An American Pilgrim on Mount Athos
Mr. M.W. Mansur
A trip to Mount Athos in 1933 by two American graduate students provides them with a wonderful introduction to the treasure of Orthodoxy
July 18. On the way up from the arsenal [a massive tower] and the sheltered landing at the Lavra, we stopped at a shrine where St. Athanasius is said to have hurt his leg while carrying wood to the monastery. They told us how the devils used to tear down the stones which he laid during the daytime when building the monastery, until he served the Liturgy, which drove them away.
We reached the Lavra about seven in the evening on the day of the feast of St. Athanasius. A great many monks and visitors crowded around the porch at the entrance. Some had brought wood carvings to sell so the feast was a combination of religious festival and fair, as in the Middle Ages. Fr. Joachim knew a great many people. We found that all the rooms were taken but he arranged to have us put up. He has influence through a friend of his who is the doctor and an epitropos.
People were sitting on all the benches and walking about the courtyard. We visited the doctor in his room and a monk brought in masticha, water, and preserved cherries for us. Fr. Joachim arranged for us to have mules when we wanted to leave and found that we would be able to see everything here. Since he didn't have a letter, we had to eat separately. Stacy and I went to the synod-room and had more liqueur and delicious cherries. People gathered in the hall upstairs and about 9:30, when all had arrived, the two bishops led the way to the dining room below. We all sat at a long table with the bishops at the head. We each had five plates piled on top of each other with knife and fork which we kept for each course. Wine was plentiful. The monks waited on table and served first cut up tomatoes and herring, then two fish courses, then beans, and last preserved pears. After dinner there were short speeches and singing in between. We weren't through until 11:15. Because of the number of people we had to sleep in separate rooms.
July 19. This morning I was waked up at 5:30 along with everybody else for the Liturgy. When I got to the church they were still doing the prothesis. A monk told me to take a stasidion in the very middle of the nave right in front of the Holy Doors where I saw everything. The Bishop of Tripolis was the principal officiant. He was wearing a sakkos of green and gold, an omophorion of white satin and gold, and carried an enamelled crozier. With him served ten priests, some in red and gold, others in blue and gold, as well as five deacons. The color and pageantry were magnificent. At the Little Entrance four acolytes carried silver candlesticks in front and behind them came two deacons carrying the Gospels. The cover of the Gospels was of blue enamel set in silver and had five medallions on it. Instead of a curtain behind the Holy Doors was a gorgeous piece of pink and gold embroidery which could be raised and lowered. In front of the large icon of the Virgin and Child was a cloth of gold embroidery which was part of the trappings of Ali Pasha's horse. There were innumerable old Byzantine icons, especially in the sanctuary, the walls of which were lined with them. At the end of the Liturgy two monks brought in a great cake made of sugar, barley, and walnuts which had the design of the Byzantine eagle on it surrounded by an intricate border. There were two of these cakes, each about three feet in diameter. The second cake was decorated with a design of interlacing shields. One was blessed for St. Athanasius and the other in memory of the dead monks of the monastery. After the service the monks gave scoopfuls of the cake to the people outside. We had some and found it delicious.
I met Stacy and Fr. Joachim after the Liturgy and we took a look at the trapeza where the second class guests eat. They were all sitting at tables in a big hall eating soup and beans while a monk read aloud. After that we found the house where the library and treasures are kept was open, so over we went. In one room cabinets stood around the walls with treasures whose value couldn't be estimated. We saw the silver and gold miter of the Emperor Nicephoras, other miters of gold embroidery, two cibolia which looked like small churches, silver censers, jeweled and carved crosses. In another cabinet were Bibles. One was in a gold case with a long figure in relief on the cover. They opened this and it turned out to be a Gospel in uncials. Another Gospels was two feet high with painted enamel medallions, a gift of Catherine the Great. There were innumerable sets of vestments. Some of the orarions and epitrachelions had faces of saints embroidered on them in intricate detail. We saw a sakkos of gold cloth presented by the Emperor Nicephoras, which is worn only by the Patriarch when he visits the monastery. In the library we saw a Gospels in beautiful minuscules with many miniatures and decorations which the monks were thumbing over and examining with a magnifying glass. The books were all exposed on the shelves and no particular care was taken to guard them.
From there we went back to the church to see the relics. In front of the Holy Doors was a stand on which they put the reliquaries. An old man behind me showed me how to stand with hands folded in front. I nudged Stacy to show him but he kept his hands firmly behind his back. He told me later that he thought I was warning him to watch his pocketbook in the crowd. The best reliquary was a gold box studded with big precious stones to keep a piece of the Cross. Besides this we saw the hand of St. Andrew and of St. John Chrysostom and the head of St. Basil. We have decided that here on Athos they have a good chance of being genuine.
In the afternoon we lay down under the trees outside the monastery. Had a fine view of the sea and of the monastery. We walked down to the boat with Fr. Joachim and saw him off. He has been awfully good to us.
At dinner we were honored by having places near the bishop. What a meal! Six courses as follows: 1. tomato and greens; 2. onion and octopus; 3. mallow; 4. fried potatoes; 5. rice and octopus; 6. pears. The octopus has a pink flesh with a nice, delicate flavor. The tentacles, strange to say, are also good and tender.
July 20. For climbing Mt. Athos, Fr. Joachim arranged to have a servant of the monastery go with us. We got up about five and arranged one pack. Stacy believed in laying in a good quantity of the bread for the three-hours' walk but found after a little while that it turned into lead.
We started at 6:30 and followed a paved mule path which had smooth stones and ridges every yard or two which made walking unpleasant, especially on the upgrade. This lasted nearly an hour before we struck a stony dirt path. At first we went through low scrubby growth and gradually worked up to the level of larger trees like oaks, pines, and nut trees. Below us we saw the Romanian skete of the Prodromos which was so white and clean that it might just have been built. At one point we saw a bright orange cliff which seemed to have been sliced off by the September earthquake. At Russiko they had told us that it happened during the vigil service for the Elevation of the Cross and the service went on without interruption although you could see the building sway.
We reached Kerasia by 9:30 and Euthymios, our guide, took us to a monk's house where there were mules. He brought out coffee and loukoumi and asked our nationality. When we came to the subject of the mules, he said he wanted 300 drachmas, that was what everybody paid. Luckily Fr. Joachim had told us not to give more than 200. While the argument was going on he gave us two cucumbers and said there were no other mules in the village. When we started to leave to look around he came down to 200. Later on top of the mountain we realized that we hadn't the cucumbers.
Going down to the village we saw other mules. Found a small Russian kellia consisting of church dormitory, and gardens. After looking at the church we were taken to the reception room and given masticha. We both find masticha quite strong especially when you are expected to drink it right down. When possible we pour it over the window sill or down a sink, but here the elder was with us so we drank part of it and left the rest. When he saw we had left some he went over to Stacy and held his glass to his mouth and literally poured it down. Then he saw that I finished mine.
We had two good mules with wooden saddles and thick blankets over them. It was a hard, stony trail up the mountain and we had to be careful to avoid bruising our legs against the rocks. Stacy preferred riding side saddle like may Greeks, but I found it more comfortable and secure to be astride. The slope of the mountain is so steep that we had wonderful views of the sea below. We dismounted at one spot and walked to the edge of a cliff from which we could jump off and land in St. Anne's. The mule boy said we were to walk from there, that it would take only a quarter of an hour. Since there were clouds just above us we couldn't tell but what that was the case. However, after climbing twenty minutes or so the clouds cleared and we saw the summit high above us. We had a hard hour's climb before we reached it. Though clouds were coming and going we had chances to make out monasteries below and look across the blue Aegean to Thasos, Samothrace, and Imbrose. On good days, we were told, it is possible to see Constantinople and Athens.
July 21. After spending the night at the Russian house in Kerasia we set off early in the morning. The walk was cool and easy. If we had had time we would have gone down to Kapsokalyvia where they are said to make wood carvings and good icons. Lavra looked like a castle with its tower as we approached it, and was certainly built to be defended. The courtyard is much more spacious than in any other monastery we have seen. The catholicon [main church] is in the middle and the other buildings straggle around it in irregular fashion.
We are glad to hear that a motor boat will be leaving for Iveron and that we shan't have to make the trip on mules. The boat was said to be leaving at noon but now it looks more like four or five. The time on the Mountain has confused us. They follow the Byzantine system which is a variation of the old Roman system. The day is supposed to start with sunrise and end with sunset. This would mean changing the length of the hours if they were accurate but time means so little here that they simply add an hour or two to the day in summer and subtract them in winter. Generally 8 AM is 12 for them, although at Lavra 6 AM was 12. We run on Saloniki time.
When it came time to leave we saw all the epitropoi and the hegoumenos come to the porch to say good-bye to the bishop. They would bow down and touch the ground, then kiss his hand. We walked down to the arsenal ahead of the others and had our packs taken by mule. On the way we had to pass a lot of mules which was a problem because the path was narrow and walled on both sides. We went gingerly hoping not to be kicked. We wanted to wait and watch the bishop get by.
As usual a good many people turned up to go in the boat. All the monks had umbrellas to keep off the hot sun. The bishop's deacon seemed to mind the swell and kept smelling a lemon. We passed Karakallou and Philotheou, both of which were set well back from the shore. One monk pointed out a tower with a small house adjoining where Patriarch Joachim stayed for some time. I gathered that he had had to flee from Turkey.[../../_private/oabot.htm]