Mt. Athos – Greece Travel

Beyond Thasos is the Thracian coast and Mt. Pangaus, and at the foot of it Philippi, the Macedonian town where republican Rome fought its last battle, where Cassius leaned upon his sword-point, believing everything lost. Brutus transported the body of his comrade to Thasos and raised for him a funeral pyre; and twenty days later, on the same field, met again that spec-ter of death which had summoned him to Philippi. It was not many years after this victory of the Imperial power that a greater. triumph was won at Philippi, when Paul and Silas, cast into prison, sang praises unto God at midnight, and an earth-quake shook the house and opened the prison doors.

In the afternoon we came in sight of snowy Mt. Athos, an almost perpendicular limestone rock, rising nearly six thousand four hundred feet out of the sea. The slender promontory which this magnificent mountain terminates is forty miles long and has only an average breadth of four miles. The ancient canal of Xerxes quite severed it from the mainland. The peninsula, level at the canal, is a jagged stretch of mountains (seamed by chasms), which rise a thousand, two thousand, four thousand feet, and at last front the sea with the sublime peak of Athos, the site of the most conspicuous beacon-fire of Agamemnon. The entire promontory is, and has been since the time of Constantine, ecclesiastic ground; every mountain and valley has its convent; be-sides the twenty great monasteries are many pious retreats. All the sects of the Greek church are here represented; the communities pay a tribute to the Sultan, but the government is in the hands of four presidents, chosen by the synod, which holds weekly sessions and takes the presidents, yearly, from the monasteries in rotation. Since their foundation these religious houses have maintained against Christians and Saracens an al-most complete independence, and preserved in their primitive simplicity the manners and usages of the earliest foundations.

Here, as nowhere else in Europe or Asia, can one behold the architecture, the dress, the habits of the Middle Ages. The good devotees have been able to keep themselves thus in the darkness and simplicity of the past by a rigorous exclusion of the sex always impatient of monotony, to which all the changes of the world are due. No woman, from the beginning till now, has ever been permitted to set foot on the peninsula. Nor is this all; no female animal is suffered on the holy mountain, not even a hen: I suppose, tho I do not know, that the monks have an inspector of eggs, whose inherited instincts of aversion to the feminine gender enable him to detect and reject all those in which lurk the dangerous sex. Few of the monks eat meat, half the days of the year are fast days, they practise occasionally abstinence from food for two or three days, reducing their pulses to the feeblest beating, and subduing their bodies to a point that destroys their value even as spiritual tabernacles. The united community is permitted to keep. a guard of fifty Christian soldiers, and the only Moslem on the island is the solitary Turkish officer who represents the Sultan; his position can not be one generally coveted by the lurks, since the society of women is absolutely denied him. The libraries of Mt. Athos are full of unarranged manuscripts, which are probably mainly filled with the theologic rubbish of the controversial ages, and can scarcely be expected to yield again anything so valuable as the Tishendorf Scriptures.

At sunset we were close under Mt. Athos, and could distinguish the buildings of the Laura Con-vent, amid the woods beneath the frowning cliff. And now was produced the apparition of a sun-set, with this towering mountain cone for a center-piece, that surpassed all our experience and imagination. The sea was like satin for smoothness, absolutely waveless, and shone with the colors of changeable silk, blue, green, pink, and amethyst. Heavy clouds gathered about the sun, and from behind them he exhibited burning spectacles, magnificent fireworks, vast shadow-pictures, scarlet cities, and gigantic figures stalking across the sky. From one crater of embers he shot up a fan-like flame that spread to the zenith and was reflected on the water. His rays lay along the sea in pink, and the water had the sheen of irides-cent glass. The whole sea for leagues was like this; even Lemnos and Samothrace lay in a dim pink and purple light in the east. There were vast clouds in huge walls, with towers and battlements, and in all fantastic shapes—one a gigantic cat with a preternatural tail, a cat of doom four degrees long. All this was piled about Mt. Athos, with its sharp summit of snow, its dark sides of rock.