Travels December 2003

The Holy Mountain

Intimations of the geopolitical future in a place where time stands still

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.

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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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