Neil Averitt visits Mount Athos

mountathosSeveral readers have dropped me notes, seeking my take on that Washington Post travel feature the other day focusing on what it is like to visit the Holy Community of Mount Athos, on its rich, green, mountainous peninsula in northeast Greece. This is the kind of place where people come back with prayer ropes and Byzantine flags, rather than T-shirts and high-end clothing. We also live in a day and age in which Mount Athos -- which is its own mini-state, operating under a charter granted in 972 by the emperor in Constantinople -- is also rather controversial. The holy mountain is, of course, covered with monastic communities that are full of monks, about 2,500 of them. They are all male.

Thus, Mount Athos is not a very diverse place, in at least one sense of the word, and that is the part of Neil Averitt's article that people have been asking me about. Thus, he wrote:

Another thing notably absent is the feminine touch; even most female animals are excluded. Partly this is a consequence of monastic status, for Mount Athos is basically a cooperative of private monasteries. Another reason is a belief that Christ gave the peninsula to his mother, Mary, to be her private garden, and other women are excluded to more distinctively honor the Virgin Mary.

The exclusion of women is, naturally, controversial. The European Parliament has endorsed a report containing a paragraph that suggests this is a violation of women's rights. The Greek government has responded that the special status of Mount Athos was recognized in conjunction with the treaty by which Greece joined the European Union in the first place.

This isn't all bad, confesses Averitt, because it creates an atmosphere in which men (including visitors like Prince Charles) seem more open and willing to communicate with one another. A kind of relaxed, spiritual bonding takes place as the guests begin to settle into the simple religious and cultural rhythms of the mountain and the monks who inhabit it. This is not a user-friendly place to hang out, even if guests -- those that get through the selection process -- are allowed to stay for free. (For information on that, see the Friends of Mount Athos.)

Some people are even afraid that, if the EU had its way, Mount Athos would "become a tourist destination like any other" and lose its unique atmosphere, says Averitt. You think? The Orthodox would prefer to say that Mount Athos would simply cease being Mount Athos.

But here is the main reaction that I had to this interesting article.

To state it bluntly, I would like to know more about the famous chanting monks at the Danieleon. I wanted to know more about Father Damian, the English monk who visited and never left. The monasteries, we are told, are attracting many young monks who often spend hours sitting in sunlit courtyards talking about spiritual issues with visitors from Greece, America and around the world.

Well, I would like to know what they talk about. Can we listen to those voices?

So I'd like to know more about those people and a bit less about Averitt, even though I know that most travel-centered journalism is a bit first-person. It sounds like Averitt got to meet some interesting people. What the heck did they say?

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