About peterwebscott

Freelance writer and photographer

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.

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…

View original post 101 more words

The making of Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia

Great documentary on the making of Cappella Romana’s groundbreaking attempt to create the lost sound world of Hagia Sophia, first posted on Tom Sawford’s excellent Byzantine Blog.

Byzantine Blog

Join Cappella Romana and the documentary of the making of their Billboard Chart-topping recording, #TheLostVoicesOfHagiaSophia. A full look at the story and the technology behind the music, as well as interviews with Cappella Romana members Alexander Lingas, John Michael Boyer, Catherine van der Salm, and more.

Support Cappella Romana: cappellaromana.org/give
Get the Recording: cappellaromana.org/hagiasophia

View original post

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 8 – Dionysiou

Leaving Karyes we pick up the rough road to the port of Dafni and after a brief wait climb aboard the boat to travel on to the monastery of Dionysiou. On the way we pass the monastery of Kheiropotamou; Simonopetra perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea; and several cells scattered along the cliffs.


Dionysiou is close to the Holy Mountain

and has a very dramatic setting, hanging off the cliff  high above the sea.

Once on land again I realise just high up it is as the road zigzags steeply up to the main gate. It’s a tough climb in this heat, but inside it’s a Byzantine jewel. The outer walls and the main gates are very solid: I don’t think I have ever seen such thick ones.

We are welcomed with a shot of 44% pure ouzo, lokhoumi and ice cold water – a perfect combination. Then we are shown into the very modern guest house that has a fine wooden interior.

This time I am allocated to a room of my own that I later find out is normally used by senior visiting clergy.

I collapse on the bed and, after a refershing cold shower, fall into a deep sleep for a couple of hours before venturing out to explore, camera and voice recorder in hand.

Signs forbid the taking of photographs inside the monastery and the inner area is actually quite small. So here is my problem. Nikolaos and Argyrios have warned me to keep my camera on me at all times in case it gets stolen. I don’t have a small backpack to put it in, so the only way to keep it with me is to carry it around with me. It is not however a small camera. Far from it. It’s a great chunk of Nikon DSLR and there’s no way to disguise the fact that I have a camera in my hand. The main courtyard is very beautiful . I sit in its calm atmosphere on the low wall of a portico taking it all in. In front of me is the mid 16th century katholikon. To my left under the portico hangs a large metal semantron. To my left at the end of the courtyard is a beautifully decorated three storey building. At ground level it has 2 Byzantine arches. Levels 2 and 3 have balconies with semantra and talanta hanging on them. At the top of the building is a bell and a clock surrounded by a colourful fresco which strangely doesn’t seem to be of a religious nature..

The temptation is too strong and I take a few shots.

About 5 minutes later a monk approaches me and asks if I speak Greek. He then tells me not to take photographs. A few minutes later I hear a monk striking a wooden talanton somewhere in the depths of the monastery, so I grab my recorder and press record.

Nikolaos shows me the series of frescoes depicting the Revelation of St John under the portico leading from the refectory to the katholikon. He points out how modern-looking some of the frescoes are: one shows what appears to be a bombardment, another a mushroom cloud, and yet another flying machines. As we admire them, one of our fellow pilgrims approaches and tell Nikolaos that a monk has informed him that we must not take photographs or make recordings. I was hoping to be able to record the Liturgy and, sensing my disappointment, Nikolaos promises to have a word with the Igoumenos (Abbot) before tomorrow.

Vespers seemed shorter this evening, either that or I am getting more used to Orthodox services. I notice that the clock in the church seems to be 4 hours ahead, so perhaps here is tangible evidence that we are on Byzantine time.

Dinner at Dionysiou is not as formal as at Iviron and is good: gigantes, rice, bread, red wine and water. After dinner the monastery sets out its main relics in the katholikon for us pilgrims to venerate. I tag along at the end, bowing out of respect at each relic as I pass along the line of them.

Out on a balcony overlooking the sea, an Elder is giving a teaching to any pilgrims who wish to listen. He’s talking about St Stephen, the first saint and martyr. Argyrios points out to me that as the Elder is speaking he continues to pray, moving the prayer rope (komposkoini) in his left hand. The continual telling of the prayer rope wears the nail on the thumb down. Unceasing prayer whatever you’re doing, specifically the constant repetition of petition ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is the Heychast practice of Athos.

Time for a walk, so I leave the monastery to follow a cliff path and watch the sun go down over the Aegean (or is it the Thracian Sea?) this beautiful evening. It is so peaceful, calm and still.

On my way back into the monastery I meet Nikolaos who tells me that he has spoken to the Igoumenos who confirms that he doesn’t want me to take photographs or make recordings in the monastery. By way of an apology, the Igoumenos has given me a personal gift of an icon of the Mother of God. Feeling lost for words, as I should be the one to apologise for breaking the monastery’s rules.

In my room it’s still very warm as I look out through the mosquito screen on my window, listening to the waves lapping at the beach below.

Later I find it hard to sleep as my head buzzes with everything I have seen and heard over the past couple of days.




A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 7 – Karyes

Mt Athos from Karyes

From the arsenas at Iviron we are taken by bus to Karyes, the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain, to get a connecting minibus down to the port of Dafni. Taking advantage of the wait for transport at Karyes, we set off to explore the small town, leaving backpacks in a café garden.

It’s an opportunity to visit the main Church, the Protaton, to venerate one of the most important icons on the Holy Mountain. It is the church of the Protos, the head of the monastic community on Athos. The painting is dark and covered in silver cladding, so it’s hard to make it out clearly. Its position doesn’t help, set on an altar against the wall and approached by climbing 3 narrow stone steps with no hand rail. It feels a bit precarious climbing up to see it.

The Church is over 1,000 years old and has been restored probably several times. Outside the church Argyrios shows me a stone block protected by an iron railing where Frankish invaders beheaded 1,000 monks in 1282, during an attack on the Holy Mountain when they also killed the Protos and sacked his church. The monks are now celebrated as martyrs by the Orthodox Church..

A bit of an awkward pause follows as I feel my fellow pilgrims’ eye on me, the token representative of the Latin West. I am not sure what to say that is equal to the scale of this barbaric butchery by fellow Christians. I mumble something about what a terrible thing to have happened and we move off.

Opposite the Protaton are the offices of the Administrative Centre of the Holy Mountain (the Epastasia). Representatives selected annually from each of the monasteries are responsible for the administration of Mt Athos.

Nikolaos leads me off to the far side of the small town to see the Monastery of St Andrew the First Called. This used to be a Russian monastery, but is now Greek. Before the Revolution there were many Russian monks on the Holy Mountain and the Greeks feared they were trying to take over. The flow of Russian monks dried up after the Revolution, but since Putin came to power, the Russian presence has increased again. When he comes to Greece on official visits, Putin visits the Russian monastery of Pantaleimon; the last time was about 2 years ago.

Argyrios tells me that the Holy Mountain has refused to invite Tsipras to visit officially because he is a self-confessed atheist, although they would welcome him as a private individual.

The monastery has seen better days and in some parts there are signs of restoration work going on. In the first courtyard near the katholikon are some wonderful old Russian bells dating back to the 1860s.

Nikolaos wants to show me some modern frescoes, rich in gold decoration, in the katholikon . The main fresco depicting the Panagia is said to be so well executed that her eyes appear to be looking at you wherever you stand in the church. Unfortunately it’s closed.

As I am taking some pictures I encounter one of the monks. He asks me where I am from. When I ask him in turn where he’s from he says ‘ Here’, but originally from Finland. He asks me if I’m Orthodox and when I reply ‘Buddhist’, he says with a broad smile ‘Well, we can make you Orthodox, if you want’.

Going back into Karyes we pass the police station. Nikolaos tells me that the police do tours of duty, 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. I can’t imagine that they have much to do, but a lot of pilgrims pass through and there are problems with theft from the monasteries employing non-monastic workers.

On the walk back into town I tell Nikolaos that I feel my ear is starting to become more attuned to Greek and it’s becoming a little bit easier to speak it without quite as much effort. Nikolaos is an ex-Army officer and used to speak English fluently as he had to liaise with officers from NATO countries, but now he has no practice and is forgetting it.

In passing he tells me that last night one of our party had a vascular stroke and had to be taken to Karyes hospital. It’s quite a shock.


The Martyrdom of St Edmund – myth, propaganda and pandemics

I have often admired the simplicity and beautiful symmetry of the arch on the north porch of Wells Cathedral. It wasn’t until I did a guided tour of the Cathedral though that my attention was drawn to an odd feature of this arch. Looking at it again now I can see quite clearly it’s not symmetrical and what throws it out of balance are the extra bits at the top of the second tier of column on the left. What these illustrate is a story that was already popular around the time the Cathedral was being built: the martyrdom of St Edmund.

So, who was St Edmund and why was his martyrdom depicted in stone on a cathedral several hundred years after his death?

St Edmund was King of East Anglia from 855 until his death in 869 fighting against the invading Danes. He’s mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and that’s about all the factual information that is known about him. His body was moved to a church in Bury St Edmunds in 1095 and the site became a cult centre and place of pilgrimage. It was eventually destroyed in 1539 during the Reformation.

An alternative legend says that he refused to fight the Danes but preferred instead to die a martyr’s death. In this version he was tied to a tree and shot at with arrows (like St Sebastian) or impaled with spears – and this is what the Wells carvings depict:

But because he still refused to abjure his faith, he was beheaded and his head thrown into a wood.

When his followers came looking for him asking where he was, his head answered “Here, here, here” and it was found in the wood between the paws of a wolf and was miraculously re-attached to his body. I rather like the odd wolf who protected the king’s head and mysteriously disappeared shortly after.

According to the guide on my tour it was a piece of Anglo Saxon defiance to the Norman overlords. The clergy processing in to the cathedral would have passed it daily on their way to services. Was it aimed at them as a reminder of the survival in the face of invasion or was it aimed at the Norman bishops? A sort of ‘two fingers’ to you lot.  If not, did master masons really have the licence to do their own thing in defiance of their paymasters?

But there may be a simpler answer. One of the apocryphal books about St Edmund was ‘On the childhood of St Edmund’ (Liber de infantia Sancti Eadmundi) written in the middle of the twelfth century by one Geoffrey of Wells, a supposed canon of the Cathedral. This predates the beginning of the construction of the new Cathedral, but the legend and Geoffrey’s association with it may have inspired its depiction on the arch of the north porch. We may never know the real reason.

Oh, by the way there is a bit of a contemporary resonance in this story. As well as being the patron saint of kings, St Edmund the Martyr is also the patron saint of pandemics.


The first nightingale – a poem by Ivan Bunin


It’s a little while since I did any translation and I was recently prompted to have a go at translating this poem from Russian as a little challenge posed here by the Russian & Czech Department at the University of Bristol.

Bunin uses deceptively simple language, but like all apparently simple things, they are really difficult to pull off. For me it also raises the old dilemma of the right way to translate something. Do you translate it as literally as possible, in which case it can sound dull and flat? Or do you attempt to to translate into a more poetic English idiom, in which case is it even the same poem?

Nabokov had a lifelong dream of writing a poem in Russian and translating it into English in such a way that it matched in both sounds and shades of meaning. It was a dream that he found impossible to achieve. So we should not be hard on ourselves if one of the greatest modern masters of English had to admit defeat. But Nabokov went further in the face of this failure: he completely retreated from the idea of a poetic translation. His translation of Eugene Onegin accompanying his massive commentary ( a true homage, full of fascinating background detail about the poem-in-verse) is an almighty clunker. It is a literal translation of the text with no attempt to convey spring and fizz of the original Russian. It’s truly awful.

Here’s my shot at the Bunin poem, falling somewhere between faithfully accurate and poetic:

The first nightingale
The liquid moon glows through the clouds.
An apple tree in curly white blossom.

A ripple of clouds, filmy and soft,
Blue against the moon.

In the chill of the bare, clear alleys of the garden
A nightingale starts up, attempting its song.

In the house, now dark, by an open window,
A young girl plaits her hair in the moonlight.

Sweet and fresh to her is the tale of spring,
Recounted to the world a thousand times.

Anyone seen a Minoan tomb round here?

Exploring Naxos by car, we come across the village of Koronida, the highest on the island, the place where kitron liqueur came from and an old emery mining village. Strung along the main road, it looks quite unremarkable, but we stop anyway to take a look round. We are intrigued by a sign to a Minoan tomb pointing up a path and decide to follow it.

Off the main road, it reveals itself to be a pretty little village.

But as we climb higher, the houses become more ramshackle and eventually ruined shells.

The going gets tougher as the steps get steeper. After climbing some particularly narrow steps with a rickety handrail, my wife gives up and leaves me to carry on looking for the tomb. The signs of course gave out long ago. It’s mid afternoon and there’s no one around to ask the way. Now and again we hear the clip-clop of hooves but we can’t see the animal that’s making this sound. I keep on climbing until I come to the edge of the village: there are no more houses and the main path runs out. Suddenly there’s the sign again pointing up a short dirt path to the tomb itself cut into the side of the mountain.

Crawling in on my hands and knees, at last I am in this beautiful little tomb, built (and probably re-built over the years) without mortar, the stones held together by their own weight like a dry stone wall. The roof is circular and high enough to stand up straight.


Emerging from the tomb into the blinding light and walking back down the dirt path I hear a bit of a commotion in the bushes and then the mystery animal I’d heard earlier emerges with its owner.

I stop to have a chat and he tells me that they are taking grapes from the vineyard to the village wine press and he hands me a bunch of them from one of the boxes on the side. They’re small, sweet and gritty from their coating of dusty soil. 

Now I have a guide out of the village labyrinth. As they descend the steps, the path is so narrow in places that the donkey’s heavy load barely squeaks past, but his owner is expert in guiding it with his stick and keeping it moving forward.