Place experience of the sacred : liminality, pilgrimage and the topography of Mount Athos
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This thesis explores the embodied topography of Mount Athos, emphasizing the conditions of liminality – the nature of different kinds of boundaries and intermediate zones within it. Mount Athos is a valuable case study of sacred topography, as it is one of the largest monastic communities and an important pilgrimage destination. Its phenomenological examination in this study highlights the importance of embodiment in the experience of religious places advocating also for a deeper understanding of the boundaries in it. The thesis seeks to convey a more primary insight into the phenomena found there, examining also how ritual and pre-reflective embodied movements explore the topography in a meaningful way. Combining elements of different disciplines (philosophy, theology, anthropology, and architectural history and theory) with primary sources from archives and fieldwork, the thesis constitutes an original contribution to both Athonian studies and sacred topography scholarship. By focusing on the spatial, temporal and aural boundaries and intermediate zones as perceptual phenomena of an embodied topography, it suggests an alternative to the usual art-historical, objectifying examination of the case study. Liminality refers to the intermediate zones between two or more components of a sacred place. It allows the reciprocal communication between them, carrying the character of both departure and return. In using liminality as a focus of investigation, the thesis provides a new understanding of the way religious places are interconnected through cyclical rituals, the strangers’ travel and silent meditation. Following the archetype of the journey, these movements are also studied according to their particular power to “map” places in a more primary way than the modern cartographic method. Starting from the periphery of Athos, the study presents a variety of in-between zones, the passage through which contributes to the sensual realization of a multi-layered meaningful topography. Annual pilgrimages to the peak of the mountain, silent meditation in isolated caves, wandering asceticism and walking along the footpaths provide different ways to narrate the natural landscape of the peninsula. Moreover, ritual choreographies being inscribed in the courtyard and church of a coenobitic monastery, meals and death services ritually perform the place. Through their investigation, this study illuminates important aspects of the topography, such as its multi-sensual aural environment in which silence plays a key role. The analysis concludes that the different liminal zones of Mount Athos are always undergoing a condition of penetration, alteration, and even violation, allowing the integrity of the topography to be enacted.