Into the Heart of Byzantium: a Journey to Mt. Athos

By Chris Deliso

2005 (Travel Intelligence)

In the expansive darkness, under a vast, star-clustered sky, they gather. These hooded shadows, flitting noiselessly through a maze of columns and arching passageways, are enacting a ritual greater than themselves. They melt into the church, from where emanates the soft chanting of the Byzantine liturgy. It is 3:30 in the morning at Dionysiou Monastery, Mt. Athos.

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A coastal shrine, one of many Athos pilgrims encounter on the Holy Mountain’s wooded trails (photo: Chris Deliso)

Athos, or the “Holy Mountain,” is the spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity, where the traditions of a long-vanished world have continued for over 1,000 years. Here, the lives of the monks are filled with constant prayer and hard labour. The forgotten names of emperors and saints are invoked in cavernous churches grown unfathomable with age. On Athos, one walks through dense woodlands for hours without seeing a soul. And here too one awakes to the insistent echo of a wooden sounding-board, ringing out in a resonant, irregular rhythm.

And that is how I found myself awoken on that cold January morning- by the strangely pervasive sound of wood. After two years at Oxford, I had now come to the only place where my subject- the lost world of Byzantium- can still be experienced.

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Soaring Agios Pavlos, on the southwest coast (photo: Chris Deliso)

I was not off to an auspicious start, however. For a few minutes I resisted the call, until the insistent hammering outside forced me to get up. Still groggy, I stumbled down the stairs and out through the darkness to the church. I had seen it the evening before with a jovial, elderly monk. He had proudly pointed out the church’s priceless treasures: its prophetic biblical frescos, its altar-stands of ivory, and the miraculous icons of Jesus and the saints. Then, in a dark recess near the back of the church, I found it: the icon of the Virgin-and-Child in wax and mastic.

Only the icon’s shape is discernable. Blackened by age, the figures have long since lost their features; all that remains is a thick, flowing form, seemingly frozen in the process of liquefaction. This icon is revered for its alleged apostolic provenance. Legends also abound of its miraculous powers.

In the year 626, under a combined siege of the Persians and Avars, the desperate Byzantines were on the verge of surrender. The patriarch rushed around the city walls, waving the icon. The siege failed, and Constantinople was saved. The Virgin Mary got the credit for this miracle. Since then, many others have followed: sudden cures for the blind, cancer patients, and of course other private, spiritual ills. Despite this story (which I recalled from my studies), I was underwhelmed. Certainly, this humble, featureless piece of wax could never have wielded such power?

The importance of icons (the painted portraits of holy figures) may seem strange for the uninitiated. Not a magical device, they are rather a channel for the divine. By locking one’s gaze on the icon, the Orthodox believe, one can communicate with God. Such audacious theories had always seemed to me too archaic, too primitive, relics of a long-forgotten worldview.

My cynicism, however, was having a tough time of it; Dionysiou’s mystique was winning out. In the hazy, incense-laden darkness, the ethereal chanting of the monks filled every corner of the church.

Then my bleary eyes caught a glimpse of it- the famous power of this humble, unassuming piece of wax. Shielded in its bubbling coat of silver, illuminated only by flickering candlelight, the icon began to throb with a stern, ethereal power that seemed as unsearchable and inscrutable as the mind of God itself. A vertiginous sense of endless falling gripped me. For an unknown amount of time, I could not remove my gaze. I confess that I was half-hoping for some miracle, some supernatural occurrence, some undisputable proof of the icon’s power.

Needless to say, my vain hope was not answered. I was released from my improbable reverie, and realized I was exhausted. I had been standing for over three hours.

Although dawn had overtaken the land and sea outside, in the church all was still cloaked in darkness and incense. An old monk, white-bearded, glided up slowly from out of the shadows. “Where do you come from?” he inquired in Greek. “Massachusetts, America,” I responded. “And your name, friend?” he continued, with a gentle, beatific smile. “Christopher.” I said. “Ah, of course,” replied the monk, pointing to an icon on the wall behind me. “You see- St. Christopher.” And indeed, there was my more famous namesake, keeping his own silent vigil.

Organized monasticism on Athos is first recorded in the 9th century, though monks had probably sought out its refuge for two centuries before. Surrounded by water, thickly covered with woods and mountain, the Athonite peninsula was (and is) a haven of tranquility from worldly chaos.

Patronized by emperors and wealthy nobles, the monasteries rose quickly. In 1060, emperor Constantine IX Monomachos promulgated the Holy Mountain’s most famous decree, which banned the presence of all females. (This law is still enforced). Despite frequent accidental fires and marauding pirates, Athos flourished. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, it was ruled by the Ottoman sultans. They were generally tolerant of the monks, who continued their rites unhindered. A ‘golden age’ came during the 16th-17th centuries, with the heavy patronage of Serbian, Romanian and Russian rulers. The Greek War of Independence in 1821 led the vengeful Ottomans to slaughter monks and burn monasteries.

The first half of the 20th century saw numbers fall dramatically, due in part to the Communist hold over large parts of the Orthodox world. Several monasteries became derelict or were abandoned altogether. Over the past thirty years, however, a renaissance has taken place. A rising number of new initiates, predominantly young and educated, have brought a renewed sense of vitality. A tenacious desire to preserve the past can be felt today on Athos.

I spent three weeks on the Holy Mountain. Mostly, I was captivated by its serene atmosphere, and by its magnificent treasures of art and architecture. I soon realized, however, that for the monks these were completely insignificant in comparison to the spiritual dimension. And so I grew aware of the most amazing aspect of Athos: the monks’ constant vigilance and discipline. Their harsh lifestyle of constant prayer, physical labour and solitude, a hardy diet and little sleep- and all this with no days off, with neither weekends nor holidays- boggled my mind. I half-expected to see the crazy, foaming elders of Byzantine hagiography, the saints who live for decades atop pillars or who rushed naked through the streets, smashing bottles and urinating in the name of God. Yet all I saw were ordinary men, eminently sane, the only mark of their piety being their humility, patience and peace. In waiting for some dazzling display of divine pyrotechnics, I had got it all wrong.

In the end, I didn’t get my miracle. But what I got, perhaps, was better: an undeniable feeling of peace, as if my life had somehow been graced by performing physical rituals that I didn’t really believe in anyway. This was not uncommon, I was told. The Holy Mountain’s ancient traditions, its serene setting and unearthly church services, have an impact on anyone who visits. Athos’ power is somehow real, yet intangible. A Greek friend, like myself not particularly religious, summed up this vague reality perfectly: “whether you believe or not, Athos definitely has some strange energy, something really unexplainable.” What exactly that is, remains for the visitor to discover.