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.
Athonite tradition has it that the Virgin Mary’s ship was blown off course as she travelled with St John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus in Cyprus and that on making ground in Athos she immediately prayed to her son to dedicate the beautiful peninsula to her, which he did, meaning that other women were banned. Modern day monks say there are good practical reasons why women are prohibited: “God built a sexual attraction between men and women. To have them here would distract us from our main aim, which is prayer,” one monk told me. Many pilgrims have more flippant excuses. “Women would not like it here, there are no mirrors,” said one elderly Greek.
The ban on women has already raised the ire of the European Parliament, which has two voted to criticise the prohibition: European Union taxes are helping to fund a massive renovation of the monasteries, which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In January a group of women including a Greek MP briefly entered Athos in a protest. Apart from accepting some female refugees during the civil war in the late 1940s, the most the monks have done to open up is allow many of their most precious treasures to be briefly seen at exhibitions in Greece.
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.