No Women or Secular Rationalists Need Apply: A Little Introduction to the Greek Peninsula of Athos

The internet magazine, Religion Dispatches, has an interesting article on the peninsula of Athos in Greece, a haven for Greek and Russian Orthodox believers to cultivate a closer walk with God.

Or maybe not.

If God, after all, turns out to be a woman then she might not be happy with Athos. If you’re annoyed that Muslims reserve Mecca for Muslims, perhaps you’ll be equally annoyed to learn that Athos constitutes forty full square miles of God’s green earth where only Christians with penises are allowed. No women need ever, ever, ever apply: 

Mount Athos is considered to be the most sacred geography in the Orthodox Christian world. Its oldest monasteries were built-in the 10th century, and there are currently twenty of them (19 Greek and one Russian Orthodox) scattered along the lovely coast of a nearly forty-mile peninsula not far from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. No women are permitted to set foot on this peninsula (nor are female animals larger than chickens). Athos is also the notorious butt of many jokes in Greece, whose monks are often caustically represented as the very souls of epicurean excess: gourmandes who eat and drink far too well; homoerotically inclined men who enjoy the favors of their many doting pilgrims; spendthrifts who have lately taken to fiddling while Athens burns.

So if you have a vagina and are larger than a chicken, scratch Athos off your Greek exploration list.

If you’re rich, however, it appears that the monks definitely want to talk to you. In fact, Athos has recently become a model for how one can practice ascetic Christianity and capitalist entrepreneurship at the same time (while contributing to the Greek—and, therefore, global—financial crisis to boot):

In the 1980s, the Vatopaidi monastery, like all the monasteries on Athos, was i[n] desperate straits. Fewer and fewer men were entering the priesthood; fewer still felt attracted to the grueling life on an isolated northern peninsula. The Russian monastery was closed, as the Soviet regime had made it impossible to supply the place with monks. The libraries were entirely unused; staffed in most cases by a single monk, all they could do was to keep the place clean and dry; no librarian had any sense of what these libraries contained. 

Father Ephraim and some other enterprising young monks saw an opportunity on Mount Athos, and made their way to Vatopaidi in the 1990s. Discussions of membership in the European Community made it plausible to hit the EU up for money, in order to preserve what were now deemed to be European cultural treasures. 

But the real novelty of the fiscal approach at Vatopaidi involved their close attention to the books, literally. The monastery’s books. Land grants from emperors were fairly common throughout the Byzantine era. Mount Athos was the regular source of such imperial largesse. The monks at Vatopaidi ransacked their own library and eventually found a copy of the title to a lake in northern Greece that had been granted to the monastery in the 14th century by Emperor John V. Paleologos. After some confused negotiating, the monastery’s title to the lake was confirmed by the Greek state in 1998. 

Then things turned strange. The monks at Vatopaidi sought to make a deal, trading what was for their purposes a worthless lake that generated no income into commercial (or at least commercializeable) real estate that would. By the time they had finished with their full-court press in Athens, the monks at Vatopaidi had been awarded 73 different government properties in exchange for that lake. They were even given the site of the old gymnastics venue from the 2004 Athens Olympics, which they immediately set about converting to lease to a for-profit (!) hospital. These various monastic holdings are now estimated to be worth somewhere between one and two billion dollars.

The 2004 Olympics gymnastic venue. A for-profit hospital. 73 government properties.

Silver and gold have they lots.

And Greek and Russian Orthodox believers, it appears, are okay with this. If you go to YouTube you can find all sorts of hyper-pious depictions of individual ascetic Athos ‘saints’ being reified as vessels of exemplary Christian poverty and wisdom. Below is an example. And yet this monk, even as he says some wise things, mixes in a good deal of anti-science and anti-rational nonsense as well. Anyway, that’s my opinion. Have a looksie for yourself. Welcome to the vagina-less and pre-Enlightenment peninsula of Athos:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to No Women or Secular Rationalists Need Apply: A Little Introduction to the Greek Peninsula of Athos

  1. Anonymous says:

    tafi here’s a replacement youtube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aho5xgwbWlw

  2. concerned christian says:

    Santi:
    The posting and the information deserve to be discussed but unfortunately, your diatribe and use of words made me worried that you have already been possessed by Jon Stuart and Keith Olbermann spirits. Please get rid of these evil spirits.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Concerned,

    Ha! Would that be the spirit of irony?

    —Santi

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