To the Holy Mountain: A Pilgrimage to Hilandar

For anyone who has had any kind of brush with the Serbian education system or the Serbian Orthodox Church, Hilandar is etched in the memory as the place where the glory of medieval Serbia survived almost intact for more than eight centuries.

Hilandar was founded in 1198 by Stefan Nemanja, the first ruler of the Serbian medieval Nemanjic dynasty, and his son, Archbishop Sava, who secured the autonomy of the Serbian church and is one of the most revered saints in Serbia. It is part of a unique community of 20 monasteries and several hermitages that are huddled on the verdant slopes of the Mount Athos peninsula in Greece.

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The Holy Mountain, as the community is known, was founded on the mountainous peninsula that is considered to belong to the Virgin Mary, as she, according to legend, once took refuge there on her travels.

The monasteries, the oldest of which is the Great Lavra that was founded in 960 during the Byzantine era, still form the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, which is legally separate from the Greek state. The community observes a number of its own regulations, the most famous of which is ‘avaton’, the ban on women setting foot on the peninsula so as to ensure celibacy and preserve the focus of the monks and pilgrims on celebrating the Virgin Mary.

Hilandar comes fourth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries and is one of the richest in terms of lands and endowment, thanks to the donations from Serbian and other Orthodox nobles. During the early 14th Century, Hilandar and the entire Athonite community were heavily supported by Emperor Dusan of Serbia, who came to the monastery to escape the plague with his wife Helena of Bulgaria, who was carried around so as not to touch the holy ground and break ‘avaton’.

Later the monastery enjoyed protection and donations from Vlad Tepes Dracula (better known as Vlad the Impaler and popularised by Bram Stoker), as well as Gjon Kastrioti, the father of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, an Albania national hero who fought the Ottomans in the 15th Century, who joined the monastery’s brotherhood and after whom one of the towers on Hilandar’s vast estate is named the Albanian tower (‘arbanaski pirg’).

 

Throughout its existence, Hilandar was not only a place of faith, but also a place of scholarship and art. Its vast library contains invaluable tomes on medieval history, medicine and science, while its art collection, from the gilded ancient frescoes of its church and refectory to miraculous icons and relics, are remarkable for any medieval art enthusiast.

However, a visit to Hilandar offers much more than just the aesthetic pleasures of spending time in an ancient monastery nestled between serene, fragrant hills dotted with cypresses and olive trees. It is a unique chance to experience its ancient spirituality in full glory and connect with other pilgrims.

I decided to visit Hilandar when a friend of mine suggested it on a whim last March. Although both of us are Orthodox, in a post-socialist, Belgrade, cultural sort of way, neither of us is a regular church-goer, so from the beginning of our visit we were in the dark on what our visit would be like and even how to organise it.

Our first e-mail asking for the blessing for our stay in Hilandar was written in clumsy, secular matter-of fact prose, in the Latin script (a big no, no in Hilandar). After the lack of reply the e-mails went through four, progressively more pious, Cyrillic iterations until, about two months later, in May, we were offered a two-day stay in November, due to the high volume of pilgrims over the summer and early autumn.

In the run up to our ‘pilgrimage’, I was repeatedly asked if I was prepared spiritually for it. “It will be interesting to see the two of you there,” the most pious of my friends scoffed, thinking us unfit to properly enjoy and engage with Hilandar’s unique community.

Needless to say, I was a bit nervous during our drive down to the pretty port town of Uranopolis, a port on the edge of Athonite lands. I wondered if we would stick out like sore thumbs, without the knowledge of the proper language or functioning of Orthodox monasteries and the ever-present anxiety around the appropriate time to cross ourselves during the services.

Selfies, beer and believers

On the fateful morning of what was to be our first day in Hilandar, we picked up our permit (diamonitirion) to enter Athos from the pilgrim’s office, and boarded the large ferry which was to take us to the monastery. As I climbed to the top deck, I was still spooked by a poster explaining the rules of monastery life (swimming, piercings and sportswear, among other things, are banned) and I half expected my fellow pilgrims to be an emaciated quiet bunch. What I found, however, was entirely different.

 

I was surrounded by several hundred, middle-aged, often pot-bellied Greeks, Serbs, Russians, Romanians and Bulgarians, many of whom were busy taking selfies feeding the seagulls, chugging beers or playing folk music from their phones. The one exception to this was a single, thoughtful monk who looked calmly towards the horizon and the imposing mountain that was rising in front of us, as the others were noisily going about their business. After a predictable rush to the minivans Hilandar sent for us, we were on our way up the dirt tracks towards the monastery.

My fear was now completely different. What if instead of going on a pilgrimage, I would be stuck on a lame stag-do-like weekend? This fear completely disappeared as soon I saw the sight of Hilandar’s tallest tower poking from the pine forest, a sight familiar from many of my history and arts textbooks.

Once we arrived at the monastery, we were formally welcomed with coffee, Turkish delight and ouzo, and were given our rooms in conformable dormitories and could explore the grounds until the obligatory 3pm Holy Liturgy.

We were put together with five firefighters from Northern Mitrovica, one of whom had been to Hilandar seven times and always brought his friends with him. In many ways, they were a typical Hilandar pilgrim group: guys aged mid-30s to 60s, friends of varying levels of piety who relied on one, slightly more pious leader. They were also amazingly kind and friendly, offering us treats from pear brandy to sweets that they squirreled away in their bags to survive the long hours between two meagre monastery meals served each day.

On our off times between the many services, we went around the monastery to see the places we have read so much about in history books: a healing well dug by St Sava, an ancient vine growing from the former grave of Stefan Nemanja and a majestic tower built by King Milutin in the 13th Century to protect the monastery from pirates.

Seeing all of this made me giddy. Hilandar is a rare place that has continuously preserved this ancient history, as it was protected from the many wars and pillages that regularly hit Serbia. The walks around the picturesque monastery lands were amazing given the clean air, calm and the absence of mobile phone signal.

However, the main attraction during our short two nights were the church services we attended. Although only the morning and afternoon Holy Liturgies were obligatory, we also attended the all-night long vigil and the Midnight Office, which started at 2am.

 

The latter two were some of the most spiritual and mystical experiences of my life. The candle-lit services inside the nave of the main 13th Century church, dedicated to the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple, gave the gold and silver of icons and frescos an otherworldly glow. The chanting of the few dozen monks and rhythmical movements of the pious, gave a sense of deep connection, both to those inside the packed church but also to all those who prayed in it throughout the centuries before us.

The air was electrified with the intensity with which the pilgrims prayed to the icons, prostrating themselves in front and pressing their lips and foreheads to the glittering faces of saints. After the services ended, and we walked through the starry nights, the complete silence was broken with hushed talk about cancers, familial problems and holy oils which can heal them.

Amazing as the experience was, after two nights we were physically and emotionally exhausted. We bought souvenirs – incense, wine, olive oil – and gave a donation (staying at the monastery is free and Hilandar is still recovering from a 2004 blaze), and were off to Uranopolis. On the boat back, the magic was gone, even as we were passing other monasteries by the shore. There was a haggard looking itinerant monk who was selling trinkets, and many had already started on the Amstel sold at the bar.

Still, even during this hum-drum part of the trip, I could not feel anything but gladness to have been able to take part in such a deep experience, and see another side to my beer-swilling fellow pilgrims: one of deep vulnerability and belief in connection both to the divine and to the fellow men around them.

For information about visiting Hilandar please visit the official (Serbian language) website: hilandar.org. To arrange a visit write (ideally in Serbian using Cyrillic script) to pilgrims@hilandar.org, with your name, passport number, occupation, phone number and desired visit dates.

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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