No Woman’s Land in Greece

John Westbrooke sails to the monastic state of Mt Athos

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It’s not that easy to visit the little theocracy of Mt Athos, as only 10 non-Greek visitors are allowed every day, You need to get a permit, and reservations for each of the three nights you can stay: bed and board are free but donations are welcome. No shorts, no “exuberant” hairstyles. Oh, and you’ll need to be male.

The monastic state of Mt Athos occupies 130 square miles at the southern end of the easternmost strip of Halkidiki – this is the peninsula with the rough shape of a three-legged stool, just east of Thessalonika in Greece. It’s been Christian since the archangel Gabriel suggested to the Virgin Mary that she might like to go there and spread the message of her late son.

There have at any rate been monks there since at least 841 AD. One Byzantine Emperor banned women from the area, the idea being that the Virgin represented them all. A successor banned all females, not just human ones, though apparently a few female cats have sneaked in. And there it pretty much stands, a state housing black-clad, bearded males and ruled by elders under the wing of the Greek foreign ministry.

However, there’s a way even women can get to see something of the sacred mountain and the many monasteries that line its shores: there are daily boat excursions from the village of Ouranopolis, just north of the border, which in four hours or so will take you along the coast – keeping a respectable distance, because there’ll be females on board – and back again.

There are said to be only about 1700 monks living in the 20 monasteries on the peninsula. And yet the first thing that strikes the passing sailor is how huge some of these places are.

Take the Russian monastery of Panteleimonos, for instance, a cluster of mostly large buildings the size of a decent village, including a huge six-storey block with a blue and white dome right on the shore. Over the centuries since it was founded in the 1100s it’s fallen prey to fire and pirates, and each time it’s been rebuilt bigger and better by Byzantine emperors, Serbian rulers – and now, with Greece itself suffering from austerity, the Kremlin in Moscow. President Putin himself came calling last year.

The religious links between Greece and Russia go way back to about 1000AD. Grand Duke Vladimir of Kiev wanted to find a religion for his pagan people, and invited representatives from all faiths to submit proposals. Legend has it he was about to choose Islam until realising, to his horror, that Muslims can’t touch alcohol. Instead, he went with the Byzantine rites practised by the Greek Orthodox church, setting up the Russian Orthodox equivalent.

But why the Russians are pouring money into the monasteries of Mt Athos right now remains a mystery. What would Moscow want with an autonomous peninsula right on the borders of Nato? Monks and Muscovites alike are observing a monastic silence on the subject.

Many of the complexes, especially those near water level, look more like fortresses than religious buildings, surrounded by high stone walls built to keep high seas and piracy at bay. The Grigoriou monastery has sat on a rocky triangular promontory since about 1500, its walls topped by balconied rooms; in the courtyard inside you can just spot the domes of a church. In a dim light you’d think the whole thing was a cruise liner.

The most dramatic monastery we saw was the range of Simonos Petras, an eyrie 750ft up on a sheer cliff. It looks about as impregnable as it gets, but it too has burnt down three times since it was founded in the 14th century (possibly something to do with monks working late in the scriptorium, surrounded by flammable parchment and lighted candles). As a result, it no longer has any medieval frescoes – but it does hold a piece of the True Cross.

Not all of the establishments are on quite such a heroic scale as these, but all those we saw were in good order. Many have terraced gardens and vineyards where the monks work during the day. As well as tilling the soil, many of them care for ancient books, religious relics and treasures that have survived the years.

But the monks, we found to our surprise, aren’t all confined to barracks. As we passed the waterside Xenophontos monastery we were joined by a motorboat bringing three monks, who set up shop in the main lounge. One unwrapped icons for the faithful to kiss, the others sold homemade honey, bangles, soaps and religious souvenirs. Commendably, despite the presence of lightly-clad women, they left for the shore unscathed on the return trip, still smiling, waving and blessing.

Ouranopolis (“Heaven City”), to which we returned ourselves, was once monastery territory, but the monks set aside some land for refugees after World War 1: each family got a one-bedroom house and ten sheep. Not until 1947 did the residents dig their own road to the outside world. Now it’s a busy little resort town, a good 90 minutes from Thessalonika and miles from anywhere else, catering to visitors from the Balkans, Germany and Britain, including pilgrims going to Mt Athos.

But for women, the holy mountain remains on a par with the Garrick Club in London and the Hamburg red-light area: no place for a lady.

Information about staying in Mt Athos: