Time to re-think ban on women at Greek holy site?
Last month I visited Mount Athos, a self- governing monastic state in northern Greece where some 1,500 monks live according to rules which have changed little in the last millennium. Athos’ 20 monasteries are considered by the world’s 300 million Orthodox as perhaps the second most holy site of their faith, after Jerusalem. They are home to breathtaking religious art and thousands of manuscripts dating back to the Byzantine empire, as well as priceless relics, like fragments of the True Cross, believed by the Orthodox faithful to have performed countless miracles.
(Photo:Simomos Petras monastery at Mount Athos/Daniel Flynn)
For many Orthodox it is the fulfilment of a long-held dream to visit the rugged Holy Mountain — but not if you a woman. Women are completely banned from the 300 sq kilometre peninsula and any breach of this strict rule is a criminal offence in Greece punishable by up to two years in prison.
But the main treasure of Mount Athos is the place itself and many Orthodox women feel frustrated by the ban on visiting it. “I would love to see it, but I know I never will,” is a common comment, though some say they understand the ban. At the same time, many Greek women are angry that their taxes are being used to fund wealthy institutions that they are banned from setting foot in, arguing that UNESCO status means the monasteries are treasures of humanity, not just of male humanity.
(Photo: Pantheleimon Monastery at Mount Athos/Daniel Flynn)
Some argue that it reflects a wider snub to women in the Orthodox faith, where they are barred from the priesthood. Orthodox wedding vows still tell wives to fear their husbands, although some priests insist this is a mistranslation of old Greek. Although it seems to be living in a place outside time, the modern world has reached Mount Athos in many ways. Monks on Athos drive four-by-fours, have mobile phones and e-mail accounts. The mountain is open to heads of state, princes, and tourists from all over the world. One monastery there, Vatopedi, has even found itself at the heart of a controversial property transaction with the Greek government now being investigated by parliament.
Women are welcomed as visitors in other monasteries in Greece. Public money is being used to renovate and promote the monasteries on Mount Athos. So is it about time to allow women access to the Holy Mountain?