An Atheist in Athos - Part 2: Greece's Most Famous Monasteries on the Looney Front

05/18/2015 08:40 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

Megisti Lavra Monastery (Great Lavra) at the south-eastern end of the Athos Peninsula claims to be the earliest and largest on the Holy Mountain, founded in 963 by the monk Athanasios. As such it is the mother monastery of all 20 in the monastic Athonite State.

In its heyday in the 11th century there were some 700 monks. By 1990 this had dwindled to 317, and today there are said to be no more than 50.


Megisti Lavra

The problem today, though, is not numbers but how I'm going to get there. The little boat that makes the journey from Iviron Monastery, a 50-minute hike down the coast from Stavronikita, is not running and I've no intention of doing a nine-hour forced march down the dusty up-and-down dirt road.


Iviron Monastery

I've even less intention of following in the footsteps of our intrepid Brit friend Leigh Fermor, whom we met in the previous blog, who spent two days or more in 1935 hoofing it down the peninsula's central spine, dropping in at a couple of other monasteries on the way.

So it's time for some more minivan cheating, first from Stavronikita to Karyes, whence a second minivan plies down the east coast.


Another view of Iviron

We drive past Iviron, a massive walled complex at sea level, with rounded towers and painted wooden balconies on wooden balustrades. Mt. Athos has tossed off its crown of clouds and the snow-streaked twin-cragged summit soars above its tree-clad inferiors.


Mt. Athos

Megisti Lavra perches majestically atop a cliff 520 feet above the crashing foam and rocks, more like a small walled town. On the outside, you have the regulation square tower and the jutting painted wooden balconies. Within, there are a whole series of buildings, including the large domed 11th century Byzantine Katholikon, a dozen smaller domed churches, and a large library, all joined by cobbled lanes.


Megisti Lavra's walls

It's 3 P.M. and we're immediately ushered into the huge cross-shaped refectory, its walls adorned with brightly painted icons. Here a stew of fish and green beans awaits on a vast array of marble-topped tables with broad wooden benches atop concrete bases. The red wine is flowing aplenty.


Other end of the walls

Apart from the Greeks, many of the pilgrims are Russian, with a large contingent of Romanian orthodox in tow.

After lunch we assemble before the archondaris, the wallah who takes care of visitors. He greets us with coffee, Turkish delight and strong raki spirit, the traditional welcome in all the monasteries.


Within the walls

Ascertaining that I'm Jewish, and that two Romanians are Romanian, albeit orthodox, he separates us from the others and puts us in a room with eight beds, several of which are already occupied in mid-afternoon by snoring bulks. The Romanians are saying it's just like the Nazis, separating us like that.

I ask the archondaris what time dinner is, and he says what dinner. And I say what? And he says you've just had dinner. And I say, oops and to think I left room for a later banquet. I tell him that Leigh Fermor wrote that a young brother brought him a great supper, but he's unimpressed.


Another view

He adds that there's church service at 9 P.M. and if I and the Romanians go we should stay at the back - which garners another muttered 'Nazi' from one of the Romanians.

I want to see the treasury and library, which Leigh Fermor highlights for a magnificent manuscript from the 4th century, glittering ecclesiastical crowns, brilliant mitres, and luxuriant icons. And the wallah says no. And I say why. And he says because it's closed.


Outside the walls

I now notice that a trekking guide printed from the Internet says several monks have keys which must be turned in unison to enter, and the non-Orthodox traveller is unlikely to get a look

I do find my routine Deep Throat within the monastery walls, though, an English-speaker contemplating monkhood. He says that during World War II the monks were very shrewd, rushing to Hitler to ask him to put the Holy Mountain under his personal protection. Flattered, Der Führer did so, thus saving the peninsula from being overrun by clumsy Nazi jackboots.

But at the same time the monks saved several Jewish families from the death camps that were the lot of most other Greek Jews, secretly suspending their prohibition on access for women so that they could hide and escape under the protection of the monastic republic.


One of the churches within

I toddle off to church at 9 P.M. The service will continue until 3 A.M. since Orthodox Good Friday begins at midnight. There's no way I'm going to stay that long, but the other seven in my dorm, all pilgrims, say they will.

I stand dutifully at the back as told. The church is as ill-lit as last night at Stavronikita, though they have huge gold candle chandeliers hanging heavy from a ceiling with multiple concave cupolas. As they light more candles whole armies of multicoloured golden haloed saints and martyrs step out from the gloom. The walls and ceiling are swarming with them.


Interior lane

Monks come round handing out two-foot long candles. I dutifully shrink back as per orders and, for my pains, get rapped over the knuckles with one by the candle-proffering monk, quite hard I might add. He forces me to take one. Gosh, the tallow smells like cat pee - immediately recalling home when one, some or all of our nine cats have decided to mark their territory all over the bed.

Fortunately, the candle-lighter monk passes me by. But not so fast. The guy next to me wants to score one with God and insists on lighting it from his own. O Gawd, have I been converted?


The phiale basin for blessing water

The chanter drones on and on, and various monks keep sweeping past, their flowing black robes and cylindrical hats bedecked with back-flapping veils billowing spectrally.

Suddenly I get clouted in the back. I turn round to be confronted by an irate beard in monk's garb who shouts something - most indecorous, I must say. Evidently I'm sitting on his perch, and am banished way along the line.


The katholikon at twilight

We put out our candles but my wick is still aglow. Another monk sashays over with some quite rude gestures for me to snuff it - the wick, I hope. This performed, I retreat to the dorm room for a breather, where another Romanian enters, shows me pictures of his family and tries to bilk me for money to feed them. Hm, I'd better sleep on my money bag tonight.

I return to the service. Do I detect some intramural animosity between the monks? The perch from which the monk expelled me so unceremoniously barely an hour earlier is now empty but I move past it to one further down the line.


Another view

At this, another monk who witnessed my earlier expulsion from paradise takes me firmly by the elbow and, with a holy twinkle or two in his eye, parks my arse right back on that very same perch.

I must be a plaything in inter-monk monkey-business, caught up in inter-monastic politics. That's something Leigh Fermor never had.


The sea below

The service is still droning on. I can see through an open door into the main sanctuary where the monks are relaying themselves in chanting from their perches along the walls.

It must be magnificent on Easter Sunday when the huge heavy chandeliers are lowered to be lighted and hoisted again to cast the brilliant light of the Resurrection over countless gold and silver ornaments and the haloed icons on the walls and ceilings.


Balconied windows

Today, however, is not Resurrection Day but the day of the crucifixion, a day of gloom and doom and much droning. So I hie myself off to bed, while my seven roommate pilgrims still chant and pray.


Countryside around Megisti Lavra


By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.