Monastery on Mount Athos rises from ashes

The Serbian complex was devastated by a fire in 2004

LONDON. Four years after a devastating fire, the Serbian monastery of Hilandar is rising from the ashes on Mount Athos, the male-only Orthodox enclave in northern Greece. It was established in 1198, and remains the only Serbian monastery on the mountainous isthmus: most of the others are Greek.

A disastrous fire on the night of 3 March 2004 (caused by an electric heater) destroyed just over half the huge complex. The oldest structure lost was the White Lodge, renewed

in 1598.

Many of the monastery’s walls survived the fire in a damaged state, although roofs collapsed and floors were burnt. Four chapels were destroyed, but the main church and the oldest buildings survived.

The first two years after the fire were spent clearing the ruins and restoring the basic infrastructure. The initial project was the completion of the Treasury, which had been built in 1970 with poor quality materials. It houses an important collection of icons, but environmental conditions were unsuitable, and work on upgrading the building had already begun before the fire. The Treasury was reopened in April 2006. Work on restoring the nearby fire-damaged 1814 lodge, which houses the meeting room for the monastic synod, was completed last year.

The current project is the 1821 Great Lodge, the largest building destroyed in the fire. It had housed cells, offices and a conservation workshop. Work on the E6m project began last September, with completion scheduled for 2010.

In February remedial work also started on the chapel of St Nicholas. The original chapel dates back to the 14th century, but it was rebuilt in the mid-17th century. It had been decorated with frescoes, which an inscription records were painted by priest Danilo in 1667. Tragically, the frescoes became severely discoloured in the fire. The images survive in shades of grey and yellow, although the monastery describes them as still “radiant”.

The most serious damage was caused by the collapse of one of the main pillars in the chapel. The floor fell in, and the windows, doors and seats were burnt. The iconostasis, a wall of icons, was turned to ash. Steel braces have now been inserted to temporarily stabilise the structure, pending its reconstruction.

Restoration work on Mount Athos is sensitive, since there is always a conflict between reinstating the original design with traditional materials, and providing an inexpensive building which serves modern needs. At Hilandar, these issues have arisen frequently, made more complex by the scale of the restoration.

Total costs of the Hilandar restoration are estimated at E25m. The Serbian government has pledged E10m, while the Greek government has recently offered E2m and the Serbian Orthodox Church will also give E2m. Private supporters include the Prince of Wales, who attended a fundraising reception in London on 15 May. Further buildings remain to be restored and final completion of the work is scheduled for 2014.

Although the huge monastery had only 25 monks at the time of the fire, this number has now increased to 40, so the disaster has brought an unexpected energy to the tiny Serbian community. Around 60 workers are also employed as builders, requiring increased food production. Meanwhile, the St Sava’s Field vineyard, abandoned 30 years ago, has been planted with 47,000 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines, to produce wine for the monastery, as well as for export to raise funds for the

restoration.

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