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Mt. Athos, Greece: Of Monks and Men

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.

I received permission to visit Mount Athos last May, and entered, as most visitors do, through the Greek town of Ouranopolis, a honky-tonk resort about 75 miles east of Thessaloniki. This is the end of the road from the outside world. In Ouranopolis, I showed my entry papers and boarded a ferry for the two-hour ride along the coast to the little town of Dafni, the port of Mount Athos. Once there, you follow whatever itinerary you have planned. You can transfer to another ferry that serves the monasteries along the coast, or 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 only a hundred yards or so off a beautiful coastline and doesn't throw up clouds of dust. But the best plan is to leave public transportation entirely for a bit before reaching your destination and walk the last couple of hours, to get into a proper pilgrim's frame of mind. That's what I did.

The most striking piece of architecture is the monastery of Simonopetra, where I stayed the first night. It sits on an outcrop of rock a thousand feet above the sea, then rises farther above that like a fortress, with the bottom 40 feet of its walls blank stone. But the topmost floors are open with a vengeance -- four stories of decidedly rickety-looking wooden balconies run all the way around the building. Walking on the balconies provides an early test of one's faith and serenity. There are gaps between the floorboards, and it's a looonnng 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, their average age has fallen to something closer to 40, young monks are common, and many of the new entrants are highly educated (one is a former Harvard professor).

It was at Simonopetra that I began to learn the basic routine on Mount Athos: morning services, breakfast, a ferry ride or a few hours' hike to the next monastery, and a meeting with the host monk, who greets visitors, offers the traditional welcome of jellied candy and cool water, and explains the layout and schedule of the monastery. (Ninety percent of pilgrims are Greek, but most guestmasters speak a little English for the others.) Then there are a few quiet hours to explore the monastery, talk with the monks, attend afternoon services and have dinner. After more free time and an early bedtime at 9:30, a visitor enjoys the smooth and easy sleep of a person leading a stress-free life.

My next day's destination was the Danieleon -- not a monastery, but a free-standing house for five or 10 monks, located at the extreme end of the peninsula in a rugged area without roads. I caught a ferry, then toiled up a series of steep switchbacks under the hot sun, a trip that took an hour. Then, at last, relief: a terrace, a walkway under a cool and shady arbor, flower beds and a view over the Aegean.

The monks at the Danieleon are famous for their expert sacred chanting. They start in the morning darkness, in a little chapel dimly lit with a few small olive-oil lamps, some shining through containers of colored glass. They're shadowy shapes, nothing more. But in this darkness comes a sonorous, complex, humming harmony of many voices, soothing and otherworldly.

* * *

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 on the grounds are arranged for easy conversation. Visitors gather around the monks in twos and threes, talking quietly, often comparing Orthodoxy and Western Christianity.

Monastery food is always plain and fresh but varies in its 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 also at the worldly 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 told me that Britain's Prince Charles, a regular visitor to Mount Athos, had been a guest there earlier in the month.

Vatopedi stands in an area of rolling agricultural land rather than steep cliffs. An easy walk leads past farmhouses and along country lanes, where a sense of bone-deep peace pervades the land. You can actually hear the rush of birds' wings and the hum of bees in a flowering tree. I was reminded of a conversation a few days previously with an English monk named Father Damian, who had stopped by Grigoriou as a visitor and ended up staying there. He recommended the line from Psalms, "Be still and know that I am God." Certainly the sounds of modern civilization are absent.

Another thing notably absent is the feminine touch; even most female animals are excluded. Partly this is a consequence of monastic status, for Mount Athos is basically a cooperative of private monasteries. Another reason is a belief that Christ gave the peninsula to his mother, Mary, to be her private garden, and other women are excluded to more distinctively honor the Virgin Mary.

The exclusion of women is, naturally, controversial. The European Parliament has endorsed a report containing a paragraph that suggests this is a violation of women's rights. The Greek government has responded that the special status of Mount Athos was recognized in conjunction with the treaty by which Greece joined the European Union in the first place.

In any event, for the male visitor there are some benefits. The absence of women seems to ease communication among the men and to heighten introspection by removing, not sexual tensions precisely, but a layer of social complexities that would otherwise demand attention. The ban also protects a shared mood among the visitors. Now they are those willing to focus on the spiritual experience, and they share that bond.

Many fear that if the ban were removed, Mount Athos would become a tourist destination like any other, its distinctive atmosphere lost.

* * *

As my week wound down, I realized that a kind of spiritual detox had taken place. I knew I had been on Mount Athos long enough when I began to look forward to the pre-dawn 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 bathroom fixtures of the outside world.

On the way back to the ferry and the mainland, I passed through the town of Karyai, 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 there.

Arriving back in Ouranopolis, I experienced a brief 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 visitors and about 10 non-Orthodox ones per day. Info: Friends of Mount Athos,http://www.bates.edu/~rallison/friends. For entry permits: Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau, 109 Egnatia St., GR-54635 Thessaloniki, Greece, 011-30-2310-252578. The monasteries can also be viewed from the sea without restriction, on tour boats out of Ouranopolis.

Neil Averitt is a Washington writer.

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