Greek poems about homes

Recently I have been reading a few Greek poems about homes and I thought I would post my translations. These poems range over 70 years in terms of their date of publication, but there is a remarkable consistency in attitudes between them.

Homes, like people, are complex things. They can be fortresses and places of refuge. They can also be prisons, places of restriction, museums, places haunted by memories where the past is frozen in time. They generate happy memories and sad memories, joy and resentment, reminders of death and decay. They are ambivalent spaces. There is nothing inherently positive or negative about them: it is our feelings about the past and the experiences we have had in them that colour our perception of them. Their decline and dilapidation reflects our own ageing process. Houses, like us, are temporary structures.

The house by the sea by Giorgos Seferis
(the first poem in a cycle entitled Thrush published in 1947)

Do not talk to me about the nightingale or the skylark
or the little wagtail
that writes figures in the light with its tail;
I do not know much about houses
I know they have their tribe, nothing else.
New in the beginning like babies,
playing in the orchards with the fringes of the sun,
they embroider painted shutters and doors
shining in the daylight;
when the architect finishes, they change,
wrinkling or smiling or even sulking
with those who stayed, with those who left
with others who would come back if they could
or who were lost, now that the world
has become an infinite hotel.

I do not know much about houses.,
I remember their happiness and their sadness.
sometimes when I stop; again
sometimes, by the sea, in bare rooms
with an iron bedstead and nothing else of my own
looking at the evening spider I think about
someone preparing to come back, being dressed
in white and black clothes. in multicoloured jewellery
and around him respectable matrons, with grey hair and dark laces,
speak softly.
I think about him getting ready to come and say goodbye to me;
or, about a woman with curled eyelashes and a slim waist
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna, Rhodes, Syracusa, Alexandria,
from closed cities like warm shutters,
with the scents of golden fruits and herbs,
and she is climbing the steps without seeing
those who have fallen asleep beneath the stairs.

Houses, you know, sulk easily when you lay them bare.

This house by Giannis Ritsos
(extracts from a longer poem called Moonlight Sonata published in 1956)

This house was haunted, it drives me away –
I mean it has aged a lot, nails have pulled up
picture frames launch themselves as if jumping into the void,
plaster is falling silently
like the hat of a dead person falling
from the peg in a dark hallway
like the woollen glove of silence falling from its lap
or like a strip of moonlight falling on the old gutted armchair.

This house no longer agitates me.
I can’t stand it getting me worked up.
You must always be careful, be careful
to prop up the wall with the big sideboard
to prop up the sideboard with the ancient carved table
to prop up the table with chairs
to prop up the chairs with your hands
to put your shoulder under the beam that’s hanging down.
And the piano, like a closed, black coffin. You don’t dare open it.
Be careful of everything. be careful they don’t fall, that you don’t fall. I can’t stand it.
Let me come with you…

This house, in spite of all its dead, doesn’t intend to die.
It insists on living with its dead
on living on its dead
on living with the certainty of its death and on providing still for its dead
with dilapidated beds and shelves.
Let me come with you.

This house is drowning me. The kitchen in particular
is like the seabed. Hanging coffee pots shine
like the big, round eyes of fantastic fish
plates quiver slowly like jellyfish,
seaweed and shells get caught in my hair
I can’t get them out again later
I can’t get back up to the surface again –
the tray falls silently from my hands – I collapse
and I see the bubbles of my breath go up and up
and I try and entertain myself by looking at them
and I wonder what someone looking down from above would say seeing these bubbles,
perhaps someone’s drowning or perhaps a diver is exploring the depths.

‘I don’t even know what I’m searching for’ by Tolis Nikiforou
(from the collection A chalk on the blackboard published in 2012)

sometimes late in the evening
I go back again to our old house
and open the door in anticipation
searching in the darkness
I don’t even know what for

with the key still in my hand
that big, iron one
I pass from room to room
touching, smelling and looking
in each of my intangible steps
in case somewhere here there is
the always-warm hand of my father
and brother or their protective ferociousness
and that of my mother
the ever-present absence
in case there are here
our heavy polished table
ithe photograph smiling on the wall
the carpet with its multicoloured patterns
in case there are here
the floor, the walls, the same house
in case, coming through the balcony door,
is the square opposite that I used to love
and suddenly I realise I’m crying
I’m crying hopelessly in my dream
the tears make everything mist over
everything the light of memory illuminates.

The little treasures of Apeiranthos on Naxos

Apeiranthos is a mountain village on the eastern side of the island of Naxos. We were a bit put off stopping there when we saw tour buses dropping people off and so we took the road down to the tiny village of Moutsouna on the east coast. I may blog about Moutsouna separately as it was such a beautiful and peaceful village. But something that day drew us back to Apeiranthos.

Wondering around the village at lunchtime, the tour buses seemed to have disappeared and there weren’t many people in the single main street, so we drifted in and out of shops, like this one with its strange horse whip:

Of course, as it was lunchtime several museums we wanted to visit were closed, until we came upon the open Archaeological Museum. We didn’t expect much: the man on the door wasn’t bothered whether we went in, it cost 1 Euro each and the museum only consisted of a single room, dusty and in need of a tidy-up. Many of the items were in glass cases with few labels, larger ones were spread around the floor.

There was a fine collections of Roman oil lamps on a table:

Some lovely pottery from 3000BC, very modern-looking, unfortunately too difficult to photograph; weapons including obsidian blades and spearheads; bronze tools; and a huge stone bowl:

It took me a while though to spot some of the museum’s most remarkable objects. Remarkable because so unexpected. They are a series of stick men and animals carved on stone. These petroglyphs were discovered in 1962 by the man who started the museum, Mikhalis Bardanis. He found them on a hill called Koryfi t’Aroniou in the south east of Naxos and they date between 2700-2200BC.

I suppose what makes them so striking is the contrast with my expectations of what Greek art is like: beautiful products of sophisticated craftsmanship. But these items have a directness and energy that comes from their simplicity.

This is one of my favourite carvings, three figures apparently dancing together in a circle, their arms raised and at least one of them holding some sort of stick. I say dancing, but I’m interpreting that from the character on the left with one foot in the air and the position of the central character’s body indicating that he is in motion. I wonder what sounds they were moving to. Were they celebrating something or calling on their gods or spirits to help them?

Here’s one of a figure of what looks like a deer, perhaps being confronted by a hunter:

In the next one the human figure behind the deer looks as if he is putting some sort of instrument to his mouth – perhaps calling for help with stalking the animal :

Three characters look like they are attacking a deer with spears:

Two animals together, possibly deer, though they look a bit sleeker:

Another hunting scene:

One or two animals grazing?

The next one is very unusual. It looks like two men standing on a boat with a mast on the right hand side. Or perhaps they are fighting? Very hard to make it out.

Some of them are difficult to see as they are painted on the rock surface in ochre:

There are also carvings using geometrical and other shapes:

It’s all very intriguing and the museum has no other information to help us make sense of these carvings. I would love to know more about the site they came from and what they signify.

Aperiranthos is a very attractive village and it’s not surprising that it gets so many visitors.

We stop off at a kafeneio for a fresh lemon juice and that’s when I spot these two gentlemen:

Looking back from high up on Mt Zas at the village of Filoti:

Ravenna miscellany

I will end this series of posts on Ravenna with a selection of pictures of things that grabbed my attention during our visit.

I really liked the city and was pleasantly surprised by its human scale, its quiet central area and by the relatively few tourist we encountered (we were there in June 2019), most of whom were Italian. I suppose It’s a bit of a stretch for tourists to Venice or on cruise ships to make the detour to Ravenna. Perhaps it only attracts people who are keen to see the mosaics and/ or have an interest in things Byzantine.

All of the main churches, apart from Sant’ Apollinare in Classe are within easy reach of each other. Walking is a pleasure here as the central part of the city is car free, making the air cleaner. It was a pleasure to sit out in the courtyard of our hotel in the stillness and quiet of the evening, without a constant hum of traffic in the background. Bicycles are a popular way of getting around for the local people. Even the streets are discreetly marked into lanes for pedestrians and bikes.

The Piazza del Popolo, the 13th century square and heart of the city:

Ravenna is the final resting place of Dante who died here in 1321 from malaria. It just so happens that 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Much to the annoyance of the Florentines, Ravenna refused to part with his remains, though Florence continues to provide an annual supply of oil for the lamp over his tomb. It’s quite easy to miss the late 18th century tomb tucked in the angle of a street and a park.

During the last war Dante’s remain were moved to a tumulus in the nearly park for safe keeping and the spot is still marked:

Nearby is the Basilica of San Francesco, originally built by Bishop Neon in 450, but later demolished and rebuilt, then remodelled several times subsequently. Before Dante’s tomb was built he was buried in this church and in fact his funeral service was held here. A curious feature of the basilica is that the crypt constantly fills with water: putting a coin into a machine illuminates the area and you can see the mosaic floor, complete with goldfish motifs. Once a year (in January I think) the local fire service pumps the water out of the crypt. Bishop Neon’s tomb is here too and looking at the watermark on his sarcophagus, it’s clear that the water level must sometimes rise higher than the crypt.

Several items drew my attention in the National Museum. For example these 12th century Byzantine ivory carvings from Constantinople:

Deposition from the Cross
Dormition of the Mother of God (left) and Christ in Glory (right)

And this ivory from Egypt, capturing the moment when pursued by Apollo, Daphne is rescued by her father Peneus by being turned into a laurel tree:

Apollo and Daphne

I loved this Russian icon showing St Vladimir flagged by SS Boris and Gleb:

These two striking marble reliefs display great skill:

Entered via the 18th century church of Sant’ Eufemia, is a museum called the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra which preserves the mosaics of a lost Byzantine palace. It has two particularly interesting mosaics. The first shows a group, led by a dancer dressed in a costume that may indicate ‘spring,’ dancing to a pipe player:

The second depicts the Good Shepherd:

On the outskirts of Ravenna are the remains of a Venetian fort, the Rocca Brancaleone, built in the mid 15th century:

A bicycle advertising a local restaurant:

And finally, I can’t resist including this one again:

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

The Basilica is set on a flat plain about 8 km outside Ravenna. For some reason a modern hotel has been plonked right next door to it. Funded by the same rich banker that funded San Vitale, the basilica was built in the mid 6th century and dedicated in 549 to Saint Apollinaris, the first bishop of Classe, by Bishop Maximianus. The separate bell tower,a feature of many of the churches in Ravenna, was added in the 10th century.

The entrance is through a portico that has been rebuilt: the archaeology suggests is may have had a pyramidal shape originally:

The main body of the basilica is very impressive with its tall, veined, Greek marble columns and high clerestory windows which add to its light and sense of spaciousness. They also focus the attention on the only part of the basilica that still retains its mosaics, the apse.

The semi-dome of the apse features St Apollinaris tending his sheep in a green landscape while above him a jewelled golden cross in a roundel represents Christ in glory.

Just above the cross the hand of God appears in the clouds signifying Christ’s transfiguration and the revelation of his divine nature on Mt Tabor:

Aove the arch over the apse is a depiction of the Pantokrator, flanked by the Evangelists:

and beneath them on either side of the arch 12 sheep (symbolising the Apostles) are emerging from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, climbing towards Christ.

On the left wall of the apse is a depiction of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV granting privileges to the Ravenna Exarchate:

and on the right hand wall is Melchizedek, a Jewish High Priest (‘the King of Righteousness’) believed to be a prediction from the Old Testament of the reign of Christ.

One of the two Archangels (Michael) on either side of the apse arch:

There are also depictions of bishops of Ravenna at the back wall of the apse:

Finally the side aisles have some magnificent sarcophagi from different periods of the basilica’s history:

Visiting Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was built by Theodoric in the early 6th century as a church for his nearby palace. Originally dedicated to St Martin of Tours, it changed its names several times, before being dedicated to St Apollinaris when his remains were moved here from Classe in the 9th century.

Apart from its bell tower it is externally an ugly church. But inside it is quite a different story, the clerestory windows and high Greek marble columns give it a sense of spaciousness and airiness. Unfortunately, when we visited it was the day for dusting the mosaics, making it a challenge at times to avoid the men at work.

The mosaics are high up on the walls on either side of the nave and consist of three levels. The first level depicts female martyrs on the left of the nave and male martyrs on the the right. The clerestory level depicts saints and Apostles, and the top layer illustrates scenes from the life of Christ.

The female martyrs on the left hand side are shown leaving Classe (Ravenna’s port on the Adriatic), depicted as a fortified imperial city.

Each holding a martyr’s crown and separated from each other by a date palm, the martyrs form a long procession heading in the direction of the altar. Curiously, their faces look look almost identical:

The processions culminates with the Three Magi carrying their gifts: their figures, bending in hommage, a dramatic contrast to the static procession of martyrs:

The Magi are clearly differentiated in their features and their clothing, as well as by their gifts. I have read somewhere that this may be the first time they are named in Christian art. One curious aspect is the bright Phrygian bonnets they are wearing. Drawings over 300 years ago show them wearing crowns and it is thought that for some reason these were replaced when the mosaics were renovated in the 19th century.

The focus of the procession is the enthroned Mother of God with an infant Christ, flanked on either side by two Archangels. Her hand is raised in blessing.

Paralleling this scene on the opposite wall is an enthroned Christ, also flanked on either side by two Archangels:

The procession of male martyrs making its way towards Christ is headed by St Martin, highlighted by his purple robe:

Interestingly, the male martyrs are much more clearly differentiated in their facial features and not just in terms of whether they are bearded or clean shaven:

The starting point for this procession is not Classe, but what was originally Theodoric’s Palace. Originally the mosaic probably showed Theodoric’s court, but some time after the Byzantine capture of the city in 540 this was covered over:

Bizarrely you can still see various hands and arms that were part of the original mosaic reaching round the columns :

Here are some examples of the mosaics on the 2nd and 3rd levels:

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:Finally, on the west wall an excellent depiction of Justinian:

Archbishop’s Chapel in Ravenna

Mosaic of Christ in the Chapel of the Archbishop’s Palace in Ravenna

The small chapel in the Archbuishop’s Palace, built in the early 6th century, is dedicated to St Andrew and has some exquisite mosaics. The picture above is an unusual depiction of Christ, beardless, and dressed as a Roman soldier. In his left hand he holds an open Gospel showing the words ‘ I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’; in his right, a martyr’s cross balanced across his right shoulder. Standing in a mountainous area, he is subduing a lion (pride) and a snake (the devil / evil). It is unusual because it is so unlike the standard depictions of Christ in iconography. The vault of the narthex is richly decorated with a mosaic of birds and lilies.

The simple, marble altar table in the apse has a wonderful golden cross over it on a rich blue background studded with gold stars:

Roundels feature the apostles and some female saints:

It also features the Evangelists:

The floor has some beautiful marble decorations which may well date from a later era:

The adjoining museum has many stone stele and inscriptions excavated in the city, but one of its most stunning exhibits is the throne of Maximianus. He is the person standing next to Justinian in the imperial mosaic in St Vitale who was bishop at the time of the building and consecration of the church. The thrione is covered in ivory panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and from the life and Passion of Christ:

The Church of St Nikolaos at Maza in Crete – part 3: life of St Nikolaos and litugical frescoes

This is the third in a series of blog post about this Pagomenos church in the village of Maza in Crete. You can find the first two here and here.

First of all, two of the most stunning frescoes in the church, first the depiction of Christ the Giver of Light in the apse and then the head of Christ on the Mandelion:

I am now going to look at some of the frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St Nikolaos, to whom the church is dedicated, and key liturgical scenes.The first one shows the birth of St Nikolaos and the bathing of the new born.

In the next one he is entrusted to the care of his teacher:

Then St Nikolaos giving the dowries for the three sisters:

St Nikolaos tonsured as a deacon:

In a badly damaged fresco, St Nikolaos is made a bishop:

The next fresco depicts St Nikolaos appearing to Emperor Constantine in a dream. This is one of a series of 3 frescoes in this church chosen to illustrate an episode in St Nikolaos’s life.The Consul, Ablabius, accepted a bribe to put three innocent generals in prison in Myra. They had been sent by the Emperor Constantine to put down a revolt in Phrygia, but ended up being imprisoned instead. St Nikolaos appeared to Constantine and Ablabius in dreams informing Constantine of the truth and frightening Ablabius into releasing the generals.

The next fresco in this series depicts the three generals in prison:

In the final icon in this programmatic series, St Nikolaos saves an innocent man from being beheaded:

On its own, outside the usual liturgical programme is this depiction of the Hospitality of Abraham, on of my favourite iconographic subjects, traditionally interpreted as the Trinity:

The next series depicts scenes from the life of Christ, starting with the Nativity, again badly damaged unfortunately:

This is followed by the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

I love the simplicity in the depiction of the Virgin’s face. This is followed by Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist:

I like the detail of the two boys or young men in the water with Christ and the fish looking up at him. The boy on the left is a personification of the River Jordan., while the figure on the right riding a sea monster is a personification of the sea:

Next is the very badly damaged Metamorphosis:

This is a very badly damaged fresco of the Raising of Lazarus:

followed by another very bady damaged fresco of the Three Marys (the ‘Myrrh-bearers’ as they are referred to in Orthodoxy) at the Tomb of Christ. It shows the angel in white garments sitting on the gravestone

Nice detail in the bottom right of the sleeping soldiers supposed to be keeeping watch over Christ’s tomb:

The next one is Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (on Palm Sunday), with the lovely detail right at the bottom of the little boy feeding the donkey:

Following on from this is the Betrayal, another badly damaged fresco, with inset at bottom right St Peter cutting off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest Caiaphas:

Christ in Chains (ie on the Road to Calvary):

The Crucifixion is on the west wall above the entrance. Clearly the resrticted space available in that position gave Pagomenos a challenge which I think he more than meets in the drama of the fresco:

Finally in this series, the Resurrection:

I am intrigued by this bowl embedded into the wall over the entrance. It looks Byzantine in style, but I can’t believe it’s that old:

Rear view of the church:

My thanks to Eleftheria Lehmann for her gentle encouragement in getting me to post this series of photo essays on this wonderful little church, for providing me with a plan of the frescoes that she found; and for her very helpful comments on the identity and details of some of the frescoes.
A word of apology to the good people of Maza for moving the church furniture round a bit to be able to take uncluttered shots: I did this respectfully and moved it back afterwards. I hope you think it was worth it.
Finally, I am enormously grateful to my wife for all her love and support; specifically also for waiting so patiently while I took all these photographs and for encouraging me to publish them four years later.

A poem commemorating Greek Okhi Day

The History: Oxi Day Celebration |
Courtesy of

In Greece, 28 October commemorates the day in 1940 when the Greek government stood up against the invading Italian army. Mussolini had issued an ultimatum demanding his army be allowed to enter the country for strategic reason or Greece would face a war. Metaxas, the Greek Prime Minister, allegedly replied with the single word ‘Okhi!’ (No!) and that same day launched a counterattack against the invaders in the Pindus mountains on the border with Albania. This event, a symbol of Greece’s pride and ability to defend itself, is still a national holiday with parades by the military, students and schoolchildren.

Here’s my translation of a poem by Nikiforos Vrettakos about the fighting in that harsh, mountainous environment:

A soldier mutters on the Albanian front

Who will bring a little sleep to us here where we are?
At least then we would be able
to see our mother, as if she were coming to see us
carrying a starched sheet under her arm
with a warm apron and marigolds from our garden.
A faded monogram on the edge of her shawl:
a lost world.

We wander around up here in the snow with stiffened greatcoats.
The sun never came out completely from behind the heights of the River Morava,
The sun never set unwounded by the jagged edges of Mt Trebeshinë.
I stagger in the wind without any other clothing,
Doubled over with my rifle, freezing and uncertain.

(When I was young, I used to see my reflection in the streams
of my native land
I was not cut out for war).

This recent infection under my arm would not concern me,
This rifle would not suit me, it if were not for you,
sweet earth that seems like a person,
if there were not cradles behind us and whispering tombs
if there were not people and if there were not mountains with majestic
faces, seemingly cut by the hand of God
to match the place, the light and its spirit.

The night pricks our bones in the bunkers;
in here
we have brought our friendly faces and embrace them
we have brought our home and our village church
the cage in the window, the girls’ eyes,
our garden fence, all our boundaries,
the Blessed Virgin with the carnation, a strapping girl,
who covers our feet before the snow does,
who enfolds us in her veil before death does.

But, whatever happens we will survive.
countless people live in the spirit of Freedom,
People beautiful in their sacrifice, People.
The meaning of virtue is a great encampment.
The fact that they have died does not mean that they have stopped being here,
with their sadnesses, their tears and their conversations.
Your sun will be bought at great cost.
If, by chance, I do not come back, may you be well.
Think a little about how much it cost me.

(When I was young, I used to see my reflection in the streams
of my native land
I was not cut out for war).

Reflections on my pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain

To close the series of posts on my recent pilgrimage to My Athos here are my reflections on the trip and what it meant to me.

It is a beautiful, unspoilt place, covered in trees and surrounded by clear water in all shades of blue. Even before I set foot on shore and entered a monastery I was struck by its wild landscape, mountains, steep cliffs and odd shaped rocks. Unlike many parts of Greece it is very green and overgrown: nature has been left to its own devices. With few inhabitants, no industry, few roads and even fewer vehicles, there is no pollution. The air is bright and clear and everywhere there is a deep silence.

Its remoteness is of course what attracted monks and ascetics to come here in the first place to pursue a contemplative life. But its isolation made it vulnerable to attack from marauders looking to plunder the monasteries’ wealth. Many of the older monasteries are build like fortresses, with a steep approach from the coast, thick walls and huge wooden, iron-clad doors to withstand the pirate assaults. I remember the rifles I saw in Fr Prodromos’s museum at Iviron from a time not so long ago when the monks had to defend themselves.

Today the monasteries may be cash poor, but they are very rich in artefacts, many the gift of Byzantine Emperors and other Orthodox rulers. Some of their greatest treasures are the books and manuscripts in their libraries, though these are hard to access. Neither Nikolaos or Argyrios seem to have been into any of the libraries. I could not work out whether this was because they were not allowed or because they were not interested. I was slightly disappointed that I was not offered the opportunity of a visit – perhaps in hindsight I should have taken the initiative and just asked. In the absence of the real artefacts, I can recommend an excellent site hosting digital versions of some of the more than 300,000 of the Holy Mountain’s books, parchments and manuscripts. Next time I will do my research on this site  in advance and identify which libraries I would like to visit, seek permission to visit their monasteries and see what happens.

What is a ‘pilgrimage’? It usually means a journey to a place that has some religious significance, eg a connection with the life of Christ or a saint. The journey is a physical one to reach a particular destination to meet a religious obligation and it can also involve an inward journey towards some form of self discovery. In many western languages, the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peregrinus, meaning a foreigner or stranger; possibly because this is how the first ‘pilgrims’ were described by the people whose lands they passed through. In Greek the word for pilgrimage is proskynima which comes from proskynisi which means prostration, veneration or worship. Maybe it’s tenuous but the emphasis in Orthodoxy seems to be more on the veneration or worship aspects of the journey. That, at least, is how I experienced this particular pilgrimage with my companions.

My band of pilgrims came to venerate monasteries’ relics, not their treasures. I found initially a deep Protestant scepticisim surfacing when I witnessed my companions crossing themselves and kissing the reliquaries containing the hand of St George or the finger of St Basil. So different from the inert, white-walled churches of the C of E, purged of relics and a whole visual and aesthetic dimension by a politically inspired reformation. As I watched them, these pilgrims venerated the relics with such respect, humility and almost love. I was given the opportunity to join the back of the queue and moved along the line of relics, bowing to each with my right hand over my heart. Even without a Christian belief and the Greek Orthodox background I found it moving.

I enjoyed the services and the Byzantine chant which was particularly good at Iviron, less so at Dionysiou. Nikolaos and Argyrios though were less than impressed when I expressed a preference for Russian chant. Byzantine chant is much harder to attune your ears to. It does not have the immediate emotional appeal of its Russian equivalent and requires more intense listening. Although I had read the liturgy in Greek before I went to Athos, it was much harder to establish where we were in the service than it is for me when I am listening to the Russian Orthodox liturgy.  And that, apart from lack of faith, does create a barrier to full participation in what’s going on.

Watching the service, hearing the chanting in the darkness lit only by candles and in the company of all the saints on the frescoes and icons, I wondered how many men had stood here over the centuries doing exactly the same. There was only one point when I forgot one of Nikolaos’s initial instructions and found him next to me at Vespers, with a smile on his face politely but firmly removing my right hand from my trouser pocket.

The monasteries preserve the old (Julian) calendar, keeping Byzantine time where sunset is midnight and following the same pattern of services they have followed since their foundation in the 10th century. I felt that strong link and continuity with the Byzantine empire.

Despite its beautiful setting, its old buildings, stunning icons and frescoes, the Holy Mountain is not a museum. It is a home to the monks who try to live in continual communion with God. That’s why taking photographs must seem to them such an intrusion. I was struck by how open, welcoming and hospitable the monks are to the endless stream of visitors pouring through the monasteries every day, feeding them, accommodating them and letting them take part in their services. All, whether they have no faith or little faith, whether they go to church or not, whether they are Orthodox or not, are welcomed as pilgrims.

Argyrios told me that there are two types of monks: those who are refugees from the world, because they don’t fit in for whatever reason, and those with a calling. Life on Athos is so harsh and demanding that in general the former do not last long and leave.

There is something about submitting to the monastic routine that is calming. It slows life right down and gives it a completely different rhythm. I thought I would find the two meals a day hardship, but actually I did not feel hungry at all between meals. Considering their hard life the monks did not seem tired, on the contrary they looked bright and alert. Argyrios told me he once spent 30 days on the Holy Mountain and was exhausted at the end of it. I cam imagine that if you walk between monasteries and keep the monastic routine, it must be very tiring.

One aspect of our pilgrimage though remained completely invisible to me and that was the conversations that went on between the pilgrims and the monks. Argyrios told me he continues to be in dialogue with the monks. In particular he had been having a discussion with Fr Prodromos at Iviron that keeps going deeper and deeper: ‘It never comes to an end, after each visit it is like we put a comma or semi-colon’, he told me. Curious as to the nature of this dialogue I asked him what they talked about. Everything!’, he tells me, ‘and it’s been going on for 30 years’.

On the boat back to Ouranoupoli I fell into conversation with a young Frenchman who was visiting Mt Athos with a Greek friend. Amongst other things we talked about the services and agreed that the Hesychastic practice of repeating the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) was a form of meditation, anchoring the individual in the present moment and creating a mindful state. I recalled a story that the Elder at Dionysiou told about St Basil that is very similar to one I have heard in Zen. Two monks met a pretty girl on the road. A bit later the monk said to St Basil: ‘Did you see that girl we met?’, and St Basil replied: ‘I saw but I didn’t look. That was then, this is here and now’. The services also function as a form of consciousness-altering mechanism similar to meditation. In some ways, despite their different frames of reference and structures of meaning I see similarities between Hesychastic and Buddhist practice. I do not think may monks would agree with me on this though. I remember seeing a leaflet in the shop at the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn in Russian that was entitled ‘Meditation – the route to hell’.

So what does a pilgrimage mean to someone who is not Orthodox, does not even believe in God, and is actually a Buddhist? Clearly I was not able to take part fully in the services and did not share the beliefs of my fellow pilgrims. I did not share their joy in venerating relics. Equally I did not have the opportunity to have conversations with the monks and Elders. So in many ways my experience of the pilgrimage was of its outer forms. Despite that, it was an opportunity to encounter silence in a beautiful place, to experience in a little more depth a religious tradition with which I feel much affinity and to observe at first hand the faith of my companions. More importantly it allowed me to experience a simple way of life and feel the power of the monks concentrated prayer life and their compassion arising from a life dedicated to God.

It was an honour and a privilege to make this pilgrimage and I am very grateful to my Greek tutor Sofia who set this visit up for me; to Nikolaos and Argyrios for their great patience and kindness in leading me though it; and to my fellow pilgrims for accepting me into their band. Finally, I am eternally grateful to my wife for letting me fulfil this ambition.