Cloistered from the Crisis: Greeks Seek Solace in Mt. Athos Monasteries

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Mount Athos, a self-governed peninsula in northeastern Greece, has been attracting pilgrims to its Orthodox monasteries for centuries. But the debt crisis has led to a sharp rise in the number of guests seeking calm and solace there. Women still aren't welcome, though.

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Mornings on the sacred mountain begin with loud blows. A monk stands in front of the monastery church of Agiou Andrea and hammers a block of wood. The medieval percussion instrument, called a simantron, is the wakeup call for the first religious service of the day. Several black-clad, bearded men scurry across the courtyard. It is 4 a.m. and pitch-black, and the air is filled with the sound of cicadas.

In a few minutes, the oil lamps will be lit in Agiou Andrea, one of 12 "sketes," or monastic communities, on Mount Athos. There's not a single empty space in the choir benches. Sitting behind the singing, rhythmically chanting monks are pilgrims from Greece, Russia and Romania. They have slept a few hours on spartan beds, gone without electricity and warm water, and spent the night swatting at mosquitoes.

Agiou Andrea is not a place to expect luxury. But no one has come here for that. "I am here to wash myself clean of my sins," says Ilie, a young Romanian who lives in Germany. "Here, we are closer to heaven than anywhere else." Nikos, a Greek businessman, has come to the monastery to find himself. "To simply turn off, meditate and forget the material world," he says.

The "Holy Mountain" of Athos is a special place for Orthodox Christians. The sparsely inhabited third finger of the Halkidiki Peninsula in northeastern Greece is wildly beautiful, with almost 350 square kilometres (135 square miles) of dense forests and hills. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary landed here on her way to Cyprus and was overcome by its beauty. God then gave her the mountain on it as a gift. And since the "Garden of the Virgin Mary," as the place is known, is devoted to only the "purest of all women," other women are not allowed in. At least that is the reason given by the monks who have ruled Athos as an autonomous monastic republic since the 10th century. Not even female animals are allowed on Athos, except cats.

Living By the Julian Calendar

Whenever European Union officials argue that the ban should be lifted, the monks point to a Byzantine document over 1,000 years old that promises them eternal sovereignty over Mount Athos. The men there take no orders from the outside world -- especially not from the EU. The monks live in another era. They continue to revere and invoke the names of Byzantine emperors, and they still live by the Julian calendar. In Dafni, the only port, the banner of the Byzantine Empire, which came to an end 559 years ago, flies alongside the Greek flag.

It is this defiant renunciation of the outside world that fascinates many pilgrims. But recently it hasn't just been the pious who are coming. Many Greeks have discovered Athos as a place where they can forget about the crisis.

The monks have been reporting the biggest influx of visitors in years. Those who can get a visa to Athos, known as a diamonitirion, entitling them to a stay of four days at most, can count themselves lucky.

Ilie, the Romanian, has gotten a special permit. He wants to stay there for at least three months. To get it he registered as a volunteer at Agiou Andrea, where he helps out in the kitchen and laundry room. He says there is no greater joy for him than to be allowed to make himself useful in the holiest place on Earth. "Most Christians in the West do not take religion very seriously," he says. "They don't believe with their whole heart." The crusades, the plundering of Constantinople and the attacks on Orthodox monasteries may have happened centuries ago, he adds, but it remains seared into the historical memory of the monks.

Many monks, Ilie warns, are therefore suspicious of non-Orthodox foreigners. But they aren't the only outsiders in question. Lately, Greek politicians aren't very welcome either, mainly because of the property scandal that engulfed the Vatopedi monastery several years ago. In late 2005, the head of the monastery, Abbot Efraim, reached a dubious deal with the government led by then-Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis: A lake in northeastern Greece that supposedly belonged to the Vatopedi monastery (proven with Byzantine documents, naturally) was swapped for valuable government-owned buildings.

Air and Water Turned Into Gold

The abbot wanted money for the land, but the prospect of setting up a lucrative real estate empire appealed to him as well. The sale of the buildings earned the monastery some €100 million ($129 million). Abbot Efraim, newspapers later wrote, had performed the feat of transforming "air and water into pure gold."

The scandal led to the resignation of two members of the government, and Karamanlis had to call a new election. Efraim was arrested in December 2011, to the outrage of the monks. The real culprits, they said, were in Athens. "There are many bad people who want to blame the padres," is all Ilie wants to say about the affair. Like many pilgrims, he isn't interested in politics. In any case, Ilie says he wanted to serve God in the austerest environment. And Vatopedi, one of the wealthiest of the monasteries, doesn't fall into that category.

Dawn is breaking over the church of Agiou Andrea. The morning service lasts almost two hours, and visitors have to wait until it's over to get a simple breakfast. They have to stick to the rules, and breathing in a lot of incense on an empty stomach is just one of them. Ilie shows how to make the sign of the cross properly and how to kiss glass-encased icons while still drowsy with sleep without banging your head. "That constantly happens to me," he says with a smile.

After breakfast, the pilgrims bid farewell. The monks allow only one night's stay in each of the monasteries. The pilgrims walk to the next one, past hills and through valleys covered with olive trees and orchards. The landscape shimmers in silence. The entire setting is perfectly peaceful.

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