Impressions of Mount Athos, Greece
Legend has it that, after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mother and St John the Evangelist travelled to Cyprus to visit Lazarus, who had fled from Judea. A storm threw them off course and they ended up on the beaches of a North Aegean peninsula. Mary heard the voice of Jesus instructing her to teach the Gospel to the local pagans, which of course she did. Later, pilgrims and monks started coming to the place, established themselves, founding small monasteries. These monasteries steadily became bigger and more numerous, and by 787 Athonites already participated in the Ecumenical Synod of Nikaia. Mount Athos really became the Holy Mountain when the Byzantine Emperor Basil I proclaimed Athos as an inviolable monastic community. Next thing the Byzantine emperors knew, Athos counted some 30,000 monks from all over the Eastern Christian world, Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Georgia, Armenia, and so on.
Saracene pirates came and went, Catalan and Frankish Crusaders came and went, and so did the Ottoman Turks after them, but the Athonite Monastic Community kept going, in straightforward Byzantine tradition, autonomous from the worldly powers which took turns in encompassing the peninsula into their orbit. An autonomy, based on the 'Holy Monastic Community Charter', say, a Constitution dating from the year 971 which has seen no amendments neither reforms over its millennium existence: twenty monasteries with dependencies (skites) and hermit huts (kalyves), each monastery with an elected Abbot for life, a Community council composed of elected representatives from each of the twenty monasteries and a President for the entire Athonite Community, rotating every year among the five most important monasteries and residing in the Capital 'city', Karyes. But the ultimate authority, at least for spiritual issues, lies with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople: Athos, the reflection of Byzantine history and spirituality.
This is by no means a tourist destination. You go to Athos with a backpack, all-weather gear and good walking shoes to tackle the 'kaldirimia', the centuries old stone covered footpaths and - worse - the rocky tracks, narrow and often hardly discernable through the woods, you walk from monastery to monastery, you are offered two meals a day for which you generously dispose of fifteen to twenty minutes in the refectory, and you stay overnight in one of the cells (kellia) for pilgrim guests; and - most importantly - you let go on anything earthly that has kept you busy and worried outside Athos, fully submerging yourself in the magic mix of the surrounding spirituality, the untouched nature, the occasional inspiring exchanges with people you meet, and the absolute serenity that seeks to come over you. Oh yes, not to be forgotten: sorry, Ladies, Athos is strictly 'Men Only', the Virgin Mary having been the only exception of female presence, but that of course was well before the Holy Mountain peninsula was dotted with monasteries.
Before visiting the place of your choice:
To reach Kavsokalyvia, boats round the South-Western cape of the Athos peninsula. To which extent the Catalan or Saracene pirates are responsible for this, we don't know for sure, but Kavsokalyvia translates into 'burnt huts'. And, indeed, like just about all the monasteries and other buildings here on the Holy Mountain, this community must have been devoured by flames several times as well over the centuries since a hermit monk Maximos had the idea of settling here in the 1300s. But, so it seems, here at Kavsokalyvia, things are somewhat different: allegedly, the monks regularly set their premises on fire on their own, to prevent themselves from becoming too attached to material belongings. I sincerely hope for my home and not in the least also for the premium charged by my insurance company that there are less draconian ways of maintaining a healthy focus on spiritual well-being.