Extract

The Holy Mountain

The story of Ottoman Athos

For more than a millennium Ayanoros, better known to the West as Mount Athos, has been a spiritual beacon to Orthodox believers. Yet the world’s oldest political entity flourished most brilliantly under Ottoman rule. Two scholars who have had a lifelong interest in this jealously isolated community give a unique insider’s view. Anthony Bryer, the eminent Byzantanist, who visited Mount Athos for the first time 40 years ago and found this extraordinary community on the brink of the 20th century, gives a personal account. Graham Speake, as secretary of the Friends of Mount Athos, has been in a privileged position to take the photographs

  • Balconies projecting from the upper storeys of the monastery of Xeropotamou give it the appearance of a grand Ottoman country house
  • Looking south across the Athos peninsula. Rising out of the Aegean to a height of 6,000 feet, this has long been a place of refuge for hermits, ascetics, monks and sundry silentiaries. This view is from Stavrokikita, the last of the 20 ruling monasteries, founded in 1541
  • In Ottoman times, the monastery of Stavronikita relied for its income on the empire;s Danube principalities

Mount Athos is a peninsula east of Salonica cloaked in forests of oak and topped by a cloud-wreathed marble peak rising 2,033 metres out of the Aegean Sea. Since the tenth century, hermits and communities of monks have settled here. It is not the stunning beauty of the place that has attracted them, so much as the ascetic convenience of the Holy Mountain. A safe haven from the world, and the home since the 14th century of the influential Quietist movement, Athos has been a spiritual exemplar for the Byzantine and all Orthodox churches.

In 1958 I wanted to get to Byzantium: very fast. Between laying down pen as a National Serviceman and taking up arms as an undergraduate, there was not time to visit Turkey or Greece, but just enough to grow a beard and get to Athos.

Here was living Byzantium, where distances were measured in hours along ribbed mule tracks, where the hours of night were anyway only approximate at the solstices, where all clocks were wrong and the sure time was sunset, when the gates of the miniature walled towns called monasteries shut, leaving you out for the night on a bare mountain. So on August 19, AM 7466 of the Byzantine calendar, I presented myself to the Holy Fathers, who affixed a four-part seal to my visa to Athos, only the 748th issued that year.

I had spent the previous night (being September 1, 1958 AD, secular time) in the tower of Andronikos II at Prosphori. The difference of date (which is why the Russian October Revolution actually happened in November) gave just enough time to grow a beard out of which a comb kept falling, to demonstrate my gender, for women and eunuchs do not cross the border at Prosphori…

Here was living Byzantium, where distances were measured in hours along ribbed mule tracks, where the hours of night and day were anyway only approximate at the solstices, where all clocks were wrong and the only sure time was sunset, when the gates of the miniature walled towns called monasteries shut, leaving you out for the night on a bare mountain…

To read the full article, purchase Issue 15

Issue 15, 1998 Mountain Secrets
£12.00 / $15.98 / 62.68 TL
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Issue 15, 1998 Mountain Secrets
£12.00 / $15.98 / 62.68 TL
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