Hagion Oros: Following the path of the medieval monks
A long before the actual journey took place I was feeling a strange excitement, though I knew where I was going. I was aware what awaits me and how this environment functions. I knew that this place breeds different energy and that lack of respect for postulates present here would create a completely different experience.
Besides visiting beautiful natural and historical heritage, idea was to spend time with hermits and people who value the most their spiritual peace while material or physical wealth has no particular meaning for them. This part of Greece is the only “monks’ republic” in the world, functioning with their own customs, legislation and Constitution. In the area of 335,6 square kilometers live around two thousand orthodox Christian monks, it is located in Aegean Macedonia, at the peninsula of Athos and is formed as an autonomous state under Greek sovereignty. Predominantly monks live in monasteries and skete communities, but there are those who live true ascetic life in huts, cells or caverns.
We should be clear at the beginning – this is not a touristic destination! People come here with reason or need. These needs are of individual character, and every journey to Mount Athos, or Hagion Oros, can be described as an inner call and quest for a spiritual amelioration. Looking from this spiritual side, experience lived here is unique and special as the energy present here fulfills every single pore of your soul and body. Here you will not find store, emergency room or pharmacy – this is a journey into the medieval period with basic or ascetic life conditions. There is almost no phone line, asphalt, air condition, bus stop, wi-fi, not even an electricity system (monasteries use aggregators to get an electric power).
Hagion Oros history
Historical development of this state dates back to the early IX century and period of Byzantine empire. First monks started to arrive to Aegean Macedonia in search for peace and staying away from the frequent conflicts. Throughout the history Hagion Oros was of interest for Crusaders and later on Ottoman empire which had jurisdiction over them from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 until 1912. In this period state passed through difficult times, but managed to keep their sovereignty while paying obligatory dues to the Ottomans.
Apart from the spiritual importance, this part of Greece represents great collection of cultural and artistic heritage, mainly seen in, painting, architecture and writings, some of which being older more than 10 centuries. From the start, monks have developed strong artistic activity leaving to the future world extraordinary collections of books, icons and other valuable material.
Influence of modern society and Greek state is minimal – besides legislation which is completely separated from the Greek one, even the time is measured differently. Hagion Oros uses Julian calendar and a new day starts with the sunrise.
We embarked on our journey from Belgrade around 2 PM with quite old and rustic bus, suitable perfectly for this type of an adventure. The next morning we arrived in the port of Ierissos where we take a ferry for Mount Athos. In order to access Athos you need to obtain a special kind of visa called ”Diamontirion” which is as well required to enter the ferry. Besides controlling who is allowed to enter the peninsula, it helps easier control of numbers of visitors to Hagion Oros – current limits being 200 people per day.
As we were approaching medieval port of Saint Basil we started to notice numerous monasteries, huts and defending towers. The latter were used in the past to observe the sea and protect land from the frequent pirate attacks. Disembark on the Holy land of Athos we start our first walk. Trails are good, not difficult and lead us through the series of conifers, vineyards and olive gardens on our way to the great monastery of Helandariou (Chilandari or Hilandar).
One of the most distinguished monasteries on the peninsula, Hilandar was established in 1189 as the most significant monastery of the royal Serbian family of Nemanjic. Here, we will participate in the evening Service and dine with monks. In every monastery at the peninsula there is an active principle – if monastery doors are open, everyone is welcomed to spend a night there.
Our next route was towards Esphigmenou which is only five kilometers away from the former. Road between the two was frequently used by visitors in the past, many of which were important rulers of orthodox countries, therefore several historical monuments can be seen during the walk.
Esphigmenou is different from other Athos monasteries. Brotherhood has detached themselves from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and withdraw from the Holy Community in 1974. It came as a result of disagreement on Ecumenical movement and important religious topics within Orthodox Christianism. As a result of this they were proclaimed in schism from the Orthodox church, and since schismatics are prohibited to inhabit Athos according to the Greek constitution, monks were proclaimed illegal and Greek Supreme court was called to react. It increased pressure from the Greek state which resulted in several violent raids by the police, the last one being in 2017.
Nonetheless, this is one of the biggest monasteries on Athos as brotherhood numbers more than 100 monks. Accompanying them are people who work here as part of their rehabilitation process or suffer from psychological conditions. Atmosphere is exceptional, almost unworldly, as monks function in complete silence and calmness. As they move, it seems as they levitate through the building making no sound when passing over several hundred years old wooden floors. This creates very special energy which is felt in the whole monastery area and easily abounds everyone who is there. Brotherhood’s kindness, humbleness and generosity make your time with them almost endless as peaceful atmosphere makes you wander without sensing passing of time. Overwhelming feeling easily overpowered me as I spent several hours enjoying olive trees in the garden away from the rest of the group.
Quite strange situation happened here – as I was about to leave the monastery and start going back towards Hilandar my shoes completely fell apart. Upper part separated from the lower one and I was forced to continue walking barefoot! As I was walking over the warm land and hot stones I was thinking about deeper meaning this “problem” has had as I don’t think it was a coincidence that my shoes ended like this out of nowhere.
Day ended with an evening Liturgy and dinner which reminded me a lot of typical dining halls and tables presented in fairytales. As the sun was setting we went to sleeping quarters to rest for 20 km trail next day.
On the way to Zographou
Upon leaving Hilandar we accustomed immediately to the new surroundings. We are in the forest, accompanied by various animals, snakes and birds whose song follows us. These are mainly mule trails which require more efforts to hike them. Older members of the group have difficulties to maintain the pace so younger ones help them with rucksacks. As we enter deeper into the thick forest, human influence decreases and it can be seen only in subtle trail signs pointing directions which were put there by the British mountaineering organization The Friends of Mount Athos. Untouched nature remains with us until we approach Zographou monastery, historically home of Bulgarian monks and dedicated to St. George. Walls of this monastery look like a medieval fortress as they are 70 meters high.
After a short talk with monastery’s abbot we are informed that, unfortunately, there is no space for the whole group to sleep here so the other solution was that some of us sleep outside. We decide among us to continue our hike and try instead with Konstamonitou monastery 10 km further. Since that monastery gates close as the night falls, we speed up our rhythm to reach it before the evening. As the group had a bigger challenge ahead, the atmosphere became more uplifting. Along the way we were constantly accompanied by various animals and unknown sounds, as the forest was growing thicker and thicker, making it even harder to proceed. Finally, we arrived to our destination just in time to enter the monastery.
This brotherhood counts for more than 100 monks, too. They are Greeks mostly but there are some Swedish and English people as well. This monastery is the last in the hierarchy of Athos monasteries and is the poorest one, constantly denying EU donations for restoration of cultural and historical heritage. Electricity is used in small quantities, mostly in the kitchen, while for light monks use oil lamps, for heating woods and gas and clothes are hand washed.
Similarly to Esphigmenou monastery, at Konstamonitou communication is mostly by mimic, using gestures rather than speech. It is fascinating to see how they understand each other perfectly with no long dialogs or discussions. We manage to get attention from some of them who inform us about the future plans and renovation of the monastery which is done completely by themselves without any external support.
At 03.30 the next morning we woke up for the morning Service. Everything is still covered with dark, you can barely see anything and the only illumination besides the moonlight comes from the oil lamps. In the church darkness is even thicker which adds significantly to the mystic atmosphere of monks in their black dresses with hoods covering their heads. After longer period of standing I sit for a bit and, consequently, fall asleep. Feeling is strange, at the same time I am aware of the chant around me but I feel as I am dreaming. Numerous images pass through my head as I recall stories of my father who was on this exact place many years ago. I think about my own battles, mostly those within me, my life path and future. This sensation continues, it feels strangely joyful and pleasurable, I am happy in this form, in this shape and I feel positive energy and happiness of the people surrounding me which they pass on me. I am strong and serene at the same time.
As we finished with our lunch after the service, we pack our stuff and leave to the port where we wait for the ferry to takes us further to the port of Daphne and the city of Karyes. This place is the administrative center of Hagion Oros and inhabitants of Mount Athos come here when they need to communicate with the outside world. It has telephone line, internet connection, it is home to Athos police, Holy Community consisted of representatives of all 20 monasteries (with exception of Esphigmenou) and Assembly consisted of four biggest monasteries – Great Lavra (Greece), Chilandari (Serbia), Saint Panteleimon’s monastery (Russia) and Zographou (Bulgaria). We spent night at skete of Saint Andrews, where we participated in another morning Service. After the lunch we headed with another ferry towards Ouranopoli where we officially exit from Mount Athos and end our spiritual journey.
Karoulia – Mount Athos desert
I must mention this outstanding part of Hagion Oros though we did not have chance to visit it. This is the most isolated and inaccessible part of the whole peninsula, away from all existing roads. Hermits who choose not to live within one of the monasteries live in cells spread on cliffs above the sea. Some of the cells are so isolated that only by hauling themselves up with ropes or chains that passed over makeshift pulleys hermits could access them. Today, there are ladders, ropes and cables which make it easier to move around. Here, hermits are completely dedicated to praying, spending the most of the day (and night) in it.
The name Karoulia comes from the Greek word for pulleys, which were used in the past to transfer supplies to hermits. In exchange for food and other basic necessities, hermits would offer hand painted icons or handicrafts. Cells in which hermits live are made of rocks, reed or cane and mud, without any connection to material world. Though offered with “products” from the outside world they do not accept any kind of gift or generosity, stating that “God gives them everything they might need”.
Journey is successful if you arrive to the right conclusion
I came back to Belgrade, day after I left for Novi Sad and immediately “entered into the machine”. As I was passing through the streets, watching people and cars passing by, I couldn’t get out of my head impression how nowadays everyone is in the hurry, that everything needs to happen right here and right now. At the same time, in my head was still present strong echo of the prayer from the monastery, call of the nature, clear sky, peace and silence. I still hear it, an echo of a journey which never ends.