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Culture > Religion > Between Heaven and Earth.

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submitted by Sydney Morning Herald on 25.05.2006

Between Heaven and Earth.

Between Heaven and Earth. - Mt Athosbetweenheavenandearth

Time travel ... an ornate screen in the light-filled Skiti Agios Andrea church. Photo: Gary Walsh

Sydney Morning Herald. September 24, 2004

On Greece's holy mountain, Gary Walsh discovers a living link with the Byzantine era.

Time travel ... an ornate screen in the light-filled Skiti Agios Andrea church. Photo: Gary Walsh

Leaning on a wall in the limpid light of a Greek sunset, overlooking a nondescript Ouranopolis beach and looking south to forbidden Mount Athos, it felt - melodramatically but inescapably - like my last day on earth.

Just a few kilometres away, but a few centuries away, was the border of the autonomous monastic republic that members of many Eastern Orthodox churches consider to be halfway between heaven and earth. Only 110 people each day are allowed to visit Mount Athos, or Agion Oros, the holy mountain, just 10 of them non-Orthodox. The next morning, I would be one of them.

The Athos peninsula, south-east of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, has been a closed community since the 10th century, when the first of its 20 monasteries was established. An edict in 1060 decreed that no woman (not even female animals, except for cats to control vermin) would be allowed to set foot on Athos, a homage to the Virgin Mary.

Getting there required negotiating a bureaucratic labyrinth, the climax of which was receiving a diamonitirion, the pilgrim's permit that would allow me to spend three nights on the holy mountain.

Armed with this, a daypack with enough clothes for four days and a smattering of Greek, I climbed aboard the boat for Dafni, Athos's tiny port. I also had with me a dietary survival kit of four tins of sardines in vegetable oil, two tins of salmon, a packet of snack crackers, a packet of sultanas, and a few snack bars; a collection born of fear at what (and how little) the monks would feed me.

Hospitality at monasteries and the smaller offshoots known as skites is part of the pilgrim's progress through Athos. The diamonitirion provides for three nights' accommodation and meals - one night at three places - and requires of the pilgrim a commitment to abide by the Athonite rules, including no music, no singing, no dancing, no radios, no loud talking or laughter, no wearing of shorts, no swimming.

The supply boat-cum-car ferry was packed with pilgrims and monks. Secular Greece slipped quickly away. Athos came into view, signified by the thick, untouched forest that covered the hills, broken only by occasional tumbledown brick buildings and then, after half an hour or so, by the first of the monasteries, Zografou, high on the hillside.

The boat stopped frequently at the little jetties that served each monastery, offloading people and provisions. At Pandeleimonos, the huge and grandly onion-domed Russian monastery, we disembarked a group of young monks who all looked like Rasputin, with black stovepipe hats and cloaks, long, unkempt beards and ponytails.

At Dafni I leapt ashore and ran for one of two dusty buses. We zigzagged up the steep hill towards Karyes, Athos's "capital", a time-warpy place of cobblestoned streets and medieval buildings. From there I planned to walk just over seven kilometres to Iviron monastery, where I had reserved a bed.

A few minutes' along the path I met a pilgrim walking in the opposite direction and looking puzzled. Kostas, too, was heading for Iviron but unsure of the route, so we decided to walk together. An engineer from Athens who spoke perfect English, he was a frequent visitor to the Holy Mountain.

Shortly after leaving Karyes, we reached 11th-century Koutloumousiou monastery. A friendly monk took us on a tour. The church's interior was covered with frescoes and the walls were hung with icons dripping with silver votive plaques and watches left by the pious. In the guesthouse we were offered the traditional greeting of a glass of cold water, a piece of loukoumi (Turkish delight) and a shot of raki (liqueur).

Fortified, Kostas and I found the trail for Iviron. The monastery appeared quite suddenly through the trees after a 90-minute walk: a square, medieval fortress with massive walls surrounded by market gardens and outbuildings.

The buttressed walls of the 1028-year-old monastery were 30 metres high, topped and trimmed with an architectural soup of protruding balconies, boxy rooms, barred windows, chimneys, monks' cells and red domes. Athos lives on Byzantine time, which marks the beginning of the day at sunset, so, depending on the time of year, clocks will be between three and six hours ahead of Greek time. It also follows the Julian calendar and is 13 days behind the secular world. In so many other ways, it is centuries behind.

After we signed in and had a
rest came the call to esperinos (vespers) at 6pm. I took my place at the rear of the church as monks and pilgrims filed in, most pausing to kiss the icons arranged on the frescoed walls or the frescoes themselves, which in parts were worn away by generations of lips.

The service was a mystery. There was a great deal of monotonal chanting and sitting and standing - but no kneeling. The monks were like fantasy-novel characters - a host of Dumbledores and Gandalfs in flowing robes and flowing beards, with the occasional Santa Claus thrown in.

At the end of the service, we followed the monks into the unadorned refectory and sat at communal tables. Meals are eaten swiftly, lasting as long as it takes for a monk to read a story from the life of the saint whose feast day is being celebrated. We ate pasta with vegetables, coarse brown bread and a cucumber-and-onion salad washed down with decent red wine from Iviron's vineyards, and we were done and dusted in 10 minutes.
After I had wandered around the gift shop, the guest master who had met us on arrival approached me with a smile. "We can sit outside," he said, in a broad Australian accent.

Father Ieremias was born in Coffs Harbour of Greek-Australian parents and brought up there and in Brisbane. His brother was an Orthodox priest in Sydney, and he had been a monk on Athos for more than 20 years. We had a long and interesting talk in the soft evening light, during which he told me why he considered Orthodoxy superior to Catholicism - it sought to raise lay people's spiritual standing to the level of the clergy, while Catholicism sought to reduce the clergy to the people's level.

Life on Athos encourages an early bed, not least because it dictates early rising. Morning service at Iviron on this day was at a civilised 6 o'clock and was followed by breakfast, a modest offering of dry bread and lukewarm "mountain tea".

I was bound for Athos's oldest monastery, Megistis Lavras, and decided to walk back to Karyes and catch the monastery bus. The Grand Lavra was massive, the size of a couple of city blocks, and sprouted a forest of cranes and scaffolding. I found the guesthouse, where I also found Kostas, who had hitched a ride. Accommodation was in a 10-man dormitory of saggy beds and lumpy pillows next to a bathroom with a squat toilet and no shower.

The monastery's main chapel - one of more than 20 inside the walls - was astonishingly ornate. At vespers I sat across from a particularly bloodthirsty fresco of the Last Judgement. The devil's face had been defaced, along with all other representations of demons.

Dinner followed (pasta with calamari, tomato-and-onion
salad, bread, fruit and red wine), then we returned to the chapel
for the after-supper service, apodeipnon, and a viewing of the monastery's holy relics.

The talanton woke me just after 3am and I shambled in the deep dark to the chapel. The next few minutes were like watching a photograph develop as my eyes became accustomed to the half-light of candles and oil lamps and the shapes ghosting past me took form as hooded monks. The service, most of it conducted out of my sight, had a dreamlike quality and I found that sleep could easily be disguised as deep contemplation.

Kostas, who was returning to Athens, travelled with me to Karyes, and we visited Skiti Agios Andrea on the edge of the town before joining the bus to Dafni. Once Russian, but abandoned in the 1970s, a victim of Balkan politics, the skiti was now home to 17 Greek monks, and its enormous, light-filled church had been wonderfully restored.

The atmosphere on the bus was fetid - the funk emanating from
50 or so unwashed pilgrims managed to fog the windows despite the heat outside - so it was a pleasure to climb aboard the ferry and enjoy the breeze.

Kostas had complained about the increasing commercialisation of the peninsula and at the requirement to book lodging, and said that the monks were more worldly than when he first visited Athos as a child. He was, in essence, at odds with the encroachment of the outside world on Athos.
Travel is both discovery and dislocation, and I had never felt so different as I had on Athos. It wasn't just the day-for-night time shifts, my non-Orthodoxy or the unfamiliarity of the liturgy, it was a host of things - the language, the unapproachability of most of the monks, the burden of patience, humility, resilience and openness
to new experiences it imposed on me (ironically, for this is the most closed of societies).

My final destination was Dionysiou, one of the so-called "hanging monasteries" of the south coast that rise almost organically from steep cliffs. Despite its proximity to the sea, it seemed closed in and claustrophobic. Its church almost filled the main courtyard, which was starved of light and encircled by a narrow alleyway covered in gloomy frescoes.

Although the refectory was large and splendidly frescoed, dinner was meagre - rice soup with dry bread and olives, and no wine - but little mattered when I discovered the hot showers and washed away three days of sweat and dust.

I slept in an eight-bed dormitory with a group of snoring middle-aged men from Macedonia and rose about 5.30 for the morning service, which was followed by a feast of rice with tomato sauce and cups of red wine.

I left Athos as a new boatload of expectant pilgrims arrived. For me, there had been no epiphany, no road to Damascus. I went hoping to discover the past, and certainly found a version of it, albeit one replete with jarring modern touches. I found Athos to be like staring into a fogged mirror in which things were only half-revealed and half-explained, yet somehow I left seeing myself more clearly.

Maybe that's the secret of Athos.

It gives you the time and the space to understand that the real discoveries are made within.


Men can begin the tortuous process of obtaining a diamonitirion to visit Mount Athos by phoning the Pilgrims Bureau in Thessaloniki on (0011 30 2310) 252 578. Office hours are 8.30am-2pm Monday to Friday, Saturday 10am-2pm. English is spoken. It pays to phone several weeks ahead of a planned visit to see if permits are available. Only 10 non-Orthodox men are permitted to enter Athos each day.

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