In 2005 I sailed to the quasi-independent republic of Mt Athos, and stayed at the Iviron monastery among others. A number of Greek Orthodox fathers were taking their sons on the pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, a rite of passage for devout Orthodox men.
Time may not have stood still here, but it has passed more slowly and gently. The monks continue to use the two thousand year old Julian calendar, some thirteen days behind the rest of the world. Their day starts at nightfall, and they divide both the dark and sunlit parts of the day into twelve equal hours whose length varies with the season.
After matins prayers at dawn, they have a breakfast of tea, bread and olives around 7:00 our time. Around 11:00 there is a “geuma” of lentil soup, cheese, olives, bread and an orange. Supper consists of lentil soup, bread, olives and an orange. Around 6:00, bells ring for vespers and a monk bangs rhythmically on a big wooden board that he carries around with him. Then at 7:30 a “trapeza” or table of beans, scrambled eggs, cheese, yogurt, one glass of wine and apricots while a monk reads from the Bible the entire meal. Dishes are entirely metal on long plain marble tables. When the chief monks are finished, everyone has to get up from their benches and leave. The outer gates are closed and locked for the rest of the night at about 9:00, 12:00 Byzantine time, the end of one day and the beginning of the next.
The monastery of Iviron is an elevated stone rectangle on which are perched the monks’ dwellings. Hidden within the walls are vast cellars containing enormous wooden barrels for making and storing wine for the few hundred monks that once occupied the monastery. The katholikon or main church in the central courtyard is lavishly decorated with colourful marble slabs aligned in geometric patterns in the floor and on the walls shimmering in candlelight, hinting at ancient Byzantine opulence. The monastery’s library, formerly on the upper level of the narthex as often in Byzantine monastic churches, includes many small scrolls of hymns which were depicted in use in 16th century wall paintings, the largest collection of Byzantine music in the world. Indeed, the tradition of Byzantine music still lives when chanted in the monastic churches of Mt Athos.