Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Voyage to the magic. Mount Athos

Today’s destination is not exactly a voyage to magic, since it is one of the fiercest defenders of christian faith worldwide. It is a little republic of which few have heard of, with special status in the EU, the agreement of the euro has not arrived, the time is measured with a Julian calendar, the one used from Julius Caesar to the Renaissance: they weren’t prone at all to accept the "modern" Gregorian calendar (it already has over 500 years) but agreed to "review" the Julian in 1923, reconciling the civil and religious calendars until 2800, when they’ll have to make a new arrangement. It has an autonomous government formed by monks, so it is the only theocracy in the West; women are forbidden to cross its borders;it is a namesake of one of the three musketeers, it is patrimony of humanity; the treasures and relics it keeps outperform by far the Vatican vaults and and it is estimated that to make an inventory of them in a project funded by UNESCO will take about twenty years: ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mount Athos.

The Three Musketeers in Dumas’ story were Athos, Porthos and Aramis (the pun that the three musketeers are four is nonsense: the musketeers are three in this book, only at the very end their archenemy, Cardinal Richelieu, makes D'Artagnan a musketeer; the rest of the novel he’s an applicant). In one scene one of them is arrested and having his name asked for his only answer is "Athos". The perplexed policeman says, "That's not a person's name, is a mountain."

Mount Athos is a mountain north of the Halkidiki peninsula in Greece, which is closed by this mountain and the access to the site is by boat. Those who get dizzy sailing can consider to make a mule tour for 2-3 days, if they get the necessary permits. And women are not allowed. Hotels that receive tourists were intended for visitors to have a glimpse of the comforts they’d have as hermits, meaning there’s none. But free at least: no tourism is promoted but the visitor is considered a pilgrim. Now, if you want to make a donation, it would not hurt your case if you want to come back...

The country's name comes from the mountain which separates the country from the continent. At 2.033 meters the mountain was considered the highest in the world in ancient times, higher than Mount Olympus, but it was so far away from everything that the gods did not like the idea of living there. The geographer Strabo said that the whole world was visible from the top and Sophocles said that the shadow of the mountain reached the market square in Mirina, some forty miles away. Believe it or not, this last statement is true: in the winter solstice the shadow extends that much.

Athos was the name of one of the giants that rebeled against the Olympian gods. Here we must separate two different cycles: the Titanomachy and Gigantomachy. The Disney version of Hercules tells the story but has confused the two cycles. The first was when the Titans led by Cronos rebeled against his father Uranus and expelled him from power, leaving Cronos as chief god.

In time Cronos would be dethroned by his son, Zeus and it is after Zeus had prevailed and imposed his government that the Gigantomachy begins. Gaia, mother of the Titans, is furious because she helped Zeus beat Cronos so he release her children (Cronos siblings) from Tartarus, where their treachorous brother has them imprisoned. But once he won the war Zeus forgot his promise and let Gaia’s children locked up in the same place. Gaia cross the country recruiting the giants, who were born with armor, spear and sword from the blood of Uranus after the first war. I do not know what the blood of Uranus was made of to produce children who were born sword in hand, but Gaia doesn’t care: she wants them to attack Olympus, overthrow the Olympians led by the traitor of her grandson and reinstate the Titans. So those seen in the Disney film should not be called Titans but giants. The hero who repelled the attack (as shown in the film) is Hercules.

The general of the rebellion is Alcineus, a guy so big and dumb, that knowing he had secured immortality as long as he didn’t leave his homeland, agree to get into a fight that is not his far from his land, following a lady who is not his mom. And of course, Hercules killed him.

His right hand was Athos and the origin of the mountain has three explanations in mythology: it was the dirt the Olympic gods threw at him in the war to kill him. Two: he was a warrior so magnificent, that the gods in spite of his rebellious deeds created the mountain as a memorial. Three: an intermediate, the mountain was the tombstone Poseidon, an extremely ill-tempered god, made to bury his bastard and rebellious but beloved son.

The peninsula was the scene of the first mentioned work of nautical engineering in history. The issue is that the place was, and remains, very stormy and full of raging waters so every sailor was terrified to cross it. So when King Xerxes invaded Greece (the bad guy in 300) instead of surrounding the peninsula ordered a canal to move his fleet through land. According to Herodotus, twelve thousand men worked three years under the whip to open a canal one mile and something long. There is no trace of that work and there is heated debate whether or not such a thing ever happened, but in any case is the grandfather of the Panama Canal and the first work of its class mentioned in history.

Curiously enough Mount Athos ban the visit of women (although it’s sheltered them as a refugee camp) yet is one of the main shrines of the Virgin Mary in the world. Because its inaccessibility prevents the place to become a pilgrimage center, it does not have the reputation of Loreto, Fatima or Lourdes, but no other place has more literature and artwork related to the Lady. I don’t say it for religious purposes but to remark the irony (a place where the women are banned has a woman as its patron).

According to legend, Mary left Palestine with John the Evangelist whom Christ entrusted her (it was the same journey, fortunately for the Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown, in which Mary Magdalene went to southern France to give birth to the son of Jesus) . As I said, the place was famous for its climate and the storm pushed the virgin and the evangelist there. All pagan statues said "Look! It’s the mother of God. Let’s say hi!” Unfortunately the stone statues are not very agile and the moment they jump from their pedestals just broke into pieces. Mary, seeing the beauty of the place, asked his son to give it to her as a garden.

Mount Athos has twenty monasteries, there is no place on earth with highest density of religious buildings, is the last physical remain in the world of the Middle Ages. The site invites the mysticism as few and therefore without natural resources and geostrategic position has been at the confluence of all kinds of struggles between Catholics and Orthodox, Greeks and Turks, Christians and Muslims, Russians and Westerners. Just for what it represents as mystical value, but of course, the only ritual to be held here, in spite of the neopagan to love this place (without monasteries included) is the mass of the Greek Orthodox rite, something that is expected all visitors listen to at least once a day

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