Saturday, March 27, 2010

Agion Oros, or, The Holy Mountian, or, Mount Athos, or, The Longest Post I've Ever Written

This past Tuesday night, I embarked on one of my most epic adventures yet. Chris and I were going to try to make it to Mount Athos--a seemingly mystical place in Greece that is home to twenty monasteries (mainly Greek Orthodox but also Russian, Bulgarian, and Romanian) filled with monks. No women are allowed there. And that's not just female humans but all female mammals as well. Except for cats because they have a mouse problem.

Getting to Athos is an intense process. Before you even think about transportation, you have to call their pilgrim's office and get a visa. Athos is a semi-autonomous republic within Greece that is governed by the monks. They only let about 120 Orthodox Christians and 10 non-Orthodox males onto the peninsula a day. The visa allows you to stay there for 3 nights and four days. During very busy seasons, you're supposed to book your visa up to six months in advance.

We got passes for Athos for this past Wednesday to Saturday. To get there, we took a sleeper train from Athens to Thessaloniki that left at 11 PM on Tuesday night, and then a taxi to a bus station in Thessaloniki, and then a 2.5 hour bus to a small town called Ouranoupolis, and then a 45 minute speed boat to Athos. Even though Athos is not an island, you must take a boat to get there. Those monks really know how to make it seem like your going to the edge of the world.

Crude but true.

A quick note--on that overnight train to Thessaloniki , we had a sleeper car. It was the first time I ever took one and I felt like I was in the 40s. We were in a six cabin room. Three beds stacked on top of each other on each side of the room. It was very, very small.

Chris getting ready for bed. Good thing we not claustrophobic.

One of the most amazing things about the whole trip was how smoothly everything worked. Despite it being an almost 12 hour commute to Athos, each leg of the trip went perfectly. God was definitely on our side for this adventure.

When we finally got to Athos, there was no time for rest. While there are a few microbuses that can take you to some of the monasteries, many of the people there walk between places. We decided to go from the main port to a monastery called Simonas Petras. To get there, we hiked for about two and a half hours. Mainly up. It was very beautiful but tiring. When we finally saw the monastery, we were stunned. It is literally built out of a rock.

None of these horses are dead.

When we got to the monastery, we were debating how to approach the guestmaster, the monk who oversees all the pilgrims needs. Each monastery will house and feed you for one night of your stay on Athos. But, you're supposed to make reservations before you go. Being us, we made no reservations and had no idea if we were going to be able to find a place to sleep that night. We found the monk and he immediately welcomed us, gave us a shot of ouzo and a pastry, and showed us to our rooms.

He told us the schedule for prayers and meal times and let us rest for a bit. Dinner was at 4:30 and prayers started right after. We hiked around the area for a bit, ate in a gorgeous dining hall with the monks, and then headed to the church for about 2 hours. This was a Greek Orthodox monastery and everything was done in Greek so all I understood were the Zoxa patri's and the Kyrie eleison's. At about 7:30 PM, we passed out from exhaustion. It was good timing though because the next service was the Greek Orthodox version of tasbeha (midnight praises) and that started at 4 AM.

Going to that service turned out to be a real treat despite having to wake up at 3:30 to shower and not understanding any of the next 3 hours. The head monk was very surprised to see me and Chris walking into the church at 4 AM. I heard him giggle with delight. The chanting was beautiful and I got a lot of reflection time. Afterwards, one of the monks who had heard I was Coptic asked me if I had heard Byzantine chanting in Arabic. I told him just a little and he brought me two CDs of his that were Arabic Byzantine chanting. Then, an American monk gave us a private tour of the monastery and showed us the library which is off-limits to most guests. Everyone in this monastery was just so nice. I wish I could've taken pictures inside the monasteries--all of it was simply beautiful. We ate breakfast while listening to a monk read the Bible in Greek and then we packed up our things and they drove us to the main port. Oh, and they also gave each of us free CDs of the liturgy. Their hospitality was just unrivaled.

At the main port, Daphni, we managed to find our friend George Mesthos (oh nine) who had just gotten of the ferry boat. He's living in Athens doing a Fulbright and getting a Master's. Not too shabby. He had helped make the Athos reservations but couldn't come the first day because of an exam. As was the theme with the entire trip, we arrived to the port at almost the same time he did and we found each other super easily. From there, we took two buses to our next monastery of choice since it was way too far to walk.

All 20 monasteries on Athos are ranked in order of importance. That second night, we stayed at Vatopedi, number 2. It was very different from Simonas Petras. The monastery was massive--able to house 300 guests. Simonas Petras could only take 25. This one also had over 100 monks, a gigantic dining hall, and a huge church. While Simonas Petras felt much more intimate and personal, Vatopedi was still an amazing place. We got to hike around, attend beautiful services, and eat super fresh food that's all produced by the monastery's farms. A monk took us aside and introduced us to a monk from Wisconsin gave us a great tour of the place and answered many of our questions. We also took blessings from some incredible relics including a piece of the Holy Cross, a belt that St. Mary wore, St. John the Baptist's finger, and St. John Chrysostom's head. That is an all-star collection.

The vineyard.

Hiking with a lot of hair isn't super easy.

And this is just the entrance to the monastery.

Again, we passed out by 8 PM but this time, I slept in til 4:45 AM and went to prayers at 5:15 AM instead of at 4. Please don't tell. Afterwards, we had a grand breakfast and visited their gift store where a monk gave us more presents (Agendas! All in Greek...). So many nice monks. We took a bus back to the port and had a few hours before we took the ferry back to secular(ish) Greece so we did some more hiking and saw another Greek Orthodox monastery and a Russian Orthodox one. Again, each one had a completely different and unique personality. I definitely want to go back and stay in all of them to get the full experience. Got to catch 'em all.

Russian Orthodox: Strict. A monk pulled down Chris and George's sleeves because their forearms were showing.

After our hike, we took it easy while we waited for the ferry. We were about to make the whole trip back to Athens meaning boat, bus, and sleeper train. In between relaxing on the ferry, I took even more pictures of all the monasteries that we were passing by.

To cap the end of an eye-opening stay at Athos, dolphins started swimming behind the boat, jumping out of the water and giving us a little show. Honestly, Mount Athos is not only beautiful but magical. I would not have been surprised if unicorns lived there and monks just handed out bubble gum to everyone.

On Athos, dinosaurs still exist.

Overall, it was simply incredible as was my whole time in Greece. A huge thanks to Chris who hosted me for most of my time there and was awesome at it. A very big thanks to George for being George. We got back into Athens at 6 AM this morning and a few hours later, I was on my flight back to Cairo. Greece, I'll be back.


  1. awesome, awesome, awesome...i'll go back with you

  2. mark, this is one of my favorite posts, if not my favorite. but i am a lot upset about me being a girl and not being able to go to athos...or in the monasteries. what a great way to kick off Holy Week!! and i love how you repped the Copts...yeaaa boyyy.