By Isabelle Puckette
In the 13th century, Ioannikios, nobleman of Serres turned monk of Mount Athos, received a letter, communicating that his two year old nephew, Ioannes, had been orphaned. With the adopted responsibility of caring for the child came Ioannikios’ decision to become an ascetic in a cave on Mount Menoikeion. The cave that Ioannikios and Ioannes inhabited together overlooks a series of additional caves, including the Metamorphosis Cave, where monk and child temporarily moved to before descending further and establishing Prodromos Monastery in the 1270’s. These caves are visible from the monastery– as we have been studying here this past week, their entrances have lured us, beckoning us to try and reach.
We had initially hoped to hike up to the founder’s cave, a challenge dubbed The Megahike, but road conditions and the abbess’ warning encouraged us to revise our plan. Instead, we set our eyes on the Metamorphosis Cave. After breakfast this morning, a group of us began the ascent.
Up we climbed, a bit dangerous at times, making our way through thorned bushes that scratched our clothes and skin, trying our best to avoid the avalanching rocks and slipping dirt. It became clear very quickly that "path" was too optimistic a label for our passage up. Instead, we constantly searched for the easiest way to continue in the direction we believed to be correct. We came upon three snakes on our way.
Finally, we reached where we believed we would find the Metamorphosis Cave. Emily, who happens to have intensive training in back country hiking, scouted for us. Up she climbed, investigating the mountain side hidden behind tall bushes. There was nothing there but a looming slab of rock.
Our group collapsed on the rocks nested in the mountain side, beginning to worry about how in the world we would get back down. One of us had fallen twice, caught from tumbling down the mountain by the thorned bushes, and that was on the ascent. But as we commiserated, Nebojsa, analyzing the terrain, offered his theory on the location of the cave. Matt scouted ahead in the direction indicated by Nebojsa and indeed found a cave. Not the Metamorphosis Cave it turned out, but we were getting close.
After exploring the cave Matt had sighted, whose floor had many large skittering black insects, we continued onward, helping each other along the rocks of the mountain side until we reached Bat Cave (so named for its current inhabitants). It was an ominous and dark opening. Some of us ventured in for a bit, finding goat bones lying in the bat guano.
And then further around a bend, we finally reached the Metamorphosis Cave. Professor Luijendijk commented that the cave looks like a church. The walls climb upward to form a high ceiling, a serene chapel hidden inside the mountain. We found the remains of frescos along the sides of the cave, and outside, we saw the crevice where ascetics would light candles at night which could be seen from by the monks of Prodromos. Amelia turned to me and said, "I think I’ll stay here and become an ascetic. That way I won’t have to make the hike back down."