Of Monks and Men

(10-08) 04:00 PDT Mount Athos, Greece -- Welcome to the Monastic Republic of Holy Mount Athos. Please set your calendar back a thousand years.

Clocks here run on Byzantine time, which starts at sunset. Dates are calculated according to the Julian calendar of the Roman Empire, which varies by 13 days from the modern Gregorian calendar you're used to. Some settlements are supplied solely by mule teams, and the flags of Byzantium still fly.

Radio? Television? Newspapers? Paved roads? If they didn't exist in the year 972, you probably won't find them here.

And if you're a woman, you'd better make other plans. Females have been strictly forbidden here for a thousand years. Not even female animals are permitted.

Mount Athos is an Eastern Orthodox monastic republic and a surviving administrative unit of the Byzantine Empire -- a fully functioning mini-state with roads, settlements and a capital city, all operating under a charter granted by the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople in 972.

That world is preserved here in astonishing detail and texture. Clothes, music, roads, public fountains, aqueducts, arched stone bridges, vegetable plots -- all are from another age. Even the shiniest new chapel is built with traditional Byzantine-style brickwork, the product of a living culture.

Legally speaking, Mount Athos is an autonomous region in northeast Greece, with many characteristics of an independent state. Visitors must show passports on the way in and undergo customs inspections on the way out.

Psychologically and geographically speaking, it's a world apart. It's perched on a hilly, heavily forested peninsula -- 6 miles wide and 35 miles long -- that terminates in the peak of Mount Athos itself, a sharply pointed, bare rock, 6,700 feet high that drops steeply into the Aegean.

Scattered over this rugged landscape are 20 large monasteries, a dozen smaller communities, innumerable hermitages and 2,500 monks. The whole place is reachable only by boat.

This exotic little state has many features of a truly great travel destination: grand architecture, hiking trails along cliff tops or through virgin forests, guest rooms in monasteries, meals of fresh, natural foods and a chance to talk with wise and thoughtful men about the nature of the good life and the state of your soul.

And no one can justly complain about the price: In the tradition of monastic hospitality, each monastery offers two meals and a night's lodging for free, then sends you on your way. You can spend a week at Mount Athos, as I recently did, without spending a dime.

That is, if they'll admit you in the first place.

Pilgrims' progress

Mount Athos guards its isolation and discourages casual visitors. To be admitted, I had to prepare a letter for the central Pilgrims' Bureau explaining why I wanted to go there. Fortunately, I had a decent reason: After years of legal practice, I was ready for a seriously nonmaterialistic pilgrimage. I was granted one of 10 permits issued each day for non-Orthodox visitors.

Mount Athos is the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox world. Visitors need not be Orthodox themselves, but having religious or spiritual purposes in mind will help them get in.

I got permission to visit Mount Athos last May and entered, as most visitors do, through the town of Ouranopolis, a honky-tonk resort 75 miles east of Thessaloniki. This is the end of the road from the outside world. I showed my entry papers and boarded a ferry for the two-hour ride along the coast to the little town of Daphne, the port of Mount Athos.

From Daphne, visitors can transfer to another ferry that serves the monasteries farther along the coast, or set off on one of the walking trails, or use the simple but efficient system of buses and minivans. The ferry is more pleasant than the minivans, since it cruises only a hundred yards or so off a beautiful coastline and doesn't throw up clouds of dust. But the best plan is to leave public transportation entirely before reaching your destination, and walk the last couple of hours to get into a proper pilgrim's frame of mind. That's what I did.

The most striking piece of architecture is the monastery of Simonopetra, where I stayed the first night. It sits on an outcrop of rock a thousand feet above the sea and rises like a fortress, with the bottom 40 feet of its walls blank stone. The topmost floors, however, are quite dramatically open; four stories of decidedly rickety-looking wooden balconies run all the way around the building. Walking on the balconies provides an early test of one's faith and serenity. There are gaps between the floorboards, and it's a long way down.

Like most of the monasteries, Simonopetra is filled with the sounds of heavy renovation. Just 30 years ago, it appeared that Athos was about to die out. The buildings were in disrepair, and most of the monks were old. Today, however, the average age has fallen to something closer to 40, young monks are common and many of the new entrants are highly educated. One is a former Harvard professor.

This turnaround is attributed in part to the arrival of a new generation of charismatic leaders (some of them fleeing from places, like Meteora, that had become too touristy for monastic practice), and in part to organizational changes that shifted several monasteries to a more communal and tightly organized way of life.

At Simonopetra, I began to learn the basic routine on Mount Athos: A monk passes through each monastery courtyard at 3:30 a.m., tapping a distinctive rhythm on a wooden board called a talanton to wake everyone for 4 a.m. services, which begin in total darkness and run for three hours as the candlelit church slowly brightens into daylight.

After breakfast, there's a ferry ride or a few hours' hike to the next monastery for a meeting with the host monk, who greets visitors, offers the traditional welcome of jellied candy and cool water and explains his monastery's layout and schedule. Ninety percent of pilgrims are Greek, but most guestmasters speak at least a little English.

Then there are a few quiet hours to explore, talk with the monks, attend afternoon services and have dinner. After more free time and an early bedtime at 9:30 p.m., a visitor enjoys the smooth and easy sleep of a stress-free life.

At Simonopetra I also encountered the role that relics play in Orthodox tradition. The monastery had many, including what is said to be the left hand of Mary Magdalene. Those could be kissed, or touched by crosses that the visitors had brought with them.

In two of the monasteries I visited, the monks showed me vaults containing the skeletons of deceased brothers. The practice was to bury bodies in the ground for a few years, and then to transfer the bones to the vault.

My next day's destination was the Danieleon -- not a monastery, but a free-standing house for five or 10 monks, located at the extreme end of the peninsula in a rugged area without roads. I caught a ferry, then toiled up a series of steep switchbacks under the hot sun for an hour. Then, at last, relief: a terrace, a walkway under a cool and shady arbor, flower beds and a view over the Aegean.

The monks at the Danieleon are famous for their expert chanting. They start in the morning darkness, in a little chapel dimly lit with a few small olive-oil lamps, some shining through containers of colored glass. They're shadowy shapes, nothing more. But in this darkness comes a sonorous, complex, humming harmony of many voices, soothing and otherworldly, a perfect accompaniment to three hours of meditation.

Not everything was sweetness and light. At dinnertime the night before, I had been sent outside with the command "exo, exo" ("out, out") and ate by myself at a table on the terrace. This was presumably because I was non-Orthodox. The non-Orthodox are sometimes sent to secondary places on Athos, particularly during church services. However, the monks did invite me into the chapel for the morning service, which was the important thing.

The monasteries varied widely in their approach to this issue, with some involving the non-Orthodox on equal terms, some seating them in the outside hall and some keeping them farther back in the church porch -- the exonarthex. In all cases where a distinction was made, however, it was done kindly and with the explanation that there was an injunction against praying with people who were not members of the church.

Varied settings and styles

Next on my journey was Grigoriou, a midsize monastery on the rocks just above the sea. It's noted for the friendliness of its monks; benches and kiosks on the grounds are arranged for easy conversation. Visitors gather around the monks in twos and threes, talking quietly, often comparing Orthodoxy and Western Christianity.

A novice at one of the monasteries -- a former teacher of classics -- explained that Catholicism has an important intellectual tradition, as exemplified by the Jesuits, while Orthodoxy is more "a religion of the heart." It tries to induce spirituality through more directly aesthetic means, such as the chants, incense, candles and, most important, the services in the quietest hour of the night when the heart is most open.

Monastery food is always plain and fresh, but varies in its sophistication. Some places serve a simple bowl of lentils; others offer artichoke hearts in lemon sauce. Dinner at Grigoriou ended with an excellent chocolate torte.

The monastery of Vatopedi is at the worldly end of the scale. It's one of the largest on the mountain, with a courtyard that looks like the center of an Italian Renaissance town. One of the monks told me that Britain's Prince Charles, a regular visitor to Mount Athos, had been a guest there earlier in the month.

Vatopedi stands in an area of rolling agricultural land, rather than on steep cliffs. An easy walk leads past farmhouses and along country lanes, where a sense of bone-deep peace lies on the land. You can hear the rush of birds' wings and the hum of bees in a flowering tree.

I was reminded of a conversation a few days previously with an English monk named Father Damian, who had stopped by Grigoriou as a visitor and ended up staying there. He recommended the line from Psalms, "Be still and know that I am God."

Back to the world

As my week wound down, I realized that a kind of spiritual detox had taken place. I felt I had been on Mount Athos long enough when I began to look forward to the pre-dawn ritual, when I accepted with contentment whatever portion of food was offered and when I felt no particular compulsion to learn the latest news. I did, however, miss the reliable hot showers of the outside world.

On the way back to the ferry and the mainland, I passed through the town of Karyes, the administrative seat of Mount Athos and, with a population of about 350, surely the smallest and dustiest capital in Europe. The main street has a few general stores. Pack mules are a common sight. But I was able to buy a candy bar there.

Arriving back in Ouranopolis, I experienced a brief culture shock: Women! Children! Cars! Crowds! I soon adjusted, but the memory of Athos lingered. And I had packed a Byzantine flag as a souvenir. This mount is definitely not a woman's place

Notably absent from the Mount Athos landscape is the feminine touch. Partly this is a consequence of monastic status, for Mount Athos is basically a cooperative of private monasteries. Another reason is a belief that Christ gave the peninsula to his mother, Mary, to be her private garden, and other women are excluded to more distinctively honor the Virgin Mary.

The exclusion of women is, naturally, controversial. The European Parliament has endorsed a report containing a paragraph that suggests this is a violation of women's rights. The Greek government has responded that the special status of Mount Athos was recognized in conjunction with the treaty by which Greece joined the European Union in the first place.

There have been a few exceptions to the ban. During the Greek Civil War, Mount Athos granted sanctuary to refugees, including women and girls. And in the 1930s a Greek beauty queen named Aliki Diplarakou, who had won the Miss Europe title, dressed up as a man and sneaked in.

For the male visitor, there are some benefits. The absence of women seems to ease communication among the men and to heighten introspection by removing, not sexual tensions precisely, but a layer of social complexities that would otherwise demand attention.

The ban also protects a shared mood among the visitors, who are willing to focus on the spiritual experience and share that bond. Many fear that if the ban were removed, Mount Athos would become a tourist destination like any other, its distinctive atmosphere lost.

-- Neil Averitt

Getting there

If you go from San Francisco, Lufthansa and United offer one-stop connecting flights to Thessaloniki, Greece. Or fly to Athens and catch a Hellenic Railways express train to Thessaloniki, about a 4 1/2-hour ride; trains leave almost hourly. From Thessaloniki, it's a two-hour bus ride to Ouranopolis, about 75 miles east of Mount Athos; buses leave every few hours. In Ouranopolis, ferries take male visitors to Daphne, the port of Mount Athos; reservations and an entry permit (see below) are required. Women and others unable to visit Mount Athos can view the monasteries from the sea on tour boats out of Ouranopolis.

Visiting the monasteries

Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau, 109 Egnatia St., GR-54635 Thessaloniki, Greece, 011-30-2310-252578. Gives entry permits for Mount Athos, which admits about 120 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors per day.

Friends of Mount Athos, abacus.bates.edu/~rallison/friends. Source of current, detailed information on visiting. Some monasteries now require reservations; check the site for listings and phone numbers. Note that the Monastery of Simonopetra is closed through the end of this year because of renovation work.

Neil Averitt is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.