A poem commemorating Greek Okhi Day

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In Greece, 28 October commemorates the day in 1940 when the Greek government stood up against the invading Italian army. Mussolini had issued an ultimatum demanding his army be allowed to enter the country for strategic reason or Greece would face a war. Metaxas, the Greek Prime Minister, allegedly replied with the single word ‘Okhi!’ (No!) and that same day launched a counterattack against the invaders in the Pindus mountains on the border with Albania. This event, a symbol of Greece’s pride and ability to defend itself, is still a national holiday with parades by the military, students and schoolchildren.

Here’s my translation of a poem by Nikiforos Vrettakos about the fighting in that harsh, mountainous environment:

A soldier mutters on the Albanian front

Who will bring a little sleep to us here where we are?
At least then we would be able
to see our mother, as if she were coming to see us
carrying a a starched sheet under her arm
with a warm apron and marigolds from our garden.
A faded monogram on the edge of her shawl:
a lost world.

We wander around up here in the snow with stiffened greatcoats.
The sun never came out completely from behind the heights of the River Morava,
The sun never set unwounded by the jagged edges of Mt Trebeshinë.
I stagger in the wind without any other clothing,
Doubled over with my rifle, freezing and uncertain.

(When I was young, I used to see my reflection in the streams
of my native land
I was not cut out for war).

This recent infection under my arm would not concern me,
This rifle would not suit me, it if were not for you,
sweet earth that seems like a person,
if there were not cradles behind us and whispering tombs
if there were not people and if there were not mountains with majestic
faces, seemingly cut by the hand of God
to match the place, the light and its spirit.

The night pricks our bones in the bunkers;
in here
we have brought our friendly faces and embrace them
we have brought our home and our village church
the cage in the window, the girls’ eyes,
our garden fence, all our boundaries,
the Blessed Virgin with the carnation, a strapping girl,
who covers our feet before the snow does,
who enfolds us in her veil before death does.

But, whatever happens we will survive.
countless people live in the spirit of Freedom,
People beautiful in their sacrifice, People.
The meaning of virtue is a great encampment.
The fact that they have died does not mean that they have stopped being here,
with their sadnesses, their tears and their conversations.
Your sun will be bought at great cost.
If, by chance, I do not come back, may you be well.
Think a little about how much it cost me.

(When I was young, I used to see my reflection in the streams
of my native land
I was not cut out for war).

Belarus and the impact of Chernobyl on its struggle for freedom

Here’s an article I wrote about Belarus that has recently been published here, based on my experiences of visiting the country over many years,

‘CIA! CIA!’ the man wobbling towards me on his bike shouted as I tried to take his photograph. It was a shock. My embarrassed companions moved me on. We were standing in the main road through a small village deep in southern Belarus in the early 1990s where foreigners were a rare sight indeed, probably ‘spies’. My companions were a 12-year-old girl, Tanya, who my wife and I had hosted the previous year for a month’s recuperation in the UK, and her mother.

This was the first of many visits to this little-known country, independent of the Soviet Union since 1991, and much fought over across the centuries by invading armies from east and west. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986, Belarus was suddenly no longer just a name on a map. Heavily contaminated by the fallout, its children were some of the worst affected with a high incidence of radiation-induced cancers.

Tanya’s visit and first stay with us, arranged by a charity in Wells, drew us into a close connection with the country and its people. Over the years, the charity has invited over 400 children to stay with local families. Charities like ours sprang up all over the UK and Europe, inviting children for recuperative holidays with families, offering a warm welcome, healthy food, medical treatment and all sorts of entertainments. They enabled hundreds of thousands of Belarusian children to spend time abroad, forging links with families and communities, experiencing a different way of life and seeing different possibilities for themselves and ultimately, perhaps, for their own country.  It was driven by a spontaneous humanitarian impulse and had nothing to do with international power politics.

Belarus is a country of contrasts: the north and west more catholic and developed, the south more orthodox and conservative; nostalgic for the stability of Soviet power but fascinated by the west. A peasant society, it has urbanised fast – three quarters of its 9.5m plus population now live in towns and cities. Many of the rural families whose children came to stay in Wells seemed very passive and reluctant to discuss politics. It was as if it was something remote and unconnected with how they lived their lives. They were also some of the warmest, kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met.

Alexander Lukashenko, the so-called ‘last dictator in Europe’, currently struggling to hold on to power, was elected President in 1994. Then, slowly, after that first flush of independence in 1991, things began to close down again. Even the radical, free thinking people I knew were less keen to talk about the régime. Denis, a professor of English in Minsk, told me that a country gets the government it deserves and was contemptuous of the mass of the people who had voted Lukashenko into office. But beyond that, silence.

Natasha, a teacher in Svetlogorsk, who cooperated with us on sustainable livelihood projects, told me she was frequently called in for interviews by the local KGB after our visits ‘to find out what the foreigners were doing’. We supported another friend Dmitry in developing beekeeping and orchard growing in a small town called Narovlya, near the Ukrainian border. He told a similar story about the KGB.

Belarusian TV, always on in the background when visiting people’s homes, broadcast news with a political slant. This came home to me really strongly when I visited the country in 1998 during the war in Kosovo. Wherever I went, I was buttonholed by good friends, as well as people I had just met, asking me why NATO was bombing ‘our brother Slavs’. Their view was coloured by the selective presentation of the conflict on state TV. How could I expect people to have a sense of the conflict as a whole and of the Serbian war crimes?

By the early noughties, my wife and I had moved on from hosting children to supporting community initiatives in Belarus, such as growing vegetables in polytunnels, encouraging microfinance schemes and orchard growing. Local officials, initially keen to support our projects, gradually cooled off. As happened in Russia, for example, where Oxfam ran some very successful microfinance projects, foreign aid became seen as a way for funding to be channelled to political opponents and was officially discouraged. It became increasingly difficult for us to operate. From meetings at the local council offices in Narovlya, we were reduced to having our last meeting out in the forest, where our official contact could plausibly claim to her superiors that she had bumped into us by accident. Our project funding was modest and community focused: they wanted us to set up a meat processing plant.

Amid the gathering gloom there were bright spots. Wherever we went in Belarus, we came across families whose children had been abroad, the memories and the friendships made still cherished. Often the children were spurred on to learn their host families’ languages, work harder at school, do better for themselves.

We enjoyed some success in our own modest projects; our friend Dmitry, for example, was keen to make the transition from school maintenance man to self-employed smallholder. We encouraged and financed his venture for several years until he was able to become more self-sufficient

Then we met Alexey – a remarkable man from the north of Belarus, introduced to us by the British Embassy in Minsk. He was bright and very positive. Until Lukashenko came to power, he had been a member of the Belarusian parliament, but he quickly saw the way that things were going under the new president and gave up politics completely to return to his native village.

Alexey’s view was that the country could only be transformed from the grassroots up, not through national politics, so he devoted himself to setting up projects in his native village to encourage self-reliance and resilience in the local population. These included a bakery that employed local people; green energy projects; creating a business-incubator to provide seed-corn funding to local small business start-ups; and founding a credit union. All very forward thinking.

Alexey invited President Lukashenko for a visit and after that things got more difficult with unannounced tax and other inspections, withdrawal of support from local officials and harassment for receiving funding from German project investors. The good news is, he’s still going strong because he refuses to be put off by these clumsy interventions.

We’re still in touch now and again with Tanya, the girl who first came to stay with us nearly 30 years ago. She lives and works in St Petersburg these days. I thought of her again recently, when reading about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (they’re about the same age) who stood against Lukashenko in the presidential elections two weeks ago. She is claiming she won, alleging that the ‘official’ outcome showing an 80 per cent vote in favour of Lukashenko was rigged. Forced to flee for her life, she is now in exile in Lithuania, from where she is leading the peaceful and widely-supported struggle in Belarus to overthrow the existing regime.

Of course, the fact that a once passive people has found its voice is down to many factors, not least the power of social media to connect, facilitate the exchange of ideas and mobilise people. I would like to think, however, that all those personal connections hundreds of thousands of Belarusian children made with families in other European countries also had an impact on changing the national mentality and, in some measure, their country’s future. I do not think it’s a coincidence that , as a child,Tikhanovskaya  was invited to Ireland on recuperative visits and subsequently became an English teacher. If I’m right then it would be a really positive, if totally unexpected, legacy of Chernobyl.

Ravenna – the Church of San Vitale

The Church of San Vitale, right next to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia that I blogged about in my last post, has some of the most famous mosaics in Ravenna, its depictions of Justinian and Theodora frequently featuring in books about Byzantium.

The church is dedicated to a local saint, St Vitalis, allegedly martyred on this very spot by being thrown into a well. Building started in 525 AD under Bishop Ecclesius and it was consecrated in 546/7 by Bishop Maximianus. Both bishops feature prominently in its mosaics. The work was part funded by a Ravenna goldsmith called Julianus: judging by the size of the church and craftsmanship of the mosaics he must have been fabulously wealthy. It was also a project with Byzantine Imperial support designed to make a political and religious statement. It emphasised the restoration of Imperial control over Italy, finally secured by Justinian in 553, and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the Arianism of the Goths, whom Justinian defeated.

On entering this octagonal-shaped church, the first big surprise is that only the apse and the part of the nave nearest the altar are decorated with mosaics. The rest of the church is either plain or decorated with eighteenth century frescoes totally outclassed by the original mosaics. It gives the church an unfinished look as if the sponsors ran out of money part way through the building work. As I approached the altar, I was overwhelmed by the rich colours of the stunning mosaics: golds, reds, greens and blues.

In the tympanum of the apse is a wonderful mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. Above it are two angels holding what looks like a Chi Rho, symbolising both Christ’s resurrection and Byzantine Imperial power. On either side of the angels are walled cities, Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right.

A clean shaven Christ in Imperial purple robes is seated on a throne with the earth as his footstool, holding the gospels. Two archangels stand on either side of him and in his right hand he holds out a martyr’s crown to St Vitalis whose outstretched hands are covered as a sign of respect to receive it:

I love the little detail of the coloured feathery clouds over their heads.  To Christ’s left stands Bishops Eclesius of Ravenna, the initiator of the building, offering a model of this church to him:

In the dome above the apse is the lamb (looking a bit like a horse) of God in a roundel supported by four archangels standing on globes against a background of animal and vegetal motifs.

On either side of the apse are scenes from the Old Testament and depictions of the Prophets:

The detail and richness of the decoration is stunning, as in this shot of the upper ambulatory, the gallery where women were allowed to worship. This also features the shell motif that occurs throughout the church notably, as I will describe later, in the depiction of the Empress Theodora.

Here is the simple marble altar table, with rather horse-like sheep again on either side of the cross.

Behind the altar and set into the wall of the apse is a marble seat meant presumably for the bishop.

Lining the walls of the apse behind the altar are these wonderful marble and porphyry revetments that remind me of Haghia Sophia that was being built at around the same time. Perhaps they shared the same craftsmen.

There are many similar marble revetments around the church’s walls, some looking like stone Rorschach tests:

So to the Imperial mosaic panels themselves, quite difficult to see and photograph straight on owing to their position and the fact that entrance to the apse is roped off. First, here’s the Justinian panel:

Justinian is flanked on either side by the two great powers and supports of his reign, the church and the army. On his left are representatives of the Church, including in the most prominent position, Maximianus, Bishop of Ravenna, holding a jewelled cross. Next to him are two priests, one carrying a gold and jewel-encrusted gospel book and the other a censer:

Justinian’s body seems to hover in the air (more evident when you are actually looking at the mosaics rather than at these photographs), indicating his status as Emperor and also as God’s representative on earth. To his right are two high ranking courtiers and a group of soldiers carrying spears and shields:

The Emperor is wearing Imperial purple robes, crown, pearl pendilia, an elaborate tunic fastening on his right shoulder and he is carrying an offertory basket. His realistically depicted face is solemn and his eyes, like that of all the figures in the mosaic, stare out like those in icons, as if fixed on eternity.

On the opposite wall is the mosaic of Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora:

She too is flanked by two groups of attendants, on her left a group of noble female courtiers distinguished by the rich variety of the designs of their dresses:

On her right are two courtiers, one of whom is mysteriously pushing back a curtain onto a pitch black scene. In front of the curtain is a fountain, symbolising eternal life:

The Empress wears a lavish Imperial crown with pendilia and a pearl necklace. Above her is that shell motif again. Often the shell symbolises death, a motif that figures on grave steles for example, and some have seen a hint in it of Theodora’s death. She died, however in 548, a year after the consecration of San Vitale, so that does not quite fit. As with the figure of Justinian, the Empress seems to float slightly above her followers, but noticeably not as much as her husband. The hem of her purple cloak carries a depiction of the Three Kings, picked out in white and gold, bearing their gifts to offer to the infant Christ.

It is interesting that Justinian and Theodora are both depicted with haloes, though they were not made Orthodox saints until much later.

The floor has some interesting Roman mosaics:

And in front of the altar area is a very interesting marble labyrinth floor, complete with directional arrows that must surely be medieval.Another marble design on the floor reminds me a bit of one in Haghia Sophia which indicated the position of the Emperor’s throne:

Finally on matters flooring related, here are some repetitions of the shell motif:

One oddity of this church is this huge baptismal pool on the side opposite the apse:

Under the central octagonal dome is this monstrous eighteenth century Baroque painting, looking completely out of place:

and here are some of the arches of the ambulatory beneath the octagonal dome:

Finally there are several stone sarcophagi inside the church with interesting iconography:

A side panel of the sarcophagus above shows Christ raising Lazarus:

This one shows the Three Kings again offering their gifts to Mary and the infant Jesus.

I am not sure what this end panel depicts: Daniel in the lions’ den?

This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Ravenna and one of the most interesting Byzantine sites I have visited. It is a remarkable church containing some of the highest quality mosaics I have ever seen. I can see why they are endlessly reproduced.


Ravenna – the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

This squat building sits right next door to the much bigger and grander Church of San Vitale. Built of red brick, like all of Ravenna’s main churches, in the shape of a Latin cross, it gives no hint of its stunning mosaic-covered interior. Called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia it was built in the middle of the 5th century AD and was originally attached to the portico of Church of Santa Croce whose bell tower can be seen in the background of the picture. The portico was removed in the early 17th century to make way for a road that now separates the two buildings.

Galla Placidia was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I and the mother of the emperor Valentinian III, acting for a several years as his regent. She died in 450 and was buried near the original Basilica of St Peter in Rome, not in this little church. Perhaps the church was used initially by the family as a memorial chapel in her name.

It takes a little while for your eyes to adjust to the dark interior  after the blinding Italian sunshine and then the first thing that strikes you is the richness of the colours in the mosaics; deep blue, gold, red and green. The unifying theme of the mosaics is salvation through Christ and eternal life. The main mosaic in the lunette facing the entrance depicts the martyrdom of St Lawrence:

The saint is shown carrying a martyr’s cross in one hand and an open gospel codex in the other

as he makes his way towards the gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom, in the centre of the picture with the fire already burning beneath it:

To the left of the mosaic is an open cupboard ho;ding copies of the Gospels:

As a bookbinder, there are two things of particular note in this mosaic. The depiction of the books in this mosaic is rare visual evidence of codices with front flaps and leather ties, a distinctive form of eastern Mediterranean binding. Secondly, it is also rare to see books displayed on the shelves of a cupboard, with their fore edges facing out, exactly how books were stored on shelves in libraries in the medieval period.

The ceiling is covered with crosses in roundels against a rich deep blue and gold background, depicting the heavens. I can’t convey the impression they made in a single picture but they made me gasp when I looked up:

In the dome, where in later Byzantine churches you would expect to see the Pantokrator, is a simple cross against the rich colour of the sky. Symbolic representations of the four Evangelists are shown in the corners:

There are also depictions of the Apostles with doves and a fountain. The tops of the lunettes of the Apostles contain a shell design, sometimes found on Greek grave steles, symbolically signifying death. It also features in the famous mosaic of Theodora in the neighbouring church of San Vitale, perhaps indicating that the mosaic was completed after her death.

Two lunettes (only one included here) show deer by a pool with vegetal motifs, one said to represent spring, the other summer.

The detail of the glass tesserae mosaics is very rich and clearly required craftsmanship of the first order at a cost that could only be afforded by an Imperial family. It would be interesting to know where the craftsman came from.

These geometric patterns struck me having a very modern look:

There’s also a rich vein of vegetal motifs in the mosaics:

In the lunette over the entrance is a depiction of a beardless Christ as the Good Shepherd surrounded by the souls of the righteous, symbolised by sheep . I like the way the artists have shown all the sheep with their heads turned to look at Christ.

In the three niches at the intersections of the Latin cross are large marble sarcophagi. this one was claimed to be that of Galla Placidia:

and the other two were thought be be of Constantius and Honorius, though this may well just be myth:

The alabaster windows are not original but were a gift of Victor Emmanuel III in 1909.

One final feature to note is the pine cone on thew top of the church, another indication of a funerary monument.

Finally as you leave the grounds of the church there are two sarcophagi with similar Christian motifs to those inside the mausoleum.

Reflections on my pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain

To close the series of posts on my recent pilgrimage to My Athos here are my reflections on the trip and what it meant to me.

It is a beautiful, unspoilt place, covered in trees and surrounded by clear water in all shades of blue. Even before I set foot on shore and entered a monastery I was struck by its wild landscape, mountains, steep cliffs and odd shaped rocks. Unlike many parts of Greece it is very green and overgrown: nature has been left to its own devices. With few inhabitants, no industry, few roads and even fewer vehicles, there is no pollution. The air is bright and clear and everywhere there is a deep silence.

Its remoteness is of course what attracted monks and ascetics to come here in the first place to pursue a contemplative life. But its isolation made it vulnerable to attack from marauders looking to plunder the monasteries’ wealth. Many of the older monasteries are build like fortresses, with a steep approach from the coast, thick walls and huge wooden, iron-clad doors to withstand the pirate assaults. I remember the rifles I saw in Fr Prodromos’s museum at Iviron from a time not so long ago when the monks had to defend themselves.

Today the monasteries may be cash poor, but they are very rich in artefacts, many the gift of Byzantine Emperors and other Orthodox rulers. Some of their greatest treasures are the books and manuscripts in their libraries, though these are hard to access. Neither Nikolaos or Argyrios seem to have been into any of the libraries. I could not work out whether this was because they were not allowed or because they were not interested. I was slightly disappointed that I was not offered the opportunity of a visit – perhaps in hindsight I should have taken the initiative and just asked. In the absence of the real artefacts, I can recommend an excellent site hosting digital versions of some of the more than 300,000 of the Holy Mountain’s books, parchments and manuscripts. Next time I will do my research on this site  in advance and identify which libraries I would like to visit, seek permission to visit their monasteries and see what happens.

What is a ‘pilgrimage’? It usually means a journey to a place that has some religious significance, eg a connection with the life of Christ or a saint. The journey is a physical one to reach a particular destination to meet a religious obligation and it can also involve an inward journey towards some form of self discovery. In many western languages, the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peregrinus, meaning a foreigner or stranger; possibly because this is how the first ‘pilgrims’ were described by the people whose lands they passed through. In Greek the word for pilgrimage is proskynima which comes from proskynisi which means prostration, veneration or worship. Maybe it’s tenuous but the emphasis in Orthodoxy seems to be more on the veneration or worship aspects of the journey. That, at least, is how I experienced this particular pilgrimage with my companions.

My band of pilgrims came to venerate monasteries’ relics, not their treasures. I found initially a deep Protestant scepticisim surfacing when I witnessed my companions crossing themselves and kissing the reliquaries containing the hand of St George or the finger of St Basil. So different from the inert, white-walled churches of the C of E, purged of relics and a whole visual and aesthetic dimension by a politically inspired reformation. As I watched them, these pilgrims venerated the relics with such respect, humility and almost love. I was given the opportunity to join the back of the queue and moved along the line of relics, bowing to each with my right hand over my heart. Even without a Christian belief and the Greek Orthodox background I found it moving.

I enjoyed the services and the Byzantine chant which was particularly good at Iviron, less so at Dionysiou. Nikolaos and Argyrios though were less than impressed when I expressed a preference for Russian chant. Byzantine chant is much harder to attune your ears to. It does not have the immediate emotional appeal of its Russian equivalent and requires more intense listening. Although I had read the liturgy in Greek before I went to Athos, it was much harder to establish where we were in the service than it is for me when I am listening to the Russian Orthodox liturgy.  And that, apart from lack of faith, does create a barrier to full participation in what’s going on.

Watching the service, hearing the chanting in the darkness lit only by candles and in the company of all the saints on the frescoes and icons, I wondered how many men had stood here over the centuries doing exactly the same. There was only one point when I forgot one of Nikolaos’s initial instructions and found him next to me at Vespers, with a smile on his face politely but firmly removing my right hand from my trouser pocket.

The monasteries preserve the old (Julian) calendar, keeping Byzantine time where sunset is midnight and following the same pattern of services they have followed since their foundation in the 10th century. I felt that strong link and continuity with the Byzantine empire.

Despite its beautiful setting, its old buildings, stunning icons and frescoes, the Holy Mountain is not a museum. It is a home to the monks who try to live in continual communion with God. That’s why taking photographs must seem to them such an intrusion. I was struck by how open, welcoming and hospitable the monks are to the endless stream of visitors pouring through the monasteries every day, feeding them, accommodating them and letting them take part in their services. All, whether they have no faith or little faith, whether they go to church or not, whether they are Orthodox or not, are welcomed as pilgrims.

Argyrios told me that there are two types of monks: those who are refugees from the world, because they don’t fit in for whatever reason, and those with a calling. Life on Athos is so harsh and demanding that in general the former do not last long and leave.

There is something about submitting to the monastic routine that is calming. It slows life right down and gives it a completely different rhythm. I thought I would find the two meals a day hardship, but actually I did not feel hungry at all between meals. Considering their hard life the monks did not seem tired, on the contrary they looked bright and alert. Argyrios told me he once spent 30 days on the Holy Mountain and was exhausted at the end of it. I cam imagine that if you walk between monasteries and keep the monastic routine, it must be very tiring.

One aspect of our pilgrimage though remained completely invisible to me and that was the conversations that went on between the pilgrims and the monks. Argyrios told me he continues to be in dialogue with the monks. In particular he had been having a discussion with Fr Prodromos at Iviron that keeps going deeper and deeper: ‘It never comes to an end, after each visit it is like we put a comma or semi-colon’, he told me. Curious as to the nature of this dialogue I asked him what they talked about. Everything!’, he tells me, ‘and it’s been going on for 30 years’.

On the boat back to Ouranoupoli I fell into conversation with a young Frenchman who was visiting Mt Athos with a Greek friend. Amongst other things we talked about the services and agreed that the Hesychastic practice of repeating the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) was a form of meditation, anchoring the individual in the present moment and creating a mindful state. I recalled a story that the Elder at Dionysiou told about St Basil that is very similar to one I have heard in Zen. Two monks met a pretty girl on the road. A bit later the monk said to St Basil: ‘Did you see that girl we met?’, and St Basil replied: ‘I saw but I didn’t look. That was then, this is here and now’. The services also function as a form of consciousness-altering mechanism similar to meditation. In some ways, despite their different frames of reference and structures of meaning I see similarities between Hesychastic and Buddhist practice. I do not think may monks would agree with me on this though. I remember seeing a leaflet in the shop at the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn in Russian that was entitled ‘Meditation – the route to hell’.

So what does a pilgrimage mean to someone who is not Orthodox, does not even believe in God, and is actually a Buddhist? Clearly I was not able to take part fully in the services and did not share the beliefs of my fellow pilgrims. I did not share their joy in venerating relics. Equally I did not have the opportunity to have conversations with the monks and Elders. So in many ways my experience of the pilgrimage was of its outer forms. Despite that, it was an opportunity to encounter silence in a beautiful place, to experience in a little more depth a religious tradition with which I feel much affinity and to observe at first hand the faith of my companions. More importantly it allowed me to experience a simple way of life and feel the power of the monks concentrated prayer life and their compassion arising from a life dedicated to God.

It was an honour and a privilege to make this pilgrimage and I am very grateful to my Greek tutor Sofia who set this visit up for me; to Nikolaos and Argyrios for their great patience and kindness in leading me though it; and to my fellow pilgrims for accepting me into their band. Finally, I am eternally grateful to my wife for letting me fulfil this ambition.


I mentioned in my last post about my pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain that I wanted to write a bit about the town of Ouranoupoli, the start and finish point for the sea trip to the monasteries. I was fascinated by the old tower on the beach and the little information panel about it I found in the main square. This started a search for more information which led me to Sydney and Joice Lock who lived there for many years and the Greek girl from the village, Sydney Marangou-White, whose education and training they sponsored.

There was a settlement here, called Ouranoupolis (‘sky town’) going back to the 4th century BC. Although there are no longer any signs of if on land, in 1954 Swedish divers found submerged ancients houses and roads just off the coast. For many centuries the land was part of a farm belonging to the monastery of Vatopedi on Mt Athos and the Tower on the beach was supposedly built to protect it during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II Palaiologos in the late 13th / early 14th century.

In the Byzantine era the settlement was called Prosforion, a name it retained until it was re-named Ouranoupoli by the Greek government who resettled refugees here from the Asia Minor catastrophe in the 1920s. The Government built single storey blocks along the sea with no water, electricity or sanitation. Each block consisted of 2 large bedrooms, a tiny one, an entrance hall and a kitchen. There was no road and the village was only accessible on foot, by mule or by boat. The nearest doctor was 7 miles away in the village of Nea Roda (the site of the canal that Xerxes built in 483 BC during the Persian invasion of Greece).

Many of the refugees were from fishing families re-settled from the Princes’ Islands (Adalar in modern Turkey) near Istanbul and from Caesarea. Without the tools of their trade though, many were unable to carry on fishing. The land itself was arid barren and hard to cultivate. In addition the climate was very hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter with frequent snowfalls. It was a a real hand to mouth existence.

Sydney Marangou-White was the oldest of four children who were born and brought up in the village after her parents were moved there from the Peloponnese in 1928. In her book Bones washed in water and wine she records daily life in the village in fascinating detail. Her mother was a healer who used herbs, folk remedies and even cupping glasses to treat local people. It is shocking to read how undernourished and thin people were and how, in summer, they appeared yellow from continual malarial infections caused by the swarms of mosquitoes breeding in the local pools. It was not until the last 1940s that the government started a campaign to eradicate malaria though repeated spraying to kill off the mosquitoes.

The Locks first appeared in the area in the mid 1920s when they came on holiday to Donkey Island opposite the settlement. They became fascinated by the Byzantine Tower and decided to buy it and settle there. Joice Lock was a very strong Australian woman who had come to England during the First World War. She had met her English husband, Sydney, when they were working for the Quakers dealing with the refugee crisis precipitated by the war. Later they moved to near Thessaloniki to set up a farm for refugees from Asia Minor. In addition to her strength of character, Joice Locke also had medical qualifications (though she was not a doctor) and soon she was putting her training to good effect by treating sick local people for free.

The Locks provided enormous support to the village, including: raising money from international organisations and friends; providing piped water; buying Chios sheep and agricultural tools; and building a wooden church and a Quaker school. To help the women from the village earn money, she taught them how to weave on a loom and make attractive carpets using Byzantine designs she researched. She sold these internationally through a company she set up called Pyrgos Rugs.

Sydney’s father was a skilled carpenter, as well as a fisherman, and he made some furniture for the the Locks. It was through this connection that he asked them to become Sydney’s godparents. She attended the local school they had set up in the village and then they sent her to a private  school called Kalamari run by French nuns in Thessaloniki. It must have been a huge challenge as all the teaching was in French and English. Then in 1950 at the age of 19, the Locks arranged for Sydney to go to London to train as a nurse and midwife. She spent the rest of her career in England working in the NHS, marrying an Englishman and returning frequently to her native village.

Sydney Lock died in 1955, but Joice lived on in the Tower until 1982, still working hard for the village and its people and promoting Pyrgos Rugs. Her funeral service was conducted in the local church by Archbishop Kallistos who happened to be stayed at an Athos monastery when she died. In his funeral oration, the Archbishop said that she had been truly ‘a woman of God’ who had done more for her fellow human beings than any other woman he could think of. He also called her one of the most significant women of the twentieth century. Her very full life is well documented in Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread by Susanna de Vries,





A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 10- return to Ouranoupoli

Dafni is a small port with a cafe, one shop and a Customs House, and it’s full of people waiting for the ferry to take them on to other monasteries or make the return journey to Ouranoupoli. At mid-morning It’s already hot and although there is some sort of queue in operation we make our way straight into the Customs House for some shade.

Nikolaos has disappeared, re-appearing suddenly near the head of the queue and asking us to pass our bags through a window. Not surprisingly this leads to an argument with two people at the head of the queue who seem to have bought up several monasteries’ worth of honey and red wine. A few people justifiably point out that we should remember we’re on the Holy Mountain. However, Nikolaos has presence and commands respect. For some reason he seems intent on getting us to the head of the queue and he shuts down the most vociferous complainer by telling him “We don’t fight with words in Greece’. As quickly as it flared up, things cool down and I distract myself from the slightly uneasy atmosphere we have created by taking pictures of the pilgrims, mainly monks, disembarking from the ferry.

I am intrigued by the difference between priests’ and monks’ hats (called in Greek kalymaukhi). Argyrios explained that a priest’s hat has an overhanging edge, while a monk’s is round with no edge. While we were on the Holy Mountain, monks from a completely different monastery sent him greetings because they had heard that he was there. He called it Radio Kalymaukhi – Holy Mountain jungle drums.

On board the Axion Estin we head up to the top deck to get good seats under shade. The ferry calls in at all the main monasteries on the way back to Ouranoupoli, including the Russian monastery of Panteleimontos that I only saw from a distance on the outward journey. The monastery was originally founded in the 11th century by monks from Kievan Rus, but the modern monastery in its current location dates to the late 19th century. A lot of building is still going on and the monastery looks shiny and new.

One character we bump into again on the ferry is an elderly man in a very tatty, dirty robe, bleached almost white by the sun.

He moves around the ferry selling religious trinkets, mainly komposkini (prayer ropes). Aygyrios tells me he is an unlicensed monk and I wonder if he is affiliated to any particular monastery.

The sea is beautifully calm and a deep blue colour. Apparently the clear water is so deep in places that submarines come in and shelter under the shadow of Athos. Some of the pilgrims try and attract seagull to take bread out of their hands as head into Ouranoupoli.

Approaching the jetty I notice the Tower for the first time and wonder how I managed to miss it when we left a couple of day ago. I am going to do a separate blog post about Ouranoupoli because it is interesting in its own right.

It’s 2.15 and we are all quite hungry after our very frugal breakfast. We celebrate the end of our pilgrimage in a fish taverna by the beach, drinking water and ice cold ouzo and eating tzatziki, calamari, whitebait, a tender, grilled, smokey octopus (some of the finest I have ever tasted), melitsana salata and lightly fried aubergine strips. Our coach leaves at 4.15 and we are back in Thessaloniki by 6.30.

In addition to a post about Ouranoupoli, I will also do one on my overall impressions of the pilgrimage, an expanded version of the one I wrote in Greek for the Association’s newsletter.




A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 9 – leaving Dionysiou

Awoke early this morning at about 5.00. Nikolaos said he would wake me up but didn”t say at what time. He knocks on the door about 6.00 and comes in fully dressed, ready to attend the Liturgy. After washing, dressing and packing I set off to join my fellow pilgrims at the Liturgy and, passing the kitchen, I hear a murmurring of voices and pop in to find out what’s going on.

A group of pilgrims are sitting around listening to one of the Elders speaking and answering questions. Nikolaos invites me to join them and have some Khalkidiki olives, brown bread and a very subtle mountain tea., our simple breakfast today. As I dip in and out of the conversation, it seems a bit random. At one point the Elder is asking about hydration and health to which the answer is to drink more water and judge it by the colour of the urine. Someone asks him whether it’s possible for someone who is dying to come and die on the Holy Mountain. I can’t make out the answer, but the Elder then into a story about someone who after a meal dropped down dead after walking about 10 steps from the Refectory.

At some point the conversation turns to Archbishop Kallistos and the Elder asks me if I know him. I say that I knew him slightly at university when he was a parish priest, Father Kallistos. He asks me the correct English translation of the Jesus prayer. He finishes many of  his sentences with the phrase: ‘Glory to God’.

After a while I slip out on to the balcony overlooking the sea and watch the sky lighten, feeling very calm and peaceful, and enjoying the fresh morning air

After more tea, bread and olives I go and sit in the courtyard whose stillness and peace is wonderful to experience. Of course, I am still carrying my camera and am conscious that it must look as if I have no intention of keeping the rule of not taking pictures in the monastery.  The truth is I have nowhere else to keep it and have strict instructions from Nikolaos to keep it on me rather than in my bag.

While waiting for the Abbot to appear so that I can say a personal thank you to him for the gift of the icon, I take another look at the the frescoes depicting the Revelation. To the right of the entrance to the katholikon is a fresco with the Virgin and Child with St John and St Pakhomios (one of the founders of monasticism). According to Argyrios, this is one of the finest sequences of frescoes on Mt Athos. The detail is extraordinary: plagues of locust; the 7 trumpets; a wonderful four horsemen of the apocalypse; the angel who fell from heaven out of pride; the final battle of Armageddon; a scene with stars falling out of the sky looking like a battlefield of the First World War; Christ in judgement; and the Beast of Babylon, with multiple heads like roaring lions on long necks.

Argyrios points out that some of the eyes have been gouged out of the frescoes: the Crusaders and the Turks, thinking that the eyes in frescoes had magic properties, cut them out to make a potion to treat eye problems.

To the right of the entrance to the Refectory sits a superb porphyry throne. The Refectory itself is decorated with frescoes of the saints and has a beautifully wooden pulpit decorated in gold and red stripes. I could easily spend half a day just looking at the frescoes – though doing it without being able to take any pictures would be quite a trial. The pronaos to the church has many depictions of martyrdom, including the decapitation of St George.

Suddenly I am alerted to the imminent arrival of the Abbot, a tallish, thin man with a wispy beard, carrying a leather briefcase. He’s in a hurry to catch the fast water taxi to Karyes. I manage to express my thanks to him and then he’s off down to the arsenas in a pick up truck and offers to take all our bags down with him and leave them on the jetty.

The final visit of our pilgrimage at Dionysiou is to what the monks call the ‘School of Philosophy’, the monastic cemetery which dates back to 1375.

The quote is from the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 1, verse 1: ‘Love righteousness, you judges of the earth, think of the Lord with good and seek him in heart’.

The entrance and the pathways round the cemetery have been made by the monks using black and white pebbles stood on end, in simple but patterns. Inside, to the left of the cemetery porch, is a small extension with gold painted doors. This contains the tomb of St Niphon, Patriarch of Constantinople, who retired to the monastery in the mid 15th century to live as a simple monk.The tomb is covered in glass enclosing a full length icon of the saint.

To the right of this extension is a most incredible sight: a grill about 3ft x 21/2ft behind which you can see the skulls of all the monks who have died at the monastery, each with their name written on them. The piled up skulls stretch back into the depths of the building. The rest of the bones are contained in an open stone building half way along the cemetery on the left hand side, looking as if they have just been tossed in there at random. The bones are a reminder to the monks of death – hence the reference to the cemetery as the school of philosophy. At the far end of the cemetery are the graves of four monks who died within the past 3 years or so, all of good ages (the oldest was 94 and the youngest 76). The 94 year old was a celebrated writer on spiritual matters.

On the way back down to the arsenas, Argyrios points out a medieval loo and its shoot on the side of the cliff face. The old pathway up to the monastery with its lethal deep steps is still visible.This is the path that Argyrios and Nikos used to take when they started coming to Athos: it must have been very tough and dangerous to climb up it even without hand luggage or backpacks.

After a 15 minute wait our ferry arrives to take us to the port of Dafni where we will catch another ferry to take us back to Ouranoupoli.

Kinship terms in one picture

Brilliant diagram of the complex kinship terms in Russian. Never seen it explained so clearly before

XIX век

Via Ilya Klishin (@vorewig) on Twitter:

I’ve seen versions of this, but this one is as compact and intuitive as any I’ve seen. Note that two words are given common but prescriptively incorrect spellings: husband’s father should be свёкор (not свёкр), and one’s wife’s sister is properly one’s свояченица (not своячница).

This isn’t a complete picture. Your wife’s sister’s husband is your свояк, for instance, and your husband’s sister’s husband is your зять, the same term used for your daughter’s husband or your sister’s husband. Also notice the asymmetry of зять and невестка. Невестка works for your brother’s wife and, if you’re a woman, for your son’s wife, but if you’re a man, your son’s wife is your сноха; on the other side зять covers all the analogous relationships. The situation has become even less parallel as сноха has expanded to encroach on невестка: now сноха can be used…

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