Article and photos by Dave G. Houser
Mount Athos, Greece
Brother Job twists and jiggles the big brass key and eases open the charnel house door. My eyes struggle in the dimness and blink in disbelief as my brain confirms what I think I am seeing – row upon row of human skulls.
I have viewed specimens of mankind’s top-piece at archeological digs, museums and memorials worldwide. I have slept beneath rafters laced with them in the longhouses of former headhunters in Borneo.
Is this some sort of posthumous inventory system?
Brother Job, a young monk at Prophet Elias, must be reading my mind.
“When a monk dies," he said, "his body is buried in the earth. After three years the grave is opened and the bones transferred to a common burial chamber.”
“The skull alone is placed on a shelf with those of earlier brothers – with just the name and dates of birth and death inscribed on the forehead.”
Searching for a monk who speaks English
I was thrilled to find Brother Job, an American and, more importantly, an English-speaking monk.
I had been wandering about the Holy Mountain for going on three days, and Job was the first soul I encountered with whom I could converse beyond the basic words and hopeful hand signs that had secured me food and shelter.
I had met Job this morning in Karyes, a dusty little town that serves as the administrative center of Mount Athos. There is an office that deals with matters of customs, immigration and health, and a few shops.
I’d been hiking into Kareys each day to meet passengers arriving on the ferry from Ouranopolis – hoping that one of them would be my friend, Aris Drivas, who was supposed to meet me here three days ago.
Being phoneless usually is fine with me. But on this occasion it would have been good to know that Aris, an Athens yacht broker, had been delayed and would not make it to Mount Athos until today.
I spotted Job wheeling a small farm tractor up to the health office. He was towing a cart holding another black-robed monk who was cradling his jaw as if in the throes of a painful toothache. Certain that I’d heard Job speaking English as he ushered his brethren into the building, I waited for him.
Encountering an enclave of monasteries
During an Aegean sailing trip with Aris the week before, he invited me to accompany him to Mount Athos where he sometimes employs monks from Pantokraton Monastery to make pieces for his classic wooden motorsailers. Aris would arrange the necessary permits and meet me there. All I knew about Mount Athos was that it’s an enclave of monasteries on an isolated peninsula in northeastern Greece.
Situated on a rugged and remote peninsula of northern Greece, the Monastic Republic of Holy Mount Athos was established under a charter granted by the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople in the 10th century.
Mount Athos is the Middle Ages – not recreated for tourists — but for real. Mount Athos is a place of such mysterious other-worldly power that visiting it is like stepping back … no, it is like stepping out of time.
I’ve shared similar experiences, mingling in the medieval souks of Fez and Marrakech … the ancient dzongs of Bhutan … hobnobbing with the hill tribes of New Guinea … the Dyaks in Borneo and the Bushmen of the Kalahari. But I have never been dropped so unexpectedly into such an ancient time and place.
A Byzantine charter from the 10th century
Mount Athos is an Eastern Orthodox monastic republic. It is a long-surviving administrative unit of the Byzantine Empire – an autonomous mini-state within Greece – that still operates under a charter granted by the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople in the 10th century.
Similar to the Vatican, it has many characteristics of an independent state. Visitors (males only and a maximum of 10 per day) must have passports and entry permits and must undergo customs inspections. The exclusion of women is enforced. Attempts by females to gain entry disguised as men have led to the adoption of a physical examination should there be any question concerning a visitor’s maleness. I was not subjected to such scrutiny.
Today, Mount Athos has 20 large monasteries and dozens of smaller ones (sketes) and individual hermitages. It is home to about 2,500 monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church: Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian, plus a few other nationalities, including Americans.
Nearly 2,500 Eastern Orthodox monks reside there today in more than 20 major monasteries and dozens of smaller sketes and hermitages.
Entering a world apart
Culturally and geographically, Athos is a world apart.
Its fortified Byzantine-style monasteries, most built between the 10th and 15th centuries, are scattered over a hilly, heavily forested peninsula – a bit more than 7 miles wide and nearly 35 miles long. The tip of Mount Athos is a barren spire soaring 6,670 feet above the Aegean.
The whole place is accessible only by boat.
Ah, the boat. By bringing my friend Aris, it has added to my blessings, which are finally catching up with me here, where blessings are supposed to be the stock in trade.
Brother Job invites Aris and me to stay at Prophet Elias, and we hike behind Job on his tractor, towing a much-relieved monk up through scrubby hillsides covered with patches of garden and vine. I spot tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, corn, peas, beans and artichokes. There are apricot and olive trees and lots of grapes.
The high-domed monasteries of Mount Athos are, for the most part, true architectural gems. Fine brickwork was Byzantium’s calling, and it is evident everywhere.
Brother Job, an Eastern Orthodox monk, conducts a ceremony in the Chartel room at Holy Skete Prophet Elias.
Built by Russians in the 18th century, Prophet Elias is a relative newcomer to Mount Athos but it is nonetheless a splendid example of the traditional arch-and-dome Byzantine style.
It was built to accommodate almost a hundred monks but during Soviet times in Russia so few monks came to Prophet Elias that it faced abandonment. Then a small group of monks from upstate New York came to Athos to rescue the skete.
“It is good that we could come and help preserve this wonderful space,” says Job, the only resident of the skete now willing to talk to me “on the record,” since word is out I’m a journalist, “and, as you can see, it is like heaven on earth here.”
With its bountiful orchards and gardens, its winery, olive mill and old stone bakery, Prophet Elias could pass for one of those rustic Tuscany estates – the kind you can rent for $5,000 a week.
Job shows me around the monastery, including gardens where Brother John (monks change to biblical names when they join a monastery) harvests softball size tomatoes, and the charnel house.
Incense in an 18th century apothecary
“This is always the big surprise for visitors,” beams Job as he ushers us into an 18th century apothecary that is as pristine as a museum exhibit. It is a laboratory where he compounds and packages an aromatic incense that he markets to monasteries and churches internationally.
Incense is essential to most Orthodox ceremonies, during which monks pray and chant while swinging smoking censers about their bodies.
“All ingredients are locally derived so buyers can be assured they’re getting the true essence of the Holy Mountain,” affirms Job, who won’t reveal anything specific about what goes into his incense.
To an outsider, especially a non-Orthodox, there is much about Mount Athos that seems secretive and mystical.
For me, the language barrier is a big part of it, plus I have little knowledge of Eastern Orthodox rites, which even practitioners admit are highly ceremonial and complicated. Upon entering a church here I’m dumb struck by the mysticism and motion – monks bowing, praying, prostrating, swinging their censers, kissing icons, chanting and singing – during services that go on for hours every evening.
Even the system of timekeeping on Mount Athos is out of synch for the outsider. Clocks here run on Byzantine time that begins the day at sunset. Dates are calculated according to the Julian calendar of ancient Rome, which varies by 13 days from the modern Gregorian calendar used in most of the world.
The monks of Mount Athos are sworn to an ascetic life of chastity, obedience and poverty. They believe their monasteries should remain cut off from the affairs of the world. There is no radio or television, and most monasteries have no electricity, relying on petroleum lamps or candles for lighting. The monks seek to live, pray and die just as their predecessors have done for more than a thousand years.
Many monks resent the intrusion of outsiders and avoid contact with visitors. Some, however, are interested in discussing religious and spiritual matters though they seldom delve into their personal feelings or backgrounds.
Central to much of the secrecy shrouding Mount Athos over the centuries is the vast horde of Byzantine art, icons, relics and manuscripts, some displayed but most of it cloistered in monastery vaults.
It has been said that much of the wealth of Constantinople was secreted away to Athos as the Byzantine Empire began to crumble.
The quality and extent of the collection was unveiled in part to the public in a year-long exhibit, “The Treasures of Mount Athos,” staged in 1997-98 at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in the nearby port city of Thessaloniki.
It took nearly ten years to organize but 16 monasteries agreed to loan 600 items for the first ever public showing in more than a thousand years of some of the world’s most important religious art.
Most visitors are hopeful of viewing art collections at monasteries where they stay. Some allow it and some don’t, but there’s less secrecy surrounding the treasures since the 1997 exhibit.
Job has asked permission from his superior monk to show us items from the skete’s treasury and after being initially refused has gotten us the okay for a quick look before dinner.
“Of all the icons this one is our favorite,” exudes Job, pointing out an intricately carved and inlaid wooden masterpiece from the early 18th century entitled Life of Prophet Elias. “It was the last of the pre-revolutionary pieces gifted to the skete by Russian Czar Alexander II.”
Monastery meals are served family style and guests are invited to sit in. Dinner this evening at Prophet Elias consists of a thick, hearty lentil soup, a dark multi-grain bread, sliced tomato and cucumber and black olives. Served with it is a suitably dry and very drinkable white wine, said to be a variety of Muscat, locally grown for centuries.
This is not a feast, nor is it much of a social affair. The monks eat quickly and sparingly and there’s little conversation. I’m learning to go for larger initial servings because there are seldom any seconds. I suppose that it is best not to be sated for evening services. I awake later from a dream in which I’m wolfing down a bacon cheeseburger and fries.
Assigned a small cell for the evening
I‘m awake most of the night. Aris and I have been assigned small cells like those of the resident monks and they are Spartan to say the least. A pad no thicker than a small town phone book tops a narrow wooden bunk. There’s a sink with a pewter basin, next to which sits a bucket of water. It’s a combination that I see is going to have to suffice as a shower. And the toilet…well, let’s just say it is old world…sans any sign of porcelain.
A solitary candle offers little light to read by. The call to early liturgy service – at 0-dark-30 or thereabouts – jars me from my cheeseburger dream.
The night I once spent in a Southern California jail cell was more comfortable.
But I am grateful for the opportunity to experience the Middle Ages at Mount Athos, and I would have endured even more discomfort to do so.
Through the centuries, the monks of Mount Athos have extended hospitality at no cost, offering at least a day’s board and bread to any and all visitors. That made this the cheapest trip on record for me. I spent nothing save some token offerings at the monasteries I visited.
Clearly, Mount Athos is not a tourist destination. It is a refuge for men who are dedicated to their religion and as such I can relate to those who say it is best left undisturbed, except by their occasional visitors with a sincere religious/spiritual purpose or students of Byzantine art and architecture.
Out of respect for the monks, I won’t be returning … content to dwell for my remaining days on those rare, one-of-a-kind memories of a trip out of time.
Visiting Mount Athos
Non-Orthodox foreigners must apply (2-4 weeks in advance) to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Churches, 2 Zalokosta Street, Athens, Greece, tel. (30) 210 362 6894, or the Ministry of Macedonia/Thrace, Directorate of Political Affairs, Plateia Diikitiriou, Thessaloniki, Greece, tel. (30) 231 0270 0092 to obtain an entry permit for Mount Athos. The next step is to obtain the diamoneterion or visitation permit which contains a code number essential to control the number of visitors entering each day. This is obtained from the Pilgrim Bureau, 14 Karamanii Ave., Thessaloniki, Greece, tel. (30) 2310 252 578. Permits are now valid for only four calendar days. Longer stays are possible if arranged in advance through one of the monasteries.
Only men visitors are allowed. No shorts, short-sleeved shirts, musical instruments, CD/tape recorders, video or movie cameras.
For an informative website on Mount Athos
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