ATHOS, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. By Philip Sherrard. Photographs by Takis Zervoulakos. Overlook Press. 176 pp. $27.95.
IF YOU, like the reviewer, think that the character of Zorba has done more to distort the popular image of Greece than any other bit of hype in memory, you will find the proportions restored by Philip Sherrard's sensitive book about the Holy Mountain.
Athos is a wooded peninsula in northern Greece, very beautiful in a wild way, about 35 miles long and from two to five wide, ending in a bare whitish mountain that rises with few preliminaries out of the Aegean Sea to a height of 6,500 feet. Twenty monasteries and scores of monastic habitations bearing other names -- sketes, kellia, kalyvia, hesychasteria, kathismata -- are scattered about, on the shores or high above them, built into the cliff-faces, or nestled inland. A huge majority of the monks are Greeks, but in keeping with its pan-Orthodox character the peninsula is home also to ascetics from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Orthodox communities in the United States and other countries, as well as to numerous converts from as far away as Peru.
For long the most revered monastic enclave of the church that gave Christian monasticism to the world, the Holy Mountain has intrigued Westerners by its isolation, its sheer size as a piece of real estate consecrated to a religious purpose, and -- a source of needless amazement to the outside world -- the prohibition from its shores of women and, theoretically, females of every species.
The earliest records suggest that monastic life on Athos began in the 9th century. Today there are considerably fewer than 3,000 monks, about a third as many as at the turn of this century, when muzhiks and aristocrats were streaming in from Russia. But these are not, by Athonian standards, hard times. At one point in its history the depredations of pirates had reduced its population to a few hundred. Lately there has been a sizable influx into the novitiate of young university graduates.
European travelers have written about Athos since the 15th century, some because to have survived there for a month or two was seen in dazed retrospect as a feat deserving of a literary memorial. There were lice, penitential menus, rock paths that did even to booted feet what microwave ovens do to potatoes, vertiginous boat rides on heaving seas around the very cape that had destroyed a Persian fleet in the 5th century B.C., interminable rituals, and the unsettling comportment of men who had spent their lives actually living what they believed.
Sherrard's book is a revised version of one that he published 25 years ago under the title, Athos, Mountain of Silence. I know of no better currently available introduction in English to this vital remnant of Byzantium -- the origins of its monasticism, its history and legends, its physical description, and the way of life of the monks. Some of the poetic cadences of the earlier version are gone. But there are three new chapters, one on the changes (particularly the new roads) that portend a secularization of the environment, another on the art and relics and their deeper significance for Orthodox spirituality, and a third on the layout and appearance of the monasteries.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are new and, with few exceptions, technically of high quality. Those that show church services in progress, however (a subject ordinarily barred to photographers, and therefore of special interest) are naturally not very evocative of the constant movement and the echoing chant and the aroma of rose incense. The camera is better with landscapes, buildings, icons, and, perhaps best of all, the physiognomies of the monks, some of them startlingly like those in the frecoes.
Sherrard has endured as much as his predecessors or more (since he has been there often), the hardships of a pilgrimage through this sanctified wilderness, but you wouldn't know it. He writes about Athos, not about himself. Absent are the personal anecdotes that make some books on Athos quirky and fun (supremely exemplified, in my opinion, by Athelstan Riley's Athos, or, The Mountain of the Monks, of 1887), but which can also be a device for bringing a sublime topic down to the author's level. Rather, the book bears Sherrard's imprint in the clear- headed sympathy shown for the subject.
From the several studies that he has written on modern Greek culture and its historical roots, such as The Greek East and the Latin West and The Wound of Greece, one suspects that Sherrard's first encounter with the country's Byzantine heritage, like that of some other British philhellenes, triggered a Platonic anamnesis, so attuned is he to that heritage. His enthusiasm for it puts him squarely on one side in the Hellas-or-Byzantium controversy over modern Greece's true identity that has divided Greek intellectuals since before their nation's liberation from the Turks. It also helps to explain why his final chapter, entitled, "The Way of Stillness," is such a good, even moving, account of the mystical yet practical theology that shapes and sustains the Athonites' existence.
The fear, based on experience, that hordes of the merely curious will descend and stay too long if given the chance has led in recent years to the shortening of visitor permits, leaving time for only a quick stop at two or three of the most accessible (and therefore least representative) monasteries. Better not to go at all. Athos, The Holy Mountain can give anyone planning a trip to Greece an engrossing look at a side of the country's culture that he is likely to miss if circumstances restrict his movements to tavernas, museums, and the well-trodden classical sites.