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