I do not claim to be a spiritual person and probably the most profound thing discovered by my friend Ed and I during our visit to Agion Oros, the ‘Holy Mountain’ was that it is easier to give up women for a weekend than pockets!
There is however something very special about the Greek monastic peninsula which protrudes proudly into the Aegean Sea. Pilgrims of all shapes, sizes, trades and class descend upon the fishing village of Ouranoupolis to catch the ferry which is the only practical way to gain access.
Noticeable by their absence are women, although many have tried to find a way to enter, even applying unsuccessfully to the European Court of Human Rights. However it seems unlikely that the only attraction is a weekend away from female partners!
The rule prohibiting women also includes beardless boys and eunuchs and even extends to domestic livestock and pets with the exception of cats for which a special dispensation can be applied for. Although the ‘beardless’ rule is not strictly enforced the last time women were allowed access was during the Greek Civil War when the ‘Garden of the Mother of God’ provided sanctuary from warfare.
Visas are collected in Ouranoupolis as they are required to enter the enclave. The sleepy town is bustling with the devout and the curious. It is the gateway to Mount Athos and many enjoy a last feast before the ‘fasting’ period of the holy weekend.
The period of fasting was not as drastic as first anticipated as fish and dairy products like milk, cheese and eggs seem to be all that is prohibited. This is not any great hardship, and considering the monks have given up these ‘luxuries’ for fifty days, just thirty six hours seemed a breeze.
Hospitality is an integral part of the monastic culture and pilgrims can expect to be greeted with a glass of water, sweet treat and some tsiporo. This is an aniseed based distilled spirit, similar to ouzo but stronger. They will also be provided with a dormitory bed for the night if arriving too late to continue on their way or attending a late service in the monastery chapel.
I should confess that we ate pretty well during the fasting period, with fresh tomatoes, olives, bread and a spinach risotto dish our final meal before attending the main service. In fact I often felt over fed!
Easter is the holiest festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar and only coincides with the Christian celebration every four years. Mourning the death of Jesus Christ before celebrating his resurrection has monks and pilgrims experiencing the extremes of emotion.
Almost two days are spent in sorrowful fasting and prayer culminating in an extended service of several hours which brings the ‘congregation’ from the dark into the light. Monks and ‘parishioners’ clutch candles during the final hours, the chanting is increasingly joyous and chandeliers are swung in an effort to make additional noise. A monk spreads incense and provides a blessing to all pilgrims making the air heavy with strong fragrances as it mixes with the aromatic candles.
The ornately decorated chapel has three main chambers, the walls of which are covered in colourful but faded frescos depicting important periods in Greek Orthodox and religious history. Stark wooden but individual seats line the walls of each chamber and most pilgrims seem to take a break from watching the service even dozing for awhile before returning to their candle watching vigil.
Monks and pilgrims are free to roam throughout the chapel kissing the various icons, reciting personal prayers whilst crossing themselves in blessing. The black robed monks appearing like apparitions emerging from the gloom of darkened chambers to whisper blessings on grateful pilgrims. There is also a small inner chamber where only the monks conducting the service may enter.
Nearly seven hours later all participants sat down at long tables for a fast breaking meal, although the monks sit separately from the pilgrims. A litany is recited during the meal of cold soup, fish and decorated egg whilst a slightly stern monk ensures nobody talks throughout.
The two and a half thousand monks residing on Mount Athos either live in the large monasteries or in small cells. They are truly multi-national as apart from Greeks there are Russian, Rumanian, Bulgarian and Serbians represented. Each monastery although ultimately controlled by the Patriarch of Constantinople is independently governed.
The peninsula has an interesting history as well as a sanctuary in times of conflict it has been ravaged by pirates seeking gold, treasure and slaves. It is even linked with the famed pirate Barbarossa, better known as “Redbeard” and not a star of Pirates of the Caribbean!
We were informed that even the weather would appear to mourn the passing of Christ and would be unpleasant until Easter Sunday after he had risen once more. Apart from a few short spells of sunshine it did appear to follow this forecast, with cold wind and heavy showers for the first few days. Sunday then appeared much brighter and I was blessed with one of the most stunning night skies ever witnessed on my travels that evening.
Visiting Mount Athos during this special time was an incredible privilege. The fasting as already mentioned was relatively easy, the service surprisingly moving and I even managed my period of abstinence quite admirably. In case you are wondering we were prohibited from putting our hands in our pockets and this proved to be the most difficult ‘rule’ of all.
Returning to complete a pilgrimage in the ‘correct’ manner, walking between monasteries sounds very tempting; though removing the pockets from any trousers might be a plan.