Travels December 2003

The Holy Mountain

Intimations of the geopolitical future in a place where time stands still
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It was while visiting Mount Athos, more than a quarter of a century ago, that I first heard the Soviet Union would collapse—and would do so in my lifetime. There, in northeastern Greece one early-spring afternoon, two young Russian-American seminary students spoke to me of the greatness of the czars and the Russian Orthodox Church, and of how both the Romanov dynasty and the Orthodox Church were more legitimate than Leonid Brezhnev's Communist regime of the day. A time would come, they insisted, when the czar would again be revered in "Russia," as they called it. I was both fascinated and mystified. Throughout my life I had been taught that the Soviet system, for all its cruelties, was nevertheless an improvement over the reactionary rule of the czars. Moreover, because the Cold War had been in progress since before I was born, I unconsciously assumed its permanence. But these seminary students spoke matter-of-factly about the fall of the Soviet Union, as if it would occur the following week. They provided no analysis, and little explanation. According to them, the matter was simple: because the Communist system was godless, it had no moral legitimacy, and therefore Russia would necessarily be restored to its true self before long.

I attempted to argue, but they brushed me off good-naturedly with a few references to Russia's pre-Communist, Orthodox past. I liked them, but I did not believe them. Yet I believed my surroundings, where little seemed to have changed since the time of the Byzantine Empire—an era defined by the Eastern Orthodox Church, with all its passions and intrigues. My mind might disagree, but in this setting it was difficult for my heart to follow.

I thought about all this again when, not long after that encounter, I discovered Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons, a travelogue about Cyprus in the 1950s, in which the author wrote of being castigated by a young Israeli journalist. "You English," the journalist said, "seem to ... be completely under the spell of the Greco-Roman period, and you judge everything without any reference to Byzantium. Nevertheless, that is where you find the true source of Greek thinking, Greek moeurs." A people's history molds a people's national character, which reasserts itself during times of change and conflict. My seminary-student acquaintances understood that beneath the carapace of communism Russia, like Greece, was an Eastern Orthodox nation.

A semi-autonomous religious community that encompasses all but a corner of the Athos Peninsula, Mount Athos is a place where Byzantine life and traditions have been preserved in their entirety by Greek legal decree. Women have been barred from Mount Athos for the past 1,000 years—even female animals are discouraged. The monks still live according to the Julian calendar and the Byzantine clock: midnight coincides with the setting of the sun. On the "holy mountain," as its Greek name is translated, eight hours a day are spent in prayer, beginning at 8:00 A.M. Byzantine time (about 2:00 A.M. local time in the outside world, depending on the time of year). Only roads of sand connect the twenty monasteries on the thirty-mile-long peninsula, and some of the monks have lived alone for decades in cliffside caves. The Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Serbian monasteries on the holy mountain attest to the Byzantine Empire's cultural diversity.

On the Athos Peninsula one summer evening in 1927 two young Englishmen, Robert Byron and David Talbot Rice, sat on the steps of the guesthouse of the Serbian monastery of Chilandar, discussing the future of the novel. In his travel memoir of that summer, The Station, Byron wrote,

We agreed that if ever a great novel, to rank with Shakespeare, Velasquez, and Beethoven, could be written, it is now. Only now are we learning to probe the unreasoning machinery of the human mind. And now, for the first time, man holds the world in his palm, placed there by mechanised transport. It remains for an artist to leave posterity a picture, not of dialects or tribes, countries or continents, but of the globe of the twentieth century. For the longer the opportunity lasts, the less worth while will it be. Western civilisation is becoming universal, the race a homogeneous one. And before we die, half the variety of the picture will be gone.

Byron could also have been writing about the future of the travel book. Three quarters of a century later the world is still full of variety, with Western civilization only a veneer in many places. Nevertheless, it is true that the world is much more homogeneous now than it was in 1927, even though the means existed then to go almost anywhere (however slow and inconvenient the manner). Conditions for travel writing may have been more propitious then for another reason: the absence of television and other electronic distractions gave those armed with an education more time to read and hone their intellects, allowing some of them to communicate their thoughts in a particularly exquisite language.

I first read The Station soon after my visit that early spring to Mount Athos. At the end of the book Byron explained the title. "This is the Holy Mountain Athos," he wrote, "station of a faith where all the years have stopped." Byron was twenty-two when he came to Mount Athos with his Eton friends Talbot Rice and Mark Ogilvie-Grant, in order to photograph the frescoes in the churches and monasteries. Because the larger purpose of the journey was to appreciate the art of the Byzantine Renaissance, the group traveled later in the year to the Byzantine fortress of Mistra, in the Peloponnese, and then to Crete, to see the landscape that had inspired El Greco. Byron believed that in Byzantine art lay the true origin of Western painting, with El Greco, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish artist of Cretan origin, providing the link.

The Station was a revelation to me. It is a travel book with a controversial thesis. Byron used the travel genre as a vehicle to argue that the legacy of eastern Byzantium is more important to the West than that of Greece and Rome. (He delineated this argument further in The Birth of Western Painting, co-authored with Talbot Rice.) His scholarship is occasionally questionable. His friend Christopher Sykes observed that the virtues Byron "discerns in Byzantium and denies to Latin Christendom" were "present in both in some degree, as were the vices." Byron seemed unaware that the "crude" anti-Byzantine stance of Edward Gibbon had already been abandoned by many scholars. As Sykes put it, Byron was a useful vulgarisateur who, through fresh and exciting writing, opened up difficult subjects to ordinary people who never would have known about them otherwise. Although the opinion I formed of the Byzantine Empire would turn out to be less benign than Byron's, The Station was what sharpened my interest in the subject.

In the book Byron indulged a gift for mordant observation. Here is his description of the food and sleeping arrangements on Mount Athos:

Dinner arrived; and with it all the raw hideousness of the true Athonite meal ... the grime of cloth and napkins; spoons, knives and forks slimed with grease ... those unmentionable vegetables, resembling large cut nails and filled with pips tasting of stale pharmaceutical peppermint; and an omelette of whipped oil ... On approaching the beds, flocks of red bugs might be seen frolicking over the striped holland of cement mattresses. Fountains of blood—we wondered whose—squirted from their bodies as we pressed them flat like gooseberry skins.

Then there were the monks, their lives spent in isolation, "enquiring tenderly" after England's political state "as though of the health of a friend ... anxious to know if we were engaged in any war." There is the author's beautiful elegy on the Trapezuntine Empire, a little piece of Byzantium on the Black Sea, "negligible in area and void of political achievement," a "minor theme" that played out until 1461, eight years after the fall of Constantinople. There is his uninhibited comparison, upon entering a Russian monastery, of Greek and Slavic culture.

The environment was now as Slav as it had formerly been Greek. The fineness, the delicacy of Hellenism had given place to something more remote, less coherent. Flat-nosed Mongols and giant blonds passed by, "shck" and "kck" issuing from their lips in place of the familiar liquids.

Strong opinions everywhere cement the narrative. Byron berated the expensive American restoration of the Agora in Athens as providing "a pillared playground for cats," when for much less money many of the deteriorating icons on Mount Athos might have been saved. The Station radiates the passion of someone discovering a subject on his own and taking the reader along as he learns.

Because of its legally guaranteed semi-isolation, Mount Athos had probably changed less in the fifty years since Byron wrote The Station than almost any place I could have visited. Ouranopolis, the last port on the Athos Peninsula at which women are allowed, was in the mid-1970s still a sleepy town of dirt roads and whitewashed two-level houses, with freshly painted green and sky-blue window frames. A few cafés and restaurants were lined up along a sandy beach, at the end of which was a fortified tower, the color of an olive stone, built early in the fourteenth century by the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus as a lookout against pirates. Bright-orange fishing boats rested on the water. At dawn, when I boarded a boat filled with monks and a few tourists bound for Mount Athos, fog was rising off the sea like smoke from a censer.

The boat passed rambling complexes of monasteries, their walls and roofs lit by the sun in splashy yellow shades. After several hours we docked at the tiny port of Daphni, on the peninsula's southern coast. I took a bus up a winding dirt road to Karyes, the only town on the holy mountain. Here Byron had found "an air of activity, almost gaiety," perhaps because he had just come from a monastery in a remoter part of the peninsula. As I had come directly from the outside world, I found Karyes, which means "walnut trees," to be a place of sleepy silence. It was a Byzantine and Victorian-Gothic concoction of lead-sheeted domes, broken slate, warped wooden planks, sagging roofs—all charming and seemingly on the verge of collapse. I remember a raised window that was held up by an empty olive-oil jar. The monks, in filthy, tattered black robes and cylindrical hats, were lugging oil jugs, flour sacks, and cooking-gas canisters on their shoulders. Their beards were unkempt. Many of the monks were missing teeth. The old ones brought to mind broken tree stumps. They all appeared famished. There was a sign:

GARDEN OF THE VIRGIN MARY, FAR FROM THE SECULAR WORLD. THIS LAND SUBJECT TO MIRACLES.

The walk from Karyes to the Greek monastery of Vatopedi, on the peninsula's northern coast, took two and a half hours. I made my way along a trail of wildflowers. The peak of Mount Athos, a snow-streaked triangle, loomed above like a giant shadow. Slate-gray boundary walls, massive lime-green trees, olive and cherry groves, and the clang of mule bells heralded Vatopedi, its roofs coated with yellow lichen. Russian-style onion domes alternated with Italian-style campaniles.

Entering the monastery, I wandered alone among cavernous empty halls, where here and there was hidden a magnificent fresco or a little chapel. Dinner, which I took with the monks, consisted of stale bread, lentil-and-onion gruel, water, and apples. The meal wasn't filling, but neither was it quite as awful as one Byron described: "[cod] salted after it had rotted in the summer sun ... macaroni, embalmed in the juice of goats' udders curdled to a shrill sourness." The main church was a sulfury subterranean vault filled with icons and gold. In its puddles of darkness sonorous Orthodox chants seemed to be summoning Persephone back from the underworld.

The next morning I walked for another two and a half hours, this time to the Bulgarian monastery of Zographou, located in the interior. It was cold and raining hard. My shoes, socks, and pants became soaked. Finally I reached the monastery and made my way into its sanctuary. The iconostasis, inlaid with gold and silver, half obscured in clouds of sweet incense, reached to the ceiling like the entrance to a pagan temple. A monk with gold teeth and glazed Slavic features surprised me. His long, steely-blond hair was tied back with a string. He looked at my shivering countenance and smiled, inviting me by way of pantomime to follow him outside, back into the rain, and then into one of the enormous monastery buildings—fantastical mansions, really —and up several creaking staircases. We emerged into a small heated kitchen. A cook barked orders to another monk, who was wearing torn clothes and an imbecilic expression. Soon I was served a cold meal of spinach gruel and sugared rice with Turkish coffee.

I looked around at the mansion, with its broken windows and sagging beams. How many occupants were here? I asked in broken Greek. Six, I was told. Six monks, some of whom appeared only partly sane, to occupy this crumbling palace.

It was there, as I was finishing my lunch, that the two Russian-American seminary students appeared—the young men whose views on the Soviet Union would turn out to be so prescient. They had traveled from the United States to make a tour of Mount Athos. We fell easily into conversation, and I decided to walk with them to the Greek monasteries of Docheiariou and Xenophontos and the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon, all on the southern coast. As we walked, the weather cleared. And then, all of us warmed by the sun, they began to tell me their thoughts on the greatness of the Russian Orthodox Church and the weakness of the Soviet regime.

As the years wore on, with Brezhnev's death, in 1982, leading to the infirm, indecisive reigns of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and then to the regime-ending era of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose new breed of capitalist-trending authoritarianism toppled (albeit unwittingly) the Communist system, the conversation I'd had with the seminary students reverberated louder. Finally, in the 1990s, came the full-fledged return of the Orthodox Church to Russia, followed by the reburial and canonization of the last czar and czarina.

The professors and political analysts turned out to be wrong, and the two young Russian-Americans I had met on Mount Athos turned out to be right—only because they believed, and believed deeply and morally. History, I have learned, is often driven not by the smartest people but by those who are the most committed, and those who are the most committed are often not entirely rational. But what they lack in rationality they make up for in passion. Mount Athos was full of passion.

I parted from my two companions at the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon, which on the eve of the Russian Revolution had boasted a population of 1,500 monks; in 1913 Rasputin had paid a visit. By the 1970s there were only a dozen monks there, pariahs in their ancestral land. Byron's observation of 1927 still rang true. "There is pathos," he wrote, "almost tragedy, in this deflation, in this remnant of a once overflowing community debarred from country and traditions—an outpost of old Russia in the Aegean."

Amid the icons, Corinthian columns, and candelabra, the twelve monks and the two young Russian-Americans sang loudly and intensely at the morning service, their voices compensating for the hundreds missing from here, who in spirit would return one day, sooner than I could have imagined.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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