2181- review of a new Athos book: Encounters on the Holy Mountain – the story of the “Athos” virus

While many of us and the world around us suffer under the terrible consequences of the Covid-19 virus, I am happy to give you some good news. In these hard times I have been reading a book with stories that show that there is also a good virus: the Athos-virus. And the men (and one woman) who wrote their stories for this book, are all infected by the same virus: as soon as you get infected, it won’t let you go.

The book explains the many different reasons one finds to go back to the Holy Mountain over and over again and why the “monastic magnet” pulls you to this special place.

FoMa 30 years celebrations

In post 2176 I explained that the book was published to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Friends of Mount Athos (FoMA) and the initiative came from the footpath team. The participants visit, at the instigation of HRH The Prince of Wales, Athos from 2001 on yearly basis, to keep the paths and to re-open lost or overgrown paths/monopati.

HRH The Prince of Wales plants a tree in Athos grounds

Four sections

The book is compiled and edited by Peter Howorth and Christopher Thomas and is divided in four parts: Before, Encounters, FoMA Footpaths Project and Back Matter. It has 304 pages with 130 illustrations and the foreword is from HRH The Prince of Wales (Charles) himself. It also includes a map made by Peter Howorth, with eight illustrations: three maps of Athos (one of the sediments, and two with the numbers of the illustrations of Efrem and plants on them), a side view of the Athos peninsula, seen from the South-West, a small map of Greece, a plan of the capital Karyes/the Konaki (see 1269), its surroundings called Kapsala and the route of Way of the Bey. I was lucky in 2017 to go on a hike through Kapsala together Roland Baetens – Efrem – from Belgium, who is the photographer and who is mentioned in the story by David Stothard (P. 222 – “the technique of crawling on hands and knees to find a lost path”- to read more click here: posts 1970 and 1972).

The first part of the book is about former visitors to Mount Athos and who wrote books about it, like the famous book from Sydney Loch, who lived in the tower of Ouranopolis together with his wife Joice Nankevill Loch (see 1214).  In this part is a chapter called Monoxylites, a text from the book ‘Dare to be Free’, written by Sandy Thomas. The most interesting is that Peter Howorth, based on a letter Sandy wrote to his parents after he arrived in an army camp in Syria, now added the last chapter of this book, that was never published before. It tells how Sandy ended his journey during the Second World War after he left Mount Athos, a fascinating addition to the book and it makes his story complete.

Another story, written by John Warrack -The Diary – from 1953 reminded me of the same experience I had in 1986, when I stayed at Dionysiou monastery during Easter and had the possibility to attend the all-night Easter Virgil, that lasted 7 hours, that ended early in the morning with the lightning of the candles, while all the cheerful monks were saying: “Christos Anesti!” (and with a copious meal with fish and wine afterwards).  Almost every chapter in this part has its own special information: Michael Bruce tells the story about the orphan who guided the mules and said that he came to Athos as one year old baby. In October 1959 he was 10 years old: he had never knowingly seen an woman in his life and was looking forward to see the world outside!

The (according to me) main theme of the book comes back in many stories in part two “Encounters”: what brings men to go to the Holy Mountain? Abbot Ephraim says that “no one comes to the Holy Mountain by accident: whatever reason they think they are coming for, is not God’s reason” – p. 70). And Roumen Avramov says: “What then does a secular, atheist and rationalistic academic look for in the Holy Mountain? I think it is a conscious or implicit quest for spirituality in the broadest sense, a thirst for history, art, nature and friendship”. I fully agree with this last view. During my first two visits to Holy Mountain in 1980 and 1986 I was complete overwhelmed by the beauty of the nature and the fact that you entered a place where time stood still and where the Middle Ages still existed. I remember sitting in Karyes one evening in April and at dusk when somebody came by with a ladder to lighten the oil street lights with a fire. They next day I was lucky to buy an Agios Nicolaos icon made by the Pachomaioi brothers, who recently still lived in this house in Karyes (see post 1728).

A detail of the map that goes with the book: Karyes and the house of the Pachomaioi brothers (red arrow)

And I remember the toilets at Iviron clearly, that hung on the outside of the wall! During following visits I opened my eyes for the beauty of the icons and paintings and I started reading about the history, while realizing that a visit to Athos was getting a glimps of what once has been the Byzantine empire. Chistopher Deliso says about this (p. 182): “as a repository of the cultural and spiritual heritage of Byzantium, the Holy Mountain continued to play a vital role in the living history of that civilisation”.

One of most exciting things was to discover that some buildings stood empty for decades. Near Karakallou we entered the deserted Timiou Stavrou kellion, where we found the passports of the Ukraine monks lying on the floor. We could see that they first travelled to Istanbul/Constantinople and then to Jerusalem, after which they went to Athos, where they died somewhere in de 60 or 70-ties last century. In the years after the group of pilgrims who joined in a pilgrimage got bigger and friendship started playing a more and more important role. Bart Janssens even says in this context about his footpath path-clearing team and its meticulously run operation: “man does not need friends, he needs brothers in arms” (with only clippers and a pair of gloves!).

To answer the question why Athos attracts many men like a monastic magnet, Chistopher Deliso puts it down in a few words: “whatever the case, Athos is always working on you, restoring you to strength, giving you the answer to a dilemma and preparing you for the return to the outside world. Most fundamentally, the Holy Mountain returns you to that world a better man than when you  arrived”.

FoMA Footpaths Project

Part three is about the FoMA Footpaths Project. We learn that even Prince Charles helped to clear the paths in 2001 (p. 199). Many other interesting facts are shared by the writers. I did not know that before cars came to Athos (in 1952 the first was used for transport wood by Agiou Pavlou monastery and in 1963 to transport king Paul en Prince Constantine from Dafni to Karyes for 1000th year Athos celebrations), pilgrims could borrow a mule only as far as the next monastery. At that time the Athos landscape was very different from now, because all these thousands of mules had to be fed by letting them graze pastures. All these pastures has disappeared from the landscape, as we can read in the fourth part of the book: Back Matters. Here we learn that Athos is “a unique botanical paradise, in an almost primitive condition, thanks of the lack of grazing animals” – p.264. But at the same time, because of the disappearance of non-woodland to feed the mules, no roe-deer are to be found on Athos and because of this, no wolfs (or hardly any: read more here: 1916). The last part gives a lot of interesting facts about the ecology and nature, and not in the least, an extensive overview of Athos vegetation and flora by Philip Oswald, illustrated with pictures. Thanks for this useful information!

A part of the map made by Peter Howorth, that comes with the book

Let me end this review of this wonderful book with a minor critical note: at first glance I thought the book is written by and for a FoMA in-crowd, because almost all texts in parts 2, 3 and 4 are produced by FoMA members (except for the two female writers Veronica Della Dora and Anna Conomos-Wedlock?). The book might have been more in balance if more writers from outside would have been asked to contribute to the book. Not all writers have the gift of writing a good short story (nor do I by the way), but I must keep in mind that probably not everyone is used to write texts. But everyone of the authors shares his own true experiences and stories, written from the heart and personal perceptions. And I realize that if even more writers from outside would have participated, the book probably would have been twice as thick. The same applies for the pictures used: they illustrate in a sound and proper way the stories told, but they were not made by professional photographers. I know for example that father T from Simonospetras has a lot to offer in this respect, because I have seen his photo collection and I have to say that his photographs are of an outstanding quality.

But anyway, for all those who never visited the Holy Mountain but especially for those who have been there, this book is worthwhile to read. All the individual stories tell us which impact a pilgrimage can have on a person, no matter what reason you have to go there, and this book makes a complete overview of how beautiful and special Mount Athos is. But beware: “Before you come to Mount Athos you must have a plan. But when you arrive here, you must be prepared to change, disregard or tear it up completely. Things will happen according to God’s will, not yours. It is important to let go of your “worldly” mindset and embrace what might seem like obstacles and or difficulties. You must not worry. The Panaghia will guide you!” (Peter Brian Desmond – p. 251).

This is what I would recommend: buy this book and spend a few valuable hours during this Christmas reading it. The book is not cheap, but not more expensive then the Christmas diner you hoped to have in a restaurant. And a fact is that you didn’t go to Athos this year, so with the book on your lap (it is big!), start dreaming about your next pilgrimage in 2021 and that the “Athos”-virus can infect you again (where we all hope and pray for).

Three members of the FoMA footpath team in 2017, working on the path from Vatopedi to Kolistou

But mind you, bring shears and clippers, because we will probably need it to (re)conquer the possible overgrown monopati and kalderimi on the Holy Mountain, that have been left untouched for 9 months now, despite of the fact that a small group of the FoMA footpath team has been able to do some fieldwork on Athos in May 2020!

You can order the book here, Brepols publishers.

Wim Voogd, 8-12-2020

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3 Responses to 2181- review of a new Athos book: Encounters on the Holy Mountain – the story of the “Athos” virus

  1. Peter says:

    Thank you, Wim; you are very generous!
    One little point – The story by Sandy Thomas was not from his book – it was, in fact, taken from the letter he wrote home to his parents in New Zealand, after he arrived at the army camp in Syria where he was miraculously reunited with his brother. This letter is now in the library at Koutloumusiou.

  2. Dimitris says:

    I loved the book and the map was quite a pleasant surprise. Can’t wait to use it next time I am in Athos. It is good to know that they are now doing week-long path clearing excursions. I would love to find the time to get involved in this in the future.

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