The Holy Mountain Athos

What may seem an oxymoron, an agnostic recognizing the sacredness of Mt. Athos, is perfectly normal to me. I do not believe in a divine being, but freely accept the holiness of humanity and creation, whatever caused the big bang. I accept holiness because it’s impossible to deny visceral emotions when immersed in surroundings that dwarf ordinary human expression.

There are certainly impressive mountains that tower over 2,033 meter/6,670 foot Mt. Athos, even in Greece. It’s not about size. It’s all about perception.

Its conical shape pierces the humid sky at the southern end of Athos Peninsula, the eastern most of Halkidki’s three fingers of land on the southern Aegean coast of central Macedonia. The peninsulas of Halkidiki are a summer playground of secluded beaches, postcard villages and forested cliffs plunging into the sea. Yet for more than three millenniums Athos has remained sacred land.

Like so much in ancient Greek history the mountain has titanic origins. In a doomed struggle with Poseidon, the mythic giant Athos threw a rock at the god of the sea, but it fell short of its mark falling into the Aegean creating the mountain and his possible tomb. The gods, of course, always win.

The water currents surrounding Athos have proved treacherous thwarting the plans of empires. In 492 BC the Persian fleet headed for Thrace was decimated by fierce winds that smashed its ships into the rocky shore with the loss of over 20,000 men. In 411 BC Sparta similarly lost a fleet of ships embarked on conquest.

Along with Mt. Olympus, Mt. Athos held a special place in the imagination of ancient Greeks with temples to the pantheon dotting the mountain slopes. By the early Christian era it had replaced the sacred status of Mt. Olympus in the psyche of Greeks. Legend goes that Christ granted Mt. Athos to his mother, the Virgin Mary, as a garden paradise for the souls of heaven’s sons seeking salvation.

Mt. Athos has remained a male-only enclave for over a thousand years.

By the eighth century the first monks are recorded to have taken up residence on the mountain setting the example of dedicating their life to contemplation of the divine through prayer and practicing an esthetic life style. Athos as it is today started to take shape in 958 when Athonasios the Athonite arrived and with the patronage of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas began the construction of Great Lavra, the first of now 20 monumental monastery complexes that are feats of Medieval engineering.

Great Lavra Monastery, 10th century

Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire did little to alter the importance of Mt. Athos as a pilgrimage destination for Christians. Indeed even some of the sultans themselves visibly and materially recognized its holy status. Through the centuries the monasteries acquired countless sacred relics, icons and became master wine makers extending their land holdings throughout Halkidiki.

In dealing with worldly reality, these sanctuaries of another world created fortress like structures and real politic compromises to guard against human threats ranging from pirates to the Nazis. They survived. The gold and treasures of the Orthodox Church are evident as well as pervasive serenity.

rocky paths connect Athos monasteries

Ascending and descending the Holy Mountain Athos itself is half the experience, and for me the most mystical. The physically challenging steep, unforgiving rocky paths are sheer penance. One questions what deep unknown sins were committed to deserve such an experience.

Yet it’s just that experience that cleanses all that’s burdening the mind – let’s forget the soul for a moment. The heart pounds and the breathing is heavy for a man in his seventh decade. After the first upward 300-meters/1,000 feet reality became a necessity. My athletic companions half my age did not deserve to be held back although no complaint passed their lips.

Mt. Athos is the Autonomous State of the Holy Mountain also known as the Athonite State with special status and governance recognized by the Greek constitution and the European Union. The 20 monasteries serve as its cities with dependences akin to suburbs housing workers and monks. Transportation to supply this world that defies centuries is by boat from outside the Autonomous State and, with the exception of a small road system connecting the administrative capital of Kayres to a few close monasteries, mule train and hiking paths within.

My transport

Mules transport most supplies from hay bails to computer printers as well as humans up and down the holy mountain. They’re not particularly happy when a 195-pound human is their load. Riding sidesaddle without support – “balance” the driver repeated for the first 30 minutes of what was a three plus hour trek – was an exceptional experience akin to actually climbing the mountain.

Eventually balance worked. Like all in life, the driver’s mantra was a metaphor. The mule was grudgingly happy once I maintained balance. I was pleased to concentrate on the spectacular views from the narrow paths with thousand foot drops if balance wasn’t maintained. I was even amused by the attempts of the mule to bash my legs against rocks and into trees at his discretion.

The ecosystem of Mt. Athos is a spectacle. Rock cliffs radiate humid heat that melts into the skin. Dense green forests providing cool respite punctuate the land and petite wild flowers scream, “calm down and give in to the experience.” Riding a mule, or hiking the uneven rocky paths, the flowers are correct – give in. Turning back still presents the same experience, so moving forward makes sense.

At the 1,600 meter level the mules stop at the Panaghia Refuge, a small stone structure sans running water and electricity that serves as a 20+ bed hostel and Orthodox Church on a plateau at the base of the mountain’s summit. Unfortunately sunset was approaching and the last 400 meters is the most difficult with exceptionally steep paths composed of shifting stone. The prize at the summit, naturally, is an ethereal view that few humans will ever experience.

Was I disappointed that I couldn’t join my companions that had achieved the summit? Yes. It took me some time to calm down, remember the wisdom of the flowers, and stop feeling guilty that I hadn’t accomplished my original goal.

Then this other world diverted my base human reactions. The view at 1,600 meters/5,250 feet of the stark landscape above the tree line and the silence was overwhelming. A photo capturing sunset against a simple cross on a rock outcropping was emotional not because of Christian iconography but human symbolism. Jesus did not ask to be crucified; neither did the mules have much to say in transporting me up an arduous Golgotha at the end of their long day just so I could experience such tranquility.

Sleep came early and easy in the rustic bunk beds of the Panaghia. A group of men awoke at 4:30 a.m. to hike the last 400 meters and greet the dawn. I choose to witness sunrise at 6:30 a.m. at the Panaghia and was equally pleased with a star-like image enlightening the heavens.

Dawn on Mt. Athos

My companions descending from the summit met me at the Panaghia, but three had to return to the real world of commerce. Thibaut, a young French photo journalist, and I took off for Great Lavra monastery on a nearly eight hour, ten plus mile hike through equally arduous uneven rocky paths in excessive heat and humidity once more questioning what justified self punishment. Fortunately spaced every couple of miles a pure, fresh water spring would be channeled into a drinking fountain.

At the end was serenity, a growing friendship plus a room, bath and a delicious, simple meal at Great Lavra within its vast vaulted dining hall with walls and ceiling lined by ageless, stunning frescos – all without so much as requesting a penny. With monks softly chanting in the background, yet too tired to witness their devotions, the cool mountain air helped me drift off to sleep.

If the essence of organized spirituality is to prepare us for a life beyond humanity what’s the point to a non-believer? Yet if it’s to rediscover and energize the “light within” – the essence of Quaker (The Society of Friends) philosophy that there is “that of God within everyone” – than an arduous hike up a great mountain and around an extraordinary landscape pushing the physical body beyond the demands of everyday life is a spiritual experience, especially if it’s accomplished in the companionship of like-minded people no matter the age differential.

A church at the Sketae of St. Anne, Major

Yet not all pilgrims to Mt. Athos were wrapped in golden robes. There were defining moments during the four-day visa period where rudeness from both visitors and, unfortunately, some monks challenged the serenity I so cherished those first two days. In the back of my mind was the knowing reality that Jesus, a historical human, drove the moneychangers out from the temple. He never said, “all are wonderful.”

The great Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras of Samos, (5th century B.C.) believed that man is the measure that must be used to understand the universe. Yet cautioned that what we accept as reality is shaped by each individual’s perception of the world. Reality as a kaleidoscope can often create confusion and conflict.

Panaghia Refuge, 5,250′

Perhaps the different world of Mount Athos is designed to accomplish a degree of clarity. A few may gain a glimpse of enlightenment among the glitter of relics, magnificent architecture, displays of passionate religious fervor, priceless art, indifference, blind acceptance of the unexplainable, senseless discarded trash within a pristine ecosystem, occasional rudeness and integrate all those experiences into a new perception of how they want to live their lives. Maybe sacred sites are simply a foil – the background that illuminates for the pilgrim the individual spirituality they are seeking.

When I was departing on the ferry the fourth day, Thibaut asked, “What will you take away from Mt. Athos?” The reply was easy, “I’m taking away a new friend.” It was more than a platitude for what truly is the purpose of a pilgrimage? Or for that matter any thoughtful adventure? Who best to help a fellow human alter perceptions of life in a positive manner than experiencing another world through a pair of new eyes – be they divine or rooted in the real world.

When I returned to the Alexandros Palace Hotel, owned and managed by my friend and Athos organizer Thomas Aslanidis, on the northern commercial part of the Athos peninsula, he told me he and his two muscular friends were still hurting from the climb, even though they’d done it times before. So as I soaked in the warm tranquil waters of the Aegean Sea soothing my own overworked muscles and gazed at the Holy Mountain I had photographed many times from a distance I broke down and wept.

It wasn’t tears of relief, joy or spiritual enlightenment. It was amazement. I’d challenged myself more than imagined inside and out and, as the mountain encouraged, I accepted what I had accomplished.

Mt. Athos is another world and an exceptional experience. I feel privileged to be a part of it, and I’ll return in a heartbeat.

Mt. Athos at the Panaghia Refuge, 5,250′

When you go:

The Athos Peninsula of Halkidiki is a two hour drive from Thessaloniki and there is comfortable bus transportation to the main port of Ouranoupolis.

The Holy Mountain only admits adult men. Women and non-visa holding men may take day excursion boat tours from the Athos port of Ouranoupolis to view the magnificent architecture of the monasteries from a distance.

Visit http://www.inathos.gr/athos/en/ and http://www.athosfriends.org/PilgrimsGuide/planning/ for visa application regulations and essential information related to visiting the monasteries.

Visas are strictly regulated by the Autonomous State and granted in very limited numbers especially for foreigners and non-Greek Orthodox visitors. Apply 4 to 6 months in advance with specific dates for your visit – see the web sites above. A 4-day visa is the standard. A visitor can request a visa extension and in exceptional circumstances it may be granted.

Men must wear long pants, no shorts, while on Mt. Athos and in the monasteries. Swimming and fishing within the Autonomous State is not allowed. Monasteries do not charge for an overnight stay including breakfast and dinner but this applies to one night only. A visitor may request more than one night and in exceptional circumstances it may be granted. Reservations at the monasteries for an overnight stay are recommended especially during the summer months ­–­ see the websites.

Cell phone connections are remarkably good even at the mountain summit! You may stop and visit all the monasteries and smaller dependencies, the sketaes. Many have priceless relics such as the beautiful Sketae of St. Anne, Major – mother of Mary ­– with a relic of her foot. Believers who have difficulty fathering children venerate the relic in hopes of assistance.

You will be served a shot of tsipouro, a traditional distillation from grapes, and sweets at most monasteries. It’s rude not to accept, and if hiking why would you? If you cannot consume alcohol ask for tea.

Be prepared to do a lot of hiking; it’s part of the experience. There is limited bus and van transportation to a few monasteries. If hiking is physically impossible than take the ferry to Dafni where bus and van connections can be made to the limited area served.

The administrative capital of Kayres is a small commercial village with shops and cafes that serve traditional dishes and beer. It is also possible to stay in a few monastery owned guesthouses in Kayres for a modest fee that includes breakfast and dinner. One such guesthouse is St. John of Russia run by Father Joseph.

Travel with Pen and Palate every month to Greece and the world in the Hellenic News of America.

Disclaimer: the author was a guest at the Alexandros Palace Hotel

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