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Byzantium’s Last Outpost

The isolated monastery community of Mount Athos exists much as it did more than a thousand years ago.

With these words the Orthodox community of Mount Athos addresses the pilgrim who crosses its borders from eastern Greece.

Stretching like a pointed finger into the deep blue of the Aegean Sea, Mount Athos is a fragment of the life that reigned, for a time, throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

Mount Athos is the last outpost of the beauty of Byzantium. It is a miracle that this living fossil has survived more than 1,200 years of turmoil, leaving very little trace of the passage of time.

The origins of the monastic establishments on the Holy Mountain are obscure. According to an ancient Byzantine legend, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle were sailing to Cyprus to visit the resurrected Lazarus when their vessel was blown off course. As their ship approached the shore, statues honoring the gods in the mount’s temples collapsed. The Virgin asked her son to bless the mountain and a voice was heard: “Henceforth this place shall be your lot, your garden, your paradise.”

In the ninth century, Sts. Peter the Athonite and Eutemios the Youth founded a number of small communities. In 881, the Byzantine emperor formally recognized the right of the monastics to inhabit and govern the mount. The first formal monastery, the Great Lavra, which still functions, was founded by St. Athanasius the Athonite in 963 – more than 100 years after the emperor’s recognition of the Holy Mountain’s autonomy.

In 1045 the emperor enacted a law barring females of all species from the mount: “Our Lady shall have no rival.” To this day this law is enforced by the monks with all the vigor and strength of their predecessors.

Today 20 monasteries and a number of sketes, or clusters of ascetics who live together, make up this autonomous state under the Greek republic.

Mount Athos has known periods of great wealth and poverty, power and weakness: the golden age of Byzantium, the hostile Latin crusaders, the Ottoman conquest and the Greek reconquest. But through it all, the mount retained its autonomy. The European community recognized this unique status when the Treaty of Berlin was signed in 1878.

The village of Karyes, which is situated more or less in the middle of this strip of rocky coast and green hills, is the center of the holy Koinotis, the central governing body. This governing body is composed of 20 representatives chosen from the 20 monasteries. A committee of four is selected to form the executive branch, and from this committee a president is elected to a one-year term.

A special pass issued by the Koinotis is needed to enter the Holy Mountain. These procedures exist so the steady number of pilgrims and visitors does not interrupt the daily regime of the monks who live there.

The order of the day varies, depending on what rule the community follows. Nine of the 20 monasteries are cenobitic – the monks are obedient to an abbot, who is elected for life; the community celebrates the liturgies of the church in common; and the community submits to a strict discipline of prayer and fasting.

The remaining 11 monasteries are idiorrhythmic; each monk follows his own pace, his own rhythm.

However there are elements of the daily order that are similar for all of the more than 1,500 monks who live on Mount Athos. They tend their gardens, olive groves and grapevines and spend hours reciting the Jesus Prayer: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

Their daily meals consist of bean soup, vegetables, bread and black olives. Sometimes fish completes the diet and, in certain monasteries, meat may be eaten.

Most of the monasteries lie in the green valleys, near the groves and vineyards. A few, Xenophontos, Docheiariou and St. Panteleimon for example, sprout from the rock formations that rise from the sea. With their high walls, towers and tiny windows, they served as fortresses. Other reminders of the unfriendly past are the lookout towers that dot the seashore; Christian and Muslim pirates attempted repeatedly to ransack these shrines.

Although the monastery exteriors are adorned with intricately carved wooden balconies painted in shades of blue, green and red, the real treasures are kept within the fortified walls: Byzantine-style churches, frescoes, icons, golden reliquaries, relics and manuscripts.

There is not a monastery without its sacred icon or relic. Dionysiou preserves one of St. Christopher’s fangs! According to a legend, Christopher was born with a dog’s head, which was transformed into a human head after his conversion to Christianity. His human face was of such beauty that he converted 4,000 people, including the courtesans sent to tempt him.

In Vatopedi there is a fragment of the belt of the Virgin. In times of pestilence in Byzantine cities, this fragment was taken to halt the spread of the plague.

Stavroniketa houses a miraculous icon of St. Nicholas, a stunning 14th-century Byzantine miniature mosaic. The icon was found by a monk who had cast his nets into the sea. While sorting through his catch, he discovered the treasure covered with barnacles. Barnacle fragments may still be seen on the icon.

In the southern part of the peninsula, the pyramidal peak of Mount Athos, whichgives the peninsula its name, rises to more than 6,700 feet. In the summer its profile cuts the clear Aegean air. In winter, the mount is wrapped in fog and clouds.

It is here where hermits have found their refuge. They live in shacks, which lean toward the sea. Shrinking from all things worldly, these men maintain contact with God only.

The panorama from the top of the mount is breathtaking. The sea stretches before one for miles. The entire three-pronged peninsula of Chalcidice, which includes the smaller peninsula of Mount Athos, can be seen from this point. And with a little imagination, one can see the glory of Byzantium: Constantinople.

When at sunset the light diminishes and the day winds down, the gates of the monasteries are shut. The silence of the night is broken only by the choirs of men chanting in the ancient churches. In those moments the pilgrim, lost in the timelessness and beauty of Mount Athos, can only pray – a prayer that the Virgin’s Garden will last yet another thousand years.

Bruno Pavan is a freelance photojournalist who travels frequently to the Balkans.

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