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Mount Athos: Greece’s Holy Mountain

“This might be the only city in the world that’s never heard the cries of a newborn baby,” comments a fellow visitor as we walk one of the cobblestone streets of Karyes, the capital of Greece’s Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain.

Mount Athos: Greece’s Holy Mountain
Image: Stuart Forster

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The zero birth rate of the area, also known as Mount Athos, is due to the fact only men are allowed to visit or reside on this peninsula jutting 37 miles into the Aegean Sea. Women have not been permitted here for almost a thousand years, following an imperial Byzantine edict, though it’s whispered a few exceptions have been made on humanitarian grounds during times of war.

Karyes is more akin to a village than a city, and free from traffic noise. Stone-built houses of indeterminate age abut the main square. I wander past the freestanding bell tower, built from alternating layers of red and white stone, and decide to take a look inside the Church of the Protaton, at its centre.

When my eyes adjust to the interior’s relative darkness they take in the rich colours of frescoes painted 700 years ago and metal scaffolding supporting the structure of this 10th-century church. The icons, art and architecture of Karyes and the surrounding 20 Orthodox monasteries — plus the natural beauty of this region — account for Mount Athos’s classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To gain an insight into life here, I’ve come to stay with Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos, one of 2,500 Orthodox monks at Mount Athos. Epifanios is 57 and lives with one other monk in a fortress-like rural skete (monastic community) belonging to the Great Lavra monastery.

Mylopotamos’s coastal location, by vineyards on the lower slopes of Mount Athos, is idyllic but raids by pirates were once a problem in these parts, necessitating the thick stone walls.

Epifanios is a chef, as Athonite monks have to work in order to earn their keep. The cuisine of this region is said to be one of the healthiest in the world, aiding longevity. We chat while preparing dishes made from organic vegetables and locally caught fish, seasoned by fresh herbs. No red meat is used here. Epifanios explains how he became a monk at 18 and that he cooks for more than 1,000 people at Iviron Monastery during the Feast of the Virgin Mary, in mid-August.

“What would you have been if you weren’t a monk and a chef?” I ask.

He pats his rotund figure and shoots a wry smile. “Thin,” says Epifanios.

He explains that Athonite traditions are being maintained but some aspects of life have changed in recent years, due to technological advances. Solar energy now enables Epifanios to power a freezer and vehicles deliver goods, such as vegetables and frozen octopus, shipped in from Thessaloniki. A few years ago that simply wasn’t possible as mules were used for transport when Epifanios first arrived.

“Civilisation and the progress of life brings changes,” muses Epifanios as he sits down at the old wooden table opposite the open hearth to pour red wine produced on site in Mylopotamos’s modern winery. Change is being embraced selectively.

Image: Stuart Forster