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.

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