Monasteries of the Christian east Where mammon meets God
Dec 18th 2004 : From The Economist print edition
The political and economic arts mastered by monks bent on saving a world they have renounced
TO A blas+Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¬ modern traveller, the spectacle is impressive; to the eyes of pre-industrial man, the sight of the Solovetsky archipelago, looming above the waves, must have seemed like a miracle. To reach the main island, you have to sail due north from Russia's Arctic coast during the fleeting annual interlude of freedom from ice and snow. If you are lucky, you scud over a silvery, gently undulating sea. If not, your vessel must crash through high, crested walls of water.
Either way, you will, after a few hours, glimpse an extraordinary structure that steadily fills the horizon: a stone battlement of great thickness, turned orange by lichen, and inside it a group of huge, pale churches, all formidably solid but tapering towards dark, bulbous domes. What you see is a kremlin—a stronghold or citadel—that matches the famous one in Moscow: a bastion of mystery and power, designed to be impregnable against all comers. For most of the past 500 years, this has been a place of outstanding influence—economically, strategically, culturally and spiritually—in the far north of Russia.
The early settlement of the Solovetsky islands—often shortened to Solovki—took place in an atmosphere of simplicity and solitude. The story is that two monks rowed out to the archipelago in the year 1429. All they knew was that it offered good fishing and berries in summer, and probable death from cold after that. Somehow they established a year-round settlement. By the end of the next century, the big white churches had been built and, with 200 monks and 300 other dependants, Solovki had become one of Russia's main religious institutions.
Its first benefactors were the bishops and notables of Novgorod, a mercantile city-state that dominated the northern Slavic lands. They endowed the monastery with fields, forests and lakes, which guaranteed an abundant income from fish and fur. When Moscow's rising power crushed Novgorod, Solovki's monks adapted nimbly. Indeed, they were soon playing a role in Muscovite high politics. Their great 16th-century abbot, St Filipp, was an envoy from Moscow who died a martyr after denouncing the murders committed by Ivan the Terrible. In each subsequent century, Solovki was to see odd twists of fate. Its resistance to church reforms led, in 1675, to a seven-year siege that ended only when the tsar's forces burst in.
The archipelago and the Gulag
Under Peter the Great and his westernising successors, Russia's monasteries in general were curtailed. But the emperor developed a soft spot for Solovki when he washed up there after surviving a White Sea storm—and realised it would be a handy place to lock up his enemies. In 1854 the monastery became a bastion of Russian pride after the monks had fought off a British naval siege. And in the final years of tsarism, Solovki became a showpiece not only of piety and patriotism, but of technology—with an electric-power station and radio telegraph.
The 20th century was by far the blackest one in the islands' history: the Soviet regime turned them into a place of incarceration and forced labour where thousands of people died horrible deaths. This was the first link in a network of camps that Alexander Solzhenitsyn named the Gulag archipelago. Only in the past 20 years or so have a couple of dozen monks resumed the daily cycle of worship. Now Solovki is again a popular destination for pilgrims, history buffs and nature-lovers.
With its mix of spiritual and earthly power, Solovki is an extraordinary spot, but it is not unique. Run your finger straight down the map, almost to the equator, and you will find a string of similar places: religious institutions on the eastern edge of the Christian world that managed, until the early 20th century, to cope well with the paradox at the heart of their existence. They were communities that enjoyed influence and wealth—although their individual members had, in theory and often in practice, given up personal ambition and property.
Due south of Solovki are the two other great monasteries of medieval Russia: Belozersk on the shores of the White Lake, Sergiev Posad just outside Moscow. Cross the Black Sea and you reach north-eastern Turkey, where three great monasteries used to dominate the lives of thousands of small farmers. The most famous, Panayia Soumela, is as spectacular as Solovki: it hugs a cliff-face about 300 metres (1,000 feet) above a wooded valley.
Travel on southwards until you encounter the eerie desolation of the Judean desert and there, honeycombed into a dramatic ravine, are the cells of St Sabas monastery, which used to exercise vast influence over the eastern Christian world. Farther to the south, and a little to the west, lies the prototype for Solovki: the monastic fortress on Mount Sinai where a retreat for a few hermits was converted by imperial fiat into a mighty stone redoubt, over 900 years before a similar transformation took place in the Russian Arctic. Lastly, in the highlands and lake isles of Ethiopia, monasteries still exist where the copying of holy texts, on animal-hide vellum, continued into modern times.
The secular century
For all these places, the encounter with the modern world has been traumatic, and sometimes terminal. But until the dawn of the 20th century, most of them were functioning rather well. Having made only tactical concessions to modernity, they would have been recognisable to their founders. Apart from a rigorous routine of prayer, their masters shared some other qualities that helped them survive. They were adept at anticipating, and adapting to, changes of political regime; and they were shrewd managers of their assets.
How did these eastern outposts compare with their equivalents in western Europe? First, the medieval west saw the rapid growth of new monastic orders in which a particular model of communal life was franchised across many countries. In the east, by contrast, where all monks followed the same rule, it was individual houses that grew powerful. Second, monasteries in the west lost the contest for wealth and political power much earlier than their eastern counterparts. From the dissolution of England's abbeys in the 16th century to the anti-clerical fervour of revolutionary France, west European history reads like a gradual victory for secular power over theocracy. Russia moved that way in the 18th century, but the monks resisted. They even managed to produce a last flowering of their mystical tradition on the eve of the revolution.
All over the Christian east, in fact, the monks adapted successfully to one tsar, or Ethiopian emperor, after another; and some were as adept at dealing with Ottoman sultans as they had been with Christian rulers. The 20th century, however, was different. Almost every monastery in Russia was wrecked by the Bolsheviks; the Black Sea abbots and their flocks were moved westwards under the population swap that followed a decade of Greek-Turkish war; the monasteries of the Middle East have had to hunker down in wars between Arabs and Israelis; and the monks of Ethiopia died in their thousands in the red terror of the 1970s.
Even after all these travails, though, eastern monasticism is far from dead—and in Mount Athos, the all-male “monastic republic” that occupies a finger of land in northern Greece, it has recently had a spectacular revival. But from northern Russia to the Middle East, the sight of ruined churches, empty refectories and defaced frescoes is a poignant image of modernity's effects on places whose ability to adapt has been impressive, but not infinite.
Now that the glory days—in material terms, at least—of the eastern monks seem to be past, historians are left with a double question: how did they become so rich and powerful, and how can their wealth and power be reconciled with their devotion to self-denial and poverty?
To worldly eyes, Solovki and its counterparts in other latitudes seemed to move away, rather quickly, from the heritage of their spiritual forebears—mystics who felt a calling to lonely places where they could fight the demons and resanctify the Earth. These warriors of the spirit had pledged to surrender their earthly lives and imitate the angels: to become creatures whose purpose was to praise God, intercede for mankind and love creation with new, selfless eyes. This ideal was proclaimed in Egypt in the third century after Christ; then, it is said, a young man called Antony was inspired by biblical teaching to forsake his inheritance for a life of solitude and prayer. Soon his disciples had drawn thousands of people to the desert.
But human beings, however determined not to live on bread alone, cannot live without bread either. And as monastic communities grew larger and more sophisticated, the need for a material base, as a Marxist would say, grew more acute. How was this achieved? By persuading emperors and other powerful folk that their prayers for the living and the dead were effective and therefore deserved to be supported with land and other privileges: that is one answer. But land still had to be translated into a steady, rising income. Indeed, the monasteries required wealth of the kind that would give them a degree of independence and ensure survival when the emperor changed.
Each great monastery achieved that in a different way. In the case of Solovki, a key to its huge wealth, along with furs and fish, was salt. As Roy Robson, an American historian, shows in his book, “Solovki”, the monastery had all the things needed to produce salt on a large scale: land, labour, timber and engineering skills. The raw material was not the sea itself, but highly saline water far below the ground. Once these briny springs had been found, the monks would burrow as deep as 60 metres down. Their drill consisted of a long wooden pole with an iron tip that was repeatedly dropped from a great height into a deepening hole, until salty liquid gushed up to the surface. This was then channelled through earthenware pipes into a boiler house, where it flowed into shallow pans that were heated till only pure salt remained. This “white gold” was then sold—two tonnes of the stuff in 1639, for instance—in the markets of northern Russia. As Mr Robson puts it: “Salt bought fur for coats and silk for vestments. Salt imported gold leaf for icons. Salt made the ‘desert’ of Solovki bloom.”
Similarly, the monasteries of the Pontus highlands near Turkey's Black Sea coast would not have thrived for more than 1,000 years had their monks not been careful managers of their property, and shrewd judges of politics. As Anthony Bryer, a British historian, has pointed out, the Pontus mountains were the only bit of Anatolia where the estates of the Byzantine monasteries stayed intact under the Ottomans. Elsewhere, monasteries lost their lands—often to Muslim religious foundations—as Ottoman rule took hold. But in the Black Sea region, a web of intermarriages and alliances between the Christian dynasty of Trebizond and the area's new masters helped ensure that the abbots of Pontus continued to be co-managers of the territory, and their tenants kept the Christian faith.
From the 18th century onwards, Panayia Soumela enjoyed a surge of prosperity, through a partnership with the nearby silver mines. Like the monasteries, the mines were an institution that the Ottomans left under Christian management as long as a decent share of the revenue reached the sultan. The monks obliged the mines by providing labour—not just miners, but charcoal-burners and smelters—from their estates. Today Panayia Soumela is an empty, albeit fascinating, shell. Its most prized icon has been taken to Veria in Greece, where it forms the centrepiece, every August, of emotional celebrations by Greeks from the Black Sea region.
Sanctity and survival
To see a living example of a monastery that survived both Ottoman rule and modernity, travel to another forested mountainside—outside the northern Greek town of Serres. Entering the walled monastery of St John the Baptist on Mount Menoikeion, you might be stepping into the 13th century, when it was founded. You enter a church whose aura of sanctity has always dazzled pilgrims: icons glowing in candle-light, silver cases full of holy relics.
Here, too, is a place that knew how to translate spiritual authority into economic power, says Nikolaos Bakirtzis, a scholar at Princeton University. In the twilight of Byzantium, the monastic estates were the breadbasket for a shrunken realm, and they were treated with respect by every contender in the empire's power struggles. In the mid-14th century, when the region was overrun by the Serbs, the place did equally well under their stewardship. And later, when the Ottomans took over the whole area, the monastery's land was protected by a Serb princess, Mara Brankovic, who was stepmother to Mehmet, the conqueror of Istanbul in 1453.
This was not, in fact, the first contact between a prudent community and the region's rising power. At least from the late 14th century, the monks were in friendly touch with the Ottomans; they knew where the wind was blowing.
In the centuries that followed, they husbanded their resources so as to survive lean years. They had some luck in the 19th century: the American civil war boosted prices for tobacco and cotton, and revenue from their estates soared. The monastery's latest occupants are 30 nuns, who produce organic olive oil and religious trinkets. It still feels like a place whose stewards are practical as well as spiritual.
But, at the height of the Byzantine system, were these monasteries “progressive” landlords? Not especially, at least when they became overstretched by estates that were too far-flung to manage, argues Mr Bryer. However, the degree to which monasteries fostered economic progress varied greatly from century to century. In the first Christian millennium, Europe's monasteries were often the only places to discover new farming techniques, just as they were the only bastions of literacy and systematic learning. In Solovki, the monks were masters of water engineering; their underground pipes even made it possible to grow exotic fruit.
Why, in economic terms, were some monks satisfied with the status quo, while others were more innovative? It helps to recall that economic progress was never an end in itself; everything was subordinated to sustaining the life of the monastery. This reality was blurred by the public-relations skills of the monks, who were good at promoting themselves in the eyes of worldly masters—by advertising their cultural, economic or strategic utility. At bottom, though, they never saw worldly prosperity, or success in worldly affairs, as their main aim. Self-sufficiency, not development in the modern sense, was always their ideal.
In Golgotha's shadow
Peter Brown, the doyen of religious historians at Princeton University, gives a striking account of what early eastern monks thought they were doing. They “did not abandon the world, in the sense of severing all connection with it. Rather, in the imagination of their contemporaries, they transformed its wild edges. They ringed a careworn society with the shimmering hope of paradise regained. Having drained from themselves all hint of the dark passions that ruled the world, they validated the world by constantly praying for it.”
With ideals as lofty, and as other-worldly, as that, the eastern monks were willing to make whatever compromise was necessary with the expediencies of Earthly power to keep themselves in business. It was an act they more or less pulled off, until the 20th century threw them off balance. In a sense, however, modernity has taken the eastern monks back where they started. Their liturgy has always emphasised plucking new life out of death: redeeming the lifeless and demon-infested world of the “desert” and making it bloom like Eden.
In the rich, urban monasteries of late Byzantium, mired in power games, such language may have had a hollow ring. But think how it sounds on Anzer island in the Solovetsky archipelago. This is where, after an epidemic in 1929, prisoners were tossed into a mass grave, below a church named Golgotha where a tree grows naturally in the shape of a cross. In a place so drenched in suffering, the language of death does not have to be hammed up or invented. It is difficult to believe that anything can now bring light and life to such a spot. But, if anything can, it may be monastic prayer.
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Run your finger down the map, and you will find a string of similar institutions on the eastern edge of the Christian world