A crowd of men mills around the port of Ouranoupolis, the so-called City of the Sky and the departure point from which pilgrims and monks enter Mount Athos, the second holiest place in Orthodox Christianity. One of them poses for his selfie-stick against the ageing ship that will convey them along a peninsula studded for a thousand years with 20 monasteries and a tradition of male monasticism.
Another downloads the new Mount Athos app on his smartphone to read up on the monasteries he plans to visit and check road connections between them. Others update on Facebook the running online record of their lives, instantly reaping ‘likes’ and peer validation for their pilgrimage.
It is a far cry from my first visit to the mountain in 1999, when my father handed me the Diamonitirion, an ecclesiastical visa stamped with the Byzantine two-headed eagle granting four days of access to this medieval monastic state.
Shouldering rucksacks, we got off the nearly empty boat and struck into the mist-shrouded mountain, hiking from monastery to monastery along lush paths to explore a place known in Orthodox theology as the garden of the Virgin Mary.
NATO was bombing Belgrade a few hundred miles to the north. The crowds of Eastern European and Russian tourists that visit the mountain today were still absent; the few other pilgrims we encountered were Greek.
My father had first visited Athos in the 1970s, when only a small number of ageing ascetics remained.
Separated from other Orthodox Christian countries by Communism and the Iron Curtain, it seemed like Mount Athos – like the frayed communities of Greeks surviving in Damascus, Jerusalem, Tehran and Tunis – was living the swansong of an unbroken tradition of monasticism extending to Byzantium.
Wide-eyed, I took in the crumbling monasteries, the abundant fertility unfurling over winding mountain paths, and the conversations with monks that devout Greeks choose as their spiritual fathers.
As the days passed, I felt myself become more attuned to this new world. My muscles adapted to the hours of daily hiking and my wits to the Byzantine schedule that saw us get up at 4am to attend candlelit liturgies, accompany frugal meals with wine, and end the day with sunset. My rational school training grappled with the concepts I was exposed to.
Adapting wasn’t easy, the monks weren’t particularly welcoming, and modernity had already nibbled away at the Mountain to the point where my father had decided this was to be his last visit.
He was channelling all his learning and experience of the place in handing the baton over to me. On my next visit, I’d be on my own.
The rationalism that underpins technology abrogated the mystery necessary for the process of religious belief to work, reducing something that is by definition abstract to something that must be quantified.
Though my induction to Athos and its traditions was harsh, it was all the more engaging for lacking the temptations offered by a sleek device blinking in my palm, seductively promising an escape to a reassuring world of friends and validation when the going got tough.
Technology had memorably augmented my reality once before, when I first walked through post-civil war Beirut’s extraordinary shattered downtown in 1996 listening to the Smashing Pumpkins’ anthemic Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
There, the Walkman had insulated me from reality and overlayed it with a stirring soundtrack. But at least it hadn’t opened a window to the world through which all manners of desirable and undesirable acquaintances could disruptively reach through to comment, question, request and demand.
Listening to music in Beirut sharpened my experience but also glamourised the ruins and stripped them of context. It was an awesome introduction to Lebanon, though perhaps not an honest one.
Interactions with nature
Turning the internet on in Athos fatally diluted my interactions with nature, my travelling companion, and those we encountered along the way.
Worse, the rationalism that underpins technology abrogated the mystery necessary for the process of religious belief to work, reducing something that is by definition abstract to something that must be quantified.
Its presence swept uncertainty aside in favour of certainty, putting a premium on seemingly well-defined and calculable truths.
“A pilgrimage is not simply a matter of getting to a particular shrine or holy place,” wrote Philip Sherrard, a theologian who translated the definitive text of Orthodox mysticism, the Philokalia, into English.
“It is a deliberate sundering and surrender of one’s habitual conditions of comfort, routine, safety, convenience. He removes himself as far as possible from the artificiality within which he is enclosed by his life in society.”
The five days I spent on Mount Athos in the leadup to Orthodox Easter, supposedly the most spiritual season of the year, revealed a place flooded by pilgrims (an all-time high of 320,000 last year); modern constructions built with brick, cement and tin roofs rather than the traditional stone and wood; and open-air rubbish tips spilling down the wooded slopes.
Harried monks bustled back-and-forth, Viber notifications pealing from their phones, trying to accommodate the ballooning numbers of pilgrims who take taxis between monasteries rather than hiking, and don’t shy from demanding free food and board.
In no longer walking, the majority of visitors to Mount Athos have sacrificed the physical part of the spiritual exploration they are on that Sherrard describes in The Paths of Athos: “His feet tire, his body aches, sweat drips from his head and trickles into his eyes and down his neck. He tastes rigour and hardship. But through all this – and only through all this, and through his prayer and dedication and confidence – slowly an inner change is wrought, a new rhythm grows, a deeper harmony. The pilgrimage is at work.”
Iason Athanasiadis is an award-winning photojournalist who covers the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.