Vitali with chef monk Father Epiphanios of Mylopotamos

Mobile monks and the modernisation of Mount Athos

How technology is changing the face, if not the spirit, of the Holy Mountain.

Puffing like an early steam engine, I trudged higher and higher up the track, scaring tiny agile lizards from under my trainers. My feet felt stiff, as if I was walking on stilts, and streams of hot, salty sweat were pouring down my forehead…At last when I thought I wouldn’t be able to take another step for a million pounds, I looked up and saw him. In his monastic klobuk hat he was standing on the path, blue robes and black beard flying in the breeze, and pointing at the square building of the nearby skites (small monastery), resembling an obscure Cyrillic letter. In loose, worn sandals, he could have passed for a mirage or an Old Testament apparition, were it not for the inscription on the fringe of the grey satin trousers showing from under his habit: “Property of the Mount Sinai Military Hospital”.

It was Father Spiridon, the chief monk of St Anna mountain skites, to where we were heading. He brought mules, one for each of us, and for the last several hundred metres to the skites we rode on their uncomplaining backs – a sensation similar to a slow levitation and a huge relief for us, if not for the mules…

Such was the start of my previous journey to Mount Athos in 1996. The same climb today would have been very different. Firstly, we would have most likely been driven up the mountain. Secondly, there wouldn’t have been any mules, for there are hardly any left on the Holy Mountain…

April 2012  

Outside the walls of Great Lavra, Mouth Athos' main monastery, a row of solar panels stare up at the sky. Against the backdrop of the medieval monastery walls, the panels appeared alien and out of place – like bikini-clad models at a black-tie dinner – and I felt like pinching myself to make sure I was indeed in Mouth Athos, the 1,000-year-old all-male Orthodox monastic republic in the north of Greece, notorious for its stubborn resistance to any whiff of modernity…

Time as such does not exist on the Holy Mountain where monks still live by the Julian calendar which is thirteen days behind our Gregorian one. Clocks in some monasteries are set to midnight at sunset. In others, they are set to noon at dawn which makes the act of making any kind of appointment on Mount Athos a hopeless business which doesn’t seem to bother the monks whose only appointments are with god, and His working hours are flexible…

It was my third visit to Mount Athos, one of the world's most spiritual places, where Orthodox monks spend their lives in prayers and contemplation. For over 1,000 years – in accordance with a special edict of the Patriarch – “no smooth-faced person” has stepped on its rocky, sunburnt shores. “Mount Athos is one of the few places in the world that does not change with time,” I wrote after my previous “pilgrimage” to the Holy Mountain (another name for it) in 1996.

I was wrong. The change began in 1997 – in the aftermath of the ill-fated exhibition of the artistic treasures of the Holy Mountain (priceless icons and frescoes, Ptolemy's first map of the world etc. etc.) held in Salonika. It was the first – and most certainly the last – attempt on the part of the monks to establish closer contacts with outside world. Titillated by the unspeakable treasures on display, a group of feminists filed a suit in the European Court of Human Rights demanding to rescind the male-only status of the Holy Mountain. The suit was eventually thrown out, yet the monks got a big scare, and as it often happens to a frightened person (or country), withdrew even deeper into themselves. It was then that the decision was taken to start modernising Mount Athos – for the first time in a millennium.

I knew about the changes from the rare articles in the media and from first-hand impressions of some British visitors – as rare as the articles, for entry to Mount Athos is still conditional on a 'diamonitirion' – an impressive-looking special visa (resembling an honorary diploma) issued sparingly, reluctantly and slowly by Macedonia's government and signed by all four members of Iera Epistasia (the Holy Administration) of Mount Athos. With disbelief, I would browse websites, claiming to be Mouth Athos-based and offering pricey (over 50 euros a piece) “virtual tours” of some monasteries and no-less pricey lightings of a no-less-virtual candle. I also heard about the growing commercialisation of the country's small wine-making and icon-painting industries and of the famous monk chef Father Epiphanios of Mylopotamos, whose cookbook of Mount Athos cuisine (of which I myself had a copy!) was a best-seller in several countries, including the USA. 

Frankly, I was finding all of the above hard to imagine in a place, where just 15 years ago there was hardly any heating, the electricity supply was both erratic and sporadic, and means of public transportation were limited to a fleet of reliable and low-maintenance mules and only one car – an ancient Unimog truck, driven by the legendary Father Makarios – a chain-smoking monk wearing greasy jeans under his grimy habit. Reeking of rakia and cheap Karelia cigarettes, Father Makarios was then Mount Athos' only driver, and his vehicle, with the character of a mule, carried Virgin Mary icons, instead of pin-up girls, on the windscreen and a shot-gun on the passenger seat – to blast an occasional unwary snake luxuriating on the track. There were no proper roads, just holes and bumps, and I remembered bouncing in the tarpaulin-covered back of Father Makarios's Unimog like a ping-pong ball inside an empty lunch box...

The Holy Mountain's modernisation caught up with me still on mainland, in the Greek village of Ouranopolis – the gateway to Mount Athos, from where there was now a regular ferry connection. Caught in the all-male crowd of would-be pilgrims, I noted with wonder that the village's only couple of dusty streets had become an open-air supermarket of Mount Athos-related paraphernalia – mostly kitsch. Yet the biggest shock was inside the visa-issuing office where the coveted 'diamonitirions' were now churned out by three LEXM RK laser printers, with the “Iera Epistasia” members' signatures reproduced as facsimiles!  

At the ferry's first stop – the monastery of Dochiariu – a couple of pick-up trucks were waiting on the pier.  A handful of disembarked monks and pilgrims boarded them to be driven up the hill.

The next on the ferry's coastal route was the Russian monastery of St Panteleimonos – so huge it looked like a medieval fortified city, with numerous secular buildings and blue onion domes of churches sticking out among them. In the early 1900s, it was the Holy Mountain's biggest and richest abbey, with the world's largest bell and over 3,000 prosperous monks. One of them was allegedly so rich that he had accumulated Europe's biggest private collection of telescopes which he himself had never used! By 1996, however, St. Pan Panteleimonos had (for obvious reasons) degraded to the point when it was semi-ruined and had just 12 monks, with one of whom – stocky and freckled Father Filaret – I then had a short conversation in Russian.

In April 2012, the monastery looked thriving again, with neat, freshly painted facades and masts of construction cranes stretching up towards the skies. Standing on the ferry's deck, I overhead the following verbal  exchange between two young Russian monks.

“Look at this monastery: like everywhere else, we Russians have the biggest presence on the Holy Mountain!” commented the first monk pointing at the domes of St. Panteleimonos.

“Yes, our boys are doing well,” agreed the second. “Even the largest Greek monasteries could all fit inside the guest-house of ours!”

More cars and mini-buses were waiting for our ferry in Dafni, the Holy Mountain's tiny port of entry where we all went ashore. I noticed that some disembarking monks were carrying crates with herbs, fruit and veggies – another novelty: 15 years earlier all the monasteries and skites (no matter how small) were trying to be entirely self-sufficient.

I could also hear mobile phones ringing with peculiar Orthodox chant-like or prayer ring-tones! A monk then would ferret the gadget out from underneath his loose black robes – like some circus trickster, and, having finished the conversation, would drop it back – almost imperceptibly – into the seemingly bottomless dark recesses of his clothing. That was a significant change for the place where the first public phone cabin was installed as recently as in 1995 causing a heated debate and controversy comparable to the introduction of steam power in the early 19th-century Europe...

Unlike in 1996, the Holy Mountain now boasted of several stretches of proper road – near Dafni and around Karies, the capital. Occasionally, one could spot a timid freshly painted road sign pointing to a nearby monastery. There was even one brand-new (and, no doubt, freshly painted) bus shelter, made of wood! Apart from those, driving (and riding) was still very slow and extremely bumpy, with an additional risk of a collision with another monastic vehicle. With tracks generously strewn with sharp pebbles, flat tires were common, and Father Ignatius, the driver of our Mercedes mini-van, had to pull over repeatedly to help fellow monk drivers to change a wheel, while we waited patiently inside the van. Yes, one could now speak of a traffic flow in Mount Athos!

At the Archondariki (guest quarters) of Great Lavra where I spent the first night, a battery recycling bank had been installed next to a public phone cabin. A strict sign in the corridor called on pilgrims and monks alike not just to refrain from exposing any bits of their “naked flesh” (apart from the face that is) even in the washrooms (!), but also to make sure their mobile phones were permanently switched off when anywhere inside the monastery. Well, there's no denying the fact: modern technology often brings with it noise and pollution.

Understandably, there is no consensus about the ongoing Mount Athos modernisation. According to some, instead of a place for mediation and prayer which it had been for over 1,000 years, Mount Athos has now turned into a vast secularised construction site, with trucks, machinery and land cruisers. The ever-growing number of visitors is causing inconvenience to brotherhoods, some of which are no longer able to provide their traditional hospitality (a one-night free stay, free meals and a welcome tray of coffee, rakia and sweets) to each pilgrim. Indeed, there was no welcome set waiting for us at Great Lavra, but that could have been due to the fast which was on...

Our driver monk, Father Ignatius, however, was very much in favour of the change saying that new machinery and new roads were helping to restore old monasteries at reduced costs  - and the results were obvious to everyone. The chef monk Father Epiphanios, who was my host for the last two nights on Mount Athos, was in total agreement with Father Ignatius, but went even further asserting that anything that helps a monk in carrying out his monastic duties, and those include all sorts of  chores and little daily jobs, should be welcome.

One area that stays untouched by modern technology, however, was the liturgy. The only tools that were used by monks during the majestic eight-hour long all-night Easter vigil at the katholikon (main temple) of Iviron monastery were long sticks with small candle-extinguishing bellows at the end. At some point during the service, all candles inside the temple were put out, and the magnificent monastic chants sounded for some time in pitch darkness until all the lights were suddenly back on, and massive brass chandeliers were being swung in celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection.

Then, after a celebratory Easter meal (eggs, fish soup, goat cheese and wine) with the monks inside the monastery's refectory, where tables were set for 300 people at five o'clock in the morning, I watched the breaking of a new dawn on the balcony above the monastery yard overlooking the sea.  

It was still pitch dark, and soon I heard the rhythmic and monotonous sounds of talantos, wooden drums calling brothers to another liturgy. I looked down: the black-hooded monks were sliding across the monastery yard towards the church in treacherous semi-darkness, like white-shrouded ghosts in a slow-motion picture, shown in the negative by the erroneous cinema operator of dawn.

An invisible multi-voiced choir inside the church was chanting psalms with amazing synchrony and grace as the red-robed monk of the rising sun was descending slowly from his heavenly skites above the sea and covering the world with his pink see-through cassock.

Suddenly, everything around me was full of harmony and light. Life no longer seemed purposeless and hectic. The grief that I might have inflicted on others was forgiven; my own suffering, joys and misdemeanours were all forgotten, and even death itself was no longer frightening...

The fact that – in line with the Holy Mountain's ongoing modernisation – the call for prayer was simultaneously broadcast on the monastery's radio system did not make the magic moment I was experiencing – or the divine liturgy itself – less meaningful and less spiritual.

And that was my answer to the question of whether technology has changed the Holy Mountain…

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