Sound Testament of Mount Athos

Mount Athos, or Sacred Mountain, or Áyion Óros, on the Khalkidhiki peninsula that extends towards the southeast from the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, is the only independent monastic state in the world. There are currently twenty Byzantine monasteries on Mount Athos — seventeen Greek, one Russian, one Bulgarian, and one Serbian — together housing about two thousand orthodox monks living in hundreds of cells. Many of these monasteries, built on high and inaccessible rocks, look like huge eagles’ nests. Since the ninth century when the sacred community began to allow no woman to set foot on Mount Athos, the population has been only men, only monks and occasional pilgrims. No one was born there, millions of men died there.


The picture is Monastery Hilandar during a visit by King Aleksandar Obrenovi in 1896.


While sailing once around the Khalkidhiki peninsula I could not get over the story from Herodotus’ The Histories, which includes a description of how the Persian emperor Xerxes, in 483 BC, dug a channel for his powerful fleet in the invasion of Greece; transforming for a short time the peninsula of Khalkidhiki into the island of Khalkidhiki. Even today one can see the remains of this amazing enterprise. Many wonders are attributed to this little piece of earth.
But I was not visiting Mount Athos to study its history, or to take pictures, or make a film. I was going there to listen and to record whatever could be possible to hear. One of the monasteries is an old Serbian monastery named Hilandar, founded in 1198 by the first Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church Saint Sava and his father, Serbian Grand Prince and founder of the Nemanjić dynasty Stefan Nemanja, who, after relinquishing his government duties, became a simple monk Symeon at Hilandar. It was in that monastery that I slept, ate with monks, attended to their prayers. I spent nights and nights sitting in the darkness of the churches with my microphones while prayers and sacred songs alternated with each other during church holidays. That is how Sound Testament of Mount Athos was created.

Sound Testament of Mount Athos

The piece was first broadcast by German radio WDR and Radio Belgrade, later by other radio stations in Europe and abroad. In the famous Russian State Museum of History on Red Square in Moscow, this piece was the audio background to an installation dedicated to Mount Athos. The creator of the Mount Athos installation used two tons of soil taken from Mount Athos, and after the installation was subsequently presented in Saint Petersburg, that soil was put in hundreds of small bags and sent to Russian monasteries all over Russia. American film director Terrence Malick used fragments of the music in some of his movies. Choreographer Nacho Duato used the music for a performance by the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York in 2014.

Arsenije Jovonovic