was limited to three nights and four days we could only choose three. Transportation issues further confused our planning. It wasn’t exactly clear how we would get from one monastery to the next. The traditional way is by walking, but with some distances between monasteries fairly long, would it be possible to hike to them in only a few hours carrying all our gear? And if not, what were the alternatives? In spite of information provided by The Friends of Mt Athos and gleaned from the Internet, we were not able to resolve these questions completely before our departure.
So it was that I rendezvoused with Bill in the city of Thessaloniki on a Saturday three weeks ago and went with him by bus the following morning to the village of Oranoupolis near the top of the peninsula. This is a tiny place with a hotel, a few pensions, restaurants, and about a dozen stores selling icons. We spent one night there and in the morning went to the Pilgrim’s Bureau and picked up our permits called diamonitirions that are designed (as were told) to be “suitable for framing.” Shortly thereafter we boarded a large ferry boat for a two-hour cruise down the western coast of the peninsula to the landing of Daphni from where we would board a bus to the village of Karyes in the heart of Mt Athos.
It was on the ferry that I first got a look at the varied crowd that constitutes Mt Athos pilgrims. Almost to a man, these were observant Orthodox lay persons with a smattering of priests among them. Like one English-speaking Greek named George, each was making a short pilgrimage to spiritually cleanse and renew himself. If there were non-Orthodox tourists in the group other than Bill and I, we weren’t aware of it. Later, I would meet a Serb, for whom Mt Athos is so important that three times a year he journeys six hundred miles each way to be there.
As villages go, Karyes is not much. It has a centuries-old church in fine condition, an administration building, a no-name restaurant serving simple food, and three or four stores, selling snacks, soft drinks, and trekking supplies. After a lunch of thin bean soup and over-cooked macaroni, Bill and I set off to walk two hours to a large monastery on the eastern coast.
Built under the supervision of two Georgian monks late in the 10th century, Iviron is one of the oldest monasteries on Mt Athos. My first impression as we approached was of a medieval fortress. It has an ancient crenelated square tower and high walls with no windows close to the ground. In fact, in former ages these monasteries, close to the sea, needed to defend themselves from pirates and other marauders bent on pillage and destruction.
Arriving just before 5 p.m., we were directed to quarters where after a short wait the guest master gave us a perfunctory welcome, looked at our diamonitirions, and explained the rules. We were not to take photos in the church or in the refectory (prohibitions common to all three monasteries we visited). We were to keep our arms and legs covered and not make loud noise. He then directed us to our sleeping room and told us when and where to assemble for the evening meal.
At Iviron we were fortunate in having a cell to ourselves on a floor with no other pilgrims. It had a wide corridor with toilets and shower facilities at the end. We were each given a small towel.
Dinner was early in the refectory where we ate with other pilgrims. Our places were already set when we entered. The main dish consisted of a metal plate filled with cold, cooked lentils. The only condiment was vinegar. As we were there during Lent, olive oil had been given up and removed from the tables. Besides the lentils, there were olives, large cucumbers and tomatoes that we had to slice ourselves, and marinated or pickled cauliflower. Otherwise, there was only plain bread, fruit, and water. We never got to finish our meal, however, because after fifteen minutes we all had to leave the refectory and attend a church service. An Orthodox monk’s day is structured around prayer (approximately eight hours) and work (another eight hours.)
Our introduction to their religious practice began with a brother reading a text in a droning voice. Not being able to understand Greek left me ignorant of what was being said. The only words I could clearly distinguish were kyrie eleison, the brief petition “Lord have mercy” that is used repeatedly in Orthodox services.
On this occasion the doorway into the church proper was blocked by other worshipers, behind whom I had to stand in the narthex. I could hear but not see. From time to time those around me would cross themselves. I became really bored and tired from standing, so it was fortunate that this particular service lasted only a bit over one hour. It would be the shortest we would attend during the following two days.
After the service there was not much more to do other than walk around and inspect my surroundings. As with the other two monasteries we would visit, tall walls surround a compound that contains two or three levels of monks’cells reached by steep flights of steps. At the center there is a church, a refectory, and several chapels and other buildings along with domed structures that look like gazebos made of marble whose columns have carved capitals and whose interior surfaces are painted with religious scenes. The interior walls and ceilings of both church and refectory are also decorated with iconography, some of it very old. It was easy to discern the oldest parts of the monastery and to see where additions had been made during its long life.
Iviron is reputed to have an large and important library of ancient texts. It also possesses relics of saints and a famous 9th-century icon named the Panagia Portaitissa. We were not invited to see any of these items.
At Iviron, as at the other monasteries, the atmosphere was quiet and orderly. We were summoned to church and to our meal by someone hitting a suspended wooden plank with a mallet. Most monks ignored us pilgrims and went about their mysterious tasks unsmilingly.
Our cell measured about 10 by 15 feet. It had twin beds with thin matresses, sheets and a blanket. It was also heated. It had an electrical outlet, which enabled us to charge our phones, but very little lighting. As it was, I slept early and intermittantly, pleased that it was so dark and quiet.
The following morning I was up early and out exploring the grounds. I discovered breakfast only by accident in a downstairs room in the guest quarters. There was plain bread, black olives, raisins, and hot water for tea. In the dimly lit washroom I shaved with cold water and showered with hot. It was nice because I had the place to myself.
The monasteries have different ways of supporting themselves. Iviron has a sawmill down by the sea and also a woodworking shop. While I watched, men were planing and milling lumber to make what looked like sections of railing with wooden balusters.
Bill and I had to wait all morning for a bus from Karyes to take us to the southern end of the peninsula to the Migisti (Great) Lavra, also from the 10th century and the first monastery to occupy Mt Athos. It was begun in 963 by Athanasius the Athonite a friend of the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas who paid for it. “Lavra” is an ancient word that designated a cluster of hermitages together with a church and a refectory. As such, it describes the type of monasteries we visited on Mt Athos.
My first impression of the Lavra was that it looked seedy and run down, a surprise because I had expected something quite different befitting what I thought of as its august ranking. I also felt that the buildings in the compound were too many and crowded too close together.
Arriving about 3:30 p.m., we waited with other pilgrims. The man who welcomed us did not appear to be a monk. He was dressed in civilian clothes and appeared stressed. As a group, we were served a sweet covered with powdered sugar that tasted a bit like Turkish Delight. It was accompanied by small cups of Greek coffee and tiny glasses of a strong liquor resembling an eau de vie. Here, our cots were in a large room on the other side of wall from the terrace where we were welcomed and where pilgrims would gather to chat. The room had eight cots and no other furniture other than a kind of stool next to each cot on which to place personal items. Bill and I had first choice of the cots. The others would be claimed by later arrivals.
In the late afternoon Bill and I took photos. One area rich in iconography is the narthex of the church. Its walls, ceiling, and arches are covered with interesting scenes, and I photographed these surreptitiously, hoping not to be caught and to have to ask for forgiveness.
Outside the walls we came upon some horses that had been grazing in a field below. Earlier, we had seen other horses with pack saddles, bringing supplies to some of the smaller, remote dwellings containing only a few monks and even to caves where single hermits live a solitary life. Mt Athos is that kind of place.
It was at Magisti Lavra that the single most interesting encounter of my Mt Athos adventure took place. In the early evening as I stood alone inside the entrance to the compound, a youngish monk entered carrying a black briefcase. His happy demeanor differed markedly from all the other monks I had seen up to then. He introduced himself as Brother Vlasios and he came up to me and asked in a friendly fashion who I was. I was surprised at his particular interest in me. In our ensuing conversation Brother Vlasios said he had been a monk for only a few years. Previously he had played keyboards in a successful rock band before whatever spiritual need or awakening had led him to become a monk. I wish I could recall more of our conversation. I was left with the paradoxical impression that, despite the strictures that most of us would find impossible to live with, for this joyful monk they were liberating. Before parting, my new acquaintance let me take a photo of him, an action that is normally prohibited.
We attended another religious service, part of the eight hours of prayer a day that Orthodox monks perform. This time we were able to get into the church and sit uncomfortably in one of the stalls against the back wall. What we saw were pilgrims and priests kissing icons, crossing themselves, and pressing their foreheads to the floor from a kneeling position. The service consisted of the drone of brothers reading and a kind of call and response section. Incense was used, too; it was delivered from a silver burner that also contained a rattle, sounding, as a monk walked around the church shaking the vessel.
Tonight our evening meal consisted of a plate of cold, boiled potatoes, plain bread, black olives, pickled vegetables, halva, pears, and water. They were ugly looking pears that tasted delicious once they were peeled.
Something interesting occurred during our meal. A pilgrim broke the rules and took a picture of the refectory. He was immediately rushed out and likely spent the night without his dinner.
I got my worst sleep of the three nights in the Lavra dorm where the latecomers turned on the lights and made noise while settling in. Also, there were voices on the other side of the wall dividing the dorm from the terrace outside. Finally, I went out and told the talkers that it was late and that they were preventing us from sleeping. Surprisingly, my complaint did the trick, and they went away.
The following morning I was happy to be leaving the Great Lavra for our last monastery. Again, we had to take a bus to Karyes and another to Vatopedi on the northern part of the eastern coast. We had thought about walking to it from Karyes but were discouraged from doing so by a Romanian pilgrim who knew how long and rugged that walk would be. Before leaving the village we were able to consume a piece of spinach pie and a cup of tea at a small buffet.
Vatopedi is another large, venerable monastery that has become a kind of popular showplace. Fifteen years ago it was in shambles when someone discovered that it owned a large piece of land containing a lake somewhere to the north. By selling the property, the monks of Vatopedi had plenty of money to repair and renovate their monastery. That work continues with contractors building a set of piers and an esplanade along the natural harbor below the buildings.
We found this monastery to be far more ambitiously organized than the first two. Our minibus was stopped on the mountaintop along the road leading down to it. We had to give our names to a guard who checked them against a reservation list. Inside the gate below, we had to surrender our diamonitirions to a monk sitting at a window counter. After a time we were allowed in after being warned that no photography was permitted within the walls.
We went to a well-appointed guest house and were welcomed by a friendly monk with a sense of humor. Again we were given sweets, Greek coffee, water, and the same strong liquor. As non-Orthodox guests, Bill and I were told we would be given a special tour and a chance to talk with a certain Brother Matthew, an American, who had been a Roman Catholic monk before switching to Orthodoxy.
This time we were assigned to a room on the fourth floor of a building that even had an elevator. There were four beds, and we chose the two that were not under the pitched roof, so that we could stand upright. Our floor included toilets, sinks and a shower that looked clean and modern. Our towels were bath-sized.
In these Orthodox settings, the monks begin their day at sundown. We arrived mid-morning by our clock and had just settled in when it was time to go to church for vespers. Seated in a stall in the rear, we attended our longest and most elaborate service yet. Everytime I thought it might end, a new section would begin. In all we were captured in the church for three hours and my impatience to leave became extreme.
Following the vespers service we ate our big meal of the day. This time, pilgrims and monks, who numbered about eighty, ate together, or at least at the same time. And while we ate, a brother read to us from a high pulpit. Our meal was the best so far. We could eat as much orzo in cream sauce as we wanted. There was also coleslaw, plain bread, green olives, more tasty pears, and water. We sat at oblong marble tables with seating for about ten persons. The walls and ceiling of the refectory were illustrated with religious scenes and portraits of Jesus and the saints in various attitudes. Some of this iconography is very old and beginning to crumble.
After the meal we were introduced to Brother Alexios, a young American monk or novice of Greek heritage from the state of Georgia. He accompanied us to the church and showed us two reliquaries. The first held the ear of St John Chrysostom, the early church father and Bishop of Constantinople who had a lasting influence on the Devine Liturgy. Some of what we had heard earlier must have been written by this saint. The second reliquary supposedly held the belt or girdle of the Virgin. Behind the iconostasis Alexios showed us what he called the Cross of Constantine, a large, silver one that the Roman Emperor who had first accepted Christianity had purportedly carried or prayed to. When Bill asked, Alexios said the monastery possessed a fragment of the true cross that we were not privileged to see.
In addition to showing the relics, Alexios described some of the miracles accorded to one of the monastery’s important icons. We listened respectfully and straight-faced to these tales.
On top of a small mountain next to the monastery are the ruins of the Athoniada Academy, a famous school that existed during Ottoman times and was finally abandoned during the war for Greek independence in the early 19th century. Bill thought we should walk up to see the ruins before our evening meeting with Brother Matthew. We set off on a path we thought would take us to them and hiked for a long way, passing through one of the monastery’s vineyards on our climb. We weren’t able to reach our destination, though. We turned back and met Brother Matthew as appointed outside Vatopedi’s main gate. The brother is a man of about 65, originally from Wisconsin and with a firm grasp of Orthodoxy and its history.
During the centuries of Ottoman occupation and rule, the monasteries were left free to practice their religion as long as they paid taxes to the Turks, who also confiscated some of their lands. During those times, it was Turkish soldiers that protected the monasteries from attack..
That evening we were offered what was called a snack before an evening service. It consisted mainly of canned peaches and bread. Probably, because we were in Lent, the meals may have been be more frugal than at other times.
Fortunately, we chose to skip the evening service which lasted almost five hours. We went to bed instead.
We were happy to learn that instead of having to retrace our steps to Karyes and Daphni, we could leave Mt Athos by boat from Vatopedi itself. So it was that the boat picked us up from Vatopedi’s new dock and took us to the town of Lorissos at the top of the peninsula where we negotiated a ride to Thessaloniki in a comfortable taxi.
As I reflect on the events of my three nights and four days on Mt Athos, I realize how lucky I am to have been there. I don’t know that there is any place comparable to it on the planet. As a pilgrim, I can return to the Holy Mountain as often as I wish and stay at the same or at other monasteries. From Istanbul, it is not too difficult a journey and not an expensive one since the monasteries charge nothing for the visits. I doubt that I ever will return, though. My curiosity has been satisfied, and although I am very aware of the importance that religious beliefs have had for human beings since prehistoric times, I don’t proclaim any particular confession of faith for myself. I’ll leave it at that.