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.

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