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Sea Monsters of Athos Reveal Sunken Treasure, Monks Do Their Part Too

February 24, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

According to Herodotus, as a recent article reminds, the Persian king Darius’s plans to invade Greece by sea in 492 B.C. were scuttled by “a violent north wind… against which nothing could contend” off the coast of Mt. Athos. The invaders’ fleet was almost totally destroyed, leading to the loss of 300 ships and 20,000 lives. This singular marine disaster was not helped by the fact that, as the Greek historian retells with chilling effect, “…the sea about Athos abounds in monsters beyond all others.”

Now, almost 2,500 years later, one of those very monsters has proven instrumental in revealing what is perhaps the location of the doomed Persian fleet.

A grasping octopus, says Robert Hohlfelder, a professor of history at University of Colorado-Boulder, collected bits of pottery and spear shaft inside its secret underwater lair: an ancient amphora.

The good professor promised to remove octopus from his menu, testifying to their helpful, habitual love of collecting antiquated objects.

Said Hohlfelder, “…happily for marine archaeologists, these animals love to collect antiquities and pull them into their homes. Very often the first clue that a shipwreck is nearby is a pile of artifacts collected by these wonderful creatures with an antiquarian’s passion for old things.”

The team is utilizing Herodotus’ account in the hopes of unearthing more relics during this summer’s organized diving expedition.

Greece, with its jagged coastline and 4,000 islands, has been dangerous for navigators since the days of Odysseus, even in the best of weather. And it has always been heavily trafficked- whether with warships, commercial vessels or passenger ferries as predominate today.

Whereas triremes such as those used by the Persians in 492 B.C. were the most popular naval craft, according to the article, “no trireme wreck has ever been seen.”

The international team returns in June with advanced robotic technology and cameras. They are cautiously optimistic of finding more sunken treasure, though concede that the drop-off from 300 feet to 2,000 deep just off the coast would make any ship wreckage fairly hard to get at. Still, an exciting discovery in June would be a great way to kick off Greece’s Olympic summer.

Somewhat strangely, the archaeologists seem to have a much clearer understanding of what went on in Athos’ past than what transpires nowadays. To appreciate this observation, first of all we must discuss a bit of history regarding Mt. Athos.

“Agion Oros” in the Greek, the Holy Mountain is revered by the Greek and world Orthodox communities for preserving the Byzantine monastic tradition. It became coenobitic in the 9th Century, though wandering ascetics probably first arrived there 2 centuries earlier. Surrounded by water, thickly covered with woods and mountain, the Athonite peninsula was (and is) a haven of tranquility.

In 1060, Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos decreed that women would not be allowed, as the Holy Mountain was to be preserved for the devotion of the Virgin Mary. This law is still enforced. Despite frequent accidental fires and marauding pirates, Athos flourished during the Byzantine period of rich patronage. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, it was ruled by the Ottoman sultans. They were cautiously tolerant of the monks, and under Turkish rule a ‘golden age’ came during the 16th-17th centuries, with the heavy patronage of Serbian, Romanian and Russian rulers. The Greek War of Independence in 1821 led the vengeful Ottomans to slaughter monks and burn monasteries.

The first half of the 20th Century saw numbers fall dramatically, due in part to the Communist hold over large parts of the Orthodox world. Several monasteries became derelict or were abandoned altogether.

Over the past 30 years, however, Athos has enjoyed a second renaissance. Many new initiates, predominantly young and educated Greeks, have brought a renewed sense of vitality. A tenacious desire to preserve the past can be felt today on the Holy Mountain, which is one of the most culturally and religiously important places in all of Greece. Devout Greeks sometimes give the credit to the monks’ constant prayer for whatever semblance of order and grace remains in today’s chaotic world.

Indeed, today the Athonite experience is a living one. Males of any race, country or creed can easily visit Mt. Athos, where they are accommodated by the monks, take part in the religious services and meals, and enjoy the tranquility and natural beauty of this untouched spiritual preserve.

The simple process involves picking up a form in Thessaloniki, exchanging it for a diamonitirion (entrance pass) in the port village of Ouranopolis, and boarding a ferry- not quite a trireme, but exciting nonetheless- for the short ride up the bay to the disembarkation point on Athos itself. The trip is unforgettable and highly recommended.

That said, it seems a bit odd that Professor Hohlfelder is quoted as saying, “…it’s hard to say how many monks are still in some of the structures, but we could tell from the candlelight in windows at night that some buildings are still in use.”

Even understanding that the researchers- unlike the objects of their quest- didn’t happen to wash ashore on the Holy Mountain, this apparent mystification with the easily explained living history of the area they were in seemed a bit odd (especially considering that they were accompanied and guided by Greeks).

However, Professor Hohlfelder did reportedly enthuse, “…we’ll take all the help like that we can get,” after their (presumably Greek) solicited and gained the prayer of a monk who rowed out to the team from Athos’ tip. Lo and behold, a few days later the first treasure from the deep was discovered.

Besides sea monsters and monks, the team is getting help from some of the more usual suspects.

According to the UC-Boulder article, half of the funding for the exploration was provided by the Greek government. The University of Louisville, Texas A&M and UC-Boulder itself also contributed $10,000. The 2003 expedition, which cost $20,000 a day, was performed by the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the Canadian Archaeological Institute in Athens, and the Hellenic Center for Marine Research (HCMR), which provided submarines for October’s search.

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