The skulls, lined up five deep on wooden shelves, date back hundreds of years, with the names of the more recently deceased scratched onto their foreheads — Monk Theolothelis, 91, 26-6-1986; Monk Kyprianos, 100, 14-8-87.

They are exhibited in Xenophontos monastery, here on Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece that is the spiritual heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church. One skull carries a more philosophical message: “Brother, look at the glory of man.”

That invitation to reflect on mortality encapsulates why the dead are exhumed and their bones displayed, explains Father Jerome, 50, who has an untamed salt-and-pepper beard, and wears washed-out grey robes.

“Today you are here, the next day you are not,” he says. “If you remember death every day, it keeps you from doing evil.”

While the skull display underscores human transience, the 20 monasteries and host of smaller dwellings on Mount Athos seem eternal. Monks have been chanting daily psalms here for centuries.

“It is an ancient community, organised just [as it is] now, for more than 1,000 years,” says Abbott Alexios, 79, who found Xenophontos collapsing when he arrived in 1976, and has since led its rebuilding. “The church has its traditions, but Mount Athos is transcendent.”

The skulls on display testify to the transience of existence (Getty)

The peninsula could almost be another Greek tourist resort, with its peridot shallows and pine-covered hills, and the 6,670ft Athos peak dominating one end of its nearly 130 square miles.

But the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, is a place apart.

For almost as long as there have been monks here, women have been barred – considered a distraction and undue competition for the Virgin Mary, the order’s patron saint. There are no hotels, no bars, no stores, no television and no swimming, and a daily quota limits visitors.

Travellers arrive on the boats providing the only public access to the peninsula. Collectively, the monasteries host an average of 1,200 people every night, all without charge.

Difficult access and the high monastery walls built against marauding pirates seemed to keep time at bay, too, but now the modern world penetrates, via smartphone signals and internet connections.

Geopolitics has sneaked in, too. Greece last summer denied visas to several high-ranking Russian Orthodox Church officials headed for Athos, a destination in which Vladimir Putin has shown a keen interest.

The St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos, where Russian monks have been present for more than 1,000 years (AFP/Getty)

Greek officials fear any revival of the pre-revolutionary effort by Czarist Russia to dominate the peninsula.

Athos holds a special place in the Greek psyche, as a throwback to a time when the might of the Byzantine Empire meant Greek culture dominated the eastern Mediterranean.

There have been monks here since the sixth century or so, and Mount Athos is a storehouse of Byzantine civilisation, with monasteries holding to the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the ubiquitous Gregorian calendar most of us use.

“We preserve the Byzantine Empire because it is a treasure of orthodoxy, not because this is the relic of a secular state,” says Father Jeremiah, 48, a protestant convert from San Angelo, Texas, who came to Xenophontos on a pilgrimage 22 years ago, and has lived here ever since. “This is not a museum, but a living place.”

 Monks have live on the mountain since the sixth century (Getty)

Ancient texts dictate the rhythm of daily life for Athos’s 2,000 or so monks, defining everything from the liturgy to their diet.

The monks, mostly Greek, spend about six hours in church daily. They rise six hours after sunset for morning prayers, summoned by a monk banging a semantron – a wooden hammer on a wooden board – echoing the way Noah was said to have beckoned all living creatures to the ark.

Then, shadowy figures pad across uneven flagstones with their cowls pulled over their heads.

Prayer is deemed particularly effective during darkness.

“Evil spirits roam during the night, so somebody needs to stay awake to keep watch,” says Father Damaskinos, 33, who, unusually for Athos, returns to his native Finland regularly, to work as a theology professor.

There are just two daily meals. One menu consists of lentil purée, tomatoes, olives, fruit, and water or red wine, at 9:30am.

“We eat fast,” Jeremiah warns. A typical meal lasts 15 minutes. One monk reads prayers and any visitor who tries to talk is shushed.

Monks and visitors alike reach Mount Athos on public ferries (Getty)

After the morning meal, the monks work – gardening, cooking, painting icons – until it is time for vespers, before sunset, the evening meal and bed. Even while working most pray, their lips constantly moving with the refrain, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

They often summarise their existence in pithy shorthand. “He is happy because he has nothing, but he has everything,” Alexios says of one monk’s life.

Yet mammon and the material world appear to have intruded.

Monasteries sell products including wine, olive oil, herbal teas, and even body creams. The gift shop at Vatopedi monastery sells icons for more than $17,000.

Expensive SUVs whisk affluent visitors along dirt roads once limited to donkeys and pilgrims. Xenophontos extols its woodworking shop, but it is labourers from Albania and Egypt doing the hard work.

Some monks grumble about the tide of visitors overwhelming their devotions.

Some pilgrims dislike it, too.

“I am an adherent of the old traditions and I am against all these roads, these SUVs,” says Mikhail Miroshnikov, a middle-aged Russian pilgrim who comes twice yearly for spiritual discussions with the monks. “Some monasteries here are becoming more for business, and not for the soul.”

Construction cranes hover over many monasteries; all but a few have been extensively rebuilt using European Union funds for historic preservation.

Senior government and church officials have said Russia planned to spend $30 million to restore the imposing Russian monastery, St. Panteleimon and public and private spending across Athos since 2005 may have reached $200 million, according to a BBC report seconded by several donors and experts.

When Putin last visited Athos, in 2016, the Russian press reported excitedly that he was treated like a Byzantine emperor. Some Greek government and church officials found the comparison alarming.

Czarist Russia made a play to control Athos around 1913, flooding it with several thousand monks and insisting it become independent. Athos ended up an autonomous part of Greece.

Russian interest waned after the 1917 revolution, but recent influence peddling has Athens worried about a renewed effort at domination.

Hardline newspapers distributed free at Vatopedi, for example, shower praise on Russian Orthodoxy while pillorying Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople – who controls Athos – as an enemy agent. The patriarch, considered “first among equals” in church affairs, is engaged in a fight with Moscow over the establishment an independent church in Ukraine.

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Earlier this month, the Russian Orthodox Church banned adherents from communion at churches under Bartholomew’s supervision, including all those on Athos, and it is unclear how that will affect the tide of pilgrims or donations.

Monks and pilgrims tend to dismiss political questions, saying they come to Athos for spiritual sustenance and the intrinsic holiness of a place devoted to prayer.

“There is both historical holiness here, in terms of relics and icons, and living holiness, through monasticism,” Damaskinos says.

© New York Times

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