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A Woman In Mount Athos

Mount Athos Monk

I'VE BEEN to Mount Athos . I walked thoughtfully through the wooded peaks, rested serenely by the magical waters, attended heart-suspending services and discussed the truth of God and the state of my soul with kind, gentle monks. I went there with the honourable and purely spiritual intention of achieving enlightenment, as are those held by any pilgrim - but to do this I had to take on a wickedly false appearance. I had to disguise myself as a man, because women are banned from entry. I had to plaster onto my upper lip a thin moustache, cut my hair in a short, sharp manly style, speak in a deep, coarse voice and walk with a manly straddle. I moved in constant fear of being caught out, of being chastised and humiliated for wanting to do something I felt was crucial to me. But after all, as the Friends Of Mount Athos write in their website, "in English the word [pilgrimage] means a journey undertaken for religious purposes and implies a degree of hardship or discomfort." Thus I never thought it was going to be easy.

But I lie, as us temptress, evil, conniving women do. Not about going to Mount Athos (Agion Oros) but about disguising myself as a man. In fact I blackmailed an old acquaintance who happened to be the owner of a helicopter to fly me over the holy state and drop me, bang into the centre of a monastery courtyard. We timed it so that I would land just after mass, when all the monks were shuffling out of the church. I was the stereotype incarnate of the angry, disrespectful feminist who turns nasty in order to make a point, OK? And perhaps I was a little curious too - would the appearance of a female in the flesh destroy almost one thousand years of complete harmony, purity and faith?

Women grow tired and frustrated reading men's accounts of their visits to Mount Athos . They describe the beauty of the untouched landscape, the sparkle of the pure waters, the potential revelation that descends upon one from witnessing or participating in true veneration of God almighty.

The existence and adamant sustainment of an archaic law - article 186 - pronouncing female presence (animals as well as humans) unwanted in this land of faith is the cause of many a woman's chasmic resentment. It states: "The entrance of females to the Mt Athos peninsula has always been banned." In his book To Perivoli Tis Panagias, (Garden of the Virgin Mary), Andonis Iordanoglou writes that since 1953, when "certain ladies" attempted to disembark at the harbour of Dafni, there has been a legal clause as well as the age-old religious one. "Since then all attempts to nullify Athos' inaccessibility clause have been in vain, as the law enjoys both constitutional and international protection."

The author adds with a hint of irony that an alteration to this clause could only be decided upon by the resident monks themselves, who aren't even contemplating any such innovation.

Athos is a self-governed part of the Greek state, subject to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its political aspect and to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as regards its religious aspect. It has been divided into 20 self-governed territories. Each territory consists of a cardinal monastery and other monastic establishments that surround it.

All the monasteries are communes, which means that there is common liturgy, prayer, housing, nourishment and work among the monks. The superior of the monastery, elected by the monks for life, is responsible for the affairs of the monastery. The superiors are members of the Holy Assembly and exercise legislative authority. Annually, the monastery elects its representative to the Holy Community, which exercises administrative authority, while the Holy Supervision (Iera Epistasia) exercises executive authority and consists of four members, elected by five hierarchically preceding monasteries. Iordanoglou advises women like myself to address the Iera Epistasia with our complaint (tel 0377 23710 to 14).

Article 186 spells out to me and to every other woman on the planet that we are subjects of the male mind's eye and not of God himself. It suggests that our presence would disrupt the peace, not enhance or and spiritually beautify it. We are reduced to appearing as nothing more than humans with female genitalia that may act as a temptation or distraction to humans with male genitalia. The clause can thus be considered to offend the monks as well. But they don't seem to complain about it. How could they? It would instantly shame them and render them suspicious. And why should they? Things are fine as they are, all it takes is a little eventual acceptance by a few (if any) sceptics.

The irony bites so hard that it draws the bitter-metallic blood of realisation to the surface. If a man has such a calling to God, such an overwhelmingly powerful devotion to his faith, that he chooses to withdraw from the world at large and live - body and soul - selflessly, how can he accept obedience of a rule so humanly rather than spiritually selfish? How can the presence of a woman act as an insufferable temptation, a harsh break from the life he has so thoughtfully and decidedly chosen to lead? Should not an individual who has found God and decided to worship him with his entire being be able to rise above the urges of the flesh?

My complaint is not of a feminist nature, it is one of principle. It roots from my desire, as a human being who believes in a God who forgives and accepts the sins of his repentant followers, to share in the magnificence of a holy landscape. Looking at photos and websites and reading male accounts won't cut it (there's even a website where you can virtually light a cyber-candle!). You have to be there to feel, to be able to think and revise ideas about your self and your life under the inspiration of this monastic state. I don't have double standards - I believe that men and women both should not have to undergo physical barriers to their belief. Why should a group of men who may have been drinking and whoring the night before be permitted on these grounds, and not women who - although some of them too may have been drinking and whoring - want to fortify their sense of faith by being in a place away from their "reality"?

Indeed, it is tradition that keeps the Greek Orthodox church so alive, robust and respectable. But tradition should not equal the imposition of ruthless confines of man-made extremism. It can be sustained as well as altered with the emergence of significant and genuine needs.

Mount Athos is a place to which I, as a woman, will never be able to go apart from in my elastic imagination. I cannot say that this will ruin my life and lead me down a dark, fatal untrodden path of disillusionment or disappointment, for I accept that it is in our human nature to err and sin and not necessarily understand all our faults within our life-spans.

Acceptance, of what can only be improved upon within ourselves, is therefore the key to a wiser and happier life. Going to Agion Oros, if I were allowed, could provide as much a disappointment - as so many visitors from around the world and from varying faiths have related upon return - as it could spiritually fulfilling comfort. Fact is, I'll never know.

For more on Mount Athos see: and With Godfrey on the Holy Mountain (or The Last Temptation of Matt)


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