02 September 2018
A pilgrim visits the monasteries on
Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain
On the shores of the Chalkidiki peninsula in north-east Greece, a 14th century Byzantine castle stands above a small sandy beach at Ouranoupolis. The castle is uninhabited today, but over an 800-year history it has housed visiting Byzantine emperors, Orthodox monks and Anatolian refugees.
The castle was built in the early 14th century as part of a farm owned by the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos. Decades later, Byzantine emperors exempted the tower and the farm from taxes, and monks from Vatopedi continued to live in the tower as they farmed the surrounding countryside until 1922.
The Greek government confiscated the tower and the monastic land around it in 1922 to settle Greek-speaking refugees who had been expelled from Ataturk’s Turkey. The first boatload of refugees came from Caesarea, and refugees continued to arrive each year up to 1928.
The village was known as Prosforion until 1946, when the name was changed to Ouranoupolis, inspired by the unexplored site of an ancient town nearby founded in the reign of Alexander the Great.
Ouranoupolis remained cut off from the rest of Greece until a harsh winter forced the villagers to cut the first road out in 1959. No longer isolated from the rest of mainland Greece, Ouranoupolis was poised to take advantage of the beginning of tourism in the 1970s after the fall of the colonels’ regime.
‘City of the Heavens’
The name Ouranoupolis means ‘City of the Heavens.’ But for most of the summer Ouranoupolis remains a haven from noisy and boisterous tourism, coming to life in the early morning as coaches arrive bringing people to catch the early morning ferries to Mount Athos, and coming back to life again when the ferries return and the cafés and restaurants do a brisk and busy trade.
I had last visited Mount Athos when I spent Easter Week in 2004 in Vatopedi, the monastery that once owned the tower and lands in Ouranoupolis. I returned to Mount Athos earlier this year while I was staying in Thessaloniki.
Mount Athos is known to Greeks as the Holy Mountain (Aghion Oros) and it forms its own autonomous Athonite State within the boundaries of Greece. With 20 monasteries and 12 sketes or smaller monastic houses under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Mount Athos has been the spiritual and intellectual centre of Orthodoxy for centuries.
Many of the monasteries are known for their opposition to ecumenism, and Esphigmenou, the northern-most monastery, is particularly outspoken. In an escalating conflict, the monks have defied eviction orders by both church and state, and even Orthodox visitors find anything but a warm welcome at Esphigmenou, where monks have draped a banner from the battlements declaring: ‘Orthodoxy or Death.’
A pilgrims’ journey
Mount Athos is a Unesco-listed world heritage site. The monasteries and their schools of icon-writing and painting have influenced art and architecture throughout the Orthodox world, from Greece and Cyprus to Romania and Russia. Over 2,000 monks live ascetic lives in the monasteries and sketes, in secluded isolation from the rest of the world.
It was a two-hour, 140 km bus journey from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis. There we caught one of the many morning boats that sail along the west coast of Mount Athos as far as the southern tip, where the peaks of this mysterious and miraculous peninsula reach their highest point at 2,033 metres.
Only men may visit Mount Athos, all visitors need a special permit or diamoneterion, priests need a special invitation from the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Holy Mountain is forbidden to women and children. On our four-hour boat trip, there were women and children on board, and no-one had a visitor’s permit. Although we could not disembark at any of the monastic piers or visit any of the monasteries, for many this was the closest they were ever going to get to the monasteries, and the journey took on the atmosphere of a pilgrimage.
Monasteries by the shore
As we travelled along the coast, we passed a succession of bays and small harbours leading to inland monasteries that were not within sight. The port of Zographou leads inland to Zographou or Saint George the Zograf Monastery, founded by three Bulgarian monks from Ohrid in the late 9th or early 10th century.
This is still seen as a Bulgarian monastery and today it has about 15 monks. The monastery is named after a 13th or 14th century icon of Saint George, said to have mysteriously painted itself on the prepared board. A sceptical bishop is said to have tried to test the icon by touching it, but part of his finger stuck to the icon and had to be severed.
Docheiariou was the first monastery we saw on the coast on out journey. With its tall, 18th century defensive tower, it looks like a fortified castle. It was founded in the 10th century and is dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Since the late 15th century, this has been a Serb monastery, and today it is home to about 30 monks.
The second monastery was Xenophontos, founded in the 10th or 11th century by Saint Xenophon. As a monastery on the seashore, Xenophontos frequently suffered from pirate raids. The monastery fell into financial ruin but was re-established in the 18th century. The bell tower was built in 1864. Today the community has 30 monks.
Introducing the ‘Jesus Prayer’
Saint Panteleimon, also known as the Rousikon or Russian monastery, is mid-way along the west coast. This is the most eye-catching monastery on Mount Athos and the largest of the 20 monasteries. The expansive, grand multi-storey buildings, many of them abandoned, the green copper onion domes and the resounding bells testify to its rich and expansive past.
For centuries, Russian and Greek monks lived together in harmony in Panteleimon. The benefactors included Byzantine emperors, Serbian princes, wealthy Romanians, Greek merchant families in Constantinople and Russian tsars.
After a long absence, Russian monks began returning in the 19th century, and they monks numbered 1,000 in 1895. But in 1913, 800 monks were sent back to Russia, and the Russian Revolution in 1917 brought to an end the flow of Russian monks for most of the 20th century.
Two monks of the monastery – Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) and Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993) – were influential in introducing the practice of the Jesus Prayer to Western spirituality.
In 2005, President Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to visit the monastery. Today, there are about 70 Russian and Ukrainian monks at Saint Panteleimon.
Xeropotamou, a classic example of Athonite architecture, stands on a conspicuous site 200 metres above sea level. This is one of the oldest Athonite monasteries, although its early history remains obscure and the exact date of its foundation and the identity of its founder are obscured in tradition and myth. One tradition says it was founded by the Empress Pulcheria in the fifth century.
The monastery flourished until the 13th century, and like the other monasteries it has had its periods of decline, including catastrophic fires and the burden of great debts.
Today, the monastery owns the port of Daphne and its treasures include two pieces of the True Cross. The monastery now has about 25 monks.
Daphne is a small settlement between Xeropotamou and Simonopetra with fewer than 40 residents. It serves as the port and entry point to Mount Athos, with daily ferries to and from Ouranoupolis.
The Monastery of Simonos Petra venerates Saint Mary Magdalene as one of its ‘co-founders,’ despite the prohibition on women visiting the mountain. Known more simply as Simonopetra, this is the most daring construction on Mount Athos, at a height of 330 metres on the end of a rocky mountain range. It was founded around 1257, but was destroyed by fires in 1570, 1622 and again in 1891.
Decades of decline were reversed in 1973, when a new 20-member brotherhood from the Meteora on the Greek mainland moved to the monastery, which now has a community of 50 monks.
The Monastery of Gregoriou is built on a sea-washed rock with balconies overlooking the gulf below. It was founded in the 14th century by Gregory, a Syrian monk from Mount Sinai. The monastery has about 70 monks today.
Dionysiou or ‘Nea Petra,’ on the south-west tip of Mount Athos, stands on a narrow and steep rocky mass rising to a height of 80 metres above the sea. It is named after the founder, Saint Dionysius from Korysos near Kastoria.
Saint Niphon, Patriarch of Constantinople, was a monk of Dionysiou in the 15th century. The monastery’s wall paintings or frescoes, dating from around 1546, are the work of Tzortzis, an influential member of the Cretan School of Iconography. The gilded sanctuary screen and the wall-paintings of the Book of Revelation are the oldest complete portrayal of these scene in the Orthodox world. The treasures and relics include the right hand of Saint John the Baptist. The monastery has a community of around 50.
The last monastery we reached was Saint Paul or Aghiou Pavlou, founded by Saint Paul of Xeropotamou, who also founded Xeropotamou. The monastery was deserted in the 14th century, but was restored by Serbian nobles, Byzantine emperors, Danubian princes and Romanian and Greek benefactors. Catastrophes in 20th century included a fire in 1902 and a flood in 1911.
The monastery’s oldest building, the chapel of Saint George, has frescoes painted by members of the Cretan School. The monastery treasures are said to include the gifts of the Three Wise Men, donated by the Serbian-born wife of the Sultan Murat II. She is said to be the only woman to have set foot on the shore at the monastery harbour. Other relics include the foot of Saint Gregory the Theologian, and a piece of the True Cross. The community consists of 30 monks.
Return to Ouranoupolis
During our journey along the west coast of Mount Athos, we also saw a number of smaller houses that are dependencies of the larger monasteries, including Kelli Ayiou Modestou, Skiti Monoxilites, and Metochi Chourmitsis an outlying farm belonging to Panteleimon, where the once abandoned vineyards have been developed in recent years by the Tsantalis label, producing organic wines and spirits.
We returned along the full length of the south-west coat of the Holy Mountain. In all, we had seen eight or nine of the 20 monasteries on Mount Athos.
Back in Ouranoupolis, after a late but lingering lunch, we explored the small shops along the seafront, selling icons and religious goods made by the monks in the monasteries. In one shop, a woman devoutly but proudly brought us to see the bread she had baked for the Eucharist the next day: Easter would dawn in the morning.
This feature was published in September 2018 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)