Orthodox America


   An American Pilgrim on Mount Athos - Part 4


By 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

Part IV

July 21.   As usual a good many people turned up to go in the boat from the Lavra.  All the monks had umbrellas to keep off the hot sun.  The bishop's deacon seemed to mind the roll and kept smelling a lemon.  We passed by Karacallou and Philotheou, both of which were set well back from the shore. One monk pointed out a tower with a small house adjoining where the Patriarch Joachim stayed for some time.   I gather that he had had to flee from Turkey.  When we landed at Iviron the boatman tried to collect two hundred drachmas from us, but we refused to pay because we thought the boat had been paid for by the monastery to take the bishop. Previously, whenever other people came on a boat which we hired they did not pay, so we refused. Two hundred drachmas was exorbitant besides, and when we refused to pay he asked for less but didn't get anything.  This delayed us so that we didn't see the bishop being received at the church.

Iviron is on the water and looks like a castle.  It has two heavy gates which lead to a wide and roomy courtyard.  In the middle is the catholicon, the main church.  On the east side is a clock tower with the statue of a Moor near the top as at Xeropo-tamou.  To the west is the bell tower and refectory and in the northeast corner is another church. As soon as we entered the courtyard a monk took us to a small church to see the Portaitissa icon.  It was covered with gold except for the head and hands which were so dark that the features could hardly be dis-tinguished.  He told us the story of how the icon appeared standing upright out at sea, how the monks brought it ashore and put it in the big church.  The icon left the big church and came to a doorway saying that it wanted to stay there. So it was put in the place where it now is.  By lighting a candle he showed us the blood which appeared when a barbarian struck the icon with his sword.  He was so amazed that he was converted and is now called St Barbaros.  When paying my respects to the wonder-working icon by touching the ground, my camera nearly tumbled from my shoulder.

The librarian happened to see us in the courtyard and told us that Professor Blake was here and took us up to see him in his room in his shirt sleeves working with a big codex.  [Prof. Blake was Professor of Byzantine history at Harvard.] We talked with him for a little while and then took a walk around the monastery until supper time.  When the porter is ready to close the gates he pounds loudly on them to warn people outside.

About 9 we came into the salon with Prof. Blake, the bishop, and three other monks to have more masticha [an anise liqueur] before dinner. Earlier we had asked Prof. Blake what was the proper procedure when they brought in the tray of refreshments and found that you should first drink the masticha straight down, then take a spoonful of jam, then a drink of water, and lastly put the spoon in the water glass.  Here they brought coffee on a second tray.  We found that we had been violating all the rules by taking water first, sipping the masticha and sometimes leaving part of it, but especially by filling up on jam which we liked so much.  At the Great Lavra we even asked to have the tray put down on a chair in front of us where we could eat all the preserve we wanted.  Prof. Blake told us that the original sweet was a white paste which was loukoumi in its first stage. That was what the deacon gave us at St. Anne's.

Here again we had five courses, all vegetables except slices of orange at the end, and all good.  We had okra, a kind of squash, and that same vegetable stuffed with rice, and string beans.  When you begin with the wine it is customary to wish the bishop his health.  Afterwards we had coffee and listened to the Greeks talk.  Prof. Blake speaks with considerable difficulty and understands moderately well.   We got away after half an hour and went to his room.  He finds that the best way to protect against bugs at night is to sleep in your clothes and wrap your hands in a towel.  He also wears very old clothes here.  He said that in the old days the Mountain was a kind of asylum and that there is supposed to have been a man in Smyrna who couldn't get along with his wife and her people so he murdered them all and took the boat immediately for Athos, where he became an important person.

July 22.   We had a good chance to do as we wanted in the church because there was only a young monk there who didn't mind what we did.  We took a picture of the Pantocrator in the dome and were just getting ready to take one of a fine icon of three saints when he decided it was time to close. When I returned in the afternoon it was time for vespers.

When Prof. Blake finished with his books and when Fr. Ieronymos, the librarian, was ready, Stacy and I went with them to the library.  It is important to keep on the good side of the librarian and always to wait until he is ready.  Prof. Blake takes along cigarettes and cognac in order to treat librarians and archontareses [hosts to guests].  The library is kept upstairs in the catholicon behind iron doors.  The manuscripts are arranged according to size so that as soon as any manuscript gets out of place it can be spotted at once.  We saw a fine Evangelion of about the ninth century with large illustrations and a Georgian Bible done by two hands.  The difference could be seen in the way the writing slanted.  Prof. Blake said that he and the librarian and two deacons spent a hot morning rearranging the books.  It took a good deal of cognac to finish the job. It was amusing to see how deferential he was to Fr. Ieronymos, who enjoyed it.

By five o'clock we were ready to leave. The archontares accompanied us to the gate and gave us each a card.  We found an Egyptian who was having trouble arranging for mules.  It was a strange sight to see an Egyptian getting the worst of a bargain.  The luggage was tied on the mules and we walked a little distance as is customary before getting on.  I was extremely comfortable although I had Prof. Blake's suitcase on one side and Stacy's pack on the other. Prof. Blake, a huge man, looked like a cartoon on his mule.   He told the archontares that it would be well for him to walk where the path was too steep, but I noticed that he didn't.  The ride up to Karyes was lovely, almost more so than from Karyes to Daphne. We wound around the slopes of a steep valley through olive groves and wooded stretches. On our left we had Mt. Athos and from time to time we could see the water of the Aegean behind.  We could appreciate everything to the full because we were traveling in such comfort.  There is a fixed tariff for going by mule so you know that there is no danger of being overcharged.

You simply say you want a mule to such and such a place and pay the fee at the other end.  When we came to Koutloumoussi we dismounted and walked by the monastery.  We likewise dismounted when we came to Karyes. (To be continued)

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