Athos

The Holy Mountain

A Pilgrimage

August 1979

 And this was the hand-drawn "Topographical" Map I used on the trip

 Click on the pictures to enlarge most of them, return by the back arrows on your browser

 Google-Earth kmz-file ......(Open Google-Earth on your computer and then click on the link)

Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, the First on the Path (Byzantine icon, Karyes, Athos) whom I found in Ouranoupolis and carried with me on my journey around the Mountain.

 

In 1979 Barbara was unable to travel with me to Greece, a good opportunity to fulfill a 25-year-old wish to explore Mount Athos. Women and all female animals are- except for chicken which are kept surreptitiously in the rich idiorythmic establishments- forbidden on the Mountain. A company of Greek soldiers protects the northern border of the peninsula from curious tourists....

 Where and what is Mount Athos? This fanciful map, the only map I could find in Greece - more detailed maps are classified! - answers some of these questions. Athos is a republic of monks founded in 963 AD by the monk Athanasios. In 970 the Byzantine Emperor John I Tsimiskis issued an imperial Bulle which guaranteed the autonomy of the republic from Greece. To this day Athos is ruled by an elected body of four abbots, a governor represents Athens. This parchment Bulle, exhibited in the Meghistis Lavra, makes Athos the oldest, chartered autonomous republic in modern times.

Geographically it is the eastern most peninsula of the Chalkidiki, east of Thessaloniki in Northen Greece. The insert shows it as a much enlarged appendix.... In reality it is a bony spine which ends in 3000-m-high Mount Athos, the three spires of its peak are likewise symbolically exaggerated. The buildings shown are 20 large monasteries and uncounted smaller ones and skites, small farms where two or three monks live as a community. The large monasteries fall into two categories: idiorhythmic communities, where each monk lives in his separate apartment, and koinovitic establishments, where the monks live in community like in Western monasteries. Most of the rich and older monasteries are idiorhythmic, young people tend to flock to the more radical koinovions.

To enter Athos one needs two separate permits, one from the secular authorities in Athens or in Thessaloniki, which is issued on the basis of a letter of recommendation by one's embassy, and a ecclesiastical authorities in Thessaloniki which entitles one to board the boat from Ouranoupolis to Limin Daphni, the harbor of the islands administrative town Karyes.

For a bilingual, hand-drawn, more detailed map click here.

The boat to Daphni. If the weather is fair, boats run around the peninsula connecting the harbors of the larger monasteries - but they are often miles away from the monastic castles.... Alternatively one can walk around the Mountain which can take more than a week, and parts of the path are not without danger. This is what I did, in true Buddhist fashion following the sun from the east coast to the west with the Mountain to my right hand.... 

 When one arrives in Daphni - one's passport has been taken away, your luggage is being inspected for movie cameras, Walkmans, musical instruments, and recording equipment, all of which is forbidden - one is herded into a bus that takes the pilgrims to Karyes. The above photo shows the main street, the red buildings are churches and chapels. One is taken to the main administrative building of the Synod, where a monk measures the length of one's hair - if it is too long he takes you into the basement, puts an aluminum pot on your head and cuts off all hair which protrudes.... Then you are called by a another monk by name (!) who sits at a table on which he places an already filled-in document, the famous diamonitirion or pilgrims letter. The monk pushes the document towards you, looks away, and mumbles "tesserakosies drakhmai" forty Drachmae (in my day). You discreetly put the money before him, take the diamonitirion, and walk away. As soon as you have turned, the monk sweeps the money into a bag - the monks are supposed not to handle money! - and calls for the next sinner.... Eventually you recover your passport at the (secular) Karyes police station (there are two policemen on the mountain).

 The diamonitirion entitled me to free bed and board in all monastic establishments and was limited to four days. The "board" consisted of supper only, no breakfast and wild berries for lunch... but the time limit was waved by the monks and the emigration authorities, as long as you behaved yourself decently and did not show that you were a Roman Catholic (crossing yourself in the Roman way, etc)- Protestants are ok, they have always been against the Pope in Rome!

Papades in Karyes. Our Polish friend Krys Malkiewics took this photo in 1978. Like American Indians and Russians the monks have a strong aversion against being photographed. I refrained from taking photos of monks.

 

Iviron

In the afternoon I walked down to Iviron on the eastern coast. Each Orthodox national church had its own monastery on Athos, Iviron is the Georgian Monastery, an old and once rich house, with a splendid library of precious manuscripts. In my time only Greeks lived there, but I hear that now some monks from Georgia have again arrived. I visited it in order to pray for Wachtang Djobadze, an old Georgian friend in LA who spent many months there doing research in the library....

 The castle of Iviron lit by the setting sun.

 

 This is an idiorhythmic house - and its supper was the worst on Athos. Here you see the various apartments, which the monk pays for with his secular life savings. At the right is the church.

 In the afternoon one Papas took me and a group of Greek pilgrims to see the famous wonder-working icon of the Virgin and the library, and later to attend Vespers in the church. After supper I found my Greek friends hiding in the bushes eating a second supper of canned meat and other forbidden delicacies, "you cannot survive on the Athonite vegetarian fare!" they laughed. Wachtang had given me the same advice, and I had a loaf of carefully rationed dark German bread in my backpack. My iron ration was finally consumed by mold after a horrendous downpour near Simonas Petras....

Early next morning - no breakfast! - I began hiking down the east coast. The harbors of Iviron and Stavronikitas are seen in the distance. The blue church belongs to a skiti.  

 A good place to meditate on the blue of the sea.

 

An abandoned hermitage along the shore. 

 

 

Karakallou 

In the early afternoon I met a non-monkish woodcutter who had taken refuge on Athos during the civil war (1945-50) because he had been a Communist. He took me up to Karakallou - and straight into the seemingly empty kitchen, where bread and wine had been laid-out for the workers of the monastery. He took his portion, but when I tried to snatch a piece of bread a wild and furious kitchen monk appeared from the shadows who drove me out swatting at me with an immense wooden spoon...

Suppressing my hunger, I explored the pretty place, waiting for the monk running the xenodokhion, the guesthouse, to wake from his afternoon nap.

A flower garden above the blue sea! Notice the protruding bay window? It turned out to be the abort of the pilgrims wing: Two holes in a wooden box which lead directly into a brook below. If one turned around quickly enough one could watch one's sh** fall and flow away into the sea.... 

 The entrance of the katholikon, the central church of the monastery in the fierce noon light.

 

Between the two leaning beams hangs a long piece of wood, which is hit with a mallet to call the monks to the services  

 

The xenodokhion, the pilgrims wing. My Greek-Orthodox friends from Iviron had arrived by boat and were put into the dormitory in the round tower. I, the unbeliever, was carefully separated from them in a separate, single cell on the outside of the building - with an unforgettable view of the sea. 

 The inside of the guest house. Karakallou was originally inhabited by Greeks from Albania.

 This night I was, for the first time, awakened by the musical staccato rhythm of the xylandron the Athonite hour wood which, at three in the morning a monk carried, sometimes near sometimes far, up and down the galleries of the monks quarters. With much singing the service lasted until six in the morning, after which the monks were served breakfast-lunch. The syncopations of the xylandron would echo through my dreams whenever I stayed in a Koinovion. In the idiorhythmic monasteries the monks are not required to attend service, to which only a rotating quorum of three men is needed.

For an earlier, 1979 description of my dreams and my spiritual adventures on this pilgrimage and a complete set of the linoleum-cuts I made that winter to describe the events which could not be photographed, see Athos among the Texts on this CD.

 I left very early, the way to Meghistis Lavra, the Great Lavra was long, unknown - I rarely met anyone to ask directions - and stony. But the country turned more beautiful the higher I climbed into the Mountain.

Here you see the three peaks of Athos close up from the northeast. An old watchtower, a skiti, not a person in sight, and magnificent woods of acacias, oaks, and chestnut trees. Because there are no goats on Athos, which elsewhere have devastated the woods, the vegetation of this peninsula may be the most beautiful in the Mediterranean to have survived the ravishes of the centuries.

 I lost the path along the coast, but found another one higher up with splendid views of the sea.

 

Meghistis Lavra

 Tired and ravenously hungry I reached the Lavra after six hours of walking. Some blackberries and two slices of my dark German bread had to do for breakfast and lunch.

 Reflections in the Byzantine fountain in front of the church. Zoon Pighis

 

 The fountain and the entrance to the trapeza, the dining hall, which is, however, only used on high holidays by the monks of this idiorhythmic monastery. Meghistis Lavra is the oldest establishment on Athos, founded around 963 by Athanasios, the father confessor of Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, who was murdered by his wife before he could retire on Athos. Emperor John I Tsimiskis, his Armenian successor in the imperial bed then issued the famous Bulle granting the monks autonomy....

Every square-inch of the interior of the trapeza is covered with murals, but...

 

 ... because the murals on Athos are renovated by repainting them in the latest style - like this apocalyptic scene in the proscenium of the katholikon, which was redone in the 19th century - few are interesting from the historical or artistic point of view. Their purpose is religious or educational and not artistic. Their majority illustrates the Apocalypse of John.

 The monks apartments and the peach tree (on the left) which I tried in vain to steal a few unripe fruits from.

 

 The fountain of the Virgin Mother.

 

The Eremoi - The Wilderness of the Southern Escarpment of the Mountain

 The people at Meghistis Lavra warned me that the path around the southern tip of Mount Athos was exposed, and, because many political refugees from the Civil War were hiding there, it was dangerous. It is the most lonely and beautiful part of the Mountain, the abode of hermits - "the ones who live in the wilderness." I resolved to go anyway. I had to climb to over 1000 meters but saw only two wild-looking monks, who were as surprised by me as I was by them.... The path is steep, but nowhere dangerously exposed. There were even occasional signs pointing the way to Aghias Annis.

At noon I had a rest among a profusion of butterflies on an idyllic meadow, high in the Mountain. One butterfly, a small blue one, accompanied me for a long time, alighting before my feet and then waiting for me again...  

Eventually I reached this spot above Karoulia from where one has a spectacular view of the coast towards the west.  

 

 And then appeared the landing stage of Aghias Annis and...

 

... the collection of skitis of this monastic village below me.  

 

A steep scramble through the rocks brought me to the Katholikon of the village, where I sat for several hours overlooking the sea until a young monk appeared who unlocked the dormitory. 

 In the xenodokhion at Aghias Annis I was the only guest and fell into a deep sleep from which the same monk woke me at sunset to have supper.

 Sunset from the balcony of the dormitory.

 

The monk took me to a dark dining room deep inside the mountain, where I found this old man in the light of a kerosene lamp. His hands were trembling, so that he spilled half of every spoon of soup. I finally fed him slowly, spoon-full by spoon-full. A very moving occupation.

The night was restless, it was hot and muggy, and a thunderstorm brewed over the sea, flies (or fleas) pestered me. One should bring a thin flea-bag to Mount Athos.... 

 Nea Skiti, where the icon painters live, on the way next morning to the monastery of Aghiou Pavlou.

 

Aghios Pavlos 

 The mighty castle of Aghiou Pavlou in a steep valley below the Mountain.

 

 I couldn't find the path to Dionysiou and walked up to Aghios Pavlos to ask for directions. The monk I met there took one look at me and offered me lunch, a plate of aubergines cooked in olive oil. The only time that happened to me... He sent me back down to the beach, where I would find the path by wading through the sea around a small promontory.

 Out of sight and all alone I stripped completely and jumped into the heavenly clear and cold, but salty water. I had not taken a "bath" since Karakallou where they had a shower...! and then I found the path...  

...it became the first and only scary hike. The path was narrow and truly exposed, my overloaded backpack a high and unstable burden. I repacked the pack, all heavy things to the bottom and gingerly, one foot before the other, holding on to the meager vegetation, half-walking and half-crawling on all fours, made my way around the corner, behind which Dionysiou was hidden from my view....

Aghios Dionysios

 Dionysios at last. I calmed my frightened heart and recovered my wind for a while under a stand of olive trees.

 

 The buildings of Dionysiou precariously overhang the sea and the landing stage below. One of the most beautiful monasteries of Athos.

 

 Three monks caught in a conversation in front of the ox-red katholikon.

 

 The trapeza of this idiorhythmic community is a picture book of stories from the New Testament.

 

The church fathers behind tomatoes and peppers. 

 

The lectern and Jacob's dream of the heavenly ladder in the background. 

 

A Greek painter had set up his easel in the trapeza painting the badly deteriorated western wall 

 

Next morning I decided to take the boat to Aghios Grigoriou instead of risking my life on another exposed track.... The castle of Dionysiou from the landing. The night before I shared the highest balcony with two Greek students and a monk discussing the case of the young motorically disturbed man whom I had first met with his father in Meghistis Lavra. A highly interesting story evolved.

Father and son traveled from monastery to monastery to find a home for the disturbed son. By an old tradition the monks used to care for disturbed people, because they possessed the voice of God. But now the Greek government had issued an injunction against this medieval institution, and the council of the elders debated the admission until late at night. The pair had been refused by all previously visited monasteries.... 

 In the morning waiting for the boat, the disturbed young man ran around the landing stage screeching like a giant bird - with a huge erection....

Grigoriou

The peaceful garden of the monks at Grigoriou, right next to the neglected cemetery and its well-ordered ossuary.

Simonas Petras 

 Simonas Petras was me next station. A Koinovion inhabited by very active young monks, it clings to the mountain side like a Tibetan monastery. The xenodokhion was on the highest tier of the left-most building.

Sitting on its balcony over the sea a hundred meter below I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading. A friendly monk brought me a great surprise, a small cup of Greek coffee !

later I inspected the balcony, missing boards, rusty nails, and improvised cables suspended the rickety contraption - I walked quite literally on air. 

 Simonas Petras and the Mountain as seen from the carriage road to Daphnis. This active moni owned a truck!

 

Panteleimon, the Russian monastery 

On the way to Daphnis I was surprised by a heavy thunderstorm. It poured and there was no shelter far and wide. To save my clothes I finally took everything off and huddled under a ground sheet I had brought praying to the Mother of God to protect me: fierce lightening was striking all around me, and it became bitter cold.... After this ordeal, covered with my only dry wool sweater I made my way to Daphnis and bought myself a hot soup in the eatery there. My destination was Panteleimon, the Russian monastery north of Daphnis.

Once upon a time Panteleimon was occupied by 2000 Russians wile Russia was trying to gain control of Athos as a navy base in the Mediterranean. But in 1911 a radical Holy Man rose among the monks of Panteleimon gathering more and more adherents.... Soon an imperial Russian cruiser appeared, and bombarded the moni. Landing troops stormed the place, took the rebels prisoners, and transferred them to Siberia in chains.... The end of the pan-Slavic dream to control the eastern Mediterranean. A burnt-out building and a wonderfully naive painting of the cruiser at Panteleimon were dramatic reminders of this event. 

More surprises: Behind the main building I discovered two trucks a German Mercedes-Unimog and a brand-new Soviet army truck, one a gift from the Russian emigrees in the West, the other from the Soviet Government in Moscow.... Next I met a hapless young monk in the typical slippers all Muscovites wear at home!! He welcomed me in Russian - he spoke no Greek - and presented me with a handful of unripe plums from a nearby tree.... From the talkative Greek gate-keeper I learned that Moscow had given permission for 20 young monks to live at Panteleimon....

 Krys Malkiewics had been to Panteleimon a year earlier and taken this photo...

 

...now the roofs and buildings had a new coat of paint - also a gift of the USSR (the army truck was painted the same green)! On the bench rests a true Greek pilgrim, an old man, who later woke me in the middle of the night singing to the Virgin Mother in the hall of the xenodokhion.... 

 

Xenophontes 

 

A short walk further north through olive groves lies Xenophontes, a Greek Koinovion with many very young monk apprentices - evil tongues rumored, among more lurid insinuations (never bring your young son along, especially if he is blond, commented Wachtang to my report), that these novices had been "stolen" with the admission of their parents by the priests in the villages....

A corner of the monkish castle and... 

 

... its entry gate, where I spent the noon hours reading a psychology book on mystical experience East and West. There I suddenly encountered the Archimandrite of Northern Greece on a tour of his domain.

 The view of the moni from the pier...

 Dokheiarion

Half an hour further rises Dokheiarion from the sea. It is a idiorhythmic establishment, as one can guess from the many chimneys, and next to Dionysiou one of the most beautiful monasteries of Athos.

 The steeply rising interior, the strong tower served the monks as refuge when pirates or the Papists attacked the monastery. Such things happened in the 13th century before the Turks occupied Greece and protected the monks. Several Sultans - or better their Christian wives - are counted among the benefactors of Athos - but the graves of the monks who were killed by the Papists in the 12th century were shown to the visitor as if their murder had just happened yesterday....

 The monks apartments and the well house. I saw the old men viewing the women on the passing tourist boats with binoculars from the balconies of their apartments....

 Murals in the old well house.

 

 The roofs of the katholikon and...

 

 ...the view of the sea from the upper-most level.

 

Dokheiarion The roofs of chapels are often staked with slate slabs forming a large breast under which every night the monks send fervent prayers to the Mother of God, whose "Garden" is Athos....

Along the path I had sprained the tendon of my left heel. I limped back to hospitable Xenophontes and during the night resolved that my time was up. I took the morning boat to Ouranoupolis, and the train from Thessaloniki back to Germany - one last time a night and two full days of utter chaos.