National Geographic : 2009 Dec
• e holy peninsula of Mount Athos reaches 31 miles out into the Aegean Sea like an appendage struggling to dislocate itself from the secular corpus of northeastern Greece. For the past thousand years or so, a community of Eastern Orthodox monks has dwelled here, pur- posefully removed from everything except God. ey live only to become one with Jesus Christ. eir enclave---crashing waves, dense chestnut forests, the specter of snowy-veined Mount Athos, 6,670 feet high---is the very essence of isolation. Living in one of the peninsula s 20 monas- teries, dozen cloisters, or hundreds of cells, the monks are detached even from each other, reserving most of their time for prayer and solitude. In their heavy beards and black garb--- worn to signify their death to the world---the monks seem to recede into a Byzantine fresco, an ageless brotherhood of ritual, acute simplic- ity, and constant worship, but also imperfection. ere is an awareness, as one elder puts it, that "even on Mount Athos we are humans walking every day on the razor s edge." They are men---exclusively. According to rigidly enforced custom, women have been for- bidden to visit Mount Athos since its earliest days---a position born out of weakness rather than spite. As one monk says, "If women were to come here, two-thirds of us would go o with them and get married." A monk cuts his ties from his mother but gains another: the Holy Virgin Mary (who, leg- end has it, was blown o course while sailing to Cyprus, stepped foot on Mount Athos, and blessed its pagan inhabitants, who then convert- ed). He forms an intense bond with his monas- tery s abbot or his cell s elder, who becomes a spiritual father and, in the words of one monk, "helps me nd my personal relationship with Christ." e retirement or death of these emi- nences can be di cult for the younger monks. Conversely, a young man s decision to return to the world may also be wrenching. "Last year one le ," recalls an elder. "He didn t ask for my opinion," he adds, his voice betraying a fatherly hurt, "so it s just as well that he s gone." BY ROBERT DRAPER PHOTOGRAPHS BY TRAVIS DOVE Robert Draper is a National Geographic contributing writer. is is photographer Travis Dove s rst assignment for the magazine.