“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.