Visitors (men only, please) to the 20 Greek Orthodox monasteries here experience the beauty of monastic life 6,500 feet above sea level
Modern-day pilgrims to Mt. Athos in Greece hike for hours from one spectacular monastery to the next, as pilgrims have done for 10 centuries. The mountainous terrain of the small peninsula is covered with dense woods. The path to Simonopetra (the rock of Simon), one of the cliff-hanging monasteries and the most daring building on the Holy Mountain, curves tortuously along the coastline. Finally, Simonopetra comes in view. It rises high on a cliff, practically bursting out of the rock below it. It seems as if only God could have placed it on its rocky pedestal.
The lodging at Simonopetra gives new meaning to the phrase “room with a view.” Outside the snug, Spartan rooms is a narrow flimsy walkway and over the rickety railing is a sheer drop of several thousand feet. Foamy water crashes against the jutting rocks far below.
But it's not the view that brings Christians of all denominations to the 20 Greek Orthodox monasteries on Mt. Athos. Guests share simple meals with the silent, sphinx-like monks in shadowy dining halls illuminated by oil lamps. Pilgrims join the monks in centuries-old chapels for prayer services distinguished by fervent chanting and deep reverence for the Eucharist. Throughout the day the monks observe a code of silence; any conversation is done in a near whisper. They go about their holy business, hardly noticing the pilgrims among them. Visitors are keenly aware they are not on their home turf, that this is sacred land.
Mt. Athos is closer to the Middle Ages than the modern age. It's not just the near absence of cars, radios, and other wonders of technology that gives it an ancient air. Mt. Athos is where the sacred is part of everyday routines. Its 1,700 monks divide their day into structured intervals of work and prayer, and not for a moment do they ever seem to forget how God is part of all they do.
The mountain rises 6,500 feet above the sea on the easternmost of the three peninsulas of Halkidiki. The nearest major city is Thessaloniki, 100 miles northwest. The peninsula is a scant five to seven miles wide and 35 miles long.
Legend holds that monasticism began on Mt. Athos when the Virgin Mary, on her way to Cyprus with St. John the Evangelist, was blown ashore by a sudden storm. She was overwhelmed with the beauty of the peninsula, and a voice from heaven consecrated the place in her name.
Historical records show that the first monks arrived in the seventh century. The first monastery, the Great Lavra, was founded by the learned monk Athanasios in 963. Thus, the monasteries were begun while the Orthodox Churches were still in communion with Rome. (The split occurred in 1054 over theological and political issues.) Throughout the millennium the monasteries have seen periods of prosperity and decline. Though monks from Russia, Romania, Serbia, and other Orthodox countries have flocked here and still do, Mt. Athos always has been a stronghold of Greek Christianity. Mt. Athos was Greeks' educational and intellectual center when Turkey occupied their country in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It's not easy to get to Mt. Athos. For women, it's impossible. Females have been barred from the Holy Mountain since the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX issued an edict in 1060 after a series of scandals. In fact, even female farm animals are prohibited, and cruise ships with women on board can come no closer to the shore than 500 feet.
Devout Greeks make regular pilgrimages to Mt. Athos. But, to avoid Mt. Athos being overrun by tourists, only 20 foreigners each day are permitted to enter the peninsula. The procedures for gaining entry are, well, Byzantine. Visitors must first secure a “letter of introduction” from the U.S. embassy in Athens or the American consulate in Thessaloniki. Then a permit must be secured from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens or the Ministry of Northern Greece in Thessaloniki. A permit is valid only on the specific date requested, so travelers must determine accurately when they will arrive in the small town of Ouranoplis, from which a ferry takes them on the two-hour journey to the Holy Mountain. Stays are limited to four days.
Part of the unique experience of Mt. Athos is surviving the journey. The ferry takes pilgrims to Daphne, from which they travel by bus to Kayres. The battered bus is in such poor condition that the poorest church or school in the United States would have sold it for scrap years ago. The bus driver's previous job must have been a thrill ride operator at Disney World. He drives his belching beast perilously close to the edge of the road and its steep drop, only to sharply swing the steering wheel just before the tires run out of real estate and hit air.
Uniformed officials check travel documents in Kayres, and then pilgrims, armed with a poorly drawn map, are on their own. The monasteries are hours of rigorous hiking from one another. Signs are intermittent and confusing. Most pilgrims carry with them fruit, cookies, and bread. True to their tradition of hospitality, the monks offer free meals and lodging. But they eat just twice a day and don't leave out leftovers for late arrivals. The outer gates of monasteries are closed at sunset, not to be opened again until sunrise. Stragglers must sleep under the stars.
The focus of most pilgrims is the miraculous icon of the Virgin Guarding the Gate, housed in a chapel.
The rough paths on Mt. Athos cut through olive trees. The landscape is straight out of a boy's pirate book — rugged, pristine, and lonely. Prayer comes easily to pilgrims in such lovely wilderness.
Vatopedi is one of the largest and most visited monasteries on Mt. Athos. Like the other monasteries, it resembles a fortified medieval town. Yet its buildings are bright and colorful. A thick turreted wall, including an ancient defense tower, surrounds the complex. Over the centuries Mt. Athos was besieged by waves of pirates and ruthless Catalan mercenaries. The tower was the last refuge for the embattled monks during a siege.
A rotund and jocular monk greets visitors to Vatopedi and gives each a cup of coffee. Other monasteries offer ouzo, an alcoholic drink, or loukoumi, a Greek sweet. Sleeping quarters here are in a dark, austere dormitory room with none of the comforts of home.
The Katholikon (main church) at Vatopedi, dating from the 10th century, is painted flaming red. A dignified statue of a black soldier is mounted on its soaring bell tower. The church contains a superb marble floor and exquisite Byzantine mosaics depicting the Annunciation of Mary.
Vatopedi's valuable treasures, under lock and key but sometimes available for viewing, include purported fragments of the True Cross, gold-embroidered vestments, and part of the reed that held the sponge of vinegar offered to the crucified Christ. Always available for viewing are the magnificent chapels, library, and other centuries-old buildings of Vatopedi. Colorful frescoed Biblical scenes are everywhere.
Mt. Athos is a living museum of art. Its monasteries guard the cloaks of long-dead kings and patriarchs, miracle-working icons, priceless manuscripts, and relics of saints, including the right hand of St. John Chrysostom.
Another popular monastery is the Great Lavra. The marvelous frescoes of the church were done by the famous Cretan painter Theophanes in 1535. The refectory (dining room) features Theophanes' rendition of the Last Supper. The monastery has 15 chapels, some of them with high artistic merit.
The monastery of Iviron has the largest church on the mountain; the church's elaborate mosaic floor dates from 1030. The focus of most pilgrims is the miraculous icon of the Virgin Guarding the Gate, housed in a chapel. The monks believe that terrible misfortune will befall them if the icon ever leaves the mountain.
The piety of the monks is even more impressive than the monastery's material treasures. They pray together five times daily, summoned to worship by a wooden gong. The services are held at night or in early morning, while the rest of the world sleeps, works, or plays. The monks divide themselves into two groups on opposite sides of the room and chant with gusto. On occasion the bones of a patron saint are brought out. The monks solemnly kiss them and cross themselves.
Prayer is part of the evening meal, too, a ritual all its own. Heaping plates of honey, potato soup, olives, beans, and apples are placed on a long table. A monk at a lectern reads from the Bible. A bell is rung. The monks eat surprisingly hurriedly until the bell is rung again in a few minutes. Dinner is over in a flash.
The most lasting image of Mt. Athos are the monks. Many are in their 20s and 30s and actually stay on the mountain only for a few years before returning to other duties. The monks silently appear out of shadows and mysteriously disappear down dark corridors.
The self-possessed monks are at peace with themselves. The rare times they speak to pilgrims, they gaze with an uncommon directness. Their eyes convey forbearance and mirth. The monks are no stick-in-the-muds. They can be seen in groups of two or three quietly sharing what has to be a gentle joke. Monastic living obviously is something to smile about.
Jay Copp writes from Chicago.