A visit to the Holy Mountain – Mount Athos, in November 1944

In November 1944, three New Zealand servicemen went to Mount Athos in northern Greece, to present citations to various monasteries who, in spite of serious risks to their own lives and safety, had been instrumental in caring for New Zealanders during the Second World War.

Two years ago, following a request from a monk regarding the origin of these certificates, which were signed by the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Peter Fraser, and Gen. Bernard Freyberg, Commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, I discovered (by chance), a hitherto unplayed recorded talk in the archives of Radio New Zealand. This talk, by one of the group (Peter McIntyre, the Official War Artist) had been recorded on New Years Day, 1945.

A collection of 83 photographs, taken by one of the team on this visit, was discovered recently in the National Library of New Zealand.

The talk and photographs give an extraordinary insight into both Mount Athos, and the kindness and generosity of the inhabitants.

Peter Howorth

Click on arrow above to play audio of Peter McIntyre (the Official War Artist), recorded on New Years Day, 1945 – from the Radio New Zealand archives.

I have been to a lot of queer places in my time; pocket republics like San Marino in Italy, Andorra in Spain, places like Monaco, but last month in northern Greece, I found one of the strangest of them all. A peninsular virtually cut off from the outside world, a state virtually self governed, strange, mysterious and beautiful, a place of some 8000 inhabitants, where there are no women, no roads, and incidentally no advertising.

When you come to think of it, rid yourself of those two things, women and motorcars, and most of life’s complications and worries disappear immediately.

If you go beyond Salonika and over the mountain pass you come to the peninsular of Mount Athos. It juts out into the Aegean Sea. It is a lonely remote and utterly beautiful place.
Since about 300 AD the peninsular has been inhabited entirely by monks. Dotted along its length, on a high rocky cracks and the cliffs above the sea are huge old monasteries.
They were built to withstand the pirate raids and they have great stone walls and battlements.

There were three of us who went, all from Dunedin – Monty McClymont, Mac Miller, and myself.

We went by jeep across country, through villages where they gave us roast pork, and a fiery drink called ouzo – as far as even an army jeep could go, which is something. We saw the remains of the great canal that Xerxes tried to cut across the peninsular some 200 years before Christ. When the jeep gave up, we hired a fishing boat, and we sailed along the coast. It was lovely. The water was like glass, and you could see the starfish far below, with Mount Athos looming up away ahead out of the haze.

Lying on deck in the sun we passed the last village on the coast, and there the fishermen pointed out the Frontier guard. Women are forbidden by law from going past this Frontier on to the peninsular. In fact no woman has set foot on Mount Athos since the year 1026, although I believe many have tried.

It gave you a sort of relaxed feeling. “No women, eh?”said Monty, “no women? Now this is a strange place for you to be in, McIntyre.” “On the contrary, McClymont”, I said, “I am seriously considering becoming a monk. I doubt whether I shall ever leave this place.”

We put in that evening at a tiny harbour below the great monastery of Saint Paul, and as we climbed up the path, the monks came down to meet us. High black caps and robes, long hair and beards – strange looking fellows.

My first shock was to find them not gloomy and solemn, but gay, even hearty and back-slapping. “Welcome, welcome!” they kept repeating. They are intensely royalist and pro-British. “Greece must become a British colony!” was one of the first things they said to me.

Eventually they realised from our shoulder flashes that we were New Zealanders, and immediately chaos reigned! They all wanted to ask us at the same time how ‘Thomas’ was.

‘Thomas’ being Colonel Sandy Thomas of 2NZEF, who, after escaping wounded from a German prison near Salonika, was sheltered and nursed by these monks. As they did with several New Zealanders and hundreds of British escaped prisoners, these monks eventually got Col Thomas away by boat to Turkey and freedom. They were frequently searched by the Germans but always managed to hide the soldiers in the forest around the monasteries.

The young gardener monk who looked after Col Thomas was eventually imprisoned by the Germans.

Supper was an enormous meal, six courses with copious wine. A very gay meal with much laughter and much urging to eat and drink more. At 11 o’clock we managed to escape to bed, spotless white beds with huge eiderdowns. At one in the morning all the bells in the monastery began to ring. I turned over with a deep luxurious sigh. These monks go to church to pray from one in the morning until dawn. At about three I was awakened again to hear a gong, a huge wooden gong, beaten in a sort of broken rhythm. Then a bell took up the rhythm, filling all the monastery with a pulsating sound. It was for all the world like being in Tibet.

By boat again the next day around the coast past the hermit huts. These hermits live all alone each in a tiny cabin clinging incredibly to the cliff face high above the sea. Their food, dry bread and water only, is brought by boat and hauled up by rope. It is interesting to note that these old boys thrive on this diet, and almost all live to be about 90. To their last days they are able to clamber up and down the cliff like youngsters.

A storm forced us ashore at the cape, and we climbed on foot to a Romanian monastery where they fed us on raw salt fish wild honey and brown bread in a room strangely enough hung with gaudy old lithographs of battle scenes. Among the most incongruous in this place was a scene of the relief of Ladysmith.

From there we travelled by donkey through wild mountainous country, the paths were torturous, steep and rough, led round rocky cliffs and through deep forests. Two of us had nasty spills – donkey and all.

We would come to a monastery, sheer stone walls and narrow gate, silent and forbidding, sometimes Mac and Monty sitting on their donkeys under some battlemented wall gazing upwards would look to me for all the world like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

At Lavra, wealthiest and oldest monastery, we saw a whole library of ancient manuscripts. Priceless things, dating back to about the fourth century. Preserved there is the whole history of the Byzantium Empire. There were the robes and the jewelled crowns of the ancient patriarchs of Byzantium. There were quivers of arrows used 800 years ago to defend this very monastery against pirates.

In the courtyard, a beautiful peaceful courtyard, was a huge tree that by the monastery records will be 1000 years old in 13 years time. Though it had been rebuilt several times, this monastery was first built about 300 AD. The latest attempt to destroy the monastery was last year when the ELAS troops, knowing the royalist and pro-British leanings of the monks, set fire to the surrounding forests.

After another long journey by donkey, we reached the capital, Karyes. Surely one of the strangest in the world. Streets and shops and guesthouses, hostels and churches, but no women, no motorcars, no shop signs, no street signs.

By law no shopkeeper may put up his name or any other sign. You may not even ride your donkey through the capital, you must dismount and walk.

These monks, too, have no sense of time! The day begins at dawn, so what you might think would be 7 o’clock in the morning is, according to them 2 o’clock. Their calendar is 13 days behind ours. In Athos you may think it is 8 o’clock on July 4 but you are quite wrong; according to them it is 3 o’clock on June 21. The whole thing leaves you are in a state of suspicious bewilderment.

The committee or parliament meets in the capital – one representative from each monastery. We were awakened at 6:30 in the morning by our own time to meet the representatives.

Think of it – parliament in session at seven in the morning!

We had had no breakfast (the monks only eat two meals a day) and we were marched in with great ceremony. Promptly around came the trays of ouzo – at seven in the morning in parliamentary session! It was almost too much!

After many flowery speeches we bid farewell, and led our donkeys off through the strangest of capitals. We rode down to the coast and to our fishing boat with a feeling of coming out into another world.

So it was farewell to Mount Athos, land of no women.

We drove next day to Salonika, and there in front of a hotel was a woman, a little Australian Red Cross girl we had met on our way through. Her name was Penny. “Penny”, I said “ you have no idea how glad I am to see you!”