In the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin on Mt Athos

Looking towards the monastery of Stavronikita from the monastery of Pantokrator

The monastery of Pantokrator on Mt Athos has a pavilion on the cliff top looking out over the Aegean towards the monastery of Stavronikita with Mt Athos behind it. The view offers a continually fascinating scene as the light changes throughout the day: now Stavronikita in shadow, now sharply in focus, sunlit against the mass of the Holy Mountain.

In an inlet below the monastery lies the arsanas, the harbour where the ferry drops off and collects pilgrims visiting the monastery. Wandering along the shore by the arsanas, I came across a rock with an iron cross on the top of it that I had seen pilgrims climbing up to.

Suddenly it stirred a memory. Bruce Chatwin! I remembered from reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellent biography that in 1985 Chatwin, just 4 years before he died, came on a pilgrimage to Mt Athos with his friend, the artist Derek Hill. He stayed at the Serbian monastery of Chilandari and one day decided to walk down the coast to Stavronikita. Perhaps he was attracted by the stunning sixteenth century mosaics by Theophanis the Cretan that decorate the katholikon. He must have walked along the footpath that my colleagues and I had just been been clearing.

Monastery of Stavronikita

‘He puffed towards it with his heavy rucksack’ writes Shakespeare, and quotes from Chatwin’s notebook: ‘”The most beautiful site of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. There must be a God”‘.

Although he neither wrote nor spoke further about what happened it was clear to his friends that he had had some form of religious experience. This led him to consider becoming Orthodox, even having discussions with the late Metropolitan Kallistos about it, and planning a second pilgrimage unfortunately interrupted by his death.

What was it exactly that affected Chatwin so much? We will never know. It was not just the cross on the rock that he encountered, it was the combination of the cross with his personal circumstances and history at that particular point in his life that held some meaning for him. A meaning strong enough to make him start to rethink his life.

The kalderimia (footpaths) between the monasteries we were clearing were mainly created 200 plus years ago by gangs of itinerant workers (bouloukia) from Epirus. But footpaths had already been there for thousands of years. Long before the monks took up residence here settlements had existed on the Holy Mountain going back to Ancient Greek times and beyond that to prehistory.

It is amazing to think how many people, prehistoric, Ancient Greeks, monks, saints, sinners and pilgrims have trodden these paths. Sometimes, out alone on these paths I wondered what I might encounter. Did that rustling sound or breaking twig presage some vision, some revelation, some enlightenment? At one point we got caught in the forest by a tremendous storm, lightning and and thunder directly overhead, heavy rain that drenched and chilled us. Was it a sign or just a heavy storm?

No, the miracle is in the Holy Mountain’s wild beauty, its remoteness, its unspoilt environment, always offering up new vistas, always changing in the Greek light. And in the profound silence of its presence.

Women on the Holy Mountain

The peninsula of Mt Athos (the Holy Mountain) in northern Greece is about 30 miles long and between 4-7.5 miles wide. Monks have been drawn to living lived there since the 4th century, attracted by its remoteness from civilisation, but it was only in the 8th century that the first formalised monastic communities were founded. Since the beginning, the Holy Mountain has been dedicated to the Virgin Mary and women have been forbidden to enter its territory.

It was a surprise then to discover that female bones have been found there. I only heard about this when staying for a week at the monastery of Pantokrator and happened to encounter Phaidon Hatziantoniou, an architect who has been working for about 40 years on restoring buildings on Mt Athos.

He spends half his time on this restoration work and when I met him he was still working on the chapel of St Athnasios at the monastery where he first uncovered the bones four years ago.

The discovery caused a stir and much speculation about the possibility of women having lived on Mt Athos in spite of the strict ban on them entering its confines. He told me that the bones had been buried under the floor of the chapel, but that analysis showed that this had not been their original place of burial. At some point the bones had been moved. His own theory is that the bones belonged to the wife of one of the benefactors of the restoration of the monastery in the 1540s. This benefactor was from Wallachia (part of modern day Roumania) and he had built a house (now ruined) on the rocks outside the monastery.

Phaidon’s theory is that the benefactor’s wife died and was buried in Wallachia and that at some later stage her husband had her bones transferred to the Holy Mountain to be buried in the chapel of the monastery that they had both supported.

This is not a unique occurrence. Apparently St Joseph the Hesychast, a 20th century elder canonised by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2020, kept his mother’s skull in his cell.

According to this report in Greek Reporter, there have been 12 recorded breaches on the ban on women since 382, half of those occurring since the beginning of the 20th century. The very first recorded woman to set foot on the Holy Mountain was Placentia, the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Wherever she went, carpets were laid before her so there was a barrier between her feet and the ground. During her visit she went to the monastery of Vatopaidi where, when walking alongside the katholikon, she encountered the Virgin Mary who spoke to her. The spot is now marked by a miracle working icon of the Virgin.

One woman missing from this list is the daughter of one of the Byzantine military commanders at the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 who escaped and managed to save an icon which she brought to the monastery of Agiou Pavlou. It is now one of their main treasures.