Closest To Christ- Mount Athos
Where do you get to find a language that has been spoken almost three centuries ago to still be spoken in that exact same lingo? I am talking about the prayers and chants that are recounted by monks every moment of their waking hours at the headquarters of the Orthodox Church at Mount Athos. These prayers have not been altered to the slightest degree from when they were first written and spoken by Christ himself as believed by the monks who live there. Becoming associated with community is even harder than getting admitted to Harvard. Not every random religious monk can be admitted here and has to be approved by the chief abbot and has to prove his absolute and resolute purpose of being close to Christ. No women or children are even allowed into the place and the outside “world” is kept away. Monks at this place spend eight hours a day, three-sixty-five days in a year praying and chanting ancient prayers in a congregation itself. A monk from Saint Athos spend their entire life and energy in the pursue of being close to the divine, to the extent of not interacting with the outside world.
However, it has been considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and consists of structures which are assets to the history of human civilization. It is home to 20 Orthodox Monasteries and forms an autonomous state under Greek sovereignty. The capital of this peninsula is known as Karyes and this small self-governed area is dominated by the monasteries and the monks who are only allowed there. St Athanasius established the largest of these monasteries at Lavra, still considered the most important at 963 AD. It has seen history change in front of its eyes and kingdoms demolish. The large Empires to which Mount Athos became a part of like the Ottoman and the Byzantine Empire have often tried to extract wealth through large taxes and loots but this small place in Greece has always received respect. Over the centuries it has been invaded by Crusaders, Kings and even Pirates! It is considered by the hand of God that the place has survived without falling into the sea.
The fastest way to reach Mount Athos (Agion Oros) is to take Thessaloniki – Polygyros highway and driving 100km east you will reach ancient Stagira, the birth town of the famous philosopher Aristotle. Another 30 km south and you will be in Ouranoupoli from where you can enter the monastic state of Agion Oros. The layout of the monasteries had an influence as far afield as Russia, and its school of painting influenced the history of Orthodox art. Note that you will need a special license in order to enter and the procedure might take up to a week. Foreigners need a visa issued by the monks itself. For all these formalities, the beauty of the place and the heritage associated with it more than makes up for it.
Trivia: A monk was interviewed by CBS News from mount Athos who said that his father called him through the few telephone networks available there to request his only son to come see him just before he died. The son, the monk declined the request saying that monks are not supposed to attend social gatherings.
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