Chilly December winds hit the face as I embark on the first 8:45 am ferry to Mount Athos from the port of Ouranoupolis. Mount Athos is an enormous World Heritage Site, which is lawfully Greek, though ecclesiastically it is under the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul). The boat journey starts with an ever-changing landscape that turns wilder and untouched. The boat makes a series of stops before reaching the final destination at the port of Dafni. On the way, there are these amazing sea-edged monasteries which have been there for over a millennium. They seem to be nothing less than the creation of a dream seller. The tall towers and the spires that perch out of wilderness harmonise with the raw untamed landscape.
After reaching Dafni, my class-mate Glenn Martin and I start our adventurous journey to the Monastery of Simonos Petra (Σίμωνος Πέτρα or Σιμωνόπετρα), which is multicultural in its composition, hosting monks from across the world. The walk to the monastery is a 6-hour trek with capturing views of the marine landscape with the sun cracking through the dark cold clouds and shining over the slate laid roofs of distant monasteries. On our way, we come across some kellis, clusters of quaint wooden and stone construction houses, which are self-sufficient micro-communities of monks.
Our destination, Simonos Petra, is an outstanding piece of architecture. This edge hugging seven storied monasteries is a perfect sojourn for me, as I have waited so long to see this sophistication of ancient architectural marvel. The guest rooms, on the mid-levels, have wooden cantilevered balconies that shoot out into the vast open sea. The construction details, long oil-lamp lit corridors, oversize gears to move the doors, the mechanical aqueducts and materials give us the illusion of being back in the medieval ages. The enchanted aura of this place is also due to the fact that many things in the monastery are still carried out in a traditional manual way.
These monasteries allow visitors to stay overnight, and during our four-day stay on Mount Athos we experience life in monks’ shoes. It is a fascinating schedule that starts with the 4:00 am service, when they venerate the treasured relics and portable icons in the dark candle lit church with shining gold-leaf interiors. This is followed by the first meal of the day at 8:00 am. The day ends with a service at 3:00 pm and the last meal of the day at 4:00 pm.
The monastery is a living organism: it sustains its monks providing all they need. We are fortunate enough to be allowed to see the book-making room – where the monks work on conserving and binding the precious manuscripts, and the stepped greens which are their source of organic and vegetarian diet. It is thought-provoking to listen to the stories of some of them who came to this island a long time ago and never left as they found their own self here. Each monk walking around in the pitch black cloak has a captivating story of how they reached this place.
Our journey then unfolds like a labyrinth of stories. Each monastery is a breathing storyteller, unique architecturally as well as in its functions. These monasteries are an excellent example of how a product of mind can fuse in so well with a product of nature. The uses of materials and the construction techniques, among other details, are a metaphor of these monks who are unique but simple. These monasteries teach us that we don’t need new materials: it is the idea that counts, the concept and its logical application that can lead to such brilliant long lasting examples of timeless construction.
Such an amazing lesson for professionals in our field like architects and conservators.
Photos by Siddhant Shah.
Siddhant Shah is an Architect with Majors in Indian Aesthetics. He has worked with the State Archaeological Department (Mumbai) and has undertaken Heritage Volunteer training for UNESCO and ICOMOS. He is currently based in Greece, completing an MA in Heritage Management, and focuses on Management, Marketing and Disabled-Friendliness of Archaeological/Heritage Sites.