by Nikolas Bakirtzis
Since the summer of 2005 Princeton University students and faculty members have participated in fieldwork study on Mt. Menoikeion. Participants from the Greek Archaeological Service and other American universities joined our teams and participated in activities on site. The first two seasons of the seminar (2005, 2006) served as pilots for the program’s development. The results gained were highly rewarding and permitted the continuation of the seminar. First, the organization of such an educational program in a functioning monastic institution is unique. The primary and most important challenge was to take advantage of the opportunity presented, to gain the trust of the monastic community and to establish a balanced relationship with its members which would permit the study of a functioning monastery. The second goal of the first two seasons of the Mt. Menoikeion Seminar was to gain a preliminary understanding of the research opportunities presented. Both objectives were achieved in the best way possible, thus allowing the promising continuation and development of this exceptional academic experience.
The seminar’s primary goal is to provide an inspiring educational experience to its participants and to stimulate their direct involvement in field research working closely with faculty members and specialists. The Mt. Menoikeion Seminar is organized in two parts: The first part is dedicated to fieldwork study and practice organized according to participants’ research interests. The second and final part features a workshop which is designed to complement the results of research work and to foster the exchange of facts and ideas in the context of the broader region’s archaeology, history and social anthropology.
The summer of 2007 was our third season at the monastery. Following the first two pilot-seasons, our program had established a valuable relationship of trust with the monastic community and local authorities. Our season’s working theme was: “Taming the Wilderness on Mt. Menoikeion; Ascetic Experience and its Natural Setting.” Our study examined various aspects of monastic life in the context of the broader region’s archaeology, history and social anthropology. We visited sites of archaeological interest, such as cave chapels and cells, abandoned settlements and the remains of the monastery’s metochia. Furthermore, members of our team were allowed to study some of the monastery’s archives. The unique opportunity to stay in the monastery and to be a part of its daily life enriched and inspired our research focus and perspective. Our work moved beyond the limited scope of archaeological surveys, to gain a direct knowledge of the anthropology of Mt. Menoikeion evolving around the life of the monastery of Prodromos. Graduate and undergraduate students were permitted to participate in, and to record the chores of daily life in the nunnery of Prodromos. Seminar talks and guided tours given by joining professors and specialists provided context to our field experience.
During the 2008 and 2009 summer seasons we continued to explore the organization of the monastery’s environs following the founding actions of its ktetors. Our working title was: “Claiming a Holy Mountain; Monks, Metochia and the Networks of Monastic Landscapes.” We further explored and documented the landscape of the Menoikeion with a particular interest towards the better understanding of the relationship of the monastery with the city of Serres. At the same time returning participants have begun to develop their own research interests, thus expanding the scope of their graduate work and utilizing the experience on the Menoikeion. The art, the architecture, the music, the anthropology and the historiography of the monastery and the region have inspired our students informing their work and permitting them to experienceProdromos monastery and the Menoikeion in its broader context.
It’s worth noting that the return to the monastery is a much greater challenge than one’s first visit. Upon entering the monastery’s gate returning participants feel like they had never left and that time stands still on Mt. Menoikeion. Every time, the community’s warm welcome and generous hospitality makes us feel at home right away. Yet, there is a strange, unsettling feeling for those of us coming back for the second, the third, or in my case, the four hundred and fifty ninth time. This sentiment increases as the days pass. It is odd because the mountain feels familiar. We have walked its slopes, got lost in its ravines. The monastic complex is also known. We know how to move around its steep paved courtyard, where to seek refuge from the afternoon sun, where to get cold water, how to follow the liturgy, and how to interact with nuns and pilgrims. This is important knowledge that builds on past experience and I am proud with the ways our group has been responding to it.
It is the responsibility that comes with knowledge that was unsettling, and in way, caught many of us off-guard. When you return to Prodromos, you are already a part of its reality. It is not an exciting novel experience anymore. The spirituality of daily life is no longer exotic, unique or special but ordinary and familiar. And there is nothing more complex or scary that the familiarity of the sacred. Being an active participant in this reality, one has to respond and to become engaged- and this is the tricky part for us as academic students. This aspect of fieldwork in a living religious community with a centuries-old tradition is the most difficult one, as it is very personal: it requires of participants to identify themselves in relation to what they are engaging.
The most important aspect of the Mt. Menoikeion Seminar is the learning process in the field. This process builds on knowledge gained in the classroom and offers a rare opportunity to experience a living monument in Greece and the Mediterranean. It is important to note the friendship that has developed between the Prodromos nuns and the Princeton students. Under the Abbess’ guidance, the two communities shared the monastic complex, challenging preconceived notions of the monastic and the academic world respectively. They learn to mutually respect each other while living and working together. This has been an intense learning experience for all involved, which is an investment for future work. As some seminar participants learned in the waters of Kavala one summer, an experience at Mt. Menoikeion challenges the traditionally settled posture of academic detachment, and calls for a methodological plunge.