Iviron. The Georgian monastery on Mount Athos

For two reasons I am happy that we finally stay in Iviron Monastery in Mount Athos. One is the Georgian thread, which is of particular interest to me now, while working on the Svaneti project. In fact, the monastery was founded and inhabited by Georgians for many centuries. Its name also suggests this. “Ιβήρων” means “of the Iberians”, as the inhabitants of Kartli in central Georgia and of Georgia, united in the 11th century, were called in ancient Europe.

Nowadays there are no Georgians among the nearly thirty monks, although many Georgian hermits still live in the area. But the memory of the Georgian founders still lives in the monastery. The incomparable manuscripts written by them still fill the library. They look down from the frescoes in the narthex (porch) of the main church, and the encounter with their iconic depictions here, where they lived and became saints, makes them personal acquaintances in the medieval Georgian churches where we have hitherto regarded them as little-known Georgian saints.

Already the foundation of the monastery is fitting to Georgians: it is tied to great warriors and victories. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Arabs occupied almost all of Georgia, with the only exception being the inaccessible Svaneti in the north and Tao-Klarjeti (in the northeastern tip of present-day Turkey) in the south. From the aristocracy of Tao-Klarjeti rises the Bagrati dynasty, which, in the following centuries, will gradually reconquer Georgia from Muslims. In the preparation for this reconquista, the commander-in-chief of Prince David III the Great, Tornike, played a decisive role. In 963, at the end of his military career he entered the Great Lavra, at that time the only monastery on Mount Athos, together with his brother-in-law, also a commander, John and the son of this latter, Ekvtirme (Euthymius). In 976, however, the Byzantine general Bardas Skleros incited a rebellion against Emperor Basilius II, and the emperor sought the help of the prince of Tao-Klarjeti. David called back his commander from the monastery and sent him against Bardas with 12,000 Georgian cavalrymen. Tornike won a decisive victory and returned to Athos with 1,200 pounds in gold. With this, he founded a new monastery for Georgian monks near the Great Lavra. David, on the other hand, received the title of kouropalatēs (ca. “viceroy”) and a significant land donation from the emperor, in possession of which he could begin to reconquer Georgia, so that his son, Bagrat III could already be crowned king of Georgia.

A group portrait of the greatest Byzantine emperors in the narthex of the main church in Iviron. The big-bearded, helmeted Tornike (here with his monastic name Ioannes) looks over the shoulder of Constantine the Great, standing in the middle

Today, however, St. John of Iberia is venerated as the founder of the monastery. The brother-in-law of General Tornike, he joined the Great Lavra together with him, and then he became the first abbot of Iviron. He was followed by his son Ekvtirme (St. Euthymius of Athos), who became one of the greatest theologians and translators of his time. His translations include the story of the enlightenment of the Buddha, entitled Balahvari’s wisdom, whose Christian version became a popular reading in the Middle Ages under the title of Barlaam and Josaphat. Its protagonists – whose names are the distortion of Gautama and bodhisattva – were revered as saints by the Catholics in the Middle Ages, and are still revered by the Orthodox today.

However, the saint of Iviron who is most revered throughout Georgia is St. Gabriel of Iberia, who entered the monastery shortly after its foundation. Due to his extraordinary monastic and spiritual virtues, he alone was worthy of bringing out of the sea the Panagia Portaitissa, the Icon of the Gatekeeper Virgin, which was saved from iconoclasm by hovering across the sea from Constantinople to Mount Athos, and which, as we shall see, became its protective icon. We see Gabriel on the frescoes of most Georgian churches, with the icon in his hand, mostly near the entrance, where the icon and candle sellers work, as if he were their patron saint.

St. Gabriel brings the icon out of the sea. From the fresco cycle of the icon’s Iviron chapel

Whether you come to Iviron by boat or bus, you arrive at the same place on the beach, at the fortified arsenas of the monastery, which now serves as a sawmill.

The monastery unexpectedly unfolds behind the arsenas, among oil and cherry trees, with cheerfully painted open and closed balconies popped out on wooden consoles on the upper levels of its tall, articulated medieval wall, like a large, colorful oriental town.

We walk along the north side to the double gate decorated with marble columns. To the left is the original holy gate of the foundation times, which has remained unchanged because of its guardian, the Icon of the Gatekeeper Virgin “living” here, although it is constantly closed. To the right, the new gate opens to the large courtyard, one of the largest among the monasteries in Mount Athos.

In the middle of the courtyard stands the domed marble fountain, where the monks sit down and drink fresh water after the liturgy.

To the left of the fountain, that is, to the east, is the catholicon, the main church. Every afternoon, the sunlight passing in front of the stained-glass windows projects a caleidoscope on the floor of its narthex.

The wall and ceiling of the narthex are decorated with 18th-century frescoes, probably post-fire renovations of older ones: an Apocalypse cycle made after German Renaissance engravings, the story of the first universal synod, the life of the Virgin, the saints of Iviron.

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To the right of the fountain, that is, to the west, stands the huge block of the trapeza, the monks’ dining room, with a bell tower above its entrance. A cheerful hobbit house-like kitchen is attached to it on its left, and on its right the treasury and library, with many thousands of medieval Georgian and Greek manuscripts, which have now been relocated somewhere else due to renovations, perhaps to the large tower behind the fountain, at the end of the courtyard.

The floorplan reviewed so far is similar to the other large monasteries in Mount Athos. But Iviron also has a special building. Next to the original, always closed gate of the monastery, a small chapel was built for the wonderworking icon, the Gatekeeper Virgin. According to the legend, after they brought the icon out from the sea, and placed it in the main church, it moved by itself to the wall of the gate. After many attempts, the Virgin appeared to the monk Gabriel, declaring I did not come for you to hide me, but to protect you. Eventually, a compromise was reached, so that the icon would have its own “porter’s room”, a chapel next to the gate, where she is honored with a separate liturgy after each vespers.

The icon is not at all as small as the one held by St. Gabriel of Iberia, but almost the size of a man. It is not only revered in Athos and the Georgian countryside. In 1648, Nikon, Patriarch of Moscow ordered a copy of it, which was exhibited in a chapel erected in front of the double gate of the Red Square. The Georgian Virgin thus became the gatekeeper of the Moscow Kremlin, and whoever entered the gate had to bow before her. The Bolsheviks therefore demolished the Iberian Gate and Chapel in 1929, and the icon disappeared. Today, a copy of each stands in the square again.

The gate opens into the dome-covered forecourt of the chapel. The fresco of the dome represents the Virgin of the Sign, that is, the pregnant Mother of God in orans posture, surrounded by the heavenly court and the prophets foretelling the coming of Jesus. The walls show the Last Judgment and a cycle about the finding of the icon and its miracles. On the outside of the gate is an enlarged detail of the icon, with the fresco of the Dormition of the Virgin above it, as the main church is dedicated to this feast. This is what the pilgrim first sees from the pictures of the monastery before he enters the courtyard.

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To the outsider, perhaps the greatest experience is to see the monks walking among these millennial buildings, with their backs bent and with superiority on their faces from two thousand years of initiated knowledge, with long beards and heads of great character, thus testifying with the distinctiveness of their appearance to a very different reality. The greatest monastic challenge for the visitor, a form of asceticism invented for photographers, is not allowing them to take photos of these photogenic faces. However, asceticism bears its spiritual fruits. Since I cannot take photos, and the unrealized pictures keep working in my head, I slowly realize that in most cases I would have photographed them out of intellectual laziness, as trademarks of local exoticism. For the same reason that tourists take tons of photos of laundry hanging on the line and cats in Rome. Or, even worse, as actors of comic situations, of everyday situations that become comic because we usually do not connect them with a monk: like look, this is how a monk makes a cell phone call, how he drinks wine, how he carries a bag. Like a man.

The ban on human photography is a clever spiritual practice of the first monastic visits. It saves you from having to think back in shame of situations where you have not fully considered the other person as a person. And it prepares you to no longer see and photograph the exoticism but the man in him, when one day you will be permitted to take photos in a monastery.

I would like to illustrate from a photo album of Mount Athos, what is it like when the photographer sees the man in the monk. The photographer, Chariton himself is a monk in Vatopedi Monastery, so he knows and shows this world from inside in his album Ματιές στον Άθω / Images of Athos, published in 1997. Since the book is today absolutely inaccessible, a scanned version is downloadable here for five days.

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And a literary portrait from William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, which will be discussed later:

“‘Christophoros will be down at the Arsenal at this time,’ said Fr. Yacovos, looking at his fob watch, ‘feeding his cats.’

I found the old man standing on the jetty, holding a bucket full of fishtails. A pair of enormous black spectacles perched precariously on his nose. Around him swirled two dozen cats.

‘Come, Justinian,’ called Fr. Christophoros. ‘Come now, Chrysostom, wisswisswisswiss … Come on, my darlings, ela, come…’

I walked up and introduced myself.

‘We thought you were coming last week,’ replied the monk, a little gruffly.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I had trouble getting a permit in Thessaloniki.’

The cats continued to swirl flirtatiously around Christophoros’s ankles, hissing at each other and snatching at the scattered fins.

‘Have you managed to have a word with the Abbot about my seeing the manuscript?’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Christophoros. ‘The Abbot’s away in Constantinople. He’s in council with the Ecumenical Patriarch. But you’re welcome to stay here until he returns.’

‘When will that be?’

‘He should be back by the Feast of the Transfiguration.’

‘But that’s – what? – over a fortnight away.’

‘Patience is a great monastic virtue,’ said Christophoros, nodding philosophically at Kallistos, a rather scraggy, bow-legged old tom-cat who had so far failed to catch a single fishtail.

‘My permit runs out the day after tomorrow,’ I said. ‘They only gave me a three-day diamonitirion. I have to leave by the morning boat.’ I looked at the old monk. ‘Please – I’ve come all the way just to see this book.’

‘I’m afraid the Abbot insists that he must first question anyone who …’

‘Is there nothing you could do?’

The old man pulled tentatively at his beard. ‘I shouldn’t do this,’ he said. ‘And anyway, the lights aren’t working in the library.’

‘There are some lamps in the guest room,’ I suggested.

He paused for a second, indecisive. Then he relented: ‘Go quickly,’ he said. ‘Ask Fr. Yacovos: see if he’ll lend you the lanterns.’

I thanked Christophoros and started walking briskly back towards the monastery before he could change his mind.

‘And don’t let Yacovos start telling you his life story,’ he called after me, ‘or you’ll never get to see this manuscript.’”

Orthodox fathers from Kortrijk sing the Easter “Christ is risen” hymn at my request in Flemish at Iviron Monastery

The other human spectacle of the monastery are the pilgrims. Mostly simple people, characteristic peasant faces, so that the few Russian intellectuals look out of place. They lack the piety usual in Catholic pilgrimage sites, perhaps because only men are here, not the elderly women who typically fill our pilgrimage churches. They come from all parts of Greece and the orthodox world, making tangible the concept of the Orthodox commonwealth from Russia and the Balkans to Anatolia.

Receiving and providing for so many people every day imposes a serious logistical task on the monastery, especially as any supply can be received only over the sea. As I am sitting in the dining room, and looking at the multitude of fathers and pilgrims, one to two hundred people just in one monastery among the twenty, I am thinking about how this vast amount of food arrives here every day from the mainland, especially as in the mountain, where no female animals live, neither eggs nor milk is produced. And then I involuntarily think further: how does the same amount of food leave over the drains? The sea is crystal clear, with no trace of algae indicating direct discharge of sewage. But where does the monastery have such a large settling and defecating system, where is there room for it on the narrow stretch of coast at all? I interrogate the fathers, who respond in a way typical of Orthodox fathers who know it all exactly, but the replies suggest that they never gave a though about it before.

They gather twice a day for meal, late in the morning and early in the evening. The time cannot be given precisely: at the end of the morning and evening liturgies. However, these start at very different times every day, and last for different times. If you want to eat, it is advisable to participate at the liturgy, for after the monks march into the dining room and the pilgrims follow them, they close the doors. The food is simple but good and plentiful, although it varies from monastery to monastery. Some of the pilgrims, who have not yet taken the lesson about God’s care, on their way out collect in plastic bags what is left by the others, even pouring the leftover wine into plastic bottles.

Entering the monastery, we report to the gatekeeper father, who distributes our accommodations. The rooms of the fathers overlook the sea, those of the pilgrims the mountains above the monastery. The forest bathes in the sun from morning to afternoon, after which the sun sets in the room by way of farewell. Until sunset, the rumbling of tractors infiltrates from the lands, and at night, if one stays up late, the howl of the jackals from the mountains.

We came at a busy time. There will be an episcopal visit and a deacon’s ordination at the episcopal Mass. The vigil before the Mass lasts until two in the morning. And the Mass begins at six in the morning, and lasts until ten. The liturgy goes on slowly and solemnly. We do not know exactly where we are, but it anyway surrounds us with a golden flood like the sun outside. The choir impressively sings the Byzantine liturgy, which is not polyphonic like the Russian one, but an intricate, domed melody performed over the basic tone held by others.

Despite the ban on photography, more and more people are pulling out their mobile phones, and taking photos and videos. It is not every day that they can see an episcopal Mass, and they also have to show it at home like lo, that’s how the boy was consecrated. The row begins with an elderly Japanese priest who arrived for the occasion. He goes up and down in the church with a professional camera, like a photojournalist, and shoots in the faces of the priests and even of the bishop. The fathers watch him with a forgiving smile. Then the visitors and even the monks start to turn on their cell phones. By the time I also dare to start, the most spectacular parts have already taken place, I could only record them in my memory. But here is a video showing the otherwise closed inside of the church. I am especially pleased that in this way I can show the beautiful Cosmatesque floor mosaic. Here it is firmly considered to be from the foundation period, that is, the 10th century, while literature derives this technique from 12th to 14th-century Rome. Someone is wrong … but thank God it’s not my business to find out, in an impious way, who it is.

The attentive reader who has followed me so far, may interject that I still have not told about the second thing which makes me happy for having got accommodation in the Iviron. Well, this second reason is a wonderful book that starts in this place and is about a wonderful book that ended up in this place. The one that begins here is William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, which I also quoted at the Turkish siege of Tur Abdin. And the other is John Moschos’ seventh-century Byzantine travelogue from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the route of which is followed and commented on by Dalrymple. Its original manuscript is kept in the Iviron library. Dalrymple’s book starts by saying that he could finally get this manuscript in hand here in the library:

“Open on the desk is my paperback translation of The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos, the unlikely little book which first brought me to this monastery, and the original manuscript of which I saw for the first time less than one hour ago. God willing, John Moschos will lead me on, eastwards to Constantinople and Anatolia, then southwards to the Nile and thence, if it is still possible, to the Great Kharga Oasis, once the southern frontier of Byzantium.”

The manuscripts of the library are now in an unknown location due to renovations, and it would be hopeless to get permission to look into Moschos’ manuscript anyway. And also unnecessary, since Dalrymple has already published it, with a sensual and colorful personal commentary that nothing can surpass. But the very knowledge that I am here where this unparalleled adventure started, and the manuscript is also somewhere here within the thousand-year-old walls, is enough of a feeling. I imagine William sitting here in a cell like mine, looking out of the window – he saw the vegetable garden instead of the forests, so he must have gotten a cell at the end of the corridor –, and, just like me, getting ready to write.

“My cell is bare and austere. It has white walls and a flagstone floor. Only two pieces of furniture break the severity of its emptiness: in one corner stands an olive-wood writing desk, in the other an iron bedstead. The latter is covered with a single white sheet, starched as stiff as a nun’s wimple.

Through the open window I can see a line of black habits: the monks at work in the vegetable garden, a monastic chain-gang hoeing the cabbage patch before the sun sets and the wooden simandron calls them in for compline. Beyond the garden is a vineyard, silhouetted against the bleak black pyramid of the Holy Mountain.

All is quiet now but for the distant breaking of surf on the jetty and the faint echo and clatter of metal plates in the monastery kitchens. The silence and solemnity of the place is hardly designed to raise the spirits, but you could hardly find a better place to order your mind. There are no distractions, and the monastic silence imposes its own brittle clarity.”

It’s strange how two people can see the same thing different. In Dalrymple’s description, Iviron is an ascetic, grim, black place. In my memory it will remain as a jovial gold place, flooded with the gold of the sun and the Byzantine liturgy.

A cruise to Athos

The administration of the monastic republic of Mount Athos unites German bureaucracy with Greek spontaneity and ecclesiastical indifference. The visa is issued by the monastery you want to visit first out of twenty, based on their own specific requirements. We choose Vatopedi Monastery. There, they even require a PCR test, because their abbot lay in covid for months last year, and he was miraculously dragged back from the brink of death. Just before departure, they say we should not come, because covid was detected again, and the monastery is closed now. But will you issue the visa? since we do not have time to start the process in another monastery. Yes, they will.

In Ouranoupoli, it turns out at the dawn of departure that a foreign PCR test is not accepted, and a local rapid test is required for boarding the ship (no land road leads to the walled mountain). So we queue up at six a.m. in front of the local office of Mount Athos, and once we are there, we also inquire about the visa. They cannot find it. Vatopedi did not send anything. We want to call the monastery, but everyone there went for the morning liturgy. The ship leaves in the meantime. Around nine they call us from Vatopedi, they apologize, and they express their firm intention to immediately send the visa. Soon we have to stand in line again. First at the window of the local police, where our ID card is photographed and registered, then at the window of the Athonites, where our data is registered, and finally at the last window, where they print and hand over the visa for thirty euros. For that much money, we also get an extra monastic name in our visa, because the Hungarian ID has the gender with the same typography as the name, so the visa adds FERFI (male) to the name of every Hungarian. The most frequent name among the Hungarians visiting Mount Athos.

There is a last ship at ten a.m., which follows a different route. We want to get to Iviron on the north side of the Holy Mountain, where the early morning boat would have gone directly, but the new cruise goes along the south coast to the port of Daphni. From there, we have to take a minibus on a dirt road up to the thousand-meter ridge of the mountain, and then descend to the north shore to the monastery. The advantage of this route is that we can see at least from outside a number of significant monasteries on the south coast, which we had not planned to visit.

Map of the monasteries from the Athos book by Sydney Loch, mentioned in the previous post (1957, edited by his wife two years after his death)

Slowly, the Tower of Donation is left behind us. The boat is accompanied by a swarm of gulling seagulls. They gently squeeze out the bread from the upright hands of the brave pilgrims, while the more standoffish pilgrims toss it to them. They rarely miss the pray.

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A starets also boards along with the pilgrims, selling to the pilgrims prayer beads and other sacred objects made by him. When, after two hours of sailing, my friends and I get hungry and take out the bread, goat cheese and retsina wine we bought yesterday, he is just turning to us to offer his goods tied in a bundle. We offer him lunch. He visibly swallows, but remains adamant. “It is not dining time yet”, and moves away.

On the steep hillside, green forest alternate with fresh vegetation sprouting on large burnt surfaces. Devastating fires have played a major role in the history of the mountain and of the individual monasteries. Right the first monastery we see on the hillside, Konstamonitou, burned down three times, and much of the convent still stands without a roof. Its reconstruction was always supported by the Serbian rulers, and most of the monks were traditionally Serbs, as in neighboring Hilandar, the Serbian main monastery on Mount Athos.

Adjacent to the monastery, like to all the others, is an arsenas, a fortified harbor building, which was the first circle of protection against pirates. In the picture below, however, I show the arsenas of neighboring Zografou Monastery instead of Konstamonitou, because it is much more picturesque with its fortress tower and round bastion, its working church, and the ruined tower nearby. And also because the ship only stops here, and not in the port of Konstamonitou a few hundred meters away. Zografou Monastery itself, inhabited by Bulgarian monks, is on the hillside, not visible from the shore. It bears the name Zografou, that is, Painter, because, according to its legend, St. George painted himself on a blank icon board in 919 to indicate that he wished to become the patron saint of the monastery.

A little further, on top of a rock stretching into the sea stands the All Saints Kellion, with its arsenas next to the rock. The kellion or cell is a complex of a dwelling and a chapel in which a few young monks live together under the direction of a gerontas, an older monk. There are about 150 kellia on the mountain, each of them belonging to one of the twenty great monasteries.

The next building is the Dochiariou, that is, Storekeeper Monastery and its arsenas. It was named after its founder, Efthimios, who was storekeeper in the first monastery, the Great Lavra, before establishing this one in 976. After the fall of Byzantium, it was supported by the Moldavian princes. Its catholicon, that is central church was dedicated to the holy archangels, whose modern statues can be seen on the two columns of the arsenas. The holy icon of the church – because almost every monastery church in Athos has a famous holy icon – is the 17th-century Panagia Gorgoepikoos, the Virgin who is Quick to Hear. A few years ago, a copy of it was donated by the monks to the Orthodox chapel in Budapest, and carried to Hungary by a Greek NATO plane.

The ensuing Xenophone Monastery was founded or built by Admiral Stefanos, commander of the Byzantine fleet in 1083, when he himself entered the monastery. After the fall of Byzantium, the monastery was adopted by the Princes of Wallachia. Its holy icon, which is said to have come here of its own accord, is a copy of the famous Hodoegetria or Guide Virgin of Constantinople, which was destroyed in 1453. The arsenas of the monastery is a little further south, so that the uninformed pilgrims who want to board in front of the monastery, have to run a good while when the ship finally docks.

Further to the south is the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, or as they call it on the mountain, the Rosikon, the monastery of the Russians. Founded in 1050, the monastery was given to the Russian monks in 1169. It has been one of the centers of Russian religious life since the rise of Russia in the 16th century. Its current buildings date from the 18th century and evoke the Russian Baroque style of St. Petersburg. It still plays an important role in Russian orthodoxy; it is no coincidence that Vladimir Putin visited it twice in the sign of Russian cesaropapism.

And finally comes the port of Dafni, which is linked to no monastery, only above it on the hillside is the 10th-century monastery of Xeropotamou, the Dry River. But this port serves Karyes, the “capital” of the Holy Mountain, which is a half-hour bus ride from here, up the mountain, on a dirt road, because the asphalt road has been repeatedly washed under by rains. However, the bus’s waiting time is indefinite, because the timetable is only informative, according to Greek custom. Up there we should change bus, but after a little persuasion, this bus itself goes further down to Iviron on the northern shore, our first accommodation. About which I will write in the next post.