Originally published on July 7, 2012 on Open Salon.
If asked to provide a set of nouns that accurately embody who I am, “pilgrim” would be pretty far down on the list. I would say somewhere between “hot rod enthusiast” and “stamp collector.” However, I recently inhabited the role of the pilgrim, as I and three travel companions—my girlfriend’s brother Mike, her father Srdjan, and his good friend Les—wended our way to one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Orthodox Christians, Mount Athos.
Since the tenth century, Mount Athos (a rocky peninsula in northern Greece) has existed as a collective of Orthodox monasteries. There are currently twenty on the peninsula. One thing in particular makes Mount Athos a unique destination for pilgrims: first, the monks who reside on the mountain maintain a degree of political autonomy. Despite officially being a part of Greece, they are self-governed and own the land on which their monasteries reside, as well as the surrounding areas. This allows them to control the number of visitors to the peninsula. They can also control who visits and separate out who they won’t allow to come. For example, non-Christian men and women are not allowed on the Peninsula, and only 100 pilgrims per day are welcomed in.
For this reason, Mount Athos has an air of mystery surrounding it. One of the ways in which I prepared for my visit was to watch a recent 60 Minutes feature about Mount Athos that aired in April of 2011 (part 1 and part 2). The boon for 60 Minutes was that their story was the first time since 1981 that the monks allowed (professional) video equipment into their monasteries and even into their churches. While the 60 Minutes story is informative and revealing in its interviews with a handful of monks on Mt. Athos, it ultimately exaggerates its inaccessibility to the outside world. 60 Minutes provides a surface explanation of Mount Athos as isolated from civilization and “frozen in time.” It also, I suspect, draws most of its conclusions from the production crews’ experience in a handful of monasteries. Myself, I only visited a handful, but it was enough, as I’ll explain, to realize that there is diversity among the monasteries. This is something that is not acknowledged by 60 Minutes, and something that makes the peninsula and its monasteries even more compelling.
In another effort to prepare for my journey, I read one the only recent scholarly works about Mount Athos in English, geographer Veronica della Dora’s Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II. Little academic attention has been paid to Mount Athos, which I found surprising. Della Dora’s work is not about Mount Athos per se, and there is very little mention of the actual monks who reside there and their experience with maintenance or change over time. Nevertheless, she provides a compelling narrative of the various ways in which Mount Athos has been framed and reframed over time based on the intellectual environment and political trends in Western Europe. She proposes six different lenses through which Mount Athos has been understood over time—it has been mythic, utopian, iconic, erudite, geopolitical, and scientific. As a woman, della Dora was not even allowed on Mount Athos, which perhaps makes her the perfect scholar to write about how Mount Athos has been imagined over time. Still, the experience of the pilgrim is missing. I think that 60 Minutes provides one perspective about Mount Athos that is rooted in experience, but framed around the imagination of it as completely unchanged and with the intent of providing a journalistic service to their audience. In my travelogue, I want to describe what might be called the “Tourist Pilgrim Athos,” which is also rooted in experience, but also shaped by my perspective and expectations travelling there as a Catholic, non-Orthodox, pilgrim.
Accessing Mount Athos
In order to gain access to Mount Athos, one has to secure a special visa issued by the monks. This should be a relatively easy thing to do with enough advance planning, which is necessary because one must fax the monks all pertinent information. One hundred pilgrims are allowed to enter Athos each day, and of those one hundred only five are allowed to be non-Orthodox. It is easiest to travel to Mount Athos if you are an Orthodox pilgrim, but an alternative to being one is saying that you are one. I was lucky enough to get one of the five non-Orthodox spots; this may have been due to the fact that I was travelling with three Orthodox Christians. My visa indicated that I was a Catholic visitor (which required an additional 5 Euro added on to the Visa fee).
Mount Athos is inaccessible by land, so one has to take a boat from a town called Ouranoupoli in order to get there. In an attempt to cast Mount Athos as more difficult or unpleasant to travel to than it actually is, 60 Minutes calls it a “scruffy little town without an airport and dicey roads.” If I had to characterize Ouranoupoli, I would call it a pleasant resort town with fine Greek restaurants and what appeared to be nice beaches. Scruffiness might reside in the narrow streets that others might designate as charming, and the roads there are ‘dicey’ only insofar as they are a bit windy, but nothing unfamiliar to anyone who has driven on paved mountain roads. It is true that Ouranoupoli doesn’t have an airport, and 60 Minutes took this as an opportunity to embellish the difficult road to Athos by claiming that potential travelers have to make their way there from Athens. While one could fly to Athens and drive seven and a half hours to Ouranoupoli—which admittedly does sound very pilgrimmy—or one could do as my travel companions and I did and fly to Thessaloniki, which is a short hour and a half drive away. More pilgrim points might be collected in the first option, but that wouldn’t impress monks who have been living on a peninsula without women and a bunch of celibate men for dozens of years, so we just did what was most comfortable.
While the Peninsula is composed mostly of monasteries and monks, that is not all that is there. I was surprised at some of the things I initially found. We took a speed boat to the small port town of Dafni early in the morning. When we arrived, I was taken by the first things I saw on Mount Athos. While I expected my initial encounter to be with monks or a monastery, what I instead saw was a small restaurant (cafeteria style), several gift-shops selling postcards, stores selling dozens of different Orthodox icons, and general stores that sold walking sticks, wine, and beer—businesses manned by non-monks. Dafni is also a popular departure point from the speed boat or ferry because there is bus service to what is essentially the capital city of Mount Athos, Karyes. Because we took the speed boat, we arrived at Dafni a couple of hours before the bus departed for Karyes, which is coordinated with the arrival of the much larger ferry. Rather than waiting for the bus, we decided to start walking toward Karyes, which we determined would be a manageable two hour hike.
We asked for directions to Karyes, and were instructed to follow the dirt road until we saw a hiking trail. Ostensibly, one “couldn’t miss” the trail, which I suppose might be true if you already know where it is or if you’re an expert hiker with experience in finding overgrown walking paths. In any case, we eventually found the trail, which directed us toward our destination. One feels a lot more like a pilgrim walking on a marginally maintained trail than on a wide road, unpaved or not. We made our way up the trail, sweating through our clothes in the 90 degree weather and schlepping our minimally packed backpacks (which, by the way, did not include shorts, as they are discouraged on Mount Athos in general and especially in monasteries and churches). On the way to Karyes, we ran into the first monastery we would see, Xeropotamou, built in the tenth century. Here, I was immediately struck by how such a pristinely maintained and clean monastery could simply appear from dense mountain forest. I was struck by its beauty and grateful for the water fountain. One of the first things I noticed about the monastery other than its minimalistic grandeur (which, as I’ll explain, only exists on building exteriors) was that it appeared to be deserted. I imagined monasteries to be teeming with monks doing monk things—mostly praying, but also tending the abundant plants, fixing architectural imperfections, or healing injured birds. However, there was really nobody to be seen. We took advantage of our moments there to take some photos.
Srdjan and Les, the veteran pilgrims in our group, attempted to secure access to the monastery’s church. I would only later come to realize the necessity of making every effort to see the church at every monastery we came across, as I will soon explain. Unfortunately, the church was closed to visitors, so after taking in a bit more of the external atmosphere of the monastery, we decided to wait for the bus to take us to Karyes rather than walk the dirt road or take the chance of finding another “can’t miss it” hidden path. As we waited, I realized that up until that point, I hadn’t actually seen a monk yet, which I also found to be somewhat odd, given where we were.
Monks and monasteries on Mount Athos have a tendency to unsuspectingly materialize before your eyes. The most reliable method of travelling from one point to another is to walk, but this is not always possible. As one hikes through the mountains of Mount Athos, which contains twenty monasteries, twelve sketes (independent monastic communities affiliated with one of the monasteries), and numerous churches, it is easy to go hours without seeing any form of architectural habitat or human life. Over the course of several hours of hiking in two and a half days on Mount Athos, we didn’t come across a single other pilgrim on any of the trails. It is always striking, then, when you turn a corner or ascent a seemingly endless incline to be met with the domes, towers, and lush gardens that is an Athos monastic community. For the viewer, it didn’t exist the moment before, but once you see the monastery it seems as if it should be visible from space. Likewise, monks have a tendency to appear and disappear within the monastery walls, like pious ninjas. For example, prior to the evening church service, the monastery appears to be manned by exactly no monks. Once the bells ring calling to the service, there are suddenly a dozen monks making their way to the church. Once the service concludes a dozen monks then multiply to about forty prior to the evening meal, before they all dissipate once again. In the case of both monasteries and monks, the appearance is a surprise and the shared experience a privilege.
The first monk we saw nonchalantly joined us at the bus stop, waiting to get a ride to Karyes. As most monks on Mount Athos, this guy was quiet, only proffering a curt “hello” to us before standing as far away from us at the waiting station as he could. Monks are not the chattiest bunch. As we were waiting for the bus, we had a stroke of good luck, as another monk driving a van (another oddity that I didn’t necessarily expect) stopped to pick up the first monk on his way to Karyes. He waived us into the van, and we followed, happy that we would arrive a bit earlier and in an un-crowded van rather than a bus. What is it like to hitch a ride from a monk, you may ask? First of all, “hitching a ride” is not quite right, as we were charged for the service. I would also mention that the ride was bumpy on the mostly unpaved roads—small paved stretches of road appear and disappear like so many monks. Finally, I was struck by the utter lack of communication between the driver and passenger in the front seat. I have absolutely no idea whether or not they knew each other. There are two thousand monks on Mount Athos, and even if they are able to distinguish the black robed men with either black or grey beards better than I can, I can’t assume that they are all acquaintances. In any case, they had no real reason to speak to one another, as the radio in the van contained monks chanting what I assumed to be scripture or prayers. At one point, the driver changed the station, with striking banality, as if he were tired of hearing the new rendition of “The Sermon on the Mount” that all of the stations have been overplaying.
My next surprise came when we finally arrived in Karyes. As I said before, I didn’t expect to find a store on Mount Athos selling postcards, which made my urgency to purchase postcards in Ouranoupoli seem over-eager. In Karyes, I was greeted by a post office, which again made my initial thoughts that “at least I can write postcards on Mount Athos” appear completely wrong-headed. “I could purchase, write, and even send them all from here,” I thought. I also saw more general stores, where we secured much needed afternoon fruit and our mandatory daily bottle of Ouzo. Karyes has the feel of a small downtown strip. This feel is confirmed by the government building, flying the flags of Greece and Mount Athos, which is the seat of the monk chosen (from a vote by a representative of all monasteries) every year to represent the Peninsula as a political unit. Karyes also houses what is one of the more popular churches among the pilgrims on the peninsula. In the entire time there, this was the only time we had to wait in line to get into a church. As we were let in by a monk who appeared to be particularly annoyed at the crowd of pilgrims, we walked into and were awed by the beauty of the frescoes, chandeliers, and grandiose icons within the church. This was also my first experience with the crossing and kissing rituals that are second nature to any devout Orthodox Christian, but unfamiliar to someone raised Catholic who even crosses himself incorrectly according to Orthodox convention. After seeing the church, I started to realize the great effort made by my fellow pilgrims to access the church earlier in the day, and their disappointment in being denied.
Once we saw this church, we walked about ten or fifteen minutes to the closest monastery, Koutloumousiou. The stunning beauty within this church surpassed even the one we had just seen. Unfortunately, the monks generally do not allow photographs to be taken inside of the churches. It is unfortunate, because they are truly breathtaking. It was at this point that I knew that I was really on a unique excursion unlike anything I had experienced before. Yet, I was still bristled by the 60 Minutes cover story that presented Mount Athos as unforgivably difficult to access, that in their words is “not Mars or Venus, but it might as well be.” I still think this is an exaggeration, but the way my visit progressed showed that my initial perception of relatively easy access on the Peninsula was ill-conceived. Mount Athos is difficult to understand and absorb quickly, and it is because of its complexity, not its simplicity.