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The austerity and beauty of life on Mount Athos


A world without women
John Julius Norwich Writer
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The Holy Mountain, it has been there since about the tenth century, and it consists of 20 Orthodox monasteries, 17 Greek, one Russian, one Bulgarian, and one Serbian. And all you do is you wander from one monastery to the next. I mean, they may be an hour, two hours, three hours away from each other and you'd walk. Nowadays, I'm told, you've got a nasty little road and a bus or two, which I hate the idea of. It was all much purer in my day. But the point of Mount Athos is, as you probably know, the most famous thing about it is that it's completely all male. Not only is no women allowed onto it at all, but no cows, no hens. I mean, as far down the animal scale as you can get, for as long as you can ban the female, you do. It doesn’t, alas, go as far as mosquitoes, but there it is. Anyway, it's been like that for the last thousand years and it is very, very remarkable. You'll never see a woman, you'll never see a child, and we were there for 17, 18 days and 17, 18 days without actually seeing a woman, it's quite odd and eerie, something about it, you know, not seeing a child at all or hearing one cry or anything. But there it is, just these black robed old men and some of them are actually quite young, most of them in their 60s or 70s, I suppose, and doing really nothing, but praying and organising these great, wonderful services, which go on all day and, indeed, most of the night. Anyway, this is... off we went and we covered, I think, 17 of the 20 monasteries. I'm told that nowadays, in theory, you're only meant to stay there for 3 or 4 days, but in my day you could stay as long as you liked.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Holy Mountain, Athos

Duration: 2 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018