The Harmonious Co-Existence of Nature and Buildings on the Holy Mountain

14 December 2012

The environment of the Holy Mountain has not been unaltered by human activities, which might be placed into three categories: a) buildings to meet housing and liturgical needs; b) agricultural plots to meet the need for the provision of food; and c) the exploitation of the forests (logging) to meet the need for wood and heating fuel.

A) Building Activities

The choice of location for the Holy Monasteries, their dependencies and auxiliary buildings is worth noting. Almost all the monasteries, and also the sketes and individual houses, as well as the harbours and so on, have been built in such a way that, with very few exceptions, they blend in harmoniously with the natural environment.

The materials used- stone, wood, slate and bricks- suit the landscape and the natural features of the surrounding area most wonderfully. This means that, at a time when no-one much was talking about ecological repercussions and the maintenance of the landscape, since neither ecology nor a feeling for scenery was much developed, the monks had an innate environmental sensitivity, which arose from the rules of monastic life and the Orthodox faith, which demand respect for nature and an aesthetic appreciation of the land. Planners and ecologists could learn a great deal from the Holy Mountain as regards the proper selection of a site, the use of building materials, respect for the landscape and the harmonization of the buildings with their specific setting.

B) Agricultural Plots 

Farming on the Holy Mountain was intended, as it still is, to meet and fulfill the needs for the nourishment of the monks, within the context of their customary food requirements. It is rare, and only in the case of certain kellia and sketes, that farming activity has been aimed at ensuring some sort of income, such as, for example, through the cultivation of hazel nuts. The main cultivated plots were and are:

Vegetable gardens: Usually close to the Holy Monasteries, to a large extent they meet the needs of the monks for fresh vegetables. The vegetable gardens are laid out either on flat areas which surround the Monasteries or houses or as terraces, which blend harmoniously in with both with the natural environment as well as with the surrounding buildings.

Olive groves: Olives and olive oil are basic ingredients for the nutrition of the monks. This is why olive growing plays such a large part, in terms of land coverage, in the agriculture of the Holy Mountain. Cultivated olive groves, often on small terraces, are perfectly adapted to the landscape, given that the wild olive is a constituent part of the natural eco-system of the area.

Vineyards: Together with vegetable gardens and olive groves, viticulture was once one of the basic agricultural occupations, because the use of wine is a necessary element in the liturgy and also accompanies the meals of the monks on the days when they are not fasting. The vineyards which still exist blend in with the environment.

Orchards: Apart from hazel-nuts, which are grown in certain sketes and, particularly, kellia (houses) and which were in former times an important source of income, there are no systematic orchards on the Holy Mountain. Fruit-bearing trees (apple, pear, cherry, apricot, ans peach as well as nuts, especially chestnut) are cultivated on the fringes of the vegetable gardens or in relatively small allotments and their fruit supplements the table of the monks and their visitors in season. By their nature, the orchards not only do not disturb the landscape, but, since they are in areas around the monasteries, sketes and kellia, or close to them, where the environment is, as a rule, degraded, they enhance the surroundings with their blossoms, the colour of their fruit and their leaves.

C) Logging- Use of the Forests

The Athos peninsula has the highest forest coverage of any area in Greece- about 90%, compared to 40% for the rest of Halkidiki and 25% for the country as a whole.

The relationship between the monks and the forest and its products began from the time of the first settlements on the Mountain. The forest provided them with wood for the construction and maintenance requirements of the monasteries, sketes, cells, landing-stages, houses and other buildings, supports for the vines and the vegetable gardens and logs for their heating fuel. Since the means for logging and the ability to collect and move the wood were limited, exploitation of the forests was only for the requirements of the Holy Monasteries, sketes, kellia and so on, and was restricted to the surrounding parts of the forest. This is why almost all the forests in the immediate vicinity of the Holy Monasteries, especially those with broad-leafed deciduous trees, are degraded.

But by their very nature, the species which make up the eco-systems of the Holy Mountain have a great ability to recover and reproduce, so the “wounds” and gaps resulting from any logging soon close and the landscape and forest eco-systems remains largely untouched. Even after large fires, these eco-systems, which are well-adapted to fires, recover and thrive easily, because of their ability to produce off-shoots and the ease with which the species involved regenerate. From the mid-19th century, a new stage in the relationship between the monks and the forests began with logging not merely to meet their own needs but for commercial purposes.

Spyros Ntafis, emeritus Professor of Forestry, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Source: ΤοφυσικόκάλλοςτουΑγίουΌρους, (“The natural beauty of Mount Athos”), 2003 Calendar, published by ΑγιορείτικηΕστία.