by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

The road to Heaven is paved with temptation as far as the monks on Mt Athos are concerned

monks 2.jpg

A place like Mt Athos makes you realise what temptations life has in store. In the monastic republic, established on the easternmost finger of the Chalcidice Peninsula in 885 by a chrysobull, or edict, of Byzantine Emperor Basil I, almost everything carries the stamp of “temptation”. On the Holy Mountain, however, anything regarded as “temptation” is banned.

The list is rather long. It includes meat, cigarettes (but not alcohol), secular songs, whistling, swimming in the sea and, until the end of the 19th Century, bathing, bedbug-free sheets and clean clothes. Naturally, bans lead to complications, hence to new temptations.

“The monks are sitting on the quay and gazing at the water,” wrote Russian explorer Nikolay Blagoveshtenski in 1858. “Look, Father Sergie, what fish, temptation!” “Ah, temptation, there are so many of them! If only we could catch some, temptation!” “How could you catch them? They jump a lot, temptation!”*

In size and splendour Zographou Monastery dwarfs the Rila Monastery

In size and splendour Zographou Monastery dwarfs the Rila Monastery

Of course, you won't be able to find out how extensive the enticements of Mt Athos are if you are a woman. In the monks' view, you - as well asbeardless underage men - are one of the greatest temptations that Satan has managed to contrive. Judging from the monks' accounts, the devil is particularly inventive in this respect. “They say that the devil has tempted them and played tricks on them,” wrote Bulgarian artist Tsanko Lavrenov in his diary on 12 November 1935. “Father Nikolay claims that the devil knocked at his window one night. There was a wizard imam who used to send the devil to do people harm. At midnight, however, the Holy Mountain would light up with a divine fire and drive him away. On another occasion, the devil paralysed Father Nikolay's arm so that he could not cross himself.”

To reduce temptations to a minimum, a ban on women and female livestock has been in effect for nearly 10 centuries. The official stories carefully fail to mention the real reason why they are not allowed in the monastic state: the Vlachs. For centuries, the monks and these nomad shepherds, who went there to find winter pasture for their sheep, lived side by side in relative peace.

No females on Mt Athos

No females on Mt Athos

Gradually, an increasing number of monks were “tempted” into sneaking ladies wearing men's clothes into the monasteries. “The things that occurred are shameful both to tell and to hear,” said a witness to these events.

The ban is still in force and European feminists' attempts to revoke it as discriminative have come up against the rocks of faith. The only officially allowed exception is the cats, which keep the locaL rodent colonies at a tolerable level. No mares, sheep, or does.

There have been unofficial exceptions, however. Blagoveshtenski described the terror that the beautiful wife of a sea captain unleashed when she tried to enter the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon.

“'Temptation! Temptation!' The yard resounded with these words. Many picked up stones and the monastery leaders had to do their utmost to calm down the brethren.” The monks sent the lady off with a flood of curses. A runaway camel raised a similar furore, causing panic on Mt Athos for a week until its owner finally found it and took it away.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the republic reacts rather differently to violations of the ban. Under Greek law, women who enter the territory of Mt Athos commit a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. However, the government of the Holy Mountain, the so-called Iera Kinotita, or Holy Community, only sent a letter of protest to an MP who together with about a dozen other women crossed the border of the monastic community in January. Their demonstration lasted for 20 minutes and was in protest of the continuing disputes over land ownership between the monasteries and nearby villages.

Monks and abbots at the turn of the 19th Century

Monks and abbots at the turn of the 19th Century

One of the best-known and probably first violators of the status quo was Bulgarian. Back in the 14th Century, Helena, the wife of Serbian King Stefan Uroš IV Dušan and sister of Bulgarian King Ivan Alexander, lived on Mt Athos for nearly three months with the permission of the Iera Kinotita.

The Bulgarian connection with the Holy Mountain has existed since the very origin of the republic. In 919, three Bulgarian brothers from Ohrid founded a monastery on the peninsula, but could not agree on which saint to name it after. The solution came from heaven: an icon of St George miraculously appeared on a blank board.

The Monastery of St George the Zograf together with the Serbian Hilandar and the Russian St Panteleimon are the only non-Greek monasteries on Mt Athos.

For the Bulgarians, however, the monastery is of enormous significance. The library of the Zograf Monastery houses more mediaeval documents by Bulgarian kings than have survived in the territory of Bulgaria itself. What's more, the most important book in their history was written in a monastic cell there in 1762.

Abbot of Zographou Father Ambroziy opens the monastery's treasure chests

Abbot of Zographou Father Ambroziy opens the monastery's treasure chests

It is an exaggeration to claim that Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya, or “Slavonic-Bulgarian History,” by Paisiy Hilendarski led to the Bulgarian Revival. The booklet containing idealised stories about the exploits of former Bulgarian kings, which was distributed in the Bulgarian lands and copied by hand, did, however, play a major role in the resuscitation of Bulgarian national consciousness.

The History is one of the treasures of the Zograf Monastery which you may not see unless you are lucky. In 1991, the Bulgarians learned that State Security agents had stolen the book in the 1980s and that it was probably somewhere in their own country. Five years later, a plain-looking package was left on the desk of the secretary to the Director of the National Museum of History Bozhidar Dimitrov by an “anonymous benefactor”. Packed in newspapers, the History was inside. Media madness and debates followed about whether the book should be returned to Mt Athos or left with “the people it was written for”. Over 100,000 people queued to see the book, which was on display in the National Museum, but in 1998 President Petar Stoyanov finally gave it back to the Zograf Monastery.

No one can forge this 10-pound hand-made key

No one can forge this 10-pound hand-made key

The consequences have been dramatic. Until his death in March, librarian Father Pahomiy (imagine the Orthodox counterpart of Jorge from The Name the Rose) was overly suspicious of anybody who wanted to take a look at his treasures. Who could blame him? For most men, a visit to Mt Athos remains a spiritual if slightly shocking experience. The serenity of the mountain, the monastic regime and food, the sumptuous churches and discussions with the monks have a soothing effect on both body and soul.

This is what the first hermits who arrived in Mt Athos in the 4th Century and the refugees from Egypt and Palestine driven away by the Arab invasion in the 7th Century were after. There is a legend, however, that ascribes an earlier date to the beginning of holy life in the area. Much earlier.

The Virgin Mary was on her way to Cyprus, but a storm drove her ship to Mt Athos. She fell in love with the peninsula, and as the pagan idols there toppled under the influence of her holiness, she asked God to give it to her. Since then, Mt Athos has been the “Garden of the Virgin,” a place where no ordinary woman can set foot.

For the time being, the only thing that devout Christian ladies can do is board a ship that sails 500 m, or 0.3 miles, off the shore of Mt Athos. Sometimes, monks will take out holy icons and relics on a boat as part of a religious ceremony. But do not expect them to come close to the “women's boat”. Yes, the EU doesn't like it, but Prince Charles does.

Mt Athos has probably the least spoiled nature of the Mediterranean

Mt Athos has probably the least spoiled nature of the Mediterranean

When you go to Mt Athos, especially if your destination is the Vatopedi Monastery, keep an eye out for Prince Charles.

The Prince of Wales is a frequent visitor to the monastic republic, a member of the English Society of Friends of Mt Athos and has donated £600,000 to the the Holy Mountain.

Speculations abound that although he is to become Defender of the Faith, he is drawn by the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Church and is even considering conversion.

After all, Prince Charles has Orthodoxy in his blood. His father Philip was a Greek Orthodox Christian from Corfu who converted to the C of E to marry the Queen. Charles' paternal grandmother, Aliki, opened an Orthodox chapel in Buckingham Palace when she moved to London.


Technically, Mount Athos is part of Greece, but when Greece acceded to the EU one of its conditions was the preservation of the peninsula's unique visiting statutes. To put it another way, if you are in Greece you cannot just go to the Holy Mountain - you need a permit first. Obviously, women as well as underage men are out of the question. Mount Athos allows a daily quota of visitors, and it will help if you are baptised Orthodox: 100 such guests are allowed, as well as 10 a day belonging to other denominations.

All visitors must apply for a permit in what may or may not turn out to be a prolonged and complicated procedure.

The sea port of Zographou is a 45-minute uphill walk from the monastery

The sea port of Zographou is a 45-minute uphill walk from the monastery

The first step is to get in touch with the Mount Athos Pilgrim's Bureau in Thessaloniki (phone: 2310 252 578; fax: 2310 222 424). Walk-in visits or enquiries are not welcome. Once you've made a booking you must post them the relevant pages of your passport. Then you should reconfirm at least a day before your planned visit. You will be issued a reservation confirmation valid for up to four days (three nights) that may or may not be for the dates of your choice. With this in hand you go to the Pilgrim's Office in Ouranopouli, which will issue your “proper” permit. The permit itself as well as your lodging and food in Mount Athos are free, but they will tell you the amount of the donation you are expected to make.

Border police will check the permit when you board the boat to Daphne and will inspect it again when you return to Ouranopouli. They will confiscate any video equipment they find on you. Photography with inauspicious cameras is generally OK, but ask the monks for permission first.

Note that if you are planning to visit at Easter time or during any other major religious holiday you will need to book months in advance.

In Mount Athos you will never be considered a tourist, but a pilgrim. Keep in mind that the monks you chat with will invariably try to convert you.

*From Parallel Pilgrims' Travel Notes from the Holy Mountain 1844-2007, compiled by Maria Ogoyska, Sofia 2007


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