Religious tourism for some, a lifelong home for others

The small community of monks at Mt Athos is growing. Neos Kosmos talks to two recent Greek Australian visitors.

Half the world is barred from this place. No women allowed and no exceptions. You’ll see no modern cars, technology nor any modern form of industry.
That is how Mount Athos has remained for thousands of years. It’s like the Orthodox version of the Vatican, the small Chalkidiki community of 20 monasteries that has its own jurisdiction and closed borders.
The strict control hasn’t deterred visitors. Now more than ever, people are making the pilgrimage to Mount Athos, in search of clarity, salvation or just for a unique experience.
You must be approved before you enter and only 100 men of the Orthodox faith and 10 non-Orthodox are given ‘visas’ to enter a day. This restriction isn’t about protecting borders, but rather, it’s because of a lack of accommodation. All visitors have to be housed in a monastery, effectively living with the monks and following their daily routine.
The 2,500 male monks that live at Mount Athos have shunned the modern world and have committed themselves to the lifelong job of prayer.
The only access is via boat, and the port of Ouranoupolis in Chalkidiki is the last stop before being transported to the monastic community time forgot.
This unique and fleeting experience is what has fascinated the world for years and has seen a strong surge in religious tourism.
The waiting list to visit Mount Athos is huge, an anomaly in the highly secular tourist world that surrounds it.
Many expected the monks to die out long ago with the young losing interest in the monastic life, but in the last twenty or so years, there’s been a shift.
Dimitri Kepreotis of the St Andrews College Orthodox Press says he’s seen a real shift regarding the age and nationality of the monks in the three times he’s been there from 1987 to 2013.
“When the thousand year anniversary was celebrated for the whole Athonite community, in 1963, the celebrations only involved very old monks with white beards and people thought it was the end of the thousand year tradition,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
“But for some reason, and I don’t pretend to have an answer, in the last two decades, a lot of young monks have come and a lot of multinational monks.”
His godson is proof of that. During Mr Kepreotis’ third visit, he had the honour of seeing his godson become accepted as a monk at Mount Athos in January.
Mr Kepreotis says his 23-year-old godson was studying music before he decided to go for a Mediterranean trip. He never envisaged he’d leave his Sydney life forever for the monastic life.
“He said that he would visit Mount Athos (even before he left) and sit and pray and find direction in his life, I remember those words before he left,” Mr Kepreotis says.
“After a while, his parents in Sydney contacted me to say that he was very happy there and so happy that he didn’t want to leave.”
After going through a year and half of a monastic trial, his godson was accepted into the Mount Athos community and hasn’t looked back.
“He just felt a presence, felt a fullness,” Mr Kepreotis says.
This ethereal presence is a major drawcard for the tourists that make it onto the shores of the island.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom characterised Mount Athos as “one of the last few places you go to experience true silence”.
The island exists for prayer only, and for those who come without a spiritual bone in them, the place doesn’t make sense.
It is a place for deep contemplation, and therein lies much of the appeal for men all over the world.
Father Silovan Fotineas of Saint Nektarios Church in Adelaide says on his most recent trip to Mount Athos he came across a wide variety of foreigners, all seeking elusive answers to questions that have followed them for years.
“There were many foreigners, even on one occasion, when I asked someone where they were from because I could tell they weren’t Greek, he said ‘I’m from Mount Athos’, so he felt like he was home,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
Mr Kepreotis also had the same experience, even meeting two Jewish brothers from New York who had heard of the mountain’s reputation and made the pilgrimage.
It’s a testament to Mount Athos’ increasing appeal. More and more people are embarking on religious tourism trips, and the rarity and exclusivity of Mount Athos has made it a bucket list destination.
Australian travel agencies are seeing an increase in interest in the Athonic community, even women are asking for tours.
Prahran Travel, a travel agency that specialises in Greek tours, offers a Mount Athos tour as part of a Mainland Greece tour.
The popular boat tour circles the circumference of the island and sometimes sees monks come on board to show ancient artefacts to the crowd.
For women, this is as close as they can get to a Mount Athos experience.
The exclusion of women in religious practices isn’t rare, but on such a scale on the 20 monastery ‘island’, the ban seems quite harsh.
Mr Kepreotis says there are a number of reasons for the exclusion of women at Mount Athos.
“One is that they want to dedicate that whole peninsula of Mount Athos to a woman, Panagia (Mother Mary),” he explains.
“They call the region the Perivoli tis Panagia (the garden of Panagia). The second reason is that it’s a place of prayer; it’s not a place for interaction and social events.”
The monks take the job of prayer so seriously that their everyday jobs, such as gardening to grow their food, must be conducted while praying.
The monk’s diet is famously humble. They don’t eat meat, meaning they remain in a constant state of fasting, and only eat fish on special occasions.
What the monks eat is what the tourists eat too.
A special vegetable soup which is a staple in the Athonite community is described by many visitors as a “hearty meal” that ticks all the boxes.
Father Silovan finds the whole spectacle of it, the food, the services and the pageantry of the crowded monasteries as something you can’t describe.
“I guess in one word it’s like every day in Mount Athos it seems to be like pascha, it’s really one constant celebration,” he says.
Despite leaving all conveniences behind him, his short stay at Mount Athos didn’t have him rushing back to normality.
“There certainly wasn’t any nostalgia to go back to where I came from,” he reveals.
For those not so religious, the architectural sites are a major drawcard. It’s one of the few places you can find thousand-year-old monasteries standing the test of time and on some occasions, gravity. Like the famous Meteora monasteries perched on huge rock formations, many monasteries sit teetering off the cliff face of the mountain. Simonos Petras, a thirteenth century designed monastery, sits towering on a high rock, overlooking the expanse of sea ahead of it.
Although most monasteries on the island are Greek Orthodox, there is one Russian, one Bulgarian, and one Serbian monastery. All three show distinctive colouring and foreign architectural influence thanks to their denominations.
Agiou Panteleimonos monastery, the Russian monastery – often visited by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – is distinctively painted sky blue. Green domes poke high above the painted exterior walls, reminiscent of the grand churches in St Petersburg and Moscow.
The oldest monastery on the island, and the first ever built, was the Monastery of Great Lavra. Built in 968 AD, the monastery houses the community’s library, one of the richest collections of ancient Greek manuscripts in the world.
There are about 20,000 printed books and 100 manuscripts in other languages, a historic feat in itself.
This unique place on earth is why its popularity is growing, and as long as it stands the test of time, will have curious minds fascinated.