In a hut deep in the chestnut woods, an old Greek monk with a tangled beard and thick and grubby spectacles tells me to hold still. “I’ve got a test for you,” he says, placing his hands on my head. Then, with no warning and a sharp twist, I’m in a headlock. My neck cracks. I yelp and he lets go with a howl before falling about in gleeful laughter at the success of his joke. In a corner of the room, with a puzzled smile and a raised eyebrow, his Russian novice looks on quietly.
I’m on Mount Athos—a long finger of land jutting out from Northern Greece into the Aegean Sea. An all-male Autonomous Monastic Republic within the Greek state, and one of the most sacred spots in Orthodox Christianity, for the last thousand years the Holy Mountain has been a theocracy, inhabited almost exclusively by the residents of its twenty monasteries, and of the smaller communities and cells that depend on them.
Nestling in the woods and hanging from the cliffs in pastel-coloured towers, they’ve cloistered themselves away in contemplation. If the Vatican, its Latin cousin, is God’s embassy to the world, Athos long ago decided to renounce the world and its wickedness. But now the world is breaching its walls—and the Mountain, it turns out, has become a pawn in a game of ecclesiastical politics, in the face of a hostile takeover bid from the Russian church.
“This is the Holy Mountain Athos, station of a faith where all the years have stopped,” wrote Robert Byron in his 1928 book The Station. Generations of writers have visited this place: Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British author and solider, stayed after walking from the Hook of Holland. Bruce Chatwin died making plans to return and convert to Orthodoxy.
After learning in the year 1045 that shepherds had been supplying the first monks with more than just food, the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos issued a chrysobull banning women from the entire peninsula, along with beardless boys and eunuchs. The rules governing the latter two have been relaxed, but the exclusion of women remains and has even been extended to cover female domestic animals, with exceptions made for cats and hens. This is, after all, the Garden of the All-Holy Mother of God (to give it its wordy nickname), and she will have no earthly competition distract her plantsmen. “The Panayia—the Virgin Mary—she loves Greece,” a hirsute and impressively musky-smelling pilgrim called Aris assures me as we disembark from the ferry and pile onto a bus. “That’s why she protects us from the Americans and the Turks!”
One smitten brother smuggled in the Greek winner of 1930’s Miss Europe contest
The bus drops my friend Josh and me off in the little capital of Karyes, not much more than a short street—cafe, taverna, bakery, and shop, all in a terrace of squat houses alongside the rather grander central church. You can sit out here, safe in the knowledge that not a single woman or girl will come into sight, assuming of course that that’s the kind of knowledge that makes you feel safe. The ban is enforced by the issue of visas in lofty ecclesiastical Greek that are checked against passports, and backed up by the prospect of a year’s imprisonment for trespassers.
Naturally, there are lapses: One smitten brother smuggled in the Greek winner of 1930’s Miss Europe contest, and a small party of Moldovans were dumped here by people-smugglers in 2008, before being pardoned by the monks and sent on their way. I assume I speak for most when I say that I don’t normally register how frequently women enter my field of vision. But over the next few days I spend on the mountain, their absence starts to become a little unsettling, and all the more so for passing without comment.
As well as their visas, pilgrims book their stays well in advance. We check into Koutloumousiou, a cosy little monastery that lies a short walk down a dust track from Karyes. About fifty monks live in three stories of cloisters around a dingy little church. Embedded in the brickwork of the cloisters and the deep red walls of the church are rare Iznik tiles. A novice leads us up to a bare little room—two beds and a wooden table with a jug of water.
Every variety of monk mills around here. There are small sharp-eyed scholars; diligent ikon-painters who make the stern little likenesses of saints for the faithful to venerate; stout farmer-monks; and wild and filthy hermits lurking in the woods. We quickly discover that the lack of women has driven the monks to the macho asceticism of an old-fashioned boarding-school. I turned down the daily 3.30 a.m. wake-up call for matins, but freezing water, squat toilets, and a twelve-hour interval between twice-daily meals all take their toll. The only other sustenance is the Turkish delight and glass of tsipouro (a grappa-like eau de vie) that greet the layman’s shaken stomach on arrival at a new monastery. To judge by their physiques, though, some monks don’t seem to keep their rule quite so austerely.
All the years have stopped—this is Athos’s myth. In the minds of its most romantic fans, it has stayed the last outpost of a medieval world where the flesh was a moment to be endured, and where black-cowled figures shuffle to and fro forever to the echo of the Kyrie, the plea for divine mercy repeated like a mantra in the Orthodox liturgy. Some things do stay the same, and not only the Julian calendar and medieval timekeeping to which the monks stubbornly stick: Athos is currently running thirteen days behind the secular world, and each new day here begins at sundown in the old medieval style.
Every credo has its own sin of excess: Catholics wallow in guilt, orthodox Sunnis tend to over-literalism, and we non-believers have our smug certainties. The Orthodox, meanwhile, are obsessed with the dull minutiae of ritual and doctrine. The Byzantine world was torn apart by theological divisions: Was Christ of two natures, human and divine? Or of one joint nature? Or indeed of two natures and a single will? The Russians burnt their Old Believers for even less—with how many fingers should the faithful cross themselves? So while it’s relatively relaxed about sin, the Orthodox Church is bizarrely preoccupied with heresy.
Forgetting my own nominal affiliation to the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk, we bill ourselves as Anglicans. It’s the best of heresies, on the Holy Mountain. The Catholics split off from the Eastern churches (and sacked Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, which remains a sore point), and the Protestants left the Catholics. Since your schismatic’s schismatic is your friend, the Church of England now enjoys good ecumenical relations with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Besides, the word here is that Prince Charles has a flat reserved for him in Vatopedi, the grandest of the monasteries, and the monks are all convinced that only professional considerations are preventing the quarter-Greek Prince of Wales from converting.
And yet even Anglicans are clearly heretics in the eyes of these monks, if relatively welcome ones. We find ourselves exiled from the Koutloumousiou monastery refectory where the faithful are treated to formative mealtime readings, and confined to the narthex during services. “Do Anglicans believe in Christ?” asks one puzzled fellow pilgrim as we exit the little church. Our callow young minds are scouted at every opportunity for conversion and salvation.
Three days later, down by the sea at Dochieariou monastery, we make friends with a gentle young monk called Father Parthenios. His religious name means “Virginal”—I couldn’t but wonder if he was, and if that was why he’d chosen the name. He enquires after the Royal Family, asks if I could possibly despatch him some loose leaf Earl Grey tea when I get home, and that night he gives us a tour of the monastery’s medieval cellars. But even Parthenios pointedly wonders aloud how anyone could fail to see the truth of Orthodoxy. The clue, he tells us, is after all in the name—orthos means “correct,” doxa “belief.” Well then.
We only meet with actual hostility in the plus-sized and bloated church of St. Andrew, just outside Karyes. The gleaming marble basilica is the largest in the Balkans, but it sits almost completely deserted besides an overgrown five-a-side football pitch. Inside, we fail to prostrate ourselves correctly before the Miraculously Fragrant Forehead of St. Andrew, and one white-bearded monk takes issue. Josh bravely pipes up that Anglicans don’t really go in for prostrations. This is all in vain. “This is an Orthodox holy place, and you are not here as tourists!” the monk barks. We don’t point out that we’d just found him manning a gift shop.
The world moves fast, and we couldn’t cope with it
The dissident elephant in the room is the monastery of Esphigmenou, home of the hundred crustiest old monks on the Holy Mountain. Convinced that the Pope is the anti-Christ, they’ve long resisted the Patriarch’s policy of inter-church dialogue. Anathemas were exchanged in 2002, and the monastery has been in schism with the rest ever since. “Orthodoxy or Death!” proclaims a black and white pirate banner flying from its battlements. This is more than a falling-out among friends: Seven monks were airlifted to hospital in 2006, after a night-time skirmish with crowbars and fire extinguishers. The episode might have some comedy value, but this is a zeal foreign to modern Europe.
And in this zeal, the monks seem thoroughly content. Athos feels as rooted and as secure as an all-male fairy tale kingdom: The castles in the wood will stand there forever and the big wooden gates will be barred shut each dusk. Life here might be austere, but it’s comforting. “We’re not here because we’re strong,” says Father Parthenios. “We’re here because we’re weak. The world moves fast, and most of us couldn’t cope with it. It’s easier to give yourself up to God.” Hence, I suppose, the flight from all things female. This is what the Holy Mountain keeps of the Middle Ages: a bestowed order of things, with all the stability and all the rigidity that it entails. There is one true creed, there is one true calendar, there is a rhythm to the day and a lie of the land, and these things will endure here forever and ever.
Of course, Athos does change—and the myth of the Holy Mountain is just that, a myth. Dirt roads now link up the monasteries, and four-by-fours instead of mules ferry the older pilgrims about. Library catalogues are being digitised and homesick monks can email home. Back at little Koutloumousiou, a thoughtful little monk called Father Chrysostomos even runs a sideline business in music production, and a CD is on sale of Julie Christie reading modern Greek poetry to a backing track of hymns. She made, he assures me, an excellent impression. The Mountain is also buffeted by political winds, and the economic crisis has seen a surge in the number of novices as unemployed young men take the cloth. Every so often, threatening rumbles are heard from Brussels about the ban on women.
The path back down along the coast takes us through the home of the most dramatic change of all: the rebirth of Russian Athos. At the turn of the 20th century, over half the monks were Slavic-speakers. Of the twenty monasteries, one is officially allotted to the Serbs, one to the Bulgarians, and the one upon which we’ve just stumbled to the Russians, and yet the Tsar’s subjects who dominated the Mountain until 1917’s October Revolution left them beached here. When Robert Byron came in the 1920s, he found them sadly diminished:
There is pathos, almost tragedy, in this deflation, in this remnant of a once overflowing community debarred from country and traditions—an outpost of Old Russia in the Aegean.
By the 1970s, there were only a dozen of them left. Now, however, Moscow is back, with all the money and the muscle of Vladimir Putin’s new Russia. One friend of ours, a Greek architect and restorer who has worked on the Mountain for decades, is perennially outraged at the latest Russian-funded building project—and this is why. Cranes are putting up a new hundred-window extension wing, apparently loosely inspired by the Winter Palace. Every day, boatloads of Russian pilgrims pour onto Athos, wearing camouflage trousers and doing synchronised press-ups on the dormitory beds. One man we pass carries an ikon strapped to his chest, and bears over his shoulder a great flag with the portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. Putin himself makes a yearly visit. Across the whole mountain, smaller Greek monasteries are finding themselves increasingly manned by Russian novices.
Athos has become the latest theatre in the centuries-old struggle for cultural supremacy between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, the Second and the Third Rome. When the abbot of Vatopedi was arrested on corruption charges in 2012, it was the Russians who lodged a complaint with the Greek government, casting themselves as the monasteries’ protector and infuriating Constantinople in the process.
The sound of a basso profondo echoes down the white beach. A slow-motion ecclesiastical annexation is taking place—Crimea in cassocks, you might say. One patriarch has wealth, the greatest flock in the Orthodox world by far, and the support of the Russian state; the other has ancient primacy, and little else. Sway over the Holy Mountain is a hugely symbolic prize, and for now at least, Moscow is besting Constantinople.