Mt Athos is a mountain range at the south end of a peninsula projecting into the northern Aegean. It is in some ways the most remote part of mainland Greece, as far away as possible from interaction with other humans. For over a thousand years the monks and hermits from the Orthodox world have maintained a rigorous way of life, and their commitment to it has helped to preserve their semi-independent state, first recognized by international treaty in 1878. No females, not even domesticated animals or chickens, were allowed. ‘Eggs have to be imported from Salonika and milk is condensed. This prohibition accounts for the wonderful vegetation and covers all the slopes of the mountain. All the East has been denuded by the ubiquitous and rapacious goat, but here all shrubs and trees are safe from the depredations of everything except man.’ (Wednesday, 18 July 1923) 

After leaving Lemnos, the Italian students then sailed to Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain to Orthodox Greeks. The men first landed near the southern tip of the peninsula at the small harbour for the Great Lavra monastery, the oldest and largest of the twenty monasteries on Mt Athos. Its rectangular compound was surrounded by fortified walls on a natural terrace some 500 feet above the sea for protection against pirate raids. Everyone including visitors had to be inside the walls before the gates were closed at 12 o’clock Byzantine time, i.e., at nightfall. Centuries ago the monks had lived a religiously regulated cenobitic way of life, with all property held in common and meals eaten together in silence to the reading of the scriptures, but now the old refectories were mostly abandoned. The Great Lavra, like most of the other monasteries, was now adhering to the more self-regulating idiorhythmic lifestyle: each monk could keep his own private funds and eat by himself or in small groups. Such freedom from regulations in the past had encouraged the development of free-thinking creativity, such as the use of cursive writing. 

“We passed all Sunday [13 May] on board the boat and it was only at about 5 that we got to the convent of Lavra which is the most ancient of the monasteries. Mt Athos is one of the most beautiful places I have seen anywhere. The general character of the coast reminds one of Portofino-Rapallo, wonderful flowers and thick woods and shrubs while above this vegetation towers the solitary snow-covered peak of the mountain. Then the monasteries are perfectly wonderful & unlike anything I have ever seen before. They are regular villages and, usually square, enclose the church in the centre. They are very fine & impressive & contain wonderful Byzantine reliquaries & MSS [manuscripts]. The monks at Lavra were very hospitable …. We fed excellently; no meat [because no domesticated animals were allowed even for breeding] but 2 kinds of fish which were delicious & macaroni or rice. Next day Monday [14] to the Mon[asteries] of Karakalu & Iviron both very interesting & slept at the latter.” (Friday, 18 May 1923) 

The theocratic republic on Mt Athos evolved democratically through the centuries. Each of the twenty monasteries would send a representative every year to live in the capital of Karyes, where they could meet sitting on divans around a large room. From this assembly an elected group of four served as the executive with a protepistates (‘First Overseer’) chosen for life. Each of the four carried a quarter of the great seal which had to be temporarily re-assembled in order to seal documents; in other words, as Gilbert noted in a later lecture, their decisions had to be unanimous: ‘it may therefore be surmised that the gentle art of obstructionism is known and practiced on the Holy mountain.’ (Bagnani ‘Mt Athos’) 

“On Tuesday [15] we went to the village Karyes which is the capital of the local republic. It is very picturesque & curious since of course there are no women in the place & most of the shops are kept by monks.” (Friday. 18 May 1923) “It is amusing to watch the bearded and long-haired priests baking bread, or a venerable black-robed father sitting on the pavement mending shoes with his head surmounted by the characteristic top hat. The Church at Karyes of the Protatou is a very old Church and forms as it were the Cathedral of the community, where great communal services take place. In it is preserved a very ancient icon of the Virgin,” (Bagnani ‘Mt Athos’) the Axion esti, a miracle-working icon of the 10th century.

“From there we walked to Vatopedi [Monastery] which contains the finest treasures & books & then crossed the hill over to Daphni where we just managed to catch the boat for Salonika. Of course we were far too short a time on the mount but I intend someday to pass a summer there as it would be a perfectly ideal resort & the monasteries seem pretty clean.” (Friday, 18 May 1023) The scenery, the Byzantine art and architecture, and the survival of the medieval way of life all appealed to Gilbert’s sensibilities but, unfortunately, the opportunity for Gilbert to return to this living Byzantium never arose again.