Mount Athos or Agion Oros, as it is locally known, is the oldest surviving monastic community in the world. It dates back more than a thousand years, to Byzantine times. It is a unique monastic republic, which, although part of Greece, it is governed by its own local administration. Because of its isolation Mount Athos has remained one of the most unspoiled parts of Greece. The landscape is stunning and wild, with small green valleys and gorges, well wooded peaks interspersed with precipitous ravines and an inaccessible coastline. It occupies the best part of the Athos peninsula in Halkidiki. It consists of a range which runs south-east for thirty miles from Xerxes' Canal, where Xerxes the Persian King cut a canal across the peninsula for his ships to pass. A rugged, sea-battered peninsula 56 kilometers long. The imposing marble summit of Athos itself, 2,039 meters high, 6,670 feet of grey-white crystalline limestone. Its snow-capped peak is usually crowned by white clouds, a very special experience. Small streams of crystal clear water run free under the deep shade of the chestnut trees. Here and there in this wilderness are the fortified walls of the monasteries, with small vegetable plots around them, encircled by a silver-green sea of the olive groves. Hidden among the greenery and the impassable gorges, perched in the most unexpected positions is the white speckle of a little hut were a hermit spends his days in solitude and contemplation. It is a land where myth is entwined with history, miracles mingle with reality. Savage mountain scenery reflecting on the dark blue sea creates that essential framework of isolation in a peaceful, solitary world, chosen by the hermits for their monastic state. Living in one of the peninsula's 20 monasteries, dozen cloisters, or hundreds of cells, the monks are detached even from each other, reserving most of their time for prayer and solitude. In their heavy beards and black garb—worn to signify their death to the world—the monks seem to recede into a Byzantine fresco, an ageless brotherhood of ritual, acute simplicity, and constant worship, but also imperfection. There is an awareness, as one elder puts it, that "even on Mount Athos we are humans walking every day on the razor's edge." A monk cuts his ties from his mother but gains another: the Holy Virgin Mary (who, legend has it, was blown off course while sailing to Cyprus, stepped foot on Mount Athos, and blessed its pagan inhabitants, who then converted). He forms an intense bond with his monastery's abbot or his cell's elder, who becomes a spiritual father and, in the words of one monk, "helps me find my personal relationship with Christ."
After entry the pilgrims are free to visit any monastery they wish. The monasteries uphold a long tradition of hospitality for those who need Mount Athos, those who seek solace, relief from the troubles of the outside world or those who are on a pilgrimage. Food and a bed to sleep are provided entirely free, although the conditions are basic and visitors are expected to conduct themselves according to certain standards. Much of the traveling is done either by boat or on foot for the roads are narrow and winding dirt-tracks. As the pilgrims approach each monastery they cannot fail to be moved by the stunning natural scenery and the imposing architecture. The monasteries are fortified Byzantine castles with monumental walls all around and a courtyard in the centre. Others look like unassailable towers. The monastery of Simonos Petras (above) is a good example. It is perched on a large bolder a testimony of glorious times past. There are many architectural styles, enough to keep an architectural historian busy for the rest of his life. The monastery of St Panteleimon (left) is a good example. It was built by monks who came from Russia, hence it is called Rossiko, and the style clearly reflects the Russian influence. Successive Tsars bestowed it with wealth and treasures which...
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