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.


I mentioned in my last post about my pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain that I wanted to write a bit about the town of Ouranoupoli, the start and finish point for the sea trip to the monasteries. I was fascinated by the old tower on the beach and the little information panel about it I found in the main square. This started a search for more information which led me to Sydney and Joice Lock who lived there for many years and the Greek girl from the village, Sydney Marangou-White, whose education and training they sponsored.

There was a settlement here, called Ouranoupolis (‘sky town’) going back to the 4th century BC. Although there are no longer any signs of if on land, in 1954 Swedish divers found submerged ancients houses and roads just off the coast. For many centuries the land was part of a farm belonging to the monastery of Vatopedi on Mt Athos and the Tower on the beach was supposedly built to protect it during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II Palaiologos in the late 13th / early 14th century.

In the Byzantine era the settlement was called Prosforion, a name it retained until it was re-named Ouranoupoli by the Greek government who resettled refugees here from the Asia Minor catastrophe in the 1920s. The Government built single storey blocks along the sea with no water, electricity or sanitation. Each block consisted of 2 large bedrooms, a tiny one, an entrance hall and a kitchen. There was no road and the village was only accessible on foot, by mule or by boat. The nearest doctor was 7 miles away in the village of Nea Roda (the site of the canal that Xerxes built in 483 BC during the Persian invasion of Greece).

Many of the refugees were from fishing families re-settled from the Princes’ Islands (Adalar in modern Turkey) near Istanbul and from Caesarea. Without the tools of their trade though, many were unable to carry on fishing. The land itself was arid barren and hard to cultivate. In addition the climate was very hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter with frequent snowfalls. It was a a real hand to mouth existence.

Sydney Marangou-White was the oldest of four children who were born and brought up in the village after her parents were moved there from the Peloponnese in 1928. In her book Bones washed in water and wine she records daily life in the village in fascinating detail. Her mother was a healer who used herbs, folk remedies and even cupping glasses to treat local people. It is shocking to read how undernourished and thin people were and how, in summer, they appeared yellow from continual malarial infections caused by the swarms of mosquitoes breeding in the local pools. It was not until the last 1940s that the government started a campaign to eradicate malaria though repeated spraying to kill off the mosquitoes.

The Locks first appeared in the area in the mid 1920s when they came on holiday to Donkey Island opposite the settlement. They became fascinated by the Byzantine Tower and decided to buy it and settle there. Joice Lock was a very strong Australian woman who had come to England during the First World War. She had met her English husband, Sydney, when they were working for the Quakers dealing with the refugee crisis precipitated by the war. Later they moved to near Thessaloniki to set up a farm for refugees from Asia Minor. In addition to her strength of character, Joice Locke also had medical qualifications (though she was not a doctor) and soon she was putting her training to good effect by treating sick local people for free.

The Locks provided enormous support to the village, including: raising money from international organisations and friends; providing piped water; buying Chios sheep and agricultural tools; and building a wooden church and a Quaker school. To help the women from the village earn money, she taught them how to weave on a loom and make attractive carpets using Byzantine designs she researched. She sold these internationally through a company she set up called Pyrgos Rugs.

Sydney’s father was a skilled carpenter, as well as a fisherman, and he made some furniture for the the Locks. It was through this connection that he asked them to become Sydney’s godparents. She attended the local school they had set up in the village and then they sent her to a private  school called Kalamari run by French nuns in Thessaloniki. It must have been a huge challenge as all the teaching was in French and English. Then in 1950 at the age of 19, the Locks arranged for Sydney to go to London to train as a nurse and midwife. She spent the rest of her career in England working in the NHS, marrying an Englishman and returning frequently to her native village.

Sydney Lock died in 1955, but Joice lived on in the Tower until 1982, still working hard for the village and its people and promoting Pyrgos Rugs. Her funeral service was conducted in the local church by Archbishop Kallistos who happened to be stayed at an Athos monastery when she died. In his funeral oration, the Archbishop said that she had been truly ‘a woman of God’ who had done more for her fellow human beings than any other woman he could think of. He also called her one of the most significant women of the twentieth century. Her very full life is well documented in Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread by Susanna de Vries,





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 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.


A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 6 – end of my stay at Iviron

I took this shot of the daily monastic service programme displayed on the notice board of the Guest House at Iviron. Here’s my translation:

Programme of services
Monday-Saturday                              Time      Sundays / feast days                    Time
(excluding feast days)

a. Midnight service (main church)           3.30    a. Midnight service (main church)         3.30
b. Matins (main church)                          4.00    b. Matins (main church)                       4.00
c. Divine Liturgy (Chapel)                        5.30    c. Hours (main church)                        6.00
d. Tea (in the refectory after the Divine Liturgy)   d. Divine Liturgy (main church)            6.30  e. Meal (refectory)                                 10.30    e. Meal (in the refectory after the                                                                                             Divine Liturgy)
f. Vespers (main church)                         5.00     f. Vespers (main church)                     5.00
Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)                  6.00     g. Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)              5.45
h. Dinner (refectory)                                6.30     h. Dinner (refectory)                            6.15
i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)                7.00     i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)             6.45
On Saturdays dinner and Compline take place immediately after Great Vespers.

It is amazing to think that this daily programme of worship has been followed for hundreds of years, perhaps since Byzantine times. In fact Athos feels like a Byzantine time capsule: not just in terms of the liturgical progamme, but the buildings, the unspoilt landscape unmarked for the most part by signs of modernity, and the fact that Athos still follows the Byzantine Calendar and measurement of time. It also makes you aware of how much you are intruding on their daily programme and in some ways how much of a burden it is for the monasteries to have to provide accommodation and food to a constant flow of pilgrims.

It’s Sunday today and I wake at about 5.20am and can’t get back to sleep. I hear people getting up in the other dorms between 5.30-600 to prepare for the Liturgy at 6.30. I eventually manage to get up at about 6.00 and by the time I’m back from my ablutions my room mates are up and dressed with their bags packed. As I’m in the loo I hear the bells ringing to mark the imminent start of the service: once again I’m too late to record them.

Much of the service is conducted in the dark with minimal candles for the choirs, of which there are two singing antiphonally on either side of the nave, one often acting as the drone while the other chants the words. The choir leader cross and recrosses the nave as he moves from one choir to the other to conduct them. Nikolaos points out that the arrangement is cross shaped:


Choir 1                                             Choir 2


I manage to record most of the service though I keep thinking that at any moment I will be stopped. At one point a twinkly-eyed monk stands next to me looking at my recorder and pulls out a small torch to examine it. I wait anxiously for his reaction, but he just smiles and nods once he understands what it is.

Photography is forbidden in the church, but there is one shot I wish I could have taken. It is of a seated monk with a white flowing beard chanting, seen in three quarter profile and beautifully lit by a candle that is hidden by the music stand.

There is much censing of the icons and the faithful and there’s a lot of coming and going all the time. After a while it has a very hypnotic quality to it. Argyrios tells me that he had a remarkable experience once during the morning Liturgy at Dionysiou (the next monastery we are due to visit) and he promises to tell me what happened when we’re there.

I find one of the most moving moments of the service occurs when the monks take it in turns to stand in the middle of the church, crossing themselves and bowing to the altar and then continuing to make the sign of the cross and bow as they turn clockwise in all directions and then back round to the altar again. As they do so they ask all present to forgive them. Those in the congregation who are so moved go up and do the same thing.

Sunday is joyful, like a feast day. In the refectory I have managed to get a seat at the top of one of the long tables. With my back to the wall I have an excellent view of the whole refectory and the senior monks’ top table. As we pilgrims stand waiting for prayers a group of 6-8 monks process in to a joyful chant. Breakfast is a bowl of thin noodles topped with small pieces of flaked tuna in a tomato sauce, with feta, boiled egg, bread, an apple and a glass of red wine.

Today I can see the reader very clearly, as he seems to hang half way up the wall like a static talking icon. I watch the Abbot who seems to be taking in everything that’s going on in the Refectory. At the end of the meal a monk comes round to all the tables putting into our outstretched palms a small teaspoon of ‘kolyva’ ( a mixture of wheat grains pine nuts and sultanas).Traditionally this is something that is eaten at funerals. I am intrigued by the monk doing this as he is quite young and active (he’s been around shusshing us at various points during the meal when the volume of noise rose too much) and even more by the fact that he is Japanese. I wonder what journey he has been on to fetch up on the Holy Mountain. At the end of the meal, the monks process out again chanting. The Abbot to our right blesses us we emerge, while the cooks to our left bow deeply, and the remaining monks form a short tunnel to greet us.

Time for us to collect our things from the guest house and make our way down to the arsenas for the next stage of our trip. I feel quite sad to be leaving Iviron this morning.



A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 5 – the museum at Iviron

The museum at Iviron is the pride and joy of Fr Prodromos and his pet project. He has been collecting material for it from all over the monastery and the surrounding area for years and now he has been able to house it all in a large, brightly lit basement area within the precincts. There’s no labelling of the items on display, but they are grouped by topic (eg kitchenware, wine and oil containers, keys, tools, etc.).

For example here’s part of the section devoted to baking, with wooden dough moulds and peels for putting loaves into a wood fired oven:

The cylindrical containers on rods in the picture below are for roasting coffee beans:

I was amazed to find a whole section devoted to rifles, guns and knives. This is an interesting reminder of the fact that Athos has frequently been attacked in the past by marauding pirates seeking to loot the monastery treasures. That’s why so many of the monasteries are built like fortresses with high walls, no easily accessible windows and heavily re-inforced doors. For example, the main door of the monastery of Dionysou (next on my little pilgrimage) is one of the thickest doors I have ever seen.

Here is a picture of monastery guards on Athos (not Iviron) taken as recently as 1913. They’re almost certainly not monks, but in earlier centuries they probably would have been.

Image result for armed guards of Athos

This window sill contains a whole pharmacy of medicine bottles. At first I thought the bell shaped glasses at the front were leech glasses, but now I think they are ventouse glasses which were used as a vacuum device for delivering babies or more likely for ‘cupping’. This technique was a folk remedy for dealing with chest colds and fevers.

The technique is well captured by Sydney Marangou-White (who was born in the village of Ouranoupoli on the border with the Holy Mountain) in this description of her mother, the village healer in the 1930s:

“Mamma stood on the left by a shelf. On it was her equipment, comprising a fork, cotton wool, a reel with sewing thread, a small glass, a box of matches and a bottle of blue liquid. She picked up the fork, wound the wad of cotton wool round the prongs, securing it with a piece of thread. She opened the bottle containing the blue liquid – methylated spirit. she poured some into the small glass and plunged the fork in it, head first…

Mamma removed the intoxicated fork from its alcoholic soak, struck a match and set the wad alight, making it look like a flaming torch. With her right hand she picked up a cup (ventouse), inserted the flaming torch into it to create a vacuum, and placed it adroitly on the patient’s back. Three more are applied to make a square…

The patient whimpers, begging Mamma to remove them. They are left in place only for a few minutes, but to the patient it seems a very long time.” 

(from Bones Washed in Water and Wine, 2012)

Bells of all shapes and sizes;

Chains and hooks:

Water carrying vessels:

Pulleys:And a huge variety of locks and keys:

Coming more up to date there were even some old radio sets, phones and mechanical typewriters. The final part of the museum features a small collection of agricultural equipment, including ploughs, harrows, rakes and carts:

and some threshing boards:

In the book quoted above, Sydney Marangou-White includes a description of how these items were used on the threshing floor:

 “…a circle was marked out on the hard ground with a stone. It was swept and received about four rows of sheaves. These were placed in a concentric manner, starting from the central point with heads down, and placed in an ever-increasing circle, until the marked area was reached…

The thresher…was a rectangular wooden platform, measuring about a metre by three metres, the front bent at an angle. It had big metal rings for attaching the donkey’s harness. The under surface of the platform was punctuated in horizontal lines with shards of flint. The thresher would be turned over on the sheaves at the edge of the circle; the donkey, head in the nosebag munching happily, was led to its post and firmly attached to the waiting platform. The threshing began with an oath from the driver to get the beast moving. To us, it was the only merry-go-round we knew, and we were given the opportunity to sit behind the driver in turn.”


I will write a bit more about Sydney Marangou-White when I come to Ouranoupoli at the end of this pilgrimage.

After our tour of the museum I sit in the evening cool of the monastery courtyard, relaxing in the deep silence of this space before retiring for the night at about 9.30.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 4 – the monastery of Iviron

Back down on the arsenas at Xenophontos, our group splits up into three as we go our separate ways to different monasteries. Our white minibus climbs steeply up the side of the mountain via a series of tight hairpin bends, expertly squeezing past another minibus making its way downhill. No idea how it managed that: I was expecting to hear the sound of scraping metall. You can’t call it a road, more like a rutted dirt-track with hollows and bumps that throw us around so violently inside the bus we could be trying to cross a trackless part of the Amazon rainforest. Soon we are deep in wild, uncultivated country with no signs of human presence and, as the road levels out, I realise we are crossing the top of the peninsula on our way to the monastery of Iviron on the east coast of the peninsula. Iviron means ‘of the Georgians’ (from the old Greek name for Georgia, Iberia) as it was supposedly built by two Georgian monks, though today it’s mainly Greek monks who live there.

Close to Karyes, the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain, the roads suddenly become metalled and on the outskirts of the town we pass a huge seminary for Greek priests. Arriving at Iviron Monastery at about 12.00, we get out of the minibus with our bags as a four-wheel drive vehicle pulls up behind us and a small group of people, including a Russian monk, jump out and stare at a flat rear offside tyre. The monk is looking angrily at it, brandishing a spanner and I wonder whether he’s going to give it a good thrashing to teach it a lesson. We enter the monastery by the back door and make our way to the guest house where we wait for the Guestmaster (Arkhontaris) to allocate us to out rooms..

I’m billeted in a dorm with our leader, Nikolaos, and 4 other people. Settling ourselves in our dormitory room we crash out for a few hours sleep after our very early start. I am intrigued by the fact that everyone puts their shoes outside the door, but apparently it’s to reduce the humidity in the room from gently cooling footwear.

Refreshed after my sleep, I leave my room mates fast asleep to go and explore the monastery with my camera. In the courtyard I meet a Russian in his 50s doing a solo pilgrimage on foot and fall into a conversation with him. He’s heading to the Monastery of St Andrew the First Called (in Karyes) and then on to the Russian monastery of St Pantaleimon. After the effort of concentration involved in listening to and speaking Greek, speaking to him in Russian is like a release: I can understand everything he’s saying and can express myself quite freely without racking my brain for the words. He is a small businessman from St Petersburg and quite critical of the current regime, though he says that after their experience in Soviet times, people can read between the lines and see through the propaganda. He makes no mention of Putin, but refers to a Russian proverb: ‘Every family has its own monster’. and adds “It may be a monster, but it’s our monster.” He says we’re all just people, all the same whatever our nationality and we’re all more or less lied to by our governments. Religious belief in Russia increased after the fall of Communism because they had nothing else to believe in but God. Personally he goes on pilgrimages and supports the monks at the monastery of Valaam (on Lake Ladoga) in Karelia.

As photography is generally allowed, apart from inside churches and of the monks. I take some shots around the monastery grounds.

The Katholikon (central church):

I walk out through the main entrance of the monastery and part way up the path that leads down to it. There are some beautiful buildings in this area.

The main entrance is accessed through a portico.

Under the portico is a large reproduction of the monastery’s (and one of Athos’s) most revered icons, the Mother of God of the Portaitissa (Gatekeeper), the original of which is kept in a special chapel inside the monastery. Its story goes back to the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantine history (8-9th centuries) when this particular icon was tossed into the sea. One night a monk on the Holy Mountain saw a great light shining out at sea which suddenly disappeared. This happened on successive nights until one night the monk walked out on the sea and saw a hand holding the icon up out of the water. He took it and brought it back back to the land and where he put it down on the seashore a sweet water spring sprang up. Then he put it in the church at Iviron and left it there. When he went back into the church on the following day, the icon was missing and was found over the entrance gate of the monastery. So the monk brought the icon down from the gate and put it back into the church. The same thing happened the following night. Then the Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him that the icon should be left over the gate so it could protect the monastery.

Looking out to sea and down towards the arsenas (jetty) the sea is beautifully clear and all shades of blue.

I think the monastery that you can see in the picture below taken from the arsenas at Iviron is the monastery of Stavronikita:

I am surprised at how much cultivated land there is around the monastery used for growing vegetables and vines.

I also suddenly realise how close we are to Mt Athos itself:

One of my fellow pilgrims, Mr Fraggopoulos, has a mechanical camera that has stopped working and I take a look at it for him. It’s clear that the film has got stuck and won’t wind on but I’m reluctant to open it up and spoil any pictures he’s already taken. I offer to take his photograph with my camera and as I frame the shot I notice one of the monks approaching from behind, striking the wooden talanto.

This is the traditional signal to indicate the imminent start of services, in this case Vespers. As monks start to arrive from all over the monastery all the church bells start ringing.

Before Vespers proper starts in the katholikon we are taken into a chapel to venerate the icon of the Portaitissa. You have to climb a few stone steps to get to the icon which is very dark and hard to make out. It’s also clad in a silver cover (a Russian custom) which symbolises the divine showing through the human nature of Christ and the Virgin Mary. In a corner of the chapel is a fresco icon of a pirate who stayed in a corner crying for 10 years before he converted to Christianity.

On the way into church for the service, Argyris takes me into a side room off the narthex to show me where some of Iviron’s relics are kept. It’s too dark to see clearly enough, but among the thigh bones, fingers and skulls on display I notice the skull of St Gregory of Nyssa, a Cappadocian Father who helped to develop the theology of the Trinity. Back in the church there’s a glass topped box on the back wall of the narthex containing the remains of the builders of the monastery which I find quite touching. I enjoy the service which last about an hour and a half and the quality of chanting is very good.

Vespers is followed by dinner sitting at long tables and benches in the refectory which is magnificently decorated from floor to celling with brightly coloured, elongated frescoes of saints. It’s a formal occasion, we pilgrims enter first and stand at our places, followed by a procession of the Abbot and senior monks and then the rest of the monastic community. The monks sit apart from the pilgrims on a separate table and the Abbot and senior monks sit at a semi-circular marble table at the top end, the sort of table you some times see in depictions of the Last Supper.

Dinner consists of fried potatoes with tomato, feta and bread with a small glass of the monastery’s own red wine (Argyris gives me his glass too), followed by an apple . Before we eat the Abbot says prayers and then taps a small bell as a signal to start eating. During the meal he taps his bell 3 more times to signal when we should drink the wine, but at least among the pilgrims, no one seems to take much notice of this.

As we eat a monk reads not from scripture, but a homily from one of the Church Fathers. I can’t make out where his voice is coming from, until peering up at the frescoes, I notice that he seems suspended in a hidden pulpit halfway up the wall, and so still that he appears to merge into the surrounding frescoes. For his reading he is rewarded with a glass of wine topped with a slice of bread, reserved for him at the top of the monks’ table.

Dinner is short (15-20 minutes), rounded off with a prayer from the Abbot. Then the monks process out two by two, preceded by the Abbot and senior monks. As we go out into the courtyard the Abbot stands to our right blessing us as we leave the refectory, while on our left are the three monks who cooked the meal bowing deeply to us. Argyris tells me this is to indicate that they are our servants. I find it deeply moving.

Then it’s a bit of relaxation and rest as monks and pilgrims mingle and talk to each other. It’s at this point that our little group has a bit of a treat as we are invited to visit Fr Prodromos’s museum. But that needs a post of its own to do it justice.




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.