Mount Athos, “kingdom of monks” — part 1

Mount Athos from

Mount Athos photo by Travis Dove,

Mount Athos is the famed monastic republic in northern Greece. I count Mount Athos as one of the foundations for Melleray Farmstead and Piedmont Pine Coffins. Since I like to talk about monastic inspirations for our place, here’s a peak into the old file cabinets and into the archives — into the past that forms us in the present. Thinking back, I realize that these monks — the hermits, at least — lived in tiny, off-grid farmsteads where self-sustenance was prized. I bet their coffins were simple pine, too.

In 1990 yours truly, founder of Piedmont Pine Coffins, visited the Mount Athos, the “kingdom of the monks,” for Easter.

It was quite a trip. Here below find an essay about that visit that in 1997 was published in The Riverfront Times of St. Louis under the title Mount Athos, Peak of Ecstasy.

At Mount Athos, the Virgin Mary jealously guards a pilgrim’s path to the Divine.

Ever since her purported 11th-century apparition on the site of this confederacy of Orthodox Christian monasteries in northern Greece, the monks of Mount Athos have held their entire peninsula, with its titanic sea cliffs, wooded hills and interior valleys tucked away like Tolkien’s Rivendell, to be Mary’s exclusive sanctuary — exclusive of other women, that is.

In the olden days, I was told, even the cats they kept as mousers had to be male. Likewise for livestock and chickens. A monk was appointed to greet each unloading caique at the dock and monitor the gender of new arrivals. For humans, that could mean being frisked. Some bold androgynous woman must have slipped in, once upon a time, to lead to such strict enforcement.

But by the time I visited, at Eastertime 1990, the mood was less fastidious. They didn’t frisk us, for one thing. I also saw a milk cow, drowned — she must have fallen from a caique in transit. The sea buoyed her carcass in surges against the rocks. Rumor said it had happened that cliff-dwelling hermits, enchanted in their solitude by the dream of flight or a stairway to heaven, sometimes met with their fate the same salty way.

During my week of pilgrimage at Athos, known to the Greeks as “Agion Oros,” — the Holy Mountain — I saw no women, and no apparitions. The Virgin Mary must reserve beatific vision for a few good men.

Still, Mount Athos remains a spirited place. To begin with, I had to try like the devil just to get there.

On a map, find the large landmass below Thessalonica that looks like an Aegean jellyfish with three tentacles trailing toward Turkey. Mount Athos is the eastern one, a craggy peninsula some 20 miles long. At its bottleneck, the mountains are impassable; even the Range Rover I once saw parked by one of the monasteries — like a mailbox in the Sahara — would falter there. The sea off the tip of Athos, too, where the eponymous mountain rises more than 2000 meters, is notoriously rough: Persian emperor Darius the Great aborted his invasion of Greece after losing an entire fleet there in 92 BC, and his son Xerxes later cut a channel through the isthmus north of Athos to avoid rounding the same cape.

Reaching Athos from Athens can seem, if not mysterious, at least byzantine, especially for a foreigner. There aren’t many foreign pilgrims, so information is scarce. First, you have to gather official papers from your embassy and from a Greek ministry in Thessalonica; then, negotiate your passage from Thessalonica to the frontier, where, at the hamlet of Ouranopolis — whose name means “Heaven City” — a small ferry departs for the port of Daphni midway down the Athos coastline. From there, a rattletrap of a bus chugs you up over the coastal range to Karyes, the administrative seat of the 20 confederated monasteries. Karyes is a functioning village with a bakery, a sundries shop, tourist booths and the monastic council chambers. It is there you buy, for a small fee, your pilgrim’s pass, the ticket that calls forth the monks’ famous hospitality anyplace on the peninsula. One commentator writes, “The solicitude of the monks, even the most elderly, towards visitors, is moving.”

The wrong way to reach Athos — two hours by cab from Thessalonica — I learned the hard way. “Don’t forget the extra tariff for the Easter holiday,” that vulture of a cabby said, as I handed over more than $60 in drachmas — nearly all I had — on the ferry dock at Ouranopolis. Now I’d be short for the pilgrim’s pass. The closest cash machine was hours away. So even at the very threshold, even on Holy Saturday itself, I had to turn back. I bused myself to Athens — it was cheap — and spent Easter Sunday and Monday alone. The cupboard held a few potatoes and a bag of sugar. Grocers were closed. My stomach had more to say than I did during the fast, and in a giddy state I read Pride and Prejudice, all of it, and laughed out loud at the funny parts.

It was as if Athos had spit me out for a time of purification.

The banks opened again Tuesday, and I made the same cheap bus trip back to Ouranopolis for my second assault. On the ferry to Daphni, I fell in with three young Greeks also making their first pilgrimage, and once we had our passes in Karyes, we were free to wander.

The major monasteries, for reasons of commerce, were founded along the coast, with generally a 90-minute trek between them. Monks seeking greater solitude have built many smaller houses on the slopes of the interior, and these seem to operate by invitation only. Wherever you stay, you’re the honored guest. At our first stop a short way from Karyes, the porter brought us a typical refreshment: a shot of ouzo liqueur, some water and a plate of jelly candy, called loukoumi, to wash the dust of the road from our throats.

Our first night we spent with a hermit, Father Kosmas…

The story continues in Mount Athos, “kingdom of monks” — part 2, in which yours truly kisses bones, keeps his distance from a babbling man, and captures the bliss of it all — or at least tries to.