By Catherine Tsounis
The attraction of Greece lies not only in the beauty of its landscapes, but also in its rich cultural and religious heritage. One of these iconic sites is Mount Athos, a sanctuary that has remained reserved for men for centuries, hosting more than twenty-two million Eastern Orthodox Christians around the world. As part of the 5-day Macedonian travel package organized by the Kapogiannis Travel agency, I had the privilege of taking part in a cruise to Mount Athos, embarking from Ouranoupolis, Macedonia. This unforgettable journey provided insight into the peninsula’s UNESCO World Heritage status, its ancient monasteries and the deep spiritual connection it holds.
Mount Athos, known as the Holy Mountain, is a peninsula in northern Greece that is home to a remarkable collection of monasteries, villages and traditional structures. The excursion took us along the southwestern slope of Mount Athos, unveiling its hidden treasures as we sailed through serene blue waters and passed through picturesque olive groves. Among the monasteries we encountered were the Holy Monastery of Dochiariou, SM Xenophontos, SM Panteleimonos (also known as the Russian Monastery), SM Xiropotamou and the central port of Mount Athos, Daphni. The scenic journey offered a glimpse into the heart of Greek Orthodoxy.
On board the cruise ship, I observed other passengers from various walks of life. The group was mainly made up of European tourists, especially tourists of Slavic and Eastern Orthodox origin. Their presence demonstrated a genuine interest in experiencing the aura of Mount Athos. Contrary to the stereotype of wealthy travelers, these were average individuals, mostly women with children. Their motivation was to witness the mystique of Mount Athos from a distance, cherishing this spiritual pilgrimage.
The famous Byzantine scholar Warren Treadgold noted: “Since a population exchange in 1923 drove most Greeks from Turkey, few people spoke Greek outside of Greece and Cyprus. However, a patriarch of Constantinople remains in Turkish Istanbul at the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 1 Eastern Orthodoxy, the cornerstone of the Greek cultural fabric, persists as the majority faith in countries like Russia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and beyond.
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As the cruise progressed we came to a monastic complex on the shore, St. Xenophontos. Here, the monastic spirit transcended its borders, as three monks from St. Xenophontos came on board to share their relics, icons, honey, sweets and other monastery products. This encounter allowed passengers, including women who would never be admitted to the monastery, to experience a spiritual connection. Lines formed to pay homage to the relics, and the benevolent presence of the monks exuded a sense of tranquility and devotion.
In a moving interaction, I approached one of the monks and asked for his blessing for a small bundle of crosses and bracelets. His response was unexpectedly deep as he bestowed the blessings of the relics on me with deep reverence. This transcendent encounter left an indelible mark on my mind, illustrating the timeless power of faith.
At the end of the cruise, the ship’s captain informed me of his ongoing efforts to facilitate such spiritual interactions on board, in an effort to support the devotion of Orthodox Christians. Certificates were given to each tourist, confirming their visit to the revered relics of the monastery.
The monastery of Xenophontos, located on the southwestern slope of Mount Athos, occupies a unique place among the twenty monasteries of the peninsula. Its dedication to Saint George, bearer of the Trophy, reflects its commitment to preserving Christian values and heritage. With an extensive library containing thousands of books and manuscripts, Xenophontos Monastery embodies the spiritual heritage of Mount Athos.
This trip to Mount Athos served as a window into the enduring legacy of Byzantine civilization and the spiritual aspirations of modern-day pilgrims. Amid azure seas and traditional monastic buildings, the importance of Mount Athos as a sanctuary for the soul was palpable. Beyond the sensational headlines, Mount Athos conveys a message of spiritual continuity that transcends time and borders.