The Friends of Mount Athos

President:

Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia

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A Pilgrim's Guide
to Mount Athos

A Pilgrim's Guide to Mount Athos: Making Your Visit

Daphni and Karyes

Most visitors to Athos will pass through the port of Daphni, either on their way in or on their way out, though, as explained above, this is not strictly necessary. It has a post office, a police station, a few shops, a public lavatory, and a restaurant. Telephones are available at the shops, and a card telephone has recently been installed (but cards for this telephone are sold in only a few places such as on the Daphni–Karyes bus). Daphni is animated for about one hour each day either side of midday when the boat arrives. (The boat leaves again for Ouranoupolis around 12.15. Departing pilgrims are subjected to a customs inspection.) A bus meets the boat and takes people up to Karyes (about 45 minutes). Otherwise Daphni has all the characteristics of a tiny Greek fishing port of about fifty years ago except that it has no women.

Karyes is more of a town. (Officially it is a capital city!) Holy Ghost Street, which leads from the bus stop to the church of the Protaton, is lined with shops, though most operate more as centres of gossip than of business. There is a post office, a doctor's surgery, a couple of inns, a bank, and a police station; but there is no bank or bureau de change. The headquarters of the Holy Community is the grand building opposite the Protaton. Karyes is the seat of the civil governor. It is also the public transport hub for the Holy Mountain.


Getting Around on the Holy Mountain

There is a good deal of choice available to the Athonite pilgrim these days. Traditionally he would walk between monasteries, and walking is strongly recommended as by far the best way to enjoy the environment and to internalize the benefits of a pilgrimage. There is a network of mule-tracks and footpaths connecting all parts of the peninsula, many of them of great antiquity and carefully constructed with a stone base. The FoMA path-clearing project plays a major part in keeping these paths open and erecting signposts for the guidance of pilgrims. Detailed and freely downloadable footpath descriptions (in English and Greek) are available on the society’s footpaths pages, from which GPS tracks may also be downloaded. These footpaths are accurately indicated on Mount Athos Pilgrim Map, developed in coordination with the footpath descriptions and recommended for use with them. Great efforts are made to ensure that the information provided is up to date and accurate, and pilgrims are strongly advised to make use of them. Walking alone, especially in the more remote parts of the peninsula (such as on the ascent of the peak), is not officially advisable, and solitary walkers should be careful to carry essential supplies such as first aid and water; it can, however, be a deeply uplifting experience and it would be disingenuous of us to warn against it.


Walking Times Between Monasteries

In addition to the resources available to walkers on our footpath pages and the Society's Pilgrim Map, walkers may also find it helpful to have some idea of how long it takes to get from one monastery to the next by land. Distances in miles can be misleading since they make no allowance for the gradient or difficulty of the terrain. F.W. Hasluck (Athos and its Monasteries, p. 116), relying on his own experience which is not so different from ours, gives them in hours:

Daphni–Xeropotamou ½ (–Karyes 1½); –St Panteleimonos ½; –Xenophontos 1; –Dochiariou ½; –Konstamonitou 2; –Zographou 1; –Chilandari 2; – Esphigmenou 1; –Vatopedi 2¼ (-Karyes 2, -Iviron 1); –Pantokratoros 1½; –Stavronikita 2; –Iviron 1; –Karyes 1; –Koutloumousiou ¼; –Philotheou (port) 1; –Karakalou (port) ¾; –Spring of Athanasios 2; –Great Lavra 2; –Kerasia 2¼ (–summit of Athos 2½); –St Anne's 1¾; –St Paul's 1½; –Dionysiou 1; –Grigoriou 1; –Simonopetra 1 (–Karyes 2¼); –Xeropotamou 2.


Alternative Modes of Transportation

Those who prefer or are not able to walk have a variety of alternative means of getting about on the Mountain. The traditional alternative was a mule, but mules are in short supply nowadays, being mostly used for the transportation of timber and other goods, though some are still available for hire in the so-called desert at the tip of the peninsula where there are no roads. There are regular boat services on both coasts, details of which are given on our Pilgrim's Guide planning page. In addition to the normal bus service that runs between Daphni and Karyes a fleet of minibuses offers transport to most of the monasteries and major centres on the peninsula. Departures to these destinations follow the arrival of the bus in Karyes; and guest masters will be able to advise where and when to pick up the minibus when leaving a monastery in the morning. Otherwise the minibuses tend to operate on the principle that they leave when they are full, or full enough to make the journey worthwhile. They are not particularly cheap, but they provide an invaluable service for those who are pressed for time or who feel that they are no longer fit for the rigours of a traditional pilgrimage.


Hospitality in the monasteries

It is assumed that, unless they have business in Daphni or Karyes, pilgrims will stay at the monasteries. Sleeping outside monasteries is forbidden and dangerous. Gates close at sunset, and during the winter, if you intend to stay the night, you should not arrive later than 4 pm. The majority of monasteries have now announced that they will not accept pilgrims to stay overnight if they have not made reservations in advance by telephone or e-mail. This is no doubt a practice that is here to stay and the only safe advice must be that you are now recommended to make reservations at every monastery or skete at which you wish to stay overnight.

On arrival at a monastery, whether or not you intend to stay the night, you should go straight to the guest house (archontariki) where you will be received by the guest master (archontaris) and offered refreshment (usually raki, loukoumi, Turkish coffee, and cold water). Members of the Friends should identify themselves as early as possible. If you intend to stay the night, you will be given a bed (usually in a dormitory with a number of other guests). The guest master will also tell you the times of services and meals, he may mention the rules of the house, and he may offer a tour of the monastery (always worth taking). Otherwise you will be left to your own devices.

Hospitality in the monasteries is free and to attempt to pay for it may cause offence. On the other hand it is usually expected that guests will stay only one night. If you wish to stay longer, you should ask if this is possible, and usually permission is given. Then it may be appropriate to make a small offering ‘for the church’. Even this may be refused; but usually donations are gratefully accepted.

Meals on Athos are generally simple but wholesome. Monks and pilgrims usually eat together in the refectory (trapeza), sometimes at separate tables, though in certain monasteries the non-Orthodox are asked to wait until the fathers have finished. Meat is not eaten; but fish is regular fare for feasts, and sometimes on other days too. Otherwise the diet is largely made up of bread, olives, vegetables, rice, pasta, soya dishes, salad, cheese, and fruit. A glass of wine is usually available, but on fast days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and longer periods before major feasts) monks abstain from wine, oil, and dairy products. Most communities eat twice a day (morning and evening), except on fast days when some will eat only in the middle of the day. Meals are eaten in silence (and often at great speed) except that one of the monks will usually read a passage from patristic literature. The entrance to the refectory is nearly always immediately opposite the entrance to the church and this proximity symbolizes the way in which eating together is seen as an integral part of the liturgical life of the monastery.


Liturgical rhythm and the measurement of time

The liturgical routine is the foundation of the religious life and, in general, visitors are encouraged to participate in it. But non-Orthodox may not receive communion, and different monasteries have different customs about the attendance of non-Orthodox at services (this is true also of formal meals in the refectory). Restrictions are often imposed for the purely practical reason that there is not enough room for all in the body of the church; they are certainly never meant to cause offence. Athos has never been at the forefront of ecumenical dialogue. On the other hand many monks enjoy the opportunity to discuss questions of belief and practice with members of other churches. Pilgrims should take advice from the archontaris about what is possible. He will also be happy to arrange for Orthodox pilgrims to receive confession.

The liturgical day formally begins with vespers (esperinos) which is usually sung towards the end of the afternoon. It is followed by the evening meal, after which there is compline (apodeipnon ) and then often a period of relaxation; this is the time when visitors are encouraged to engage monks in conversation. At sunset the gates are shut, no further visitors are admitted, and monks retire to their cells. The hours of darkness are regarded as a time for silence and prayer and visitors are asked to behave accordingly. The morning office (orthros) begins before sunrise and is announced by a rousing call to prayer on the wooden talanton or metal simantron. This culminates in a celebration of the Divine Liturgy, which is followed (sometimes after a pause) by the morning meal. The rest of the day is devoted to work, though many communities take some rest in the early afternoon.

Most monasteries run according to ‘Byzantine time’ which starts the clock for each new day at sunset. Depending on the season, therefore, clocks will be between three and six hours ahead of local Greek time. Guest masters however realize that this may be confusing and will generally translate the timetable into 'cosmic time' for the benefit of visitors. The whole Mountain still follows the Julian calendar and is therefore thirteen days behind the outside world.


Libraries and treasuries

All the monasteries are literally treasure-houses brimming with priceless relics of their Byzantine past. Many of them were displayed for the first time in the exhibition of ‘Treasures of Mount Athos’ staged in Thessaloniki in 1997-8. Treasures of particular religious significance, such as relics of the saints and miracle-working icons, are often kept in the church and may be displayed at certain times for veneration by Orthodox pilgrims. Other items are likely to be kept in a strongroom to which supervised access can sometimes be arranged.

Most monasteries also house important collections of manuscripts. The vast majority of these are liturgical, many date from the Byzantine period, and some are beautifully illuminated. A small proportion (5 per cent) are of classical texts. Permission to read manuscripts can usually be obtained if the request is supported by a letter of recommendation. Printed books are often kept in another library to which access is less restricted. Books in various languages may also be available in the guest house.


Photography

Athos is deliciously photogenic. Most monasteries permit photography within their walls, but not inside the church, especially during services. Monks do not normally permit themselves to be photographed; a request to do so may have to go to the abbot, but it is often granted. The same procedure may be necessary for photography of icons, frescoes, and other treasures. The best advice is: if in doubt, ask. Failure to do so may cause serious offence. It is worth knowing that on Athos the word used for permission is evlogia (literally ‹blessing’).

Video cameras are prohibited everywhere on the Mountain.


Bathing

Monks are not much given to bathing, though the sea is sometimes used for baptism. Visitors who wish to bathe should do so out of sight of monasteries. Officially both bathing and fishing are forbidden.

Some guest houses are now equipped with showers, but hot water remains a rarity. Visitors should always be properly clothed in public areas within the guest house.


Extending your visit

A diamonitirion normally expires after three nights spent on the Mountain. If you wish to prolong your stay, you should apply to the Holy Community in Karyes where, if a good reason is given, permission will generally not be withheld. Occasionally members of the Friends are asked to show their membership card in support of their application, so it is worth carrying this with you. Sometimes an extension can be arranged through one of the monasteries.


Languages

The common language in the Greek monasteries is Greek, in St Panteleimonos Russian, in Chilandari Serbian, in Zographou Bulgarian, and in the sketes of Prodromos and Lakkou Romanian. Some communities are more cosmopolitan than others, but many now include monks from overseas. An aspect of the current renewal is that many of the Greek monks are better educated and better travelled than in the past. As a result of all these factors, English is now quite widely spoken on the Mountain. To have no Greek remains a disadvantage, but not nearly so much as it was a few years ago.


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Header Image: Detail from a pilgrimage souvenir print produced for Philotheou Monastery in 1849. The detail depicts the arrival of the "pious pilgrims" on horseback, with the monastery on the left and two monks waiting to greet the arriving pilgrims.
Photograph by Robert W. Alllison, © 2011.
The original print bears the following inscription (in Greek):
This bronzeplate print of the Holy Monastery of Philotheou on the Holy Mountain of Athos was printed at the personal expense of Nikolas Emmanouel Chionakes of Crete for the salvation of his soul and those of his parents and kin, and it was dedicated freely for pious pilgrims.
Printed in Moscow on 4 August, 1849.