Stuck happily in the past Monastic republic chartered in 972 forbids....
Stuck happily in the past Monastic republic chartered in 972 forbids
females, welcomes peace
By Neil Averitt
MOUNT ATHOS, Greece - Welcome to the Monastic Republic of Holy Mount
Athos. Please set your calendar back about 1,000 years.
Clocks here run on Byzantine time, which starts at sunset. Dates are
calculated according to the Julian calendar of the Roman Empire,
which differs by 13 days from the modern Gregorian calendar you're
used to. Some settlements are supplied solely by mule teams, and the
flag of Byzantium still flies.
Radio? Television? Newspapers? Paved roads? If they didn't exist in
the year 972, you probably won't find them here.
And if you're a woman, you'd better make other plans. Females have
been forbidden here for a thousand years. Not even female animals are
Mount Athos is an Eastern Orthodox monastic republic and,
astonishingly, a surviving administrative unit of the Byzantine
Empire - a fully functioning ministate with roads, settlements and a
capital city, all operating under a charter granted by the Byzantine
emperor at Constantinople in 972.
That world is preserved here in great detail and texture. Clothes,
music, roads, public fountains, aqueducts, arched stone bridges,
vegetable plots - all are from another age. Even the shiniest new
chapel is built with traditional Byzantine-style brickwork, the
product of a living culture.
Legally, Mount Athos is an autonomous region in northeast Greece,
with most characteristics of an independent state. Visitors must show
passports on the way in and undergo customs inspections on the way out.
Psychologically and geographically, it's a world apart. It's perched
on a hilly, heavily forested peninsula - 6 miles wide and 35 miles
long - which terminates in the peak of Mount Athos itself, 6,700 feet
high, that drops into the Aegean. Scattered over this rugged
landscape are 20 large monasteries, a dozen smaller communities,
innumerable hermitages and 2,000 monks. The whole place is reachable
only by boat.
This exotic little state has many features of a truly great travel destination:
Hiking trails along clifftops or through virgin forests.
Guest rooms in monasteries.
Meals of fresh, natural foods.
A chance to talk with wise and thoughtful men about the nature of the
good life and the state of your soul.
And no one can justly complain about the price: In the tradition of
monastic hospitality, each monastery offers two meals and a night's
lodging for free, then sends you on your way. You can spend a week at
Mount Athos, as I recently did, without spending a dime.
That is, if they'll admit you.
Mount Athos guards its isolation and discourages casual visitors. To
be admitted, I had to prepare a letter for the central Pilgrims'
Bureau, explaining why I wanted to go there. Fortunately, I had a
decent reason: After years of legal practice, I was ready for a
seriously nonmaterialistic pilgrimage. I was granted one of 10
permits issued each day for non-Orthodox visitors.
I entered, as most visitors do, through the town of Ouranopolis, a
honky-tonk resort 75 miles southeast of Thessaloniki. This is the end
of the road from the outside world. I boarded a ferry for the
two-hour ride along the coast to the little town of Daphne, the port
of Mount Athos.
From Daphne, visitors can transfer to a ferry that serves the
monasteries farther along the coast, set off on one of the walking
trails, or use the simple but efficient system of buses and minivans.
The ferry is more pleasant than the minivans, since it cruises along
a beautiful coastline. But the best plan is to leave public
transportation and walk the last couple of hours to get into a proper
pilgrim's frame of mind.
The most striking piece of architecture is the monastery of
Simonopetra, where I stayed the first night. It rises like a fortress
on an outcrop of rock 1,000 feet above the sea. The bottom 40 feet of
its walls are stone, but the top four stories have rickety wooden
balconies. Walking on them provides an early test of one's faith and
serenity. There are gaps between the floorboards - it's a long way down.
Like most of the monasteries, Simonopetra is filled with the sounds
of heavy renovation. Just 30 years ago, it appeared that Athos was
about to die out. The buildings were in disrepair, and most of the
monks were old. Today, however, the average age has fallen to about
40, young monks are common, and many of the new entrants are highly
educated. One is a former Harvard professor.
There's a new generation of charismatic leader (some have fled from
places like Meteora in central Greece, which became too touristy for
monastic practice), and a more communal and tightly organized way of life.
It was at Simonopetra that I began to learn the basic routine on Mount Athos.
At 3:30 a.m., a monk taps a wooden board called a talanton to wake
everyone for 4 o'clock services, which begin in total darkness and
run for three hours. After breakfast, there's a ferry ride or a few
hours' hike to the next monastery. The host monk greets you, offers
jellied candy and cool water, and explains the layout and schedule of
the monastery. Ninety percent of pilgrims are Greek, but most
guestmasters speak at least a little English.
Then there are a few quiet hours to explore, talk with the monks,
attend afternoon services and have dinner. After more free time, it's
time for bed, at 9:30 p.m. - and an easy sleep of a stress-free life.
My next day's destination was the Danieleon - not a monastery, but a
freestanding house for five or 10 monks at the end of the peninsula.
The monks are famous for their expert chanting. They start in the
morning darkness, in a little chapel dimly lit with a few olive-oil
lamps. In this darkness comes a sonorous, complex, humming harmony,
soothing and otherworldly - a perfect accompaniment to three hours of
Not everything was sweetness and light. At dinnertime the previous
night, I was sent outside to eat on the terrace. This was presumably
because I was non-Orthodox. The non-Orthodox are sometimes sent to
secondary places on Athos, particularly during church services. But
the monks did invite me into the chapel for the morning service.
Next on my journey was Grigoriou, a midsize monastery on the rocks
just above the sea. It's noted for the friendliness of its monks:
Benches and kiosks are arranged for easy conversation. Visitors
gather around the monks in twos and threes, talking quietly, often
comparing Orthodoxy and Western Christianity.
A novice at one of the monasteries - a former teacher of classics -
explained that Western churches often take positions on issues of
social justice. The Orthodox church, in contrast, is concerned with
the person's inner peace and the relationship to God.
Monastery food is always plain and fresh, but it varies in
sophistication. Some places serve a simple bowl of lentils; others
offer artichoke hearts in lemon sauce. Dinner at Grigoriou ended with
an excellent chocolate torte.
The monastery of Vatopedi is definitely at the urbane end of the
scale. It's one of the largest on the mountain, with a courtyard that
looks like the center of an Italian Renaissance town. One of the
monks said that Britain's Prince Charles, a regular visitor to Mount
Athos, had been a guest there a few weeks earlier.
Because Mount Athos is basically a cooperative of private
monasteries, women are banned. There's a belief that Christ gave the
peninsula to his mother, Mary, to be her private garden, and other
women are excluded to honor her.
There have been a few exceptions to the ban. During the Greek Civil
War, Mount Athos granted sanctuary to refugees, including women and
girls. And in the 1930s, a Greek beauty queen, Aliki Diplarakou,
sneaked in, dressed as a man.
For the male visitor, the absence of women seems to ease
communication among the men and to heighten introspection. Many fear
that if the ban were removed, Mount Athos would become a tourist
destination, its distinctive atmosphere lost.
As my week wound down, I realized that a kind of "spiritual detox"
had taken place. I felt I had been on Mount Athos long enough when I
began to look forward to the predawn ritual, when I accepted with
contentment whatever portion of food was offered, and when I felt no
particular compulsion to learn the latest news. I did, however, miss
the reliable hot showers of the outside world.
On the way back to the ferry and the mainland, I passed through the
town of Karyes, the administrative seat of Mount Athos and, with a
population of about 350, surely the smallest and dustiest capital in
Europe. The main street has a few general stores. Pack mules are a
common sight, but I was able to buy a candy bar.
Arriving in Ouranopolis, I experienced culture shock: Women.
Children. Cars. Crowds. I soon adjusted, but the memory of Athos
lingered. And I had packed a Byzantine flag as a souvenir.
Mount Athos admits about 120 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors per day.
For entry permits:
109 Egnatia St., GR-54635 Thessaloniki, Greece
The monasteries also can be seen from the sea on tour boats out
Friends of Mount Athos
Welcome to Mount Athos