Aghion Oros

An Artist's View of Mount Athos

By: Emlen Etting

Originally Published in 1965

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MT.-AthosThe visit to the Aegean about which Mr. Etting writes was aboard the yacht Doudouna, chartered by Henry McIlhenny. Other guests were John Knowles, Roderick Cameron, Perry Rathbone, and Theodor Roubanis. – EDITOR

It was June 16th, Sunday appropriately enough, that on emerging before breakfast from our cabins on the Doudouna we caught our first glimpse of the Holy Mountain rising dome-like from the pearly mists of the Aegean. As we drew nearer, the outline seemed to leaven into a towering blue pyramid, cleft at the summit and falling away gradually to the left toward Macedonia. We lined up our canvas chairs on the starboard deck and, gently swaying with the waves, watched this sacred land become a green reality. Originally named for the giant Oros who had the temerity to battle with Poseidon, Mount Athos rises some six thousand feet out of the sea at the tip of the most eastward of three peninsulas called the Chalcidice. From our front row seats we watched the peak soar clear and sharp now above a luminous mist at the water line which imbued it with a mystical majesty reminiscent of a Japanese printmaker’s beatification of Fujiyama.

Agean-sea-mapUnlike the arid Greek islands, the nearer we got the more verdant this land looked, except on the rocky pinnacle which, we noted through binoculars, was streaked with drifts of stale snow. The quiet sea was devoid of ships or gulls, and the only sound of life was the throbbing of Doudouna’s smelly engines.

Drawing closer we could distinguish the pale masses of several monasteries looming at intervals along the shore. We knew there were two kinds of monasteries, the cenobitic or communal, ruled by an abbot, where everything was shared, the monks ate together, had to attend all services, and owned nothing individually; and the idior-rhythmic, ruled by four epitropes, where the monks ate in private quarters, attend services as they felt the urgency, and could own some property. Half of the monks, however, lived in clusters of houses outside the monasteries, called sketes, often forming quite independent colonies of their own. A fourth and very small group were the hermits, sequestered in dangerously inaccessible huts. The entire population was now estimated at about two thousand and was doubtless less, while at maximum in the fifteenth century there had been forty thousand holy men, protected by Byzantine Emperors and the support of private patrons.

The Bull issued by Emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1060 decreed access to Mount Athos was forbidden to any “woman, female animal, child, eunuch, or person with beardless face.” But later that day we were to see two young boys while we waited in the capital village of Karyes for our diamonetirions, the permits required to visit the monasteries, and we were informed that hens could now be raised, providing they be kept outside the walls of idiorrhythmic monasteries. Everything had not stood still all these years! Yet there was no milk, of course, and musical instruments were strictly taboo.

It was noon as we sighted Daphni, the only port on Mount Athos. It is here you must land to get to Karyes (walnut trees), the capital, a two or three hour climb. To our amazement we learned that the first road on the peninsula, from here to Karyes, had just been completed in honor of the king’s visit, on the occasion of this year’s thousandth anniversary ceremonies of the founding of Mount Athos. So we might be able to bum a ride on an army truck, one of which luckily was about to depart. We leapt aboard over bulging tires, settling on a load of rocks.

The dirt road circled spirally up and over richly wooded hills. Higher and higher, we chugged in low gear, wafted in clouds of our own dust. Below, the sleek white hull of the Doudouna rode cooly upon ultramarine depths. Over the first shoulder of the mountain ridge loomed the brown stone cluster of our final monastery, Xeropotamou, with the sun beating down on its cubist concentration of buildings. Up further we rode under the waving branches of trees, among green hills with only telephone poles to indicate the presence of man. Now and then the old footpath would cross the road and disappear in shrubbery. After an hour we began to descend and, in high, we bounded wildly down and around to Karyes. Here we inspected the tenth century church of Protaton, said to be the oldest on Mount Athos, a deep-set building with corridors of retouched frescoes outside, below street level. The building was surrounded by Romanesque bulwarks added later to prop it together. We walked up a few alleys toward dwellings for the most part deserted. Flowers and vines were in profusion, and everywhere ran little streams of mountain water. After we had received our visitors’ permits, we began the hike to Iviron, guided by a monk in weather beaten vestments. He had two mules and to their wooden saddles he tied our knapsacks and coats with intricate manipulations of cord.

It was hot, so we were glad to find the path led mostly down, through valleys of trees and shrubs–oak, chestnut, walnut, maple, laurel–bristling in the distance with clusters of cypress, all undisturbed for centuries. Flowers abounded on either side–poppies, daisies, thistly, lilies, morning glories, and endless aromatic herbs. At one point a long black snake twined into the underbrush. We crossed streams, ascended gullies where stones had been set to facilitate one’s footwork. Constantly to our right Mount Athos dominated, aloof, withdrawn in a blue haze. Lengthening shadows deepened the mountain slopes as occasionally now goat bells were heard, the only sounds issuing from this region of eternal silence.

Then suddenly over a ridge we saw the luminous blue sea and the red tile roofs of Iviron, peering above the jungle like the battlements of some Biblical city. Another turn and a couple of acres of vegetable gardens spread below neatly divided in patches, for this was an idiorrhythmic monastery.

We assembled on a slant of trampled earth where the mules were unloaded and, clutching our permits, we made for the portal under a colonnade. It was always the same, we soon would learn, though entrances varied in decoration and elaborateness. A sort of observation pavilion usually stood outside where monks might chat, silently admire the view, or watch arrivals penetrate the whitewashed passage into the inner court of their autonomous haven.

Monastery on Mount Athos
Monastery on Mount Athos

A few old bearded monks in well-worn tunics cast noncommittal glances as we emerged into a large central quadrangle with grass rising between the flagstones. A church with machicolated domes stood on the left, and assorted buildings in various states of decrepitude lay scattered within the enclosing walls which were actually the cells or apartments of the monks, judging by the faces staring at us from open windows.

A couple of our permits were inspected by a monk guestmaster who then led us to a building in a rear corner, up wooden stairs into a rectangular room with banquettes covered with Turkish rugs and relentless cushions. There was a long, bare table in the center and a closed bookcase, apparently empty, at one end. Faded photographs of the king and queen of Greece bowed giddily forward from the walls. Two open windows gave out on the silent jungle tapering away in the golden light of evening to the Aegean.

We disposed ourselves about the room in friendly separateness, to cool off and set aside bags, cameras, and notebooks. Shortly, our monk reappeared smiling, followed by a much older one bearing a tray of tiny cups of Turkish coffee, ponies of raki (ouzo), glasses of crystal water and a plate of loukoumi, Turkish delights generously dipped in confectioner’s sugar. Following this formality we were asked to sign in two guest books, already filled with names and addresses crowded one upon the other multitudinously down the years, page after page.

The guestmaster meanwhile was graciously answering questions: there had been five hundred monks living at Iviron in its heyday, now there were only 35. They slept about four or five hours, services lasted eight or nine hours at a stretch, sometimes more, and the rest of the time was devoted to house chores or gardening. We were free to wander about, and in the morning we would be shown the treasures. Nothing was said about bed, but we surmised some meal would be served anon…

We wandered about this strange world, bolted in for the night. The church and the chapel were locked, as was the refectory, a large deserted hall where no one apparently ate any more. There was a pavilion with a dome painted inside with lovely patterns of angels in faded aquamarine and rust, with our Lord centrally isolated in gold leaf. Under this was the phiale, or sacred well, and a round marble basin for holy water. Here a ladder had been left leaning against a crumbling wall; there some rags were soaking in a washbasin; stones lay about, fallen from an inaccessible tower; a broken grape arbor dangled a vine with small unripe fruits. Now and then the flicker of a black robe in the distance, otherwise complete quiet.

We were marooned in a Medieval setting of transcendent disrepair, but the people had gone and there was only a bearded ghost or two fleetingly seen at a window to remind us that some sort of remote life existed here still.

I walked up the refectory tower to look at the great bells and peer down into the empty courtyard, mellowing in the twilight. The Turks during their occupation of the peninsula had forbidden the Athonites to use bells as a means of summoning monks to service, because they feared their sound, covering great distances, might be used as a signal for mass uprising. Therefore the monks had devised a long wooden instrument of varying lengths called a sumatron, and this, when beaten like a tattoo, had remained their means of announcing periods of prayer. We found one here at the entrance to the old dining hall, complete with wooden hammer, and notched in the middle to be borne over the shoulder when in use.

Our little band reassembled on the steps of the fountain to whisper comments. As it was eight by then, we decided to return to the pilgrim’s quarters and see if anything, literally, was cooking. Indeed, there were nine plates on the table now, crusts of bread at each plate, a knife and fork, a glass of water and one of red wine. Three men in shirt sleeves were already seated at one end and looked as though they should have napkins tucked in under their chins, but of course there were none.

Our bespectacled monk-chef distributed soup plates filled with tepid boiled beans sparsely lubricated with olive oil. We munched away in silence for awhile, crunched the bread and gulped the wine. After a considerable pause someone announced hopefully, “I guess there will be a second course, since we have knives and forks…” Faces cheered a bit over this until I said, “But haven’t you noticed the platter of sardines? I’m afraid the flatware is merely for these.” I had already had a go at a sardine and given it up reluctantly since it was only half-cooked, had been preserved in salt, and had a very resistant set of bones thoroughly infiltrated down the middle.

It was nine o’clock when our monk reappeared with a couple of kerosene lamps and led us up to another floor and the sleeping quarters. There were several iron beds in each room, so we chose a dormitory one with an extra bed or two to unpack our knapsacks on. The mattresses had boards under them, but there was one sheet over each, and two folded grey blankets at the foot, smelling strongly of disinfectant. A frail light was left to flutter on a table in the hall. We wanted to attend morning Mass, but setting the hour to be awakened was complicated since Athos time hardly corresponds with ours. For all the monasteries except Vatopedi, 12 o’clock begins at sundown–and the moment for this varies each day of the year. However, it was finally agreed we should be called somewhere around 3 A.M. according to our wrist watches.

It is strange into what remote regions of oblivion weariness may quickly transport us when we shut our eyes. I must have been a thousand miles off when suddenly I was conjured to my iron cot by the tolling of a bell, immediately followed by the strange beatings of the sumatron, hollow like the insistent knocking of some giant woodpecker. It stopped for a minute, only to begin all over again, ending in three hard punctuation beats. And then in the gaping silence that ensued the hills around about came alive with wild and weird answering howls, like some eerie fugue. I lay fascinated, hearing the sounds die away again, one by one as they had started, only to abandon me in blackness once more. In my surprise I had first thought they might be monks from nearby sketes acknowledging the summons. But then I realized it was more likely jackals, aroused by this staccato interruption of their jungle peace. The others had apparently not heard, for no one budged. I tossed off my blanket and dimly made my way to the flickering veilleuse. My watch said half-past-one, so I crept back to bed and waited.

The next thing I knew a monk was lighting the lamp on the dresser in our room, and blearily, one by one, we came into semblance of life. With a brief exchange of words we pulled on our shirts and pants. Someone was brushing his teeth noisily in the hall where there was a faucet of running water and one small towel hanging from a corroded hook.

It was ten minutes to four when we found our way with a flashlight into the deserted courtyard. The church doors were open now, and we creakily slipped in, one after another, into a remote world of monastic ritual. We stood awed for a moment by the galaxy of candles glimmering before our eyes, reflected in a myriad glints of gold and silver. Someone made out a row of pews or stalls on our right and we edged into these, standing inconspicuously upright, separated by carved wooden partitions.

The service had probably been going on since after I’d heard the sumatron, but it was hard to tell, for the esoteric pageant we witnessed was so repetitious that it would be hard to state at any point, this is the part where I came in. If in the afternoon I had felt transported to the Middle Ages, I now seemed plunged into the intimate mysteries of Montsalvat.

All the churches here we found were built on the same cross pattern, with the center empty space hung with an all-embracing brass crown sprouting candles. The altar was closed off in the section facing the entrance, and in the middle of the two side sections stood lecterns inlaid with mother-of-pearl and overhung with billiard lamps.

In the dim candle glow, black figures swished about over the patterned marble, emerging from the wings in opposing directions, flopping unexpectedly to their knees to make the sign of the cross, or pausing like a humming bird to plant the semblance of a kiss on some icon glimmering behind a canopy of votive lights. Sometimes in transit they swayed like dancers to avoid collision, eventually swooping out of view like skating queens.

There was a constant monotonous outpouring of words, broken from time to time by the insertion of ten or twenty Kyrie eleisons (Lord have mercy) terminated with the last heavily pronounced as though to make a special point, sealing off the whole procedure before starting off on another tack. Aloofly frozen in mosaic, Christ Pantocrator silhouetted in gold and surrounded by the halos of the saints stared upon us from the church’s dome.

A shining cross was lowered from the air only to be hoisted by pulleys later, along with small colored lamps, up into the hermetic firmament. An aggressive little bell caused curtained doors to fly open like traps in a mechanical clock and a priest emerged swirling his hems, a veil draped over his hat, on his way to deliver lessons from one of the lecterns. At other times a figure wearing lace and gold-embroidered vestments would stride out swinging a censer trailing zigzags of scented smoke.

Everybody was busy with some sacred office. But aside from ourselves there was no congregation. A monk or two might stand in one of the stalls for an hour or so, then leave. We were expectedly ignored, useless spectators in a pageant as old and inevitable as the tides. Others would stand where we stood, whence for centuries pilgrims before us had watched with various degrees of involvement. It was indeed a timeless affair, interrupted only by the exigencies of life. Nothing had any meaning but the prayers themselves and their stubborn repetition, an insistent denial of any significance to human existence.

Lulled by the monotony of the long unintelligible prayers and lessons, and slightly dazed by the lack of food and the headiness of the incense, my mind began to wander, and I gazed hopefully toward the growing promise of day. Gold halos began to fade, and the polyphony of sound tapered off. Then all this musicless pageant folded up, piece by piece: candles were blown out, the incense put away, missals closed, doors shut, curtains pulled, and the church with all its gaudy trappings was engulfed in silence.

When we finally emerged into the courtyard glare, the bearded monks hovered about briefly. As they are not allowed hair trims, the look of our hatted priests varied considerably, and moustaches and beards aged from black and brown to grey, often with streaks of yellow in between. Some wore their hair in the back in little knots like matadors, others let it flow loosely over their cassocks, while some tied it in a variety of buns. None looked young but they all seemed friendly, and there was frequently a glint of gold when they smiled across the language barrier.

The weather was grey and overcast as we were led by four monks into the church to see the treasures kept in the partitioned section behind the altar. The mysteries of the night had vanished now as our guides talked in loud voices, pointed out icons, vestments, ornate crosses, scepters, bejeweled crowns and relics, attributing their vintage when they knew it, and attesting to their historical and religious significance. With particular satisfaction they showed the over-richly ornate binding of the Bible presented by Peter the Great of Russia.

Then we were led out into a long veranda glassed in on the outside, with rectangles of blue or red panes livening things up here and there. On the inner wall we admired a series of flaking eighteenth century frescoes painted in tones of brown, black, and gold, depicting scenes and parables from the New Testament. We were lost in the Apocalypse when a vigorously determined elder with a peppery beard impatiently waved away our kind guides and took over. We must follow him to the library in the back, said he, in French now, for a change. He unlocked the door and we entered a large musty room with manuscripts crammed in bookstacks sectioning off most of the space from floor to ceiling. Two big tables and several horizontal vitrines were crowded with books. The elder, who we assumed was librarian, opened one or two tomes and, before we could look, snapped them shut in our faces. The examination of illuminated manuscripts was thus conducted in a preemptory manner as we tried to admire gold-leaf letterheads and jewel-tinted illuminations under glass, never of course able to decipher a word or a caption.

We adjourned next to the nearby Chapel of the Miraculous Virgin, containing an icon “miraculously” thrown up by the sea. In the vestibule were more murals, this time with Greek philosophers–Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle–mingled alternately in the society of the saints. This chapel, our bristly guide informed us, had been erected over a pagan temple to Poseidon. With evident satisfaction he said that statues of Hera, Aphrodite, Poseidon, and other idols slept peacefully in the ground beneath us, and he rested his head on his hands pressed together. “Very good for them,” he concluded deprecatingly.

It was a brief hike up to the wide front of balconies and varicolored apartments of Vatopedi rising towards the clouds. Things seemed more lively here as we met some monks with mules carrying kindling wood, or vegetables. Several others smiled and waved from the viewing pavilion. At the portico we were greeted by an elder who led us to a whitewashed hallway to deposit our knapsacks on benches. This done he took us into a large compound with domed churches and buildings of various proportions strewn about. The pavings rose, following the mountain slope to the right, hemmed in by outer apartment buildings topped by the wildest assortment of chimney pots and connected by sections of a kind of miniature wall of china with crenelated parapets.

First we inspected the crowded library and gazed at illuminated manuscripts and Bibles opened up like pairs of palms to the scrutiny of a fortuneteller. There was such a wealth of material here that a new cement building was nearing completion outside better to accommodate it.

Monk with mule on the way to Vatopedi
Monk with mule on the way to Vatopedi

The church was entered through the usual dark vestibule paneled in black woodcarvings, and flanked by chapels whose walls were jammed with frescoes of saints, devils, hell’s flames, dragons and angels. The central section was much larger than that of Iviron, and a wider brass koros (crown) with candles hung down over a more elaborate marble floor. Votive lights twinkled everywhere, with glints reflected from shining crosses, icons, candelabra, twin-headed eagles, and crystal pendants.

Angel from gold standard. Vatopedi
Angel from gold standard. Vatopedi

In the sacristy several monks awaited us and together we examined some of their treasures. An ancient icon of the crucifixion, made from the tiniest bits of mosaic I had ever seen, was luckily not covered with silver, but held in a wide frame squared off in solid silver bas-reliefs of Biblical scenes. There was a belt with round buckles said to have belonged to the Virgin  Mary, and an elaborate silver cross which contained in separate sections the finger of John the Baptist, a piece of the true cross, and a fragment of the skull of St. Gregory the Theologian. There were trays of vestments woven with gold thread and studded with precious stones, and portable crosses with sunbursts, and brass standards with angelic faces circled by interwoven angels’ wings.

An imposing looking abbot named Father Zacharias stepped in and begged us accompany him. He was apparently irritated, we gathered, that our reception had not followed the proper route. We retraced our steps to the hall with our knapsacks and were ushered into an enormous salon extending across the width of the building, with tall draped windows giving out at one end to the sea. It was an airy room with grey walls and a pale blue ceiling with white plaster mouldings, from the middle of which hung a crystal chandelier. Life-size photographs of Queen Frederika and King Paul in regal attire gazed down disinterestedly from skyed hangings. A custom carpet covered the floor, with a wide border of alternating designs in blue and white of the two-headed eagle and the Greek crown. Bentwood chairs lined the wals with dainty teapoys spaced in between. The central area was dominated by an oval table covered with an orange cloth over which soared a faded world globe, flanked by two elongated bentwood rocking chairs that looked as though they had never been sat upon.

Our group settled modestly in a corner and in a few moments the doors were flung open and one of the brothers passed around the usual tray of welcoming savories. First came tiny candied eggplants to be taken with a spoon held over a glass of water. Then the Turkish coffee in tiny cups made in Japan, followed by raki, which is stronger than ouzo and distilled, we now learned, from grape skins.

Father Zacharias became quite jolly now that things were in order once more and, after the guest book routine, proposed we adjourn to a less formal sitting room. This sported a small balcony with delicate railings which jutted out, commanding a perilous view of vegetable patches below falling away to the sea.

It was a dramatic evening, for a storm was blowing in from shrouded Mount Athos. Lightning flashed over the water, and thunder crashed and crumbled overhead as we sat there floating in suspension. Peacocks cried out from a garden below, surely an odd reminder here of worldly vanities. Then the rains came, lashed in whirls of wind, and we retreated to the darkening room, bolting the windows behind. An electrified chandelier hung down from the ceiling and I wondered when the light would be turned on. A monk came instead, carrying a lamp and Father Zacharias explained that for forty years Vatopedi had enjoyed the unique privileges of electric power, but three years ago the generator had broken down and the epitropes at Kayres who all along had taken a dim view of this Athonite luxury had refused to allocate funds for repairs.

Father Zacharias, abot of Vatopedi
Father Zacharias, abot of Vatopedi

Father Zacharias expounded now on the rigors of monastic life, and its total subjugation to a ritual of prayer and fasting. He said, unlike our church, there was no preaching here. No man was led, each had to find his own way alone, guided by his own conscience and his own desire for salvation. It was only through complete denial of one’s former life that a believer might triumph in his lonely struggle with himself. And the sole weapon of defense against himself and his mental demons was relentless prayer.

Mount Athos was open to any man who was ready to renounce the world. After a year’s apprenticeship an applicant could become a monk. Provision had been made for falterers, however, and these were sent to the island of Amouliani–a concentration camp for naughty monks. Vatopedi which had once had an enrollment of a thousand was now down to 44, which was a fair average these days. It was run by three epitropes, employed one hundred secular workmen, and sold outside its own olive oil and lumber.

A monk broke in suddenly with flapping robes to borrow a ring of keys and swirled out again like some herald in a Shakespeare play. When he returned he whispered long enough with our host to give me time to sketch him. His unruly hair at the back was tied with black ribbon and formed a kind of teased puffball.

The guide at Great Lavra
The guide at Great Lavra

The topic of conversation switched now to the sumatron, our friend explaining that its origin could be traced back to Noah who had gathered his passengers by knocking on the ark. Those who had not responded had been drowned (lost). Therefore, the monks who did not respond to the second call of the sumatron were considered lost. Nevertheless, at certain times, a third summons was given, by beating a large metal horseshoe suspended from a rafter. So there were some concessions to human frailty after all!

At nine forty-five the door of the adjoining room was opened by the monk who had served the savories, and we sat down at a long table covered with a white cloth. First came a vegetable stew served along with zucchini and beans boiled in their pods. This was followed by a dish of peas and rice mixed with squid tentacles. There were slices of bread and carafes of water and red wine. Such lavishness after Iviron! But of course Vatopedi was known to be the most luxurious of the monasteries looked upon by the others with a considerable measure of jealousy and disapproval.

We divided into two rooms for the night and were surprised to find in each a large framed mirror, allowing for the vanities of the more corrupted pilgrims. Next morning at six we attended Mass. The church as usual was aglitter with candle flames and their myriad reflections. The intoning of prayers never took a dip as in Roman Catholic services, but went on in straight monotonous lines with hypnotic effect, as the monks shuffled about weaving their ancient choreography.

This morning’s liturgy ended with the monks flocking to an abbot standing in the center ladeling out some sort of manna into their cupped hands. When we emerged into the daylight, the monks collected about the phiale munching the sacred crumbes they offered rather shyly and gleefully to share with us. These were actually some sort of cake flakes eaten, they explained, to expiate the sins of the dead…

The reception salon at Vatopedi
The reception salon at Vatopedi

A very small monk whose hat reached my chest offered to show us the refectory which was in disuse since they all ate in their own quarters. It was an enormous hall in the shape of a cross. Gold chandeliers with tall yellow candles hung from the center of kaleidoscopic patterns painted on the ceiling. The walls between arched windows were entirely covered with frescoes depicting the saints and incidents from the Holy Scriptures. To the left, a gaily painted pulpit clung to the wall like the nacelle of a balloon, with a ladder propped against it sidewise. On special occasions when the dining room was used, a monk stood up there to read the lesson while the others ate in silence. The stone floor was lined at every side with rows of U-shaped tabletops and benches carved out of local marble. The tables were depressed in the center for drainage and like the benches were supported by cement blocks plastered blue. The scent of baking bread wafted in on a breeze put us in mind of breakfast, so we retrieved our bags, waved goodbye to a scattering of monks we had never seen before, and walked with accelerating steps toward the promise of Nescafe…

The sun was shining and the Aegean was that deep ultramarine that makes the passing islands look like loaves of floating gold. It was almost eleven when the towers and cypresses of Great Lavra rose before us out of the forest greenery. Mount Athos loomed directly above, its summit detaining a passing cloud.

Great Lavra was founded in the tenth century by St. Athanasios with assistance from Emperor Nikephoros Phocas. It was often referred to reverently as the Very Great Lavra. From a thousand the inmates had dwindled to eighty, which kept it still the most thriving of the monasteries.

We followed the old trail to the monastery up over stone and earth hemmed in with lavender and thyme, and rows of pink oleander. We panted under the blazing sun, but a half hour later when we reached the pagoda a breeze refreshed us as we chatted with several distinguished elders awaiting us.

Cool shade greeted us as we passed the iron-plated portals into the narrow passage leading to the courtyard of Great Lavra. A dear old monk sat, hands crossed, smiling patiently while we tasted the customary coffee and rake and signed our names in the register of timeless pilgrimages.

Mauve passion flowers were entwined through balcony railings, and blue cupolas glistened in the morning glare as we were led down to inspect two giant cypresses in front of a chapel. The thickest of these was said to have been planted by St. Athanasios himself, and looked healthy enough to thrive on for hundreds of years more.

The Byzantine church, entered through paneled bronze doors, was the largest we had seen and the reflection of shafts of sunlight inundating the marble floor set halos aglow, bubbling profusely in mosaic domes and arches. Persian tiles encrusted the side alcoves, and the bronze koros was most elaborate. Besides the usual embellishments in crystal and gold it dripped large blue Christmas balls–made of glass, however.

The treasures and relics at Great Lavra were expertly displayed in an airy gallery filled with table vitrines. Four other monks made the tour with us and each interestedly corroborated bits of information about items that intrigued us. Mosaics, icons, gem-studded daggers, crosses, jeweled bindings attracted our fleeting scrutiny. there was a room with trays of vestments from floor to ceiling, only an infinitesimal fraction of which could be shown at at time.

The library contained many manuscripts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, an eighth century Gospel according to St. John, and most prized of all, a fourth century copy of the Epistles of St. Paul which the monks claimed to be the oldest book on Mount Athos.

The phiale made of porphyry was about six feet in diameter and topped with a highly ornamented dome. Across from this refectory was shaped like Vatopedi’s but was more sombre, having few windows, and a conspicuous altar at the far end with a cross silhouetted against panes of glass. The U-shaped table tops were hewn of rough stone and the reader’s pulpit was more severe, square and roofed, like a tragic Punch and Judy kiosk. The walls were, as usual, crowded with Biblical events, but at eye level lined with a forbidding succession of tall saints with halos, each brandishing some proclamation or admonition. On side sections were badly flaking scenes of the Resurrection, and an elaborate panel depicting the Tree of Jesse, from the “Who Begat Whom” directory at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

After service. Great Lavra
After service. Great Lavra

We lunched on board at anchor under the canvas awning, but on departure lined our deck chairs portside for watching the afternoon’s spectacle. Mount Athos rotated before us in stony grandeur, the sun littered endless diamond particles over the shifting waves. Rounding the cape high cliffs shot up perilously from the depths and we now began excitedly to spot through the field glasses our first hermits’ huts. They were usually perched on the most inaccessible cliffs, sometimes wedged in under a protruding ledge of rock. Some were nothing but a few boards held together no one knew how, or occasionally boxed in with clay. Here and there on a grassy rise would stand a little house with a vegetable patch in front. But mostly these dwellings resembled hornets’ nests, with a window here and there the only suggestion of human life. This precipitous section was called Karoulia which means pulley in Greek. It was so named because the hermits who dwelt there lowered baskets to the water for mail, or occasional donations from passing fishermen.

They were a sect all their own, living as removed as possible from any trace or reminder of our world, rarely even coming in contact with each other. Unless they built their own hovel, they moved in after an occupant was found dead. On a shelf in good view celibates would preserve the skull of a former tenant or two with departure dates inked in on bleached brows.

Through our lenses we could readily scrutinize these lost outposts, grateful meantime for the good weather, since we were sailing treacherous waters where among other disasters a Persian fleet had filtered the depths, the icon of the Miraculous Virgin had been given up with its ship, and the child Arcadius had been washed overboard by a furious wave. Only a steady breeze blowing down from the mountain gave any indication of the wild lashings and cyclonic thrusts that howled in winter through these desolate canyons and crevasses.

Nowhere among these diggings could we detect a trace of life except for a shred of laundry flapping forlornly once in a while over the void. Below, not a boat, not a gull, only the line of us glued to binoculars, handing them round as new huts faced into view. Ascetics who had renounced the world for a life of denial and contemplation clung doggedly on hazardous steps to eternity. Theirs was a lonely approach, but in its way a selfish one. Yet, in its austerity, devoid of any trappings, one could not help but admire the courage it took to face death so relentlessly that when it came, it could only be envisaged as an insignificant segment of the journey.

Icon artists at Kapsokalyvia
Icon artists at Kapsokalyvia

An hour or so later, it was heartening to come upon the skete of Kapsokalyvia. This was an artists’ colony, perched in rambling fashion on a slope and, like some alpine village, dominated by a church steeple. We could now discern groups watching us from the terrace of several houses, and two men were actually waving a Greek flag from side to side in greeting. The figure of a black-hatted friar, enthusiastically bounding down the path to meet us, came indeed as a surprise after the more austere receptions at the monasteries.

Chugging in over the most limpid aquamarine shallows, all the more clear for the marble pebbles below, the tender swelled in to the little landing strip just as the welcoming monk reached it himself, perceptibly breathless. He led us nimbly up twining trails to the cluster of houses. He used a walking stick, wore a black leather belt, and his breath was rampant with garlic. He spoke in Italian and told us he had studied in Rome, was now a resident of Bengasi, Libya, and was here only to visit a brother. His friend’s house was one of the first we came to. It had two floors, neatly kept, and the resident monk instantly offered coffee. We thanked him in unison, declining because first we must visit the church. So higher and higher we plodded perspiringly, to level off at the upper bend beside a spring with a glass rewardingly poised on a ledge over the spouting water.

Several smiling friars awaited us on a balustraded terrace which dominated the bay, the white hyphen of the Doudouna gleaming in solitary splendor on an outspread page of blue. The first thing that fixed our attention, however, was a whitewashed shed with an arched opening at one end like an oven. Behind a grill inside surged a seething jumble of bleached bones. In the back, rows of skulls could be seen inscribed with dates. The friars swayed about, amused at our astonishment and expounded the fact that since no one can be born in Athos, people just die there, without tears and without monuments. When death occurred there was no mourning, bodies were interred in an enclosure with an annotation over each grave like a seed marker. After two years the bones were dug up and added to the ossuary. It all seemed very jolly all of a sudden, and everybody laughed, including the venerable friars.

The monk-chef in the refectory at Gregoriou
The monk-chef in the refectory at Gregoriou

The church of St. George was a reduced and less ornate version of those in monasteries, with much carved woodwork, and the usual backing of creaky stalls. It had been built six hundred years ago, after the mountain springs had been discovered. The friars charmed us with their hospitable ways, and offered us raki and coffee on their suspended terrace. Forty monks now lived and worked in Kapsokalyvia, in thirty-two houses, leaving ten currently vacant.

One of the local artisans produced icons and butter markers he had whittled out of pine. When we asked about the painters our greeter led us down to what looked like the sort of villa you might find in a European countryside. It was three stories high and had a terrace with an iron balustrade overlooking flower and vegetable gardens. There was a profusion of nasturtiums, peonies, roses, geraniums, and lemon and orange trees bearing fruit.

We rang the bell and presently two black hats and grey beards poked out of windows overhead. Recognizing the Libyan they immediately bustled down to open the door. There seemed to be lots of rooms on each floor, all immaculately kept, with beds neatly tucked in. The furniture, they pointed out, had been made of regional woods. Each house had its own chapel with an icon or two, and bronze crosses and candlesticks. Here they even had a library, with gold patterns stenciled on the glass lozenges protecting the books.

Our two artist fathers had their studios on either side of the staircase. These contained incomplete paintings of St. George, the Holy Virgin and Child, or the crucifixion, all scrupulously copied from standard models in books or color reproductions. Their little palettes had microscopic smears of oil paint on them and they worked with practically miniaturists’ brushes. There was never any change in the religious subject matter, its order or its treatment, one of them explained. Everything was painted according to inflexible instructions. Their only complaint was that usually after an icon was finished it was handed over to a silversmith who, with embossed metal, covered over all but the faces and hands of the subjects, thus concealing forever the major part of their devotional labors.

Our last day we arose at six and set off for cenobitic Gregoriou. We first passed Simopetra, its domino towers protruding remotely from the hills. In the morning sun, wooded valleys formed solid shadows down the mountainside.

To the right of a ravine descending to the sea, Gregoriou towered from a cliff in a small cove. Its living quarters and balconies on top were painted in faded tones of blue, and cypresses thrust skyward from both sides. Farm hands with mules double barreled with hay indicated a path which looped back up valley and was paved with stones graded in wide tiers so donkeys could ascend. Occasionally mulberry trees lent their shade, and on a high terrace at the entrance, poppies, gardenias, and carnations bloomed between the cypresses.

We were no longer surprised to come upon an ossuary with vintage skulls beside which we were greeted by monks who had watched us disembark from their viewing stand. Into a court partly shaded by a grape arbor they walked us up to the reception salon, nestling under a corner of the outer eaves. It was a low-ceilinged room with a porcelain stove and the usual hard banquettes. Drawn curtains over the east windows suffused us in a rosy twilight. A door to the sea opened onto a rickety wooden balcony extending around the front, like a chalet poised atop a skyscraper. It made one dizzy to peer down vertically hundreds of feet to the pale pebbles below.

This being a cenobitic establishment we were particularly interested in seeing the communal refectory. We easily discovered this long white hall filled with wooden tables and benches. Collected at one end, sure enough, hatted monks arched over their bean soup, no doubt dripping down their beards, and not always silently listening to the one in the pulpit droning the lesson. If there were thirty-seven monks at Gregoriou not more than half were present here. One who had finished eating offered to lead us to the church and chapels and, beyond the sacred well, to the treasury and the library.

When we crowded into the dinghy again several of the monks lingered on the terrace, waving intermittently, one remaining until we finally moved out of sight. At nine o’clock we reached Dionysiou, which resembled a Tibetan lamasery because of the vertiginous height of its sustaining walls and the overhand of its upper structures with their rows of balconies propped up with sticks. It was an easy winding climb from the shore and we paused only once, under a Judas tree with red bean-pods. The entrance to Dionysiou was in the back and we were welcomed here by the most friendly brothers we had yet come upon. The inner court was crammed with buildings, giving the impression of a little town, with streets abruptly turning corners and leading through archways, gleaming white in the early sun. The church was painted red, its reflection turning white walls pink, and shaded areas appearing blue by contrast. A tall monk passed, his cassock sewn at the seat with a large grey patch. Black cats were everywhere on the prowl. There were thirty-eight friars here, one more than Gregoriou but it seemed busier because of more concentrated quarters.

The abbot of Dionysiou
The abbot of Dionysiou

An abbot with a walrus moustache tusking down into his grey beard sat with us as we tasted our morning’s second round of savories. And with the raki he proposed a timely toast in Greek to the effect of “A thousand years to you!” We then went on to admire cloister walls with frescoes crammed with events from the Apocalypse in brown, black, and gold. The silent refectory was likewise decorated with scenes and haloed saints. But the library here, though small, was the best arranged. Manuscripts were locked in steel cabinets, while those in the vitrines had easily read labels with the centuries of the items printed as well in Western numerals. The librarian monk seemed to know more about his treasures than any of the others and readily gave out information as we exclaimed over minute and effulgent illuminations.

Father Llarion Monachos
Father Llarion Monachos

At the church we were joined by a jolly little monk who spoke English and offered to pose for me standing in one of the stalls with a veil over his hat and holding a candle as though to read the lesson. He said his name was Father Ilarion Monachos and he invited us all to his cell. The abbot tried in every way to divert us from this, insisting it was of no possible interest. But the little monk tugged at our sleeves and we followed him along the usual corridors with the shut doors till we came to a musty cubicle with a narrow bed covered by a red blanket, reminding me instantly of Van Gogh’s room at Arles, in a sombre version. The only light came from a square aperture with storm windows that gave out on one of those precarious balconies projecting over the rocky shore. He told us the others referred to his lair as Queen Mary’s cabin because of its position, but more precisely because he had never gotten over a return journey from Georgia, U.S.A., taken on board the Cunarder of that time. They kidded him about the balcony being the promenade deck…

On board the Doudouna, the late afternoon slipped lazily by  with sun-gilded monasteries looming in the distance and melting away behind. As evening approached we turned into the Bay of Daphni for our final night. Behind us the su was a fireball edging precariously into the cool horizon, and the sky radiated that magical glow a Greek twilight affords, and we seemed suspended between miraculous dimensions.

Sailing back to Piraeus next morning I sat on deck appraising our visit to this remote Byzantine outpost. Researchers devoted months studying the life of these orthodox monks, their customs and self denials. Much had been published on the subject by men who had trudged the hard way over unmarked trails in all seasons, and patiently conversed with those who had fled our world. After a brief visit as ours one was hardly equipped to make pronouncements, but one was certainly moved by strong impressions. Though Athonite religious principles and motivations might seem alien or abstruse, none could avoid the pervading sense of antiquity and timelessness.

It was well known that down the centuries the monasteries had been pillaged by pirates and invaders, as well as ravaged by fire. It was also established that pilgrim impostors had pilfered pages from manuscripts and stolen unique documents, which explained the cautious manner in which treasures were sometimes exhibited. Doubtless, revelations and prehistoric discoveries of even pagan significance may some day be brought to light on the peninsula, but in the meantime these remain inviolate, shielded by guileless verdure.

My head swam with visions of silver and brass and glinting jewels, with black figures weaving through night vigils. I also recalled the hermits abstracted so far from the rest of humanity they seemed poised between life and death, facing distances that would one day swell like a tide, bearing them beyond the earth’s last ledge and stone.

Hours later I gazed behind, Mount Athos was but a thread rising to a crescendo, fragile like an ash floating momentarily over a bonfire before blowing away.


Cite This Article

Etting, Emlen. "Aghion Oros." Expedition Magazine 7, no. 2 (January, 1965): -. Accessed April 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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