Mt. Athos, Greece: Of Monks and Men

The monastery of Grigoriou, as seen from the ferry.
The monastery of Grigoriou, as seen from the ferry. (Neil Averitt - Neil Averitt)
By Neil Averitt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Visitors to the Holy Community of Mount Athos, on a hilly, heavily forested peninsula in northeast Greece, will have to do without radio, television or newspapers. Nor are they likely to see paved roads, private cars or neon lights. Some places do not have electricity. Hot showers are uncommon.

And, most notably, there are no children and no women. Women have been barred from the mountain for a thousand years.

Mount Athos is an Eastern Orthodox "monastic republic" and a surviving fragment of the Byzantine Empire -- a fully functioning mini-state with roads, settlements and a capital city, all operating under a charter granted by the Emperor at Constantinople in 972. It's a time-warped place. Clocks are set on Byzantine time, which starts at sunset; dates are calculated by the Julian calendar of the Roman Empire, 13 days different from the modern Gregorian calendar; some settlements are supplied solely by mule teams; and the flag of Byzantium still flies. It's also a World Heritage Site, containing what is arguably the world's greatest concentration of Byzantine religious art and architecture.

Legally speaking, Mount Athos is an autonomous region in Greece with many characteristics of an independent state. Visitors must show passports or national ID cards on the way in and undergo customs inspections on the way out.

Psychologically and geographically speaking, it's a world apart. The peninsula on which it sits -- six miles wide and extending 35 miles into the Aegean -- terminates in the peak of Mount Athos itself, sharply pointed, bare rock, 6,600 feet high and dropping steeply into the sea. No road connects the peninsula with the mainland -- access is solely by boat. Scattered over this rugged landscape are 20 large monasteries, a dozen smaller communities, innumerable hermitages and about 2,500 monks.

This exotic little state, sometimes described as a Christian Tibet, has many features making for a truly great travel destination: grand architecture, hiking trails along cliff tops or through virgin forests, guest rooms in monasteries, meals of fresh natural foods, and 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 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 on Mount Athos, as I recently did, without spending a dime.

That is, if they'll admit you in the first place.

* * *

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 visit.

Fortunately, I had some decent reasons. I had read about Mount Athos in high school and had thought it delightfully quirky. Now, after years of legal practice, I was ready for a seriously nonmaterialistic pilgrimage.

Mount Athos is the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox world. Achilles Paparsenos, a spokesman for the Greek Embassy in Washington, explained that "most Greek men" want to visit there at some point because of the "special place it holds in Orthodox tradition." Visitors need not be Orthodox themselves, but it helps if they have religious or spiritual purposes in mind. A monk passes through each monastery courtyard at 3:30 a.m., tapping a distinctive rhythm on a wooden board called a simandron to wake everyone for 4 o'clock services, which begin in total darkness and run for three hours as the candlelit church slowly brightens into daylight.

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