Who really owns the Parthenon Marbles?

On his Law and Policy Blog I came across a post recently by the lawyer, David Allen Green, on the issue of who legally owns the Parthenon Marbles. It’s a topic in the news again this week with the Greek Prime Minister raising the issue with Boris Johnson during a visit to the UK to discuss bilateral relations. Johnson in typical ‘not me guv’ fashion stated that it was a matter for the British Museum: another lie! The original purchase of the marbles from Elgin was authorised by an Act of Parliament and so can only be undone with one.

On the issue of ownership, the British Museum position is simply stated as follows:

“Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal.”

David Allen Green’s blog provides a link to a fascinating article by an American academic lawyer called David Rudenstine that forensically examines this issue. I will summarise the paper here because it’s a lengthy but enthralling read and it makes me regret that I did not pursue a career in the law.

In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople had the the marble frieze and sculptures on the Parthenon removed and taken to England. This was the beginnings of his troubles as the endeavour led him to the verge of bankruptcy. By 1816 he decided to sell the marbles to the British government to be housed in the British Museum, just when the museum was rapidly expanding its collection of Classical artefacts.

In 1816 the House of Lords set up a Select Committee to enquire into the matter. Appearing before the Committee, Elgin was asked repeatedly whether he had any documentation proving his ownership and repeatedly he said ‘ no’. He claimed instead that in July 1801 he had received a document from the Ottoman government connected with the work he was undertaking on the Acropolis that entitled him to ‘draw, model and remove [items}’ as well as excavate in specific places. He had not however kept a copy of it.

Whilst in post in Constantinople Elgin retained as a secretary / chaplain a man called Philip Hunt, responsible for liaising with Elgin’s workmen through their supervisor, an Italian painter called Giovanni Battista Lusieri. It was Hunt who urged Elgin to get a detailed agreement from the Ottomans for the work on the Acropolis.

Hunt was also called to testify to the Select Committee in 1816 and in the course of giving evidence claimed he had an Italian translation of the original Ottoman document called a firman (an imperial decree issued by the Sultan), signed by the Grand Vizier (the Sultan’s chief minister). This clinched it for the Select Committee and their report to Parliament led to the government agreeing to purchase the marbles from Elgin.

There are some striking oddities about these documents. Evidence suggests that some sort of document was issued by the Ottoman authorities in July 1801. Yet no firman on this subject has ever been found in the Ottoman archives and no record of any dealing between Elgin and the Ottoman government on the subject have ever been found in the Foreign Office files. Legal ownership of the marbles therefore turns on this Italian document.

Hunt apparently asked for a literal translation of the Ottoman document, but received a translation (my italics). It begs the question as to why the translation was into Italian, a language that neither Elgin nor Hunt spoke. Hunt’s statement that it was because Italian was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean is frankly incredible. The document’s introduction refers to it being conveyed to Athens by ‘N.N.’ which mystified people for many years, until legal experts pointed out that this stand for ‘non nullus’, ie someone. It’s a form of words often used in draft legal documents to indicate that a name will be inserted in the final draft.

Despite the findings in the Select committee report, the Italian document is not a firman as firmans are usually issued only by the Sultan. Only the Sultan could authorise anything to do with classical monuments in Ottoman lands.

Could this Italian document be a carefully contrived forgery cooked up by Elgin and Hunt working together? There was a two week gap between Elgin’s appearance before the Select Committee and Hunt’s. In his evidence to the Select Committee though, when he was asked repeatedly about documents proving his ownership, Elgin did not mention it. This suggests that he did not know of its existence. If they had forged a document, why did they not forge something that proved Elgin’s ownership unequivocally? The Italian ‘translation’ does not do this.

David Rudenstine’s conclusion is that the Italian document is a draft that Hunt, acting on behalf of Elgin, had drafted by Pisani a dragoman (interpreter and fixer) employed by Elgin to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities. It is not a translation of the original lost Ottoman document, but a draft request for the work on the Acropolis Elgin wanted the authorities to agree to.

The implication of this is that Elgin did not have any documentation proving that he owned the marbles and that the Select Committee was wrong to accept the Italian ‘translation’ as that document. As Elgin did not therefore legally own the marbles, he could not legally sell them to the British government. Rudenstine implies that the Select Committee jumped at the Italian document as the basis of Elgin’s for ownership and therefore his right to sell the marbles, without further forensic examination of the documentation story, because they were eager to acquire the marbles to display in the British Museum.

What a shabby story of misinformation by Hunt and Elgin and of collusion by Parliament! This story will never go away until the UK hands the marbles back to the country to which they belong and rights this longstanding wrong. That day may be getting closer.

The Byzantine Church of Panagia Drosiani on Naxos

Right next to the road between the villages of Moni and Khalki on the island of Naxos and in among the olive groves stands this little church, said to be one of the oldest in the Balkans and one of the most revered churches in Greece. It seems incredible, but the oldest part of the church dates back probably to the 6th century, though the little guide to the church claims it dates from the 4th century. Dedicated to the Panagia (Our Lady) Drosiani (the one who cools), it is the only remnant of an old monastery, perhaps giving the village of Moni its name (Moni in Greek means monastery).

Architecturally, the church was built and added to over the course of about a thousand years. The oldest part is the area consisting of the apse, the sanctuary, the iconostasis and the top part of the nave. On the northern side of the church are what look like three side chapels set at an angle to the nave, probably from the 7th century. The main body of the church, the nave, dates from the 12th-14th century.

Here’s a view of the church looking towards the iconostasis and apse:

Marble iconostases, like the one here, at this early stage in the development of Byzantine church architecture were generally low, as was the original one in Haghia Sofia. It was only later that it was raised in height to obscure the view of the sanctuary from the laity.

The church is famous for a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God which is said to perspire whenever the village is at threat. I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to it in my eagerness to look at the frescoes.

The area around the apse and sanctuary are the only part that has frescoes. What makes them so special is that they date from the period before Iconoclasm (between the early 8th and mid 9th centuries) when the Byzantium turned against the making of images. Not only that, they destroyed many existing ones; very few frescoes or icons survived. Notable examples can be found at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. But it is remarkable that this church on Naxos pre-Iconoclasm frescoes. Perhaps its isolation and distance from Constantinople enabled it to preserve them.

On either side of the top of the nave facing each other are frescoes of the military saints on horseback, St George here:

and St Demetrios:

The tympanum of the apse has a seated Christ surrounded by angels that is really hard to make out and certainly too faint to photograph (even for me).

In the sanctuary there is a beautiful Virgin holding the infant Jesus in a circle in her breast, called the Nikopoios type in Greek (meaning Victory-making):

On either side of the Virgin are roundels of the healing saints, Kosmas and Damian:

In the space beneath the apse depiction of the Virgin, it is customary to depict four saints, usually the Three Hierarchs, the great teachers of the Orthodox Church (Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom), plus usually in Greece, St Nicholas. In this case, there is an unusual selection.

In the centre is Christ standing on a footstool:

To the left of Christ are the Virgin also standing on a footstool, with hands held out in supplication:

and next to her is what the guidebook says is Solomon holding a cross, a really strange choice. To me he looks more like a Byzantine Emperor: his imperial purple clothes are studded with pearls and he wears a pearl-encrusted crown. I don’t know how to explain the halo though. To the right of Christ is the figure of St John the Baptist and next to Christ what looks to me like a Byzantine Empress (not a female saint as the guidebook says) with a pearl and jewel-encrusted crown and pearl pendilia (pendants hanging down from the crown). Maybe she is the companion of the Emperor depicted on the left. Could they be Justinian and Theodora or Constantine and Helena?

In the dome are two very badly damaged portraits of Christ, symbolising the human and divine natures of Christ:

On one of the arches are inscriptions referring to the donors who paid for the church to be built:

The arches also have damaged full length depictions of saints, most unidentifiable, such as this female saint with a bag of healing medicines:

and this one:

This is the Holy Martyr Julian in a very badly damaged fresco:

On the north wall are these two striking head fragments:

On the south wall is a very naïve depiction of the Mother of God, looking cross-eyed:

On the north and south walls under the frescoes of SS George and Demetrios are red crosses that looks as though they may date back to the time of Iconoclasm:

Of the three side chapels, one was used as an ossuary and one as a ‘secret’ school, a church school that taught Greek to local children during Ottoman rule. The Ottomans though had a light presence on the island and left the Venetians to administer it, so it may be that this is a piece of myth-making.

I had asked the old lady guardian if I could take photographs inside the church and she quite willingly me agreed to let me do it. However, as I got to the end of shooting the frescoes, I suddenly heard her shout at me ‘Stop!’ in a very angry voice. Of course, I stopped taking photographs, but I couldn’t understand why she had suddenly turned against me.

A very old olive tree near the entrance gate to the church:

Finally, a view of the church of the Panagia Drosiani at the bottom of the valley with Mt Fanari in the background:

A poem commemorating Greek Okhi Day

The History: Oxi Day Celebration | GreekReporter.com
Courtesy of GreekReporter.com

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.

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.

I am intrigued by the difference between priests’ and monks’ hats (called in Greek kalymaukhi). Argyrios explained that a priest’s hat has an overhanging edge, while a monk’s is round with no edge. While we were on the Holy Mountain, monks from a completely different monastery sent him greetings because they had heard that he was there. He called it Radio Kalymaukhi – Holy Mountain jungle drums.

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 3, verse 1: ‘But the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment of death will touch them.’

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.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 3 – the monastery of Xenofontos

“So, is there anything I should or shouldn’t do when I’m on Athos?”, I ask Nikolaos, our group leader (o kyrios Nikolaos – Mr Nikolaos – as my fellow pilgrims and I call him) at my pre-pilgrimage briefing. We (Nikolaos, Sofia, my Greek tutor and Nikolaos’s daughter, my wife and I) are sitting in the park near the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki on a beautiful warm summer evening enjoying soft drinks. I’m concerned that, not being Orthodox, I might embarrass my fellow pilgrims.

“Well, there are some things. Don’t run, sing or whistle. No loud laughter. And don’t put your hands in your pockets .”  OK, that doesn’t seem to be too bad. I think I can just about hold myself back from the urge to run around, laughing my head off, whistling and singing with my hands in my pockets.

“One other thing”, I ask him. ‘How do you address a monk?”, thinking that the Greeks use the similar word, Patir, that they use for talking to a priest.

” We say ‘eulogeite’ [bless]. To which the monk replies ‘o Kyrios’ [the Lord, ie ‘may the Lord bless you, often with the right index finger raised, pointing to heaven].” I wasn’t expecting that.

O kyrios Nikolaos also gives me a bit of a potted history of the Holy Mountain and shows me our intended route on a map. There have been isolated groups of monks on Mt Athos since at least the ninth century, but it was St Athanasius the Athonite who started to bring them together into monasteries, founding the very first, the Great Lavra in 963. This was followed by Vatopaidi in 974 and Iviron in 982.

So here I am now, at the monastery of Xenofontos, setting foot on the Holy Mountain for the first time, excited and just a bit anxious about how it’s going to go. Disembarking from our little ferry, we leave our bags on the jetty beneath a wooden verandah and head on up the slope that leads to the monastery gate. I’m a bit dubious about leaving my things there but am re-assured that they will be looked after.

In the main courtyard, there’s a stunning Byzantine katholikon (main church) in white and pink brick glowing in the sun. It looks old, but in fact it was only built a couple of hundred years ago.

The monastery itself as an institution dates back to the 10th-11th century, but generally from the outside the buildings look well maintained and not as old as I was expecting. This is something I notice throughout our pilgrimage. Although the foundations may date back over 1000 years, many have suffered fires and attack by pirates which means that they have been re-built, often several times. Fortunately, Athos has been successful in attracting money (including from the EU) to renovate its monastic buildings because, although many of the monasteries are asset rich, they are also cash poor.

Here are some of the other building surrounding the central courtyard.

As we arrive the celebration of the liturgy is nearing its end in a much smaller church which we can’t get into because it’s already crowded with pilgrims. So we have to stay outside in the narthex listening to the end of the service.

The walls of the narthex are covered with remarkable frescoes of the Revelation of St John – a theme which I come across in the other two monasteries we visit at Iviron and Dionysiou. The picture below shows (from left to right) St John the Theologian being inspired by Christ to write the Revelation, Lucifer’s fall and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Here the multi-headed Antichrist is confronted by the Lamb:

Not sure how the next one fits in as it seems to show the donors who provided the money for the katholikon:

At the end of the liturgy we are taken into a side dining room for breakfast so we don’t get a chance to eat with the monks and see the main refectory. The meal consists of two dishes, a bowl of peas and boiled potatoes in a tasty sauce with bread, followed by a creamy custard pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the top with plain water to drink. It’s much nicer than it sounds. In the monasteries on Athos monks eat two meals a day, lunch after the liturgy and then dinner after Vespers. I am struck by how much of an overhead it is for the monasteries to feed and accommodate a constant stream of pilgrims and how disruptive it must be, in some ways, to their way of life.

After breakfast our group is invited into the katholikon to venerate the icons and for an inspiring talk by one of the monks. The church was built in the early nineteenth century and the frescoes are not particularly interesting though the gold decorations are very impressive:  

Argyrios points out the ostrich eggs hanging from the rich chandelier. There are two explanations for them: they are either there to keep the spiders away or they are exotic decorations.

While my fellow pilgrims lean in for their pep talk, I wonder round looking at the frescoes and in particular a fine Pantokrator in the dome:

On the way out, in the narthex is a fine fresco of Saints Demetrios and George:

There’s a bit of a pause now as we wait in the guest house for our mini-buses to take us on to the monastery where we will be staying the night. From here we are splitting into three groups each visiting different monasteries. The monks bring in very cold water for us to drink and likhoum to eat. I have a chat to an elderly man (not in our group) who’s been coming to Athos 3-4 times a year since 1958 and he tells me every time it’s different. I start to wonder what it is that brings him and so many others (including o kyrios Nikolaos and Arguris) back so often. But before long, the lack of sleep catches up with me and I start to doze off. While we’re all still together in the main courtyard, I take a shot of the whole group for the Association’s newsletter:

I think it’s the only large group shot I have ever taken where everyone is looking at the camera. Probably because to get their attention I say: “As we say in England, say -“, but before I can finish the sentence they all chime in with ‘Cheese!’ (in English). Our leader, o kyrios Nikolaos is at the extreme right of the front row, and my ‘minder’, Argyris, is in the middle of the back row.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 2 – journey to Xenofontos

After leaving Ouranoupoli harbour the boat follows the coast down the western side of the Athos peninsula. Soon we pass the border between Greece and the autonomous region of Athos marked, symbolically rather than practically, by the wall shown in the middle of the picture above and by the Custom’s House on the shore. There is no direct road linking Athos to the rest of Greece, though in the event of an emergency (a fire or natural disaster) I was told that a road of some sort could be put in place.

The first monastery we encounter is called Monoxilites, though my companions call it ‘gourounomoni’ (pig monastery) because it used to be dilapidated and pigs were kept there.

Now it’s being renovated by Russian monks and there seems to be a lot of building work going on. The first main monastery that we come to is Zografou with its own little church and mill and its imposing ‘arsenas’ (jetty) for the ferry to pull in, .

As we make our way down the coast, I am struck by the wild beauty of Athos. It’s much greener and more forested than I had expected and totally unspoilt: except for the area immediately round the monasteries, nature has just been left to itself. There’s no pollution: the air is clear, the waters deep and crystal clear. Strangely shaped rocks rise up out of the sea and on the cliffs. Apparently there are still the remains of Ancient Greek temples on the peninsula, though unfortunately we don’t have time to go off searching for them.

Every kilometre or so along the shore there’s a yellow sign (in the right foreground in the shot below) that indicates to boats that this is the territory of Mt Athos).

Fishing boats and other craft are not supposed to come within 500m of the shore, but we pass several fishing boats that are well within that limit.

Our next stop is the monastery of Dokheiariou which has a very impressive entrance with statues of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel set on columns on either side.

A lot of building work is still going on here too. My companions tell me that the Abbot was a civil engineer before he became a monk and personally supervises all the building work. As the picture below shows, the monasteries need supplies just like any other community.

Our first real stop is the monastery of Xenofontos, the first of three that we will visit on this trip.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 1 – setting out

It’s 3.45 on a Saturday morning in September as the bus pulls away from outside Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum and I sink down into my seat to get some more sleep. I only managed about three hours last night before getting up at 2.30 to take a taxi to the museum to rendezvous with the group that’s going to Mt Athos. My wife, lucky thing, is probably fast asleep back at our hotel. Around me are the voices of my fellow Greek pilgrims, members of the ‘St Athanasios the Athonite Association of the friends of the Holy Mountain, Thessaloniki’. 

We pass through the quiet city streets, pausing at traffic lights or stopping occasionally to pick up fellow pilgrims, I briefly open my eyes. At one halt still close to the city centre I see a street full of young people standing outside a club, talking animatedly and laughing. The stops become fewer as we pick up the remaining pilgrims on our way out of the city. As we leave the city, the co-leader of the trip starts chanting a hymn with the other pilgrims joining in. Then we’re heading east on a fast road and conversation subsides as we nod off.

Soon we’re travelling on narrower, more twisty roads. At some point about 4.30 as we pause briefly in a little village I see a solitary drinker at a table by the side of the road backlit by the light from a small bar. No closing times out here then.

How did I come to be doing this pilgrimage? Well, I blame my wife. When I fully retired at the end of March this year, after working part-time for the past 4 years (and full time for the best part of the previous 40), she suggested I should do something to mark my retirement. I proposed a trip together somewhere: Canada or the Silk Road. But she was adamant that I should do something for myself.

”What would you really like to do?”, she asked.
“Go to Mt Athos!”, I said, without even thinking about it.

I still don’t really know where that came from, other than it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Though I am now a Buddhist, I’ve also been interested in Orthodoxy for many years. At university, I studied Russian and I sang with a Russian Orthodox choir that happened to share a church with the Greek Orthodox – not something that is likely to happen these days, alas.

After university, Russia and its language disappeared from my life for many years until we got involved in a charity helping children from Belarus and made about a dozen trips to the country over nearly as many years. But my first visit to Russia didn’t come until 2002 – also a surprise Christmas and birthday present from my darling wife. I managed to go on a day’s visit to Optina Pustyn with a group of Russian pilgrims while I was staying with a family in Tula.

Optina Pustyn is a great Russian monastery on the banks of the River Zhizdra in Kaluga Province. It has strong links to the Athonite tradition and particularly hesychasm  (coming close to God through continual repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) that from the late eighteenth century played a major part in the revival of Russian Orthodox spirituality. Also, as a spiritual centre visited by Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (though at different times) it had a powerful influence on the lives of some of the greatest nineteenth century Russian writers. I’ve blogged about my Optina Pustyn experience previously and you can read them here:
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia I: Shamordino Convent
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia II: visions and springs
 On pilgrimage in holy Russia III: Optina Pustyn monastery
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia IV: Vespers at Optina Pustyn
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia V: Optyna Pustyn and its influence

Then about 9 years ago my wife and I started going to Greece after a chance invitation to stay with friends in Athens and the Peloponnese. This ignited a passion for the country that led me to start learning Greek and take an interest in Greek culture and history, including Byzantine history and art. It made me curious to understand the links between Greece and Russia, the languages and the cultures, forged by their shared Orthodox faith and historical links. For a while, I had been trying to find away of having a totally immersive experience in the language to improve my Greek. So I suppose visiting Athos was a way of bringing together these different strands of my life, but I still had no idea how to make it happen.

Visiting the Holy Mountain is not a straightforward undertaking for an independent traveller. You have to seek a permit from the Iera Epistasia (Holy Administration) in Thessaloniki and you have to be aged 18 or over and male (no females are allowed on Athos). So far so good. But there are a limited number of permits issued for any one day, 100 for Greeks and other Orthodox and 10 for non Orthodox / foreigners. Also the permits are only valid for 4 days and you can only apply for one within a maximum of 6 months of your visit. Transport on the Holy Mountain is also an issue: access is by ferry from the town of Ouranoupoli but to get between monasteries you have to walk, take a bus or hire a minibus (if you’re part of a group).

And that’s where a curious coincidence came into play. My Greek tutor, Sofia, lives in Thessaloniki so we have lessons by Skype. When I mentioned my mad idea to her, she told me that her father is involved in an Association of Friends of the Holy Mountain and she could arrange for me to go on one of his trips. It turned out to be so much easier to arrange through an Orthodox group than trying to do it myself. So that’s how I come to be on a bus with a group of Greek pilgrims.

I’ve deliberately not read too much background material about Athos before my trip to keep it a fresh experience. Robert Byron’s book The Station is about the only thing I did read. I managed to get through the first 2 or 3 highly mannered chapters with its world-weary narrator and his arch attitudes, but in spite of a few insights and patches of decent descriptive writing, the rest of the book really was a real struggle. It’s written in a peculiar style and he seems to have a really odd attitude to ancient Greek art.

I really must give up on books that I find tedious: life is too short to read stuff that bores me. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I came across an astonishing fact somewhere:  in a reading life of 60 years, if you read a book a fortnight you’d only read 1,560 books in your lifetime. That’s a depressingly small number considering the millions of books out there, and a useful reminder not to waste time on books that aren’t worth the effort.

The other piece of preparation I did was to read the text of the liturgy in Greek and a parallel English translation that I bought from Fr Ian Graham, parish priest of the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation in Oxford. I thought that it might help me understand where I was in the monastic services. It was a bit of a tough read as it’s written in Koine Greek, but it was worth the effort.

As we approach Ouranoupoli our point of embarkation for the Holy Mountain, we start to stir from our slumbers.. Our leader, and my tutor’s father, Nikolaos, has work to do: collecting the money for our trip and our identity cards (passport in my case) and telling us which group we are going to be in. As there are about 40 of us, we are going to split up into 3 separate groups travelling to different monasteries, so as not to put too much strain on any one monastery.

At Ouranoupoli as I get off the bus, Nikolaos’s friend Argyris, introduces himself. He’s been deputed to look after me and says “I’m on your tail!’, as we’re waiting to get off. While Nikolaos goes off to sort out our tickets and passes to get on to the Holy Mountain, Argyris takes me off to get a coffee from a small cafe with a harassed lady trying to serve small queue of pilgrims.

Back at the harbour, our boat has arrived and there’s a group of about 100 men waiting to board it: it’s seems to be a real mix of classes (though I find it hard to tell this in Greece to be honest), mostly over 50 year olds. With tickets and splendid formal passes (diamonitiria) in hand / mouth we climb aboard and head inside, settling down around tightly packed tables.

Looking at my diamonitirion (pass) I’m surprised to see myself described as a Catholic, as for ease I had described myself a Protestant when asked, thinking it would save the much longer conversation if I had described myself as Buddhist. By now it’s getting light and quite warm inside as, dead on 7.00 a,m we pull away from the little jetty and set off on the first leg of our pilgrimage.