To leave Mount Athos for whatever reason is, in local parlance, to "go out into the world." Of course, the peninsula remains affixed to Earth, and some 2,000 secular laborers share it with roughly the same number of monks. Mount Athos has been part of Greece since 1924. Its local governance resides in Karyes, the dusty capital and depot where shipments from the outside world and newly arrived Eastern Orthodox pilgrims are deposited. (Visitors must apply for a special permit; the Holy Community admits roughly a hundred males for up to four days at a time.)
As the junction between the fixed and the transient, Karyes teems with incongruities: a monk lumbering down the stone pavement with a gnarled cane in one hand and a Nike tote bag in the other; shops selling candles, rosaries, and bottles of ouzo. The police force headquartered here handles the occasional public intoxication or shoplifting case. In addition, the Holy Community—the world's longest continually functioning parliament—resides in Karyes. Its members pore over matters as large as relations with the EU and as small as who will rent a particular store. Every change on Mount Athos represents a risk that must be weighed.
Mount Athos has survived by bending where it must, though never without fretfulness. St. Athanasios, who founded the Megistis Lavras monastery in 963, infuriated the hermits by introducing audacious architecture into an otherwise rustic landscape. Roads and buses, then electricity, then cell phones have all been sources of angst. The latest encroachment is the Internet. A few monasteries have conducted ever so timid forays into cyberspace—ordering spare parts, communicating with lawyers, obtaining scholarly research. "It's a great danger to be connected to the outside world," cautions one monk. "Most of the monks weren't even informed about 9/11."
The outside world creeps ever closer. Mount Athos's newest monks have college educations, laptops, and little experience with raising chickens. Yesteryear's mules have mostly been replaced by vans and Range Rovers. Worries persist that the European Union donations will continue only with strings attached—such as the insistence that women be permitted to visit the peninsula. In these ways Mount Athos cannot elude mortal preoccupations.
Yet the brotherhood proceeds as it always has: inchwise, turned ever inward, glorying in the unseen—"digesting death," in the words of one of its preeminent scholars, Father Vasileios, "before it digests us."