The story of the Skete of Saint Andrew

The 8th of march 1917, start of the Russian revolution, why am I mentioning this date? A very large area of the peninsula of Mount Athos received finances from the Russian state, supporting the Russian  Orthodox monastery and the Saint Andrew Skete near by, due to the severe event, the money stopped arriving and the places where suddenly abandoned. Nineteen years later, when I arrived at Mount Athos, the Skete of Sant Andrew looked as if somebody left the day before.

I arrived with a boat in Karies, which is the capital city of this theocratic state populated entirely by monks, I had no place to go. I was told that hospitality was given free in the various orthodox monasteries.   The main visitors activity in the Athos peninsula is to walk around and stop to visit the various communities of monks end experience directly monastic life.  Athos is the furthest finger stretching into the sea from the Chalcidice peninsula in northern Greece. The life here is set by the Julian calendar and women are forbidden entry.

It was a very complicated process to obtain a permit to enter this unique place, the visas are only given directly from the Thessaloniki ecumenic office.  Twenty large orthodox monasteries and several dozen smaller communities lie in the folds of some of the least developed landscape in Europe. A very nice customary tradition is in vogue, when visitors knock on the monasteries ancient doors, a glass of Uso and some nice Loukumi is served by the monks as a welcome to the holy community of mount Athos.   As I was eating my Loukumi in the Skete of Saint Andrew, father Pavlos produced this great picture of a monk posing in a studio, with a painting  in the back ground depicting the Athos holy mountain, which suggested that the portrait was taken there somewhere?  The picture was so captivating, generating a mystery, is this place in Mount Athos? and does it really exist?  I stayed to find and answer.  Saint’Andrew Skete, it is a small community of monks that live around a holy church,located north of Karyes, right in the middle of the Athos peninsula.   According to every monk in the Skete, the studio no longer existed, lost in time, abandoned for almost 90 years. The oldest monk around father Andreas, was portraid there when he arrived in the holy peninsula, but he entirely forgotten the year. Father Andreas just said a very long time ago. The mystery picture belonged to father Andreas, and he swore to god that the place was right there in the Skete.   In my search I found lots of other things meanwhile, the monks pharmacy, the place where the wax candles where made. There are still a very large production of wax candles in Athos, as the place in parts lacks in electricity wiring. It is a very unique strong smell of wax candles melting telling you that you are in the holy mount Athos. I kept on looking and I found very macabre cemetery, where every skull was named dated and classified.

So, as I was loosing faith, I studied the picture carefully, there is a young man standing in one side and a monk sitting on the other with the Athos painting as a back ground, just like a classics early nineteen century portrait studio.  In the mysterious picture the old man is holding a photo of himself as a young soldier, and yet the picture of a young soldier is standing beside him. This is precisely how it was done before photoshop time, a kind of a sinister collage. The back ground was still there!  But nothing else survived, In my patrol I found a staircase going toward the clouds, later I found out, that was the way to the monk photo studio! Fortunately the only wall still standing almost miraculously,  was precisely the one with the fresco depicting the holy view of mount Athos.  So now I was short of a model, father Pavlos reluctantly posed, just as proud and austere as the original monk. The Holy Easter rituals were about to begin in the holy Protaton in Karyes, and I am ready to go and see if I can find another story to tell.


Pictures taken with an Olympus OM 1 and a Canon 3 exposing Kodak Chrome slides & Kodak tri-x film