hidden europe 6

Mount Athos: a pivot of heaven

by Nicky Gardner


an insight into the tiny theocratic polity of Mount Athos (Agion Oros), one of Europe's most inaccessible communities

Europe has two tiny theocratic polities, one urban and one rural. Vatican City serves as a pilgrim focus for Christians in the western or Latin tradition, and for many thousands of tourists too, who flock to this Catholic enclave on the banks of the Tiber. No-one checks the visitors' credentials or their motives. Vatican City is open to all. Not so Europe's other theocratic state which lies on one of the three great peninsulae that jut into the Aegean, southeast of the Greek-Macedonian city of Thessaloníki. Two of those three protrusions are devoted to secular delights: sun, sea and sand, and many are the tacky billboards that line the highways along which speed Greek and foreign visitors bound for the beaches on Kassándhra and Sithonia with their jellyfish and coarse white sand. The third and easternmost peninsula offers a more ascetic appeal - for this is Athos, the Holy Mountain, a place where Byzantine and Ottoman rulers, and the modern Greek State, have all allowed a considerable measure of self governance.

Mount Athos (Agion Oros) is one of Europe's most bizarre and inaccessible communities: an alliance of twenty monasteries on a rocky peninsula that jealously guards access to its precincts. No women are allowed on the Holy Mountain, a rule that is strictly enforced. Even the Orthodox faithful who wish to visit require a visa (diamonitirion). For those not baptised into the Orthodox Communion, securing a permit is not easy. Unlike the Vatican, this little republic selects its guests carefully, and no more that ten non-Orthodox visitors are admitted each day.

Mount Athos is not a place where you come and go at will. The diamonitirion permits a stay of five days and four nights - no more and no less. Few are those who get to experience the rhythm of life and prayer in this secretive corner of hidden Europe. Mount Athos is not a place for creature comforts; monastic austerity is the norm. Visitors to the wild peninsula catch a glimpse of another world, and, as they make their way along the mountain trails from one monastery to the next, a chance to savour one of the last wild coastlines in this part of the Mediterranean.

Soon after midnight, the sound of the semandron echoes in steady rhythm across the wooded valley, a dent in the mountains where scarlet lilies and lush ferns compete in the shade that offers respite from the summer sun. It is still dark of course. Here, as all over the republic, men rise from their beds and make their way to the katholikón. Each utters a steady mantra that picks up the imposing sonority of the semandron. The beat of the wooden hammer on a huge plank of ancient maple calls the devout and the dissolute to morning prayer. In the stricter regime of the more traditional communities, no-one is exempt. Not even the guests who arrived only yesterday from the mainland and are still foot weary from the trail and mind weary from their encounters with Athonite bureaucracy.

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