Wednesday, October 06, 2010
A Pilgrimage to Athos: 1
I first saw Mount Athos from an Airbus A321, Aegean Airways flight A3603, 3 hours out from London Heathrow to Athens. The aircraft flew the line from Sarajevo to Larissa at 36,000 feet, and the captain had announced we were now in Greek airspace with landing expected in 50 minutes.
To the left I could see we were abeam Thessaloniki. Looking further east there was a mirage: an atmospheric layer mirrored the sky, obscuring land and horizon, a pale blue reflection, against which clouds in grey silhouette gave an impression of islands in a sea.
But there, further east, maybe 200 kilometres distant, the cone of Athos was above the reflection, its white rock shining in the afternoon sun.
I could understand how it came to be Holy Mountain - Agion Oros Athos.
Athos mountain is the tip of a narrow peninsula projecting some 70 km. from the mainland. The body of the peninsula is a ridge rising maybe 500 metres, running south-east into the 2033 metre high mountain. Chestnut forest covers much of the north-east slope of the ridge; the south-west slopes are drier, with a mixed scrub of conifers and evergreen oak. The south-east shoulder of the mountain is semi-arid; I heard it called 'the desert'.
A flat sandy 2-km. isthmus connects the peninsula to the mainland. Here, 2490 years ago, Xerxes commanded a canal be dug to pass his navy west, to avoid the risk of rounding the stormy cape of Athos, which had cost his father dear. The sand collapsed and buried the canal, so there is little to see today.
Agion Oros Athos is today an autonomous province of Greece, governed by an ecclesiastical council representing the Orthodox communities of 20 monasteries and 12 sketes. [A skete is a group of monks living in a village, not a single large building cluster.]
The only lay settlements are the capital, Karyes, a small village, and the tiny port of Dafni, about 2/3 of the way along the south-west coast.
Athos has been sacred to Mary, mother of Jesus, for much more than a thousand years. It is her paradise, her garden and her inheritance for ever, and a haven for those seeking salvation.
The holiness of Athos has been respected through many centuries, not least by the Ottomans. Exceptions include Arab and other pirate raiders, and hooligan crusaders.
Today Athos is a World Heritage Site. The monasteries have lost much of their former income from estates and patronage. The monasteries I saw need expensive maintenance and repair. I saw blue plaques recording European Union support - which no doubt has conditions attached. The traditional exclusion of women from the peninsula may not survive much longer. But there is nowhere for women on Athos, and I doubt the monasteries will provide guest facilities for women as they do for men.
Ecclesiatical control of Athos means its beauty is protected from commercial exploitation: long may it continue.
Access to Athos requires ecclesiastical permission, a visa. The number of visas is strictly limited, which limits further the human impact on this special place.
Agion Oros, AO, the alpha and the omicron: near but not quite the alpha and the omega.
[Modern Greeks pronounce Agion Oros 'with an aspirated g and s - something like 'aghyon orosh' - the g is especially difficult for an Englishman to get right.]