A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 6 – end of my stay at Iviron

I took this shot of the daily monastic service programme displayed on the notice board of the Guest House at Iviron. Here’s my translation:

Programme of services
Monday-Saturday                              Time      Sundays / feast days                    Time
(excluding feast days)

a. Midnight service (main church)           3.30    a. Midnight service (main church)         3.30
b. Matins (main church)                          4.00    b. Matins (main church)                       4.00
c. Divine Liturgy (Chapel)                        5.30    c. Hours (main church)                        6.00
d. Tea (in the refectory after the Divine Liturgy)   d. Divine Liturgy (main church)            6.30  e. Meal (refectory)                                 10.30    e. Meal (in the refectory after the                                                                                             Divine Liturgy)
f. Vespers (main church)                         5.00     f. Vespers (main church)                     5.00
Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)                  6.00     g. Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)              5.45
h. Dinner (refectory)                                6.30     h. Dinner (refectory)                            6.15
i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)                7.00     i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)             6.45
On Saturdays dinner and Compline take place immediately after Great Vespers.

It is amazing to think that this daily programme of worship has been followed for hundreds of years, perhaps since Byzantine times. In fact Athos feels like a Byzantine time capsule: not just in terms of the liturgical progamme, but the buildings, the unspoilt landscape unmarked for the most part by signs of modernity, and the fact that Athos still follows the Byzantine Calendar and measurement of time. It also makes you aware of how much you are intruding on their daily programme and in some ways how much of a burden it is for the monasteries to have to provide accommodation and food to a constant flow of pilgrims.

It’s Sunday today and I wake at about 5.20am and can’t get back to sleep. I hear people getting up in the other dorms between 5.30-600 to prepare for the Liturgy at 6.30. I eventually manage to get up at about 6.00 and by the time I’m back from my ablutions my room mates are up and dressed with their bags packed. As I’m in the loo I hear the bells ringing to mark the imminent start of the service: once again I’m too late to record them.

Much of the service is conducted in the dark with minimal candles for the choirs, of which there are two singing antiphonally on either side of the nave, one often acting as the drone while the other chants the words. The choir leader cross and recrosses the nave as he moves from one choir to the other to conduct them. Nikolaos points out that the arrangement is cross shaped:


Choir 1                                             Choir 2


I manage to record most of the service though I keep thinking that at any moment I will be stopped. At one point a twinkly-eyed monk stands next to me looking at my recorder and pulls out a small torch to examine it. I wait anxiously for his reaction, but he just smiles and nods once he understands what it is.

Photography is forbidden in the church, but there is one shot I wish I could have taken. It is of a seated monk with a white flowing beard chanting, seen in three quarter profile and beautifully lit by a candle that is hidden by the music stand.

There is much censing of the icons and the faithful and there’s a lot of coming and going all the time. After a while it has a very hypnotic quality to it. Argyrios tells me that he had a remarkable experience once during the morning Liturgy at Dionysiou (the next monastery we are due to visit) and he promises to tell me what happened when we’re there.

I find one of the most moving moments of the service occurs when the monks take it in turns to stand in the middle of the church, crossing themselves and bowing to the altar and then continuing to make the sign of the cross and bow as they turn clockwise in all directions and then back round to the altar again. As they do so they ask all present to forgive them. Those in the congregation who are so moved go up and do the same thing.

Sunday is joyful, like a feast day. In the refectory I have managed to get a seat at the top of one of the long tables. With my back to the wall I have an excellent view of the whole refectory and the senior monks’ top table. As we pilgrims stand waiting for prayers a group of 6-8 monks process in to a joyful chant. Breakfast is a bowl of thin noodles topped with small pieces of flaked tuna in a tomato sauce, with feta, boiled egg, bread, an apple and a glass of red wine.

Today I can see the reader very clearly, as he seems to hang half way up the wall like a static talking icon. I watch the Abbot who seems to be taking in everything that’s going on in the Refectory. At the end of the meal a monk comes round to all the tables putting into our outstretched palms a small teaspoon of ‘kolyva’ ( a mixture of wheat grains pine nuts and sultanas).Traditionally this is something that is eaten at funerals. I am intrigued by the monk doing this as he is quite young and active (he’s been around shusshing us at various points during the meal when the volume of noise rose too much) and even more by the fact that he is Japanese. I wonder what journey he has been on to fetch up on the Holy Mountain. At the end of the meal, the monks process out again chanting. The Abbot to our right blesses us we emerge, while the cooks to our left bow deeply, and the remaining monks form a short tunnel to greet us.

Time for us to collect our things from the guest house and make our way down to the arsenas for the next stage of our trip. I feel quite sad to be leaving Iviron this morning.



Sunset over Naxos

As the sun begins to set over Naxos, people make their way out across the causeway connecting the island’s capital, Naxos Town to the little island of Palatia. Here stands one of the most iconic sites of the island, the Portara, the entrance to a 6th century BC temple dedicated to Apollo.

The top of the small hill on the island is a great spot to look out over the Aegean, observe the constant comings and going of the ferries, and to watch the sun set.

The most fought over patch of ground on the island is the 2 metre square point that gives an uninterrupted view of the sun setting through the Portara itself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there early enough to stake my claim, but I’m happy enough with the shots that I did manage to take as the sun set beside the ancient gateway. More than that though, it was a great joy to be able to experience the sun going down over the Aegean.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 5 – the museum at Iviron

The museum at Iviron is the pride and joy of Fr Prodromos and his pet project. He has been collecting material for it from all over the monastery and the surrounding area for years and now he has been able to house it all in a large, brightly lit basement area within the precincts. There’s no labelling of the items on display, but they are grouped by topic (eg kitchenware, wine and oil containers, keys, tools, etc.).

For example here’s part of the section devoted to baking, with wooden dough moulds and peels for putting loaves into a wood fired oven:

The cylindrical containers on rods in the picture below are for roasting coffee beans:

I was amazed to find a whole section devoted to rifles, guns and knives. This is an interesting reminder of the fact that Athos has frequently been attacked in the past by marauding pirates seeking to loot the monastery treasures. That’s why so many of the monasteries are built like fortresses with high walls, no easily accessible windows and heavily re-inforced doors. For example, the main door of the monastery of Dionysou (next on my little pilgrimage) is one of the thickest doors I have ever seen.

Here is a picture of monastery guards on Athos (not Iviron) taken as recently as 1913. They’re almost certainly not monks, but in earlier centuries they probably would have been.

Image result for armed guards of Athos

This window sill contains a whole pharmacy of medicine bottles. At first I thought the bell shaped glasses at the front were leech glasses, but now I think they are ventouse glasses which were used as a vacuum device for delivering babies or more likely for ‘cupping’. This technique was a folk remedy for dealing with chest colds and fevers.

The technique is well captured by Sydney Marangou-White (who was born in the village of Ouranoupoli on the border with the Holy Mountain) in this description of her mother, the village healer in the 1930s:

“Mamma stood on the left by a shelf. On it was her equipment, comprising a fork, cotton wool, a reel with sewing thread, a small glass, a box of matches and a bottle of blue liquid. She picked up the fork, wound the wad of cotton wool round the prongs, securing it with a piece of thread. She opened the bottle containing the blue liquid – methylated spirit. she poured some into the small glass and plunged the fork in it, head first…

Mamma removed the intoxicated fork from its alcoholic soak, struck a match and set the wad alight, making it look like a flaming torch. With her right hand she picked up a cup (ventouse), inserted the flaming torch into it to create a vacuum, and placed it adroitly on the patient’s back. Three more are applied to make a square…

The patient whimpers, begging Mamma to remove them. They are left in place only for a few minutes, but to the patient it seems a very long time.” 

(from Bones Washed in Water and Wine, 2012)

Bells of all shapes and sizes;

Chains and hooks:

Water carrying vessels:

Pulleys:And a huge variety of locks and keys:

Coming more up to date there were even some old radio sets, phones and mechanical typewriters. The final part of the museum features a small collection of agricultural equipment, including ploughs, harrows, rakes and carts:

and some threshing boards:

In the book quoted above, Sydney Marangou-White includes a description of how these items were used on the threshing floor:

 “…a circle was marked out on the hard ground with a stone. It was swept and received about four rows of sheaves. These were placed in a concentric manner, starting from the central point with heads down, and placed in an ever-increasing circle, until the marked area was reached…

The thresher…was a rectangular wooden platform, measuring about a metre by three metres, the front bent at an angle. It had big metal rings for attaching the donkey’s harness. The under surface of the platform was punctuated in horizontal lines with shards of flint. The thresher would be turned over on the sheaves at the edge of the circle; the donkey, head in the nosebag munching happily, was led to its post and firmly attached to the waiting platform. The threshing began with an oath from the driver to get the beast moving. To us, it was the only merry-go-round we knew, and we were given the opportunity to sit behind the driver in turn.”


I will write a bit more about Sydney Marangou-White when I come to Ouranoupoli at the end of this pilgrimage.

After our tour of the museum I sit in the evening cool of the monastery courtyard, relaxing in the deep silence of this space before retiring for the night at about 9.30.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 4 – the monastery of Iviron

Back down on the arsenas at Xenophontos, our group splits up into three as we go our separate ways to different monasteries. Our white minibus climbs steeply up the side of the mountain via a series of tight hairpin bends, expertly squeezing past another minibus making its way downhill. No idea how it managed that: I was expecting to hear the sound of scraping metall. You can’t call it a road, more like a rutted dirt-track with hollows and bumps that throw us around so violently inside the bus we could be trying to cross a trackless part of the Amazon rainforest. Soon we are deep in wild, uncultivated country with no signs of human presence and, as the road levels out, I realise we are crossing the top of the peninsula on our way to the monastery of Iviron on the east coast of the peninsula. Iviron means ‘of the Georgians’ (from the old Greek name for Georgia, Iberia) as it was supposedly built by two Georgian monks, though today it’s mainly Greek monks who live there.

Close to Karyes, the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain, the roads suddenly become metalled and on the outskirts of the town we pass a huge seminary for Greek priests. Arriving at Iviron Monastery at about 12.00, we get out of the minibus with our bags as a four-wheel drive vehicle pulls up behind us and a small group of people, including a Russian monk, jump out and stare at a flat rear offside tyre. The monk is looking angrily at it, brandishing a spanner and I wonder whether he’s going to give it a good thrashing to teach it a lesson. We enter the monastery by the back door and make our way to the guest house where we wait for the Guestmaster (Arkhontaris) to allocate us to out rooms..

I’m billeted in a dorm with our leader, Nikolaos, and 4 other people. Settling ourselves in our dormitory room we crash out for a few hours sleep after our very early start. I am intrigued by the fact that everyone puts their shoes outside the door, but apparently it’s to reduce the humidity in the room from gently cooling footwear.

Refreshed after my sleep, I leave my room mates fast asleep to go and explore the monastery with my camera. In the courtyard I meet a Russian in his 50s doing a solo pilgrimage on foot and fall into a conversation with him. He’s heading to the Monastery of St Andrew the First Called (in Karyes) and then on to the Russian monastery of St Pantaleimon. After the effort of concentration involved in listening to and speaking Greek, speaking to him in Russian is like a release: I can understand everything he’s saying and can express myself quite freely without racking my brain for the words. He is a small businessman from St Petersburg and quite critical of the current regime, though he says that after their experience in Soviet times, people can read between the lines and see through the propaganda. He makes no mention of Putin, but refers to a Russian proverb: ‘Every family has its own monster’. and adds “It may be a monster, but it’s our monster.” He says we’re all just people, all the same whatever our nationality and we’re all more or less lied to by our governments. Religious belief in Russia increased after the fall of Communism because they had nothing else to believe in but God. Personally he goes on pilgrimages and supports the monks at the monastery of Valaam (on Lake Ladoga) in Karelia.

As photography is generally allowed, apart from inside churches and of the monks. I take some shots around the monastery grounds.

The Katholikon (central church):

I walk out through the main entrance of the monastery and part way up the path that leads down to it. There are some beautiful buildings in this area.

The main entrance is accessed through a portico.

Under the portico is a large reproduction of the monastery’s (and one of Athos’s) most revered icons, the Mother of God of the Portaitissa (Gatekeeper), the original of which is kept in a special chapel inside the monastery. Its story goes back to the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantine history (8-9th centuries) when this particular icon was tossed into the sea. One night a monk on the Holy Mountain saw a great light shining out at sea which suddenly disappeared. This happened on successive nights until one night the monk walked out on the sea and saw a hand holding the icon up out of the water. He took it and brought it back back to the land and where he put it down on the seashore a sweet water spring sprang up. Then he put it in the church at Iviron and left it there. When he went back into the church on the following day, the icon was missing and was found over the entrance gate of the monastery. So the monk brought the icon down from the gate and put it back into the church. The same thing happened the following night. Then the Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him that the icon should be left over the gate so it could protect the monastery.

Looking out to sea and down towards the arsenas (jetty) the sea is beautifully clear and all shades of blue.

I think the monastery that you can see in the picture below taken from the arsenas at Iviron is the monastery of Stavronikita:

I am surprised at how much cultivated land there is around the monastery used for growing vegetables and vines.

I also suddenly realise how close we are to Mt Athos itself:

One of my fellow pilgrims, Mr Fraggopoulos, has a mechanical camera that has stopped working and I take a look at it for him. It’s clear that the film has got stuck and won’t wind on but I’m reluctant to open it up and spoil any pictures he’s already taken. I offer to take his photograph with my camera and as I frame the shot I notice one of the monks approaching from behind, striking the wooden talanto.

This is the traditional signal to indicate the imminent start of services, in this case Vespers. As monks start to arrive from all over the monastery all the church bells start ringing.

Before Vespers proper starts in the katholikon we are taken into a chapel to venerate the icon of the Portaitissa. You have to climb a few stone steps to get to the icon which is very dark and hard to make out. It’s also clad in a silver cover (a Russian custom) which symbolises the divine showing through the human nature of Christ and the Virgin Mary. In a corner of the chapel is a fresco icon of a pirate who stayed in a corner crying for 10 years before he converted to Christianity.

On the way into church for the service, Argyris takes me into a side room off the narthex to show me where some of Iviron’s relics are kept. It’s too dark to see clearly enough, but among the thigh bones, fingers and skulls on display I notice the skull of St Gregory of Nyssa, a Cappadocian Father who helped to develop the theology of the Trinity. Back in the church there’s a glass topped box on the back wall of the narthex containing the remains of the builders of the monastery which I find quite touching. I enjoy the service which last about an hour and a half and the quality of chanting is very good.

Vespers is followed by dinner sitting at long tables and benches in the refectory which is magnificently decorated from floor to celling with brightly coloured, elongated frescoes of saints. It’s a formal occasion, we pilgrims enter first and stand at our places, followed by a procession of the Abbot and senior monks and then the rest of the monastic community. The monks sit apart from the pilgrims on a separate table and the Abbot and senior monks sit at a semi-circular marble table at the top end, the sort of table you some times see in depictions of the Last Supper.

Dinner consists of fried potatoes with tomato, feta and bread with a small glass of the monastery’s own red wine (Argyris gives me his glass too), followed by an apple . Before we eat the Abbot says prayers and then taps a small bell as a signal to start eating. During the meal he taps his bell 3 more times to signal when we should drink the wine, but at least among the pilgrims, no one seems to take much notice of this.

As we eat a monk reads not from scripture, but a homily from one of the Church Fathers. I can’t make out where his voice is coming from, until peering up at the frescoes, I notice that he seems suspended in a hidden pulpit halfway up the wall, and so still that he appears to merge into the surrounding frescoes. For his reading he is rewarded with a glass of wine topped with a slice of bread, reserved for him at the top of the monks’ table.

Dinner is short (15-20 minutes), rounded off with a prayer from the Abbot. Then the monks process out two by two, preceded by the Abbot and senior monks. As we go out into the courtyard the Abbot stands to our right blessing us as we leave the refectory, while on our left are the three monks who cooked the meal bowing deeply to us. Argyris tells me this is to indicate that they are our servants. I find it deeply moving.

Then it’s a bit of relaxation and rest as monks and pilgrims mingle and talk to each other. It’s at this point that our little group has a bit of a treat as we are invited to visit Fr Prodromos’s museum. But that needs a post of its own to do it justice.




Timber raft – a song by Alexander Rozenbaum

Related image

I have loved this song for a long time. It’s by a Russian bard (someone who writes and performs their own generally anti-establishment songs) called Alexander Rozenbaum. He specialises in a type of song called ‘shanson’ (from the French), but which doesn’t mean the sort of art song that is associated with Brel or Brassens. In Russian it means criminal or underworld song.

Timber Raft is about the daily experience of a political prisoner in one of Stalin’s labour camps in Siberia surviving in terrible conditions and remembering happier times. In a way it’s the aural equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s novella One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The language is stripped down and condensed, but at the same time very concrete. This makes it hard to translate accurately without paraphrasing. So for example in line 4 of the  the final verse, he uses 5 words in Russian, but I have had to expand it to 12 to explain that pulling off his boots is as difficult as it was for a parish clerk to get to the truth of a matter in a dispute that was brought before him. There are also some simply amazing sound combinations in the song, for example in verse 3, lines 1-2 which sound like this in Russian:

kholoda shtykov da balandy kovsh
zhuravliny krik da telegi skrip

Rozenbaum accompanies the song with a spare acoustic guitar setting that reinforces the barrenness and sameness of the landscape.

Timber raft

Broken by wind-felled trees.
A land swept by snowstorms under armed guard.
The fire’s going out.
Can’t keep it alight. Wolf howling in the hollow.
If you fall down, that’s it. The snow’s made up
A song for us about a timber raft.

Blue-grey morning. The logs are slippery.
Can’t think about swans in this icy water.
Baccie’s damp.
Match’s smoking, steam from padded jackets
Drifts into the sky. If you stay behind
You won’t stand in line.

The ice-cold bayonets and the gruel ladle,
The cranes’ call and the creaking of the cart –
A nail scratched across glass.
Dreaming of a rye rusk, the fag break fug,
The fir trees like a soft bed,
We’ll catch up there again.

I’ll lie down in the past – in a cloudberry bush
I’ll lie down in the long-ago – on a crushed mushroom,
An orange cap.
I’ll recall the past – a little leaf stuck together,
I’ll recall the old days – a hot morning,
Blue sky.

Broken by wind-felled trees.
A land swept by snowstorms under armed guard.
The fire’s gone out.
Cheek shaking, the logging tractor’s clanging,
Get stuck in, mate. Spill the beans.
How did you end up here?

The river’s flooded, dissatisfied
With an empty glass. We can’t think about freedom –
Got to get back to the barrack hut…
Pulling off boots – it’s like a parish clerk getting to the truth
And crawling into the dry and dreaming of the forest
It all looks the same…
It all looks the same…
It all looks the same…
It all looks the same…

I have another favourite song by Rozenbaum called Anathema that I may have a go at translating. That one is quite an angry song about Stalin’s henchmen.

I like Rozenbaum’s songs which at one time were very popular in Russia. So it’s been disappointing to see him move from being a critic of the old Soviet regime to becoming a supporter of Putin and indeed an MP for Putin’s party Yedinaya Rossiya in the Duma.


A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 3 – the monastery of Xenofontos

“So, is there anything I should or shouldn’t do when I’m on Athos?”, I ask Nikolaos, our group leader (o kyrios Nikolaos – Mr Nikolaos – as my fellow pilgrims and I call him) at my pre-pilgrimage briefing. We (Nikolaos, Sofia, my Greek tutor and Nikolaos’s daughter, my wife and I) are sitting in the park near the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki on a beautiful warm summer evening enjoying soft drinks. I’m concerned that, not being Orthodox, I might embarrass my fellow pilgrims.

“Well, there are some things. Don’t run, sing or whistle. No loud laughter. And don’t put your hands in your pockets .”  OK, that doesn’t seem to be too bad. I think I can just about hold myself back from the urge to run around, laughing my head off, whistling and singing with my hands in my pockets.

“One other thing”, I ask him. ‘How do you address a monk?”, thinking that the Greeks use the similar word, Patir, that they use for talking to a priest.

” We say ‘eulogeite’ [bless]. To which the monk replies ‘o Kyrios’ [the Lord, ie ‘may the Lord bless you, often with the right index finger raised, pointing to heaven].” I wasn’t expecting that.

O kyrios Nikolaos also gives me a bit of a potted history of the Holy Mountain and shows me our intended route on a map. There have been isolated groups of monks on Mt Athos since at least the ninth century, but it was St Athanasius the Athonite who started to bring them together into monasteries, founding the very first, the Great Lavra in 963. This was followed by Vatopaidi in 974 and Iviron in 982.

So here I am now, at the monastery of Xenofontos, setting foot on the Holy Mountain for the first time, excited and just a bit anxious about how it’s going to go. Disembarking from our little ferry, we leave our bags on the jetty beneath a wooden verandah and head on up the slope that leads to the monastery gate. I’m a bit dubious about leaving my things there but am re-assured that they will be looked after.

In the main courtyard, there’s a stunning Byzantine katholikon (main church) in white and pink brick glowing in the sun. It looks old, but in fact it was only built a couple of hundred years ago.

The monastery itself as an institution dates back to the 10th-11th century, but generally from the outside the buildings look well maintained and not as old as I was expecting. This is something I notice throughout our pilgrimage. Although the foundations may date back over 1000 years, many have suffered fires and attack by pirates which means that they have been re-built, often several times. Fortunately, Athos has been successful in attracting money (including from the EU) to renovate its monastic buildings because, although many of the monasteries are asset rich, they are also cash poor.

Here are some of the other building surrounding the central courtyard.

As we arrive the celebration of the liturgy is nearing its end in a much smaller church which we can’t get into because it’s already crowded with pilgrims. So we have to stay outside in the narthex listening to the end of the service.

The walls of the narthex are covered with remarkable frescoes of the Revelation of St John – a theme which I come across in the other two monasteries we visit at Iviron and Dionysiou. The picture below shows (from left to right) St John the Theologian being inspired by Christ to write the Revelation, Lucifer’s fall and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Here the multi-headed Antichrist is confronted by the Lamb:

Not sure how the next one fits in as it seems to show the donors who provided the money for the katholikon:

At the end of the liturgy we are taken into a side dining room for breakfast so we don’t get a chance to eat with the monks and see the main refectory. The meal consists of two dishes, a bowl of peas and boiled potatoes in a tasty sauce with bread, followed by a creamy custard pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the top with plain water to drink. It’s much nicer than it sounds. In the monasteries on Athos monks eat two meals a day, lunch after the liturgy and then dinner after Vespers. I am struck by how much of an overhead it is for the monasteries to feed and accommodate a constant stream of pilgrims and how disruptive it must be, in some ways, to their way of life.

After breakfast our group is invited into the katholikon to venerate the icons and for an inspiring talk by one of the monks. The church was built in the early nineteenth century and the frescoes are not particularly interesting though the gold decorations are very impressive:  

Argyrios points out the ostrich eggs hanging from the rich chandelier. There are two explanations for them: they are either there to keep the spiders away or they are exotic decorations.

While my fellow pilgrims lean in for their pep talk, I wonder round looking at the frescoes and in particular a fine Pantokrator in the dome:

On the way out, in the narthex is a fine fresco of Saints Demetrios and George:

There’s a bit of a pause now as we wait in the guest house for our mini-buses to take us on to the monastery where we will be staying the night. From here we are splitting into three groups each visiting different monasteries. The monks bring in very cold water for us to drink and likhoum to eat. I have a chat to an elderly man (not in our group) who’s been coming to Athos 3-4 times a year since 1958 and he tells me every time it’s different. I start to wonder what it is that brings him and so many others (including o kyrios Nikolaos and Arguris) back so often. But before long, the lack of sleep catches up with me and I start to doze off. While we’re all still together in the main courtyard, I take a shot of the whole group for the Association’s newsletter:

I think it’s the only large group shot I have ever taken where everyone is looking at the camera. Probably because to get their attention I say: “As we say in England, say -“, but before I can finish the sentence they all chime in with ‘Cheese!’ (in English). Our leader, o kyrios Nikolaos is at the extreme right of the front row, and my ‘minder’, Argyris, is in the middle of the back row.