If you're a woman, stop reading now...

...because you're not allowed on the monks' colony at Mount Athos in Greece. Jill Dudley, however, settled for a close encounter

"We come now to the monastery Agios Panteleimonos," said the voice over the Tannoy. Obediently the passengers raised binoculars and cameras and trained them towards the Holy Mountain to see the only Russian monastery with its onion domes looming on the shore-line. I took a photograph. It was a futile gesture because we were sailing 500 metres off-shore, the legal limit allowed to all vessels passing by Mt Athos.

Mt Athos, on the easternmost leg of a three-pronged peninsula in northern Greece, is forbidden to women. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden my mind was occupied with how to get a good bite of this forbidden fruit and set foot on this Holy Mountain. But, unlike Eve, I knew the consequences if I disobeyed orders. At Ouranopolis at the head of the peninsula (the name means "heavenly city") a notice-board warns visitors that a minimum of two months in jail will be arbitrarily imposed on anybody found trespassing.

Before coming out to Greece I had made enquiries at the Greek Tourist Office in London, convinced that a small sailing boat could put in at a creek, or I could at least get a close look at this forbidden territory. I was told of the strict 500 metre rule but cheered up when they said that a caique (fishing boat) sometimes timed a trip to coincide with a monk who came specifically to the water's edge to bless the passengers on the boat. I had become absurdly excited by this idea. However, the woman at the tourist office at Ouranopolis laughed outright when I had asked about it.

It might have been true some twenty years ago but it was no longer the case, she said. Crestfallen at being deprived of my blessing I was compelled to see the monasteries the tourist way. I bought a ticked for 3000 drachma from Mt Athos Line and joined the cruise boat which sailed daily down the west coast.

There are 20 monasteries on the Holy Mountain, which over the centuries have received gifts and endowments from such highly placed patrons as emperors and princes who (often to appease guilty consciences) have sent rare and precious artifacts hoping to receive intercessionary prayers to save their souls in return.

This year treasures from the monasteries on the Holy Mountain will go on show at the Archeological Museum in Thessalonika from 29 June until the end of the year. The exhibition is one of many events to mark the city's status as 1997 European City of Culture. For women to be allowed to gaze on these things is a rare opportunity indeed. Amongst the exhibits will be early manuscripts, valuable sacerdotal artefacts and ancient icons. Some icons, according to legend, miraculously escaped the iconoclastic period - a time when 8th and 9th century fanatics regarded icons as symbols of idolatry - and floated on the sea to Athos where those holy enough to understand obeyed their command to found monasteries in which to house them.

Long before Christianity the Holy Mountain was believed to have sacred qualities. "The ancient gods were said to have lived there before making Mt Olympus their domain. Legend has it that it was once dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea, but the displeasure shown by his brother Zeus, lord supreme, caused it to be re-dedicated to him. So irate was Poseidon by this ever since he has caused frequent and violent storms around the headland, storms of such unpredictability that small boats dare not make the trip.

Christian legends followed pagan ones. One story claims that in AD54 the Virgin Mary was invited by Lazarus to visit him on Cyprus. Veering hopelessly off-course her boat ended up on the east coast of Athos. As soon as she stepped ashore all the pagan temples crashed to the ground and Mary set about baptising all the inhabitants. Mt Athos is popularly called the Garden of the Mother of God because it is believed that it was her wish the territory should be known as hers.

A stir of excitement amongst the passengers brought eyes following stretched out arms and pointing fingers. A small motor-boat could be seen making slow headway from the Holy Mountain port of Dafni midway along the peninsula. The naked eye could not pick out the two monks in the boat, but those with binoculars were as excited as if they had spotted a rare species of wild life threatened with extinction.

Far inland from the port of Dafni is the town of Karyes, the administrative centre of Athos. Technically a part of the EU, Mt Athos remains an autonomous Orthodox monastic centre subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is self-governing with its own laws and ancient traditions and its own police force. The town also has a post-office and a few shops. Visiting laymen report how strange it is never to hear a female voice or the laughter of children.

The Tannoy came to life again. "We come now to the monastery of Simonpetra." Once more there followed the same show of excitement with raised binoculars and cameras. The monastery was perched 230 metres above the sea, built up from its rock foundations like a series of gigantic dove-cots and linked to the nearest mountain by an aqueduct. Robert Curzon, who went there in the 1830s in search of rare and ancient manuscripts, described how he had had to be something of a gymnast to get to it. It is a pity he was not able to purchase more than two manuscripts as the library was burned with the monastery at the end of the century. It was rebuilt to its present splendour only comparatively recently.

Another spell of stupor until we were told we were approaching the Monastery of Dionysiou. Here there are 16th century frescoes in the Cretan style. Here too was another library of priceless documents and scrolls. Curzon was shown some of the relics. He wrote in his book Visits to Monasteries in the Levant how amongst the relics was the head of John the Baptist. "Bones and another of his heads are in the cathedral of Genoa," he added.

We were nearing the end of the peninsula where the 6000 ft highest point of the mountain was swathed in cloud. Breaks in it revealed what looked like crevices of snow or white marble. On the summit there was once a shrine to Zeus as well as to his daughter, the virgin goddess Athena who was sometimes petitioned figuratively as the holy mother; a possible link for pagans to the Christian virgin mother of God. Up there now is the Chapel of the Transfiguration.

The cruise boat was taking a wide sweep away from the Holy Mountain. We were not going to see the sheer rock face of the south end of the peninsula where early ascetics had lived in caves and survived on insects and grass.

On our way back I ran mental film-clips of all I had seen and done (or had not been allowed to do). The evening before I had walked to the Athos Gate. This is the overland entrance to the Holy Mountain. It is about a mile and a half from Ouranopolis and on the way I had passed scattered small-holdings until all habitation petered out. Tall grasses and wild flowers lined the track with splashes of bright yellow broom beyond. Cicadas sang, male and female together. I arrived at the tall, high, wire-mesh fence beyond which was the deep shadowy greens of the forest. I had been surprised to see a triangular gap cut out of the fence. Anyone could have hopped over it but I was too conscious of the police lookout, a grey stone stronghold close by with the Greek flag flying from a flagstaff.

I followed the fence down to the sea where I sat and brooded on the shore right there beside the Holy Mountain. The Eve in me was sorely tempted to swim along and set foot on forbidden territory or to rise like Aphrodite from the sea to view the inhabitants. But my respect for the powers that be, either divine or judicial, restrained me.

Why, though, I wondered, could anyone sit so close by on the sea-shore and yet not be allowed to sail nearer than five hundred metres? But that evening from across the sea I heard the faintest "tang-tang-tang" of a semantron (a metal strip hit with a hammer) calling the monks to prayer. The sound is symbolic of Noah calling the animals away from the sins of the world into the ark. It was oddly comforting to know that there, on the Holy Mountain, in the Garden of the Mother of God, the monks were praying for the soul of the world.

FACT FILE

Getting there

British Airways flies direct to Thessalonika from Heathrow daily. Fares start from pounds 156 (midweek flights, staying for one Saturday night, subject to availability). Olympic also flies from Heathrow. Britannia flies from Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester.

Frequent daily buses from Thessalonika to Ouranopolis. Information from KTEL, 68 Karaiskaki Street, Thessalonika Tel: (31) 924444

Doucas Tours arrange day trips from Thessalonika Tel: (31) 221023

Cruising

Jill Dudley took the cruise boat from Ouranopolis, buying her ticket from the local office. Price: 3000 drachmas. Ouranopolis day trip agents: Athos City Travel - tel: 377 71550 or Rodokslakis - tel: 377 7107.

Exhibition

Mt Athos Exhibition opens in Thessalonika, 29 June at the Archaeological Museum, Plateia Hanth 54621 Thessalonika. Tel 0030 31830538.

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