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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project