A Jew on the Holy Mountain of Athos

[Excerpt from forthcoming book, “The Gun is Heavy: The Crisis of Contemporary Greek Statehood”]


"The life of a monk should be like that of the angels, all fire to burn up sin."

-Monastic proverb from third century A.D., taken from The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks


After three days by train, bus, foot, and boat, I arrived on the Holy Mountain of Athos. The spiritual epicenter of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Mount Athos (Agion Oros in Greek) is home to twenty monasteries constructed between 963 and 1536. Collectively, they house some 2,000 monks and an equal number of laborers and agriculturalists. This uniquely isolated network of monasteries hugs the circumference of a spiny peninsula which, extending 31 miles into the Northern Aegean, resembles a hand reaching toward Constantinople. At the southeastern terminus of the landmass, the nearly 7,000 foot Mount Athos rises in streaks of snow and granite from dense forests of oak, chestnut, and Aleppo pine.

Athonite lore holds that the Virgin Mother took refuge on the peninsula en route to visiting Lazarus on Cyprus. After blessing the pagan territory, Mary was granted dominion over Athos by her son. From that moment forward, no woman was permitted to step on that verdant spit of land, an apocryphal decree formalized by Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos in 1046. It was to be Mary’s garden, and so it remains. Still today, even female sheep and goats are shunned; males are routinely imported.

An autonomous polity, Athos enjoys a legal status akin to the Holy See in Rome. Its arcane, divine jurisdiction means that it has long served as a refuge for criminals, outcasts, and exiles. In 2014, when popular protests in Ukraine felled the government of Viktor Yanukovych, rumors circulated that the besieged president had taken refuge on the Holy Mountain.

And so, disembarking a ferry at the port of Dafni, I joined a lineage of outcasts and travelers, saints and pilgrims, stretching from the Mother Mary to Xerxes, Nikos Kazantzakis to Patrick Leigh Fermor, Prince Charles to Vladimir Putin.

A small minibus took me from Dafni to the inland village of Karyes, a central waypoint on the peninsula. I walked into a cafe. Two monks, one fat and black-bearded, the other thin and white-bearded, sat drinking coffee and fingering black prayer bracelets. The thin monk greeted me warmly, the other murmured acknowledgement in Greek. The thin monk asked if I spoke French or English. I ordered a coffee, and sat on the other side of the wooden table, facing him, with my back to a large window. His green eyes were illuminated by the light streaming in.

We spoke of the great spiritual wealth of Greeks. Greeks may be poor in money, but they are rich in heart, he said, one finger pointing to the sky, the other hand tenderly placed on his chest. When he spoke his gestures resembled the icons painted so exquisitely on Orthodox church walls. He was glad to hear that I was traveling throughout Greece. “One may spend money and time in Greece, but these things are never wasted, because in Greece you can find the great truths of history and humanity.”

He was from Switzerland, “the land of bankers.” I asked him how he came to live on the Holy Mountain. His brothers and sisters married and had children, succumbing to the temptation of worldly possessions. He took a different, less comfortable route. He wanted to be close to God, so came here, where he was “tested” for eight years at a monastery. Then, after this provisional stay, they gave him a small, isolated hut, or “hermitage,” where he could live by the grace of God.

I asked him what it takes to be a monk. He said you must first believe in God. Then you must love God. Then you must want to be alone with God. He was a hermit, and while he spoke the black woven bracelet snaked around his fingers. His were not the hands of a worker monk, so I assumed that he was a member of the scholastic sect, or that he made prayer lanyards to be sold in monastery stores. The latter was true. He gave me the black prayer band he had been playing with. “When you feel tired,” he said, “put it to your temple and think of God, and you will be energized.” He touched the woven piece to his head and opened his eyes wide to demonstrate the effect.

He said that the economic crisis had not yet touched Athos, but that it may. God protects Athos, he said. The conversation slipped into prophecy and doomsday scenarios, which always ended with the Orthodox saved and their faith affirmed.

Among some of the prophecies:

1. When, not if, the United States strikes Cuba, 92% of the U.S. will be destroyed, with the coastlines on the east and west saved by the monasteries built by father Ephraim, a Greek orthodox monk who moved to the United States to spread the monastic doctrine. These monasteries will create a spiritual fortress protected by the archangel, and those who take refuge in them will be saved.

2. Jerusalem, the center of the spiritual and physical world, will see two-thirds of its population convert to Orthodox Christianity.

3. Greek borders will one day stretch to India, and Constantinople will become the capital of Greece.

4. There will be a massive war for Constantinople, in which the Christians will be saved, as well as Hagia Sofia, which will be guarded by the archangel.

When he spoke of these prophecies, tears came to his eyes. He shook his head and raised his eyebrows, looking to the sky with hands open to the world. He truly believed in the inevitability of these prophecies. "There are prophets here," he insisted. "It has been written!"

He gave me his blessing and left, walking up the hill to his hermitage. I waited outside the café for my next bus. Older monks in Land Rover Defenders and Mercedes Benz G-wagons drove by. Lame mules hobbled around pitifully.


. . .


I spent two nights acclimatizing at the Cypriot monastery of Vatopedi, and two nights at the monastery of Iviron, located near the point where the Mother Mary once disembarked. From Iviron, my destination was Athos’s oldest monastery, Lavra.

After a long wait in a hot bus that reeked of the countless pilgrims it had carried over the dusty roads of Athos, we set off. The pilgrims kept silent. I dozed. We stopped at a holy spring that was created, as the legend goes, when St. Athanassios made a cross with his staff on a rock and a spring burst forth. I filled up a bottle of water and drank. I washed my hands and face. Off the bus came a giant man. He smelled like urine and cigarettes, and had dull eyes and big lips that hung open as he filled a Fanta bottle with holy water, and poured it over the potted plants surrounding the shrine. His exhausted-looking father watched, cigarette in hand.

Along the coastline perfect beaches mingled with the ruins of ancient towers and monasteries. At the farthest tip of the peninsula, we half-circumnavigated Mount Athos, its towering peak shrouded in mist. Soon, we arrived at Great Lavra, the oldest monastery on the peninsula. It was built in 963 A.D. by Athanasius the Athonite with the funding of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. While constructing the Katholikon, or central church, Athanasius was crushed along with six other workers by a collapsing dome.

After the ceremonial presentation of raki (anise-flavored liquor), water, and loukoumi (Turkish Delight), I took a walk around the monastery grounds. Entering the church, I was overwhelmed by the intricacy of the 16th century iconography and frescoes, which I later learned were painted by Theophanes, a master of the Cretan school of iconography. I was drawn to a section that showed man’s descent into hell. Man swept down a river of brimstone emerging from or descending into the mouth of a foul green beast. Beasts painted from the book of Revelations—seven-headed dragons, feline monsters, sea creatures with spiked tentacles. Men in various stages of torture facilitated by gleeful demons. Some fanatical hand had scratched out the eyes of each beast at some point since the paint dried, in 1535 A.D. The defacement gave the creatures and damned souls a particular terror.

A young monk walked through the church courtyard striking a metal pipe against a large wooden plank, beckoning us to mass. I entered the narthex of the church. Not wanting to offend my hosts, I asked an elderly monk where I should stand if I was not Orthodox.

He asked me, “If you’re not Orthodox, what are you?” This is somewhat of a tricky question on Athos. Do I tell him that I'm Jewish, or do I admit that I'm not particularly religious, and merely a traveler? His eyes were intensely blue. He looked tired, worn down from a life spent fearing the punishments awaiting the human soul in hell.

I decided on, "I am not particularly religious.” I was simply traveling, searching. “You are atheist?” he said, his neck elongating like a hawk sizing up prey. I repeated that I was searching. While not the truth, it was a safer bet than admitting that I was merely there to admire the traditions, rituals, and art. He gestured to a monk walking by—“Ateo enai!” The passing monk grunted, glared, and walked quickly by. He’s atheist!

“You are searching,” he said, curling his lip in disgust and shaking his head. “If you search, you will find things that are bad for you. You will find Satan.” I nodded, not wanting to offend him any more than I already had. “All other gods are demonia.” Demons. Wanting to find some common ground, I told him that I had read The Desert Fathers, the collected wisdom of the third century ascetics and hermetics of the Egyptian desert, a text whose ideology and traditions were integral to the Athonite religious culture. It had also inspired my visit. “Do you know that one monk, St. Maximo, could fly?” I opened my eyes wide in feigned awe, and he continued, “Yes, he went to the top of a mountain nearby, and sat fasting and praying for three days. The people in the village below thought he was crazy. The demons tormented him endlessly, trying to push him off, but he remained, and eventually Mary came and put bread in his mouth, and he flew away.” He paused for effect. “Do you see how deep our faith is?” I did.

He asked me about New York. “Do you know what is causing the problems in Greece, and the problems in New York?” I asked him if it was greed. He said, somewhat surprisingly, “Globalization. Do you know that in New York?” putting a sneering stress on the name of my home city. He repeated, “Do you know that?” I nodded. He shook his head again. I desperately wanted to get away from my unfriendly host, who was probably damning me in his head.

He motioned for me to follow him, and pointed to a seat in the far recesses of the church, constructed in the traditional, compartmentalized style of Eastern Orthodoxy. “You stay here, and don’t go inside!” He sat a ways away from me where he could glare at me, whispering to other monks who would look down at me with disgust. At that point, prayer or meditation were out of the question.

Later, we ate in the trapeza, or dining hall, surrounded by magnificent paintings of the Gospels. Off ancient marble tables, we ate the usual array of fresh, austere food from Lavra’s surrounding fields and coastline. Crab legs, artichokes, black-eyed peas drowned in olive oil, roasted peppers, anchovies, whole onions that the monks ate like fruit. Like rabbits, we ate in silence listening to the meal-time prayer read by a thin monk with glasses. When the approximately fifteen minute prayer ended, he cleared his throat, closed his book, and we filed out.

Back in church, motley pilgrims gaped at the church relics, displayed neatly on a wooden table. Behind the table stood a dark-eyed monk with a long ponytail. In an act of morbid devotion, we queued up to kiss the skulls and mummified ears of saints, and a fragment of wood supposedly taken from the true cross. Two men ahead of me crossed themselves, poised to kiss the relics, when the monk stopped them. Something was amiss in the way these two men crossed themselves. He asked, “Are you orthodox?” In heavy Neapolitan accents they answered, “No, Roman Catholic.”

The monk pointed to the door, adding “get out of here.” Taking this as my cue to leave, I followed them out. We three, united in our exile, smiled sheepishly. One of them, a muscular, thoroughly sunburnt Italian, said to me, "No orthodox, no party!” I laughed. We vented to each other about how strictly Lavra was governed, and they laughed as I told my stories from the past few days.

There was the evening where I had been tempted by the promise of a late-day swim. I’d hid my swim trunks under my pants and snuck down the beach at Vatopedi Monastery, only to have a Toyota Pathfinder race up just as I was about to dip. A furious Cypriot monk jumped out and yelling at me, “This isn’t vacation!” Or the two nights I’d shared a small cell with an extremely pious man from the Caucasus who sat awake all throughout the night until the 4 a.m. beckoning to church, staring at the wall above my bed, totally inert. The light of a candle reflected off of his bald head and wire-frame glasses, and every time I turned over to check if he was still keeping his vigil, he stared back at me. I hadn’t slept a wink when he left for pre-dawn matins.

The three of us walked to the monastery store, where the storekeeper grilled them on the depravity of the Roman Catholic Church. While I thumbed through old postcards, I listened to their conversation. “You are heretics, your souls are going to hell,” the monk said, with the nonchalance of someone pointing out a stain on another’s shirt. Returning to this tense trio, I happily told the monk that I was Jewish. He threw his head back with a spiteful laugh and said, “You are going to the deepest depths of hell!”

We three heretics smiled at each other, and marched on to the beach.