Mount Athos is a veritable spiritual continent, the holiest place of the Orthodox Christian religion. It is also known as the Garden of the Virgin because Mary is purported to have landed here with Saint John the Evangelist; some even say she died here. And a garden it most certainly is – a garden of an extraordinarily pristine Mediterranean nature. In spring, it bursts joyfully into thousands of sweet-smelling flowers. Until very recently the only way of getting around was either on foot or on mule-back. And even today, with a nearly impenetrable forest blocking the peninsula from the mainland, the only access to the Holy Mountain is by sea, and tides along the coastline are known to be particularly treacherous. The steep cliffs protect the tranquility and contemplation of the hermits who have taken shelter here. In each cove, imperious yellow signs with the emblem of the monastic autonomous territory remind visitors in five languages of the strict rules of access :
IT IS ENTIRELY FORBIDDEN :
•THE ENTRANCE OF WOMEN
•THE APPROACH OF CRAFTS WITHOUT A SPECIAL PERMIT
•THE STAY OF PERSONS WITHOUT A STAY PERMIT
ANY VIOLATION OF THE ABOVE INVOLVES SERIOUS PENAL SANCTIONS.
—The Sacred Community of Mount Athos
The first monastery, the Great Lavra, was founded in 963. Under the protection of the Byzantine emperors, pious foundations grew in number. But right from the start, women were barred from the Holy Mountain, along with "female animals, children, eunuchs and all hairless faces," in the words of the edict issued by Constantine Monomahos in 1060. Very little has changed since. In 1920, Mount Athos was declared a theocratic autonomous territory under Greek suzerainty. It is governed by the twenty members of the Holy Council, whose seat is in Karyes, the capital. They represent the twenty monasteries (mainly Serb, Bulgarian, Russian, Rumanian or Greek) dotting the thirty-two-mile-long mountainous peninsula with their fortresslike architecture. In addition there are twelve sketes, or settlements of monks, each dependent upon a parent monastery, and about 120 smaller religious retreats.
These are places of peace and silence, with no radios, televisions, or newspapers. Even mirrors are forbidden. Life abides by the unchanging rhythm of holy ceremonies. The monks who live here have withdrawn from our world into a world of isolation and solitude. Interiority is supreme in this land of prayer, contemplation, and meditation. The Orthodox liturgy preserves Byzantine hymns, psalms, and litanies, which only add to the awe of visitors who find themselves plunged abruptly into a universe outside time. At night, long rituals imbued with mystery are dimly lit by the warm, dancing flames of candles. The monks, wrapped in dark robes, their faces devoured by immense beards, move slowly in the half-light, like inspired ghosts. Everywhere you look, there are icons, holding you in their riveting gaze. Fascinating as masterpieces of art and moving by their expressive force, they are also disturbing because of the way in which they are venerated and because of the piety they spark. Choruses of men rise, intense, profound, and insistent. Present everywhere are the torments of Christ and, in face of them, the sins of men, haunting space and piercing hearts.
Death's omnipresence and the eschewal of the body along with all corporal ecstasy are two absolute and inseparable features of Athonite life. In all places and since time out of mind, the human soul has had to wrestle with the torments of Eros and Thanatos, but the combat is particularly fierce here in the land of the Greeks, the cradle of Western mythology. In his autobiography, Report to Greco, Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis, who spent time on Mount Athos as an adult, tells the story of the «first wound » that his «soul received at the age of six.» He describes his uncle leading him by the hand to the cemetery in their village, where he recalls the smell of incense, the silhouette of a priest, and the sudden appearance of a hand brandishing a skull, rising out of a gravepit. Kazantzakis watched as the gravedigger emptied the dirt out of the eye sockets, set the macabre trophy on the edge of the pit, and pursued his digging.
"What is it?" I asked my uncle in fear.
"Can't you see? It's a death's head, a skull."
"It's Anika's. You remember. Our neighbor Anika."
Anika! Tears sprang to my eyes. « Anika, Anika », I screamed. I threw myself on the ground, grabbed all the stones I could find and began throwing them at the gravedigger, all the time moaning and screaming . How beautiful she was! How good she smelled! She used to come over to the house, take me on her lap, pull the comb out of her hair and comb me. She'd tickle me under my arms and I'd run away laughing and squealing with delight.
My uncle took me in his arms and pulled me away. He spoke to me angrily, "Why are you crying? What did you expect? She's dead. That's all. We all have to die."
But I remembered her blond hair, her red lips kissing me, her big eyes, and now . . .
"What about her hair, her lips, her eyes," I cried.
"Gone. All gone. The earth has eaten them."
"But why? Why? It can't be!"
My uncle shrugged his shoulders, "When you grow up, you'll know why."
I never did.
I grew up. I grew old. I never knew why.
Similarly, on Mount Athos, the monks dig up the bodies of their deceased brothers three years after their burial. According to the superstition, if there is any flesh still clinging to the bones, it means that their former owner died in a state of sin. The suspicion and mistrust engendered by bodies and sensuality is so strong that it follows the rotting corpse into the grave.
What horrified Kazantzakis was the disappearance of what had enthralled him in the woman he admired: gone were her red lips, her fragrant skin, her long golden hair. What horrifies the monks is the slightest trace of a remnant of flesh. In their quest for infinite purity, the degree of whiteness and cleanliness of the skeleton is a sign of an immaculate soul. If the deceased man was attached to his flesh in his lifetime and succumbed to hidden vices, the flesh in turn clings to his mortal remains long after his death. When this happens, the skeleton is cleansed with wine and a Mass of atonement is celebrated. After this necessary catharsis, the skull may join the vast silent tribe of skulls meticulously lined up on the shelves of the ossuary adjacent to the monastery.
Not far from Karyes is the Russian Skete of Saint Andrew, a disturbing, uncanny place also called the Serrai. The Serrai offers a picture of a conceivable death, a tragic image of what could have happened to the Garden of the Virgin had faith been extinguished with the flame of the last candles, and had the voices that still rise in song here night after night been deadened forever.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, eight hundred Russian monks lived inside these walls. It may well have counted among the most thriving of the holy settlements on Mount Athos; it was indubitably one of the richest and most sumptuous—at least, if we are to judge from the subsisting traces of what is now but a ruin. The skete's church is the biggest on the Holy Mountain, and one of the most imposing of all Eastern churches. When the Bolshevik Revolution «shook the world» in 1917, hundreds of young men at the skete returned to Russia to combat revolutionary atheism. One by one, the men who had stayed behind died. The final blow was delivered in the form of a fire in 1958. The last Russian monk died in 1970.
The entrance gate to the Serrai remained shut for twenty years, as if struck by a curse. The old pink chapel sunk beneath brambles and rubble. In the church, hundreds of gilt-covered icons fell into a deep sleep, far from the loving kisses of worshippers. Floors and ceilings collapsed, and stairways no longer led anywhere save to the sky above. Spiders spun webs from skull to abandoned skull, and little by little dust returned the kingdom to silence.
In 1992, a small , determined group of five Greek monks received permission from the Holy Council to settle on the site and restore it. Renovation work is progressing under the supervision of Father Pavlos, a young, cheerful, and learned monk who is brimming with energy. It took more than six months just to make a few barely livable rooms. Today, more than three hundred icons have been salvaged. The skete is being brought back to life. People in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States have offered to lend a helping hand, and a number of projects have already seen the light of day. It was within this framework that I had the great fortune to benefit from an artistic stay here for a few weeks in 1997.
In a room next door to Father Pavlos' s restoration workshop, I discovered a treasure of very old photographs. The pictures were roughly the same size as those that figure on passports. They looked fairly normal to the naked eye, simply damaged and covered with microscopic cracks. I scrutinized them more closely - using the magnifying glass that I take with me wherever I go, which allows me to open a wider eye onto the world and discover many an unsuspected, stunning universe - and in doing so I suddenly discovered that the faces of these monks were made of . . . dust! The slightest breath could have blown them to smithereens..
By exalting the details, seen very close up, an image becomes « other », with universes opening onto other universes. Shapes that seemed smooth and sharp explode. And if, as Nietzsche posited, nothing is deeper than the skin, the extreme approach of photography, in what is buried in its deepest core, reveals unexpected reliefs, forms inside forms, works of art in gestation inside the finished work of art. But I guess what surprised me most when I discovered these Monks of Dust was the prodigious inventiveness of chance. Their deterioration gave rise to such astounding richness that all I had to do was know how to grasp it at a given moment in its evolution. Midway between a memory image of these men as they once were and the impending void that was about to consume them, the deterioration of each photograph evoked acute loss and desolation with a force so powerful it imparted to them an even greater presence. The additional textural relief produced by the play of black and white gaps mutilating the vintage photographs projected the monks’ gazes to the fore with exceptional intensity.
The word monk comes from the Greek monos, meaning «alone». With my Gulliver lens, I was able to contemplate what remained of these sublime faces belonging to men who opted for a life of solitude only to better overcome it by meeting their Creator. I was able to admire the amazing landscapes of dust that their faces had become—landscapes drawn by chance or by the hand of God. There, on the brink of the void, the burning blaze in their eyes searching for the infinite was even more brilliant. And at the very moment of crossing over the threshold into the other world, disintegrated, they seemed even more alive. Like the phoenix. Like Christ, their Lord. The faces of the Monks of Dust had been disfigured by the brutal impression of time passing by. But perhaps, dawning out of this ultimate dustfall setting on their fading faces, was the essential face of love for which they had burned until their dying breath.