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What Kind of World is Athos?

What Kind of World is Athos?

by Haruki Murakami
Translated by Christopher Allison

There are a few things that you have to know before taking a trip to Athos. Among these, the foremost is the very fact that the Athos peninsula is a completely separate world. Athos operates according to a totally different set of rules from the world on this side. That set of rules, in short, is called the Greek Orthodox Church. This place is the Holy Land of Greek Orthodoxy, and people come here in order to get closer to God. On account of that fact, while the region is technically part of Greece, it is ruled by a completely autonomous government.

The law that governs the Athos region is far older than any secular law or constitution, and stronger. The eastern Roman emperor ruled this land, and then the Turks, and finally the Greek government. But under whatever system of government may have existed, rule was impossible without the cooperation of the Church. This is Athos.

Today, the Athos peninsula houses 20 monasteries, where about 2000 monks undergo strict religious training. The simple, self-sufficient lifestyle of the monks is almost unchanged since the monasteries were built during the Byzantine Era, and they pray day and night in order to draw nearer to God. They are very serious people. They practice a discipline that shuns human society and worldly desire in favor of religious truth and the attainment of beatitude. They have come to this holy region precisely because of the unusually subtle degree of concentration their prayers require. These are definitely not the prayers that accompany the activities of the Boy Scouts. This is the first thing that you have to get into your head.

Consequently, not one single woman lives here, and it is forbidden to go into the mountains. Such things (though it is terrible to refer to them that way) are impediments to religious training. Nor are female animals allowed to enter. All male animals are castrated. While it ought to go without saying, it's not the case that every single animal in Athos is male. The restriction is limited to large domestic animals.

Since this place is primarily for the religious training of Greek Orthodox monks, foreign heathens must get a special visa issued by the Greek Foreign Ministry to come here. If too many miscellaneous people came tromping through, settling down to ascetic practice would be impossible. Foreigners are only permitted to stay four days and three nights as a rule. Receiving permission to stay longer than that is quite difficult.
According to legend, the Holy Mother Mary once went by boat to visit Lazlo, who lived on Cyprus. The boat lost its way during a storm, but by the divine guidance of God she washed ashore on the Athos coast. Up until that time, the region had been ruled by heathens, but as soon as Mary set foot on the coast all of their idols were ground into dust. Mary established Athos as a holy garden, and declared that women must never set foot there for all eternity. And thus Athos became a Holy Land, blessed by God.

Or so the story goes.

If such a thing were to happen today, I think there would surely be an outcry by all the feminists of the world. This was almost 2000 years ago, though, and it didn't make anybody particularly mad. Ever since then, women haven't been allowed here. And if I may be permitted to speak my own opinion, the existence of one or two places in the world where women aren't allowed might not be such a bad thing. There are places where men aren't allowed to go and it doesn't bother me much.

The original monasteries were built in the tenth century. In its heyday there were 40 monasteries here, with 20,000 monks undergoing training. Although Athos gradually declined, on account of various factors, including an economic crisis during the period of Turkish rule and perpetual pirate attacks, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a gradual renewal, which has continued to the present. Particularly since the 1960's, disillusionment with materialism and a religious awakening among the young, brought about by changing values, have brought Athos into world consciousness as a new Holy Land, especially among college-educated intellectuals who feel the need for seclusion. While it is just my impression from wandering around Athos, wherever I went there were quite a lot of young people in the monasteries, and they were generally gifted linguists. Thus, the implications of this lead to a situation very different than that of the established religions in Japan. In this land, religion is literally a living thing. It is still breathing.

Moreover, the natural beauty of this peninsula remains almost untouched by human hands. It's probably safe to say that this is the only place in all of Greece that the tourism developers haven't laid their hands on. The terrain is rugged. There are hardly any open plains at all. There are just mountains. The 2000-meter Mount Athos towers over the southern part of the peninsula. The coastline is all cliffs, which seem to have a severity forbidding human approach. Wherever you go, you have to cross the mountains individually on foot. No vehicle infrastructure to speak of exists on the whole peninsula. Ever since I first read about Athos in a book, I had wanted to come here. I wanted to see with my own eyes what kind of people live here, and how they spend their lives.

As a result, it came to pass that one September morning in 1988, we took a boat trip from Uranopolis to Daphne. For traveling companions, I had brought my photographer Mr. Matsumura, and my editor Mr. O. Later, Matsumura and I would make a circuit of Turkey in a car. First, though, we began with Athos. O, having completed the various tedious preparations for entering Athos, accompanied us this far.

In the end, this turned out to be quite a hard trip. And, while I'm not particularly averse to difficult travel, it was still pretty tough. The roads were consistently treacherous, the climate was consistently severe, and the food was consistently coarse.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First came Daphne, the entrance to Athos.