An interview with Veronica della Dora, author of Landscape, Nature and the Sacred in Byzantium

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Veronica. Your book is full of descriptions of special places: gardens, mountains, caves, rivers. Do you have any particular favourites among the places that you have visited?
 
I would say each of these places has its own special charm, and when it came to find the ideal site for ascetic retreat, or for the foundation of a monastery, Byzantines certainly had a keen eye for evocative locations. Among my favourites are probably mountains and geological formations in the broad sense. To say that such landmarks exert a sort of ‘spiritual magnetism’ is probably commonplace. But the truth is that my first encounters with holy mountains have always taken me by surprise—more so than other sites. Some of them I visited for the first time many years ago, long before I became interested in Byzantium, Eastern Christianity, and or even cultural geography. Others I visited more recently. And yet, I can still remember the vividness and intensity I experienced the first time I saw each of them. The dark cone of Mount Athos emerging in the distance from the blue surface of the Aegean on a bright summer morning; the dramatic rocks of Meteora suddenly popping up on the horizon at dusk; the prominent silhouette of Tabor quietly bubbling up from the land, and then the entry into the lunar landscape of the Sinai massif region in the silence of a starry desert night: all these rocky features came to me unexpectedly and in a way that words can hardly capture. They created powerful breaks in my visual horizon, as well as in my train of thoughts. Even if they were not my final destinations, they certainly had the power to shake me, to wake me up from the lethargy of long and somewhat tedious journeys.
 
I believe these geological landmarks share in the sacred in that they do not merely present themselves to the gaze, but reach out to seize you when you least expect it. Encountering them, even from afar, is a bit like bumping into a 1000-year-old Byzantine chapel in the midst of a jungle of concrete and heavy traffic and crossing its threshold (Athens is full of such places). You suddenly find yourself in a space that is utterly different from the outside. For a moment you forget about the traffic, you forget about the concrete, you forget about your manic schedule. Time seems to slow down somehow. Similarly, whether majestic or simply ‘odd’, these rocky formations seem to speak of a world different from the one we are used to. In front of them we pause. On their summits we learn to put the world into perspective. I believe biblical revelations occurred on mountain tops for a good reason.
 

 

Had I to pick up a specific ‘special place’ that I visited, I would probably say Meteora. Back in 2009 and 2010, I was working on a project on landscape and pilgrimage funded by AHRC/ESRC, and I was privileged to be hosted by the nuns of one of the monasteries, which was a most extraordinary experience. Meteora is the second largest monastic complex in Greece, after Mount Athos. The first monastery was established by Saint Athanasius in the fourteenth century. Another twenty followed, though unfortunately most of them were pillaged and destroyed during the last two hundred years of Ottoman rule, and others during the bombings of World War II. Meteora’s six surviving monasteries though are all perched on the top of dramatic sandstone pillars and rocks, and they are all equally astonishing. I believe the word ‘Meteora’ (‘suspended in the air’) perfectly conveys the spirit of the place. Whether attending a church service, or contemplating the scenery from the veranda at sunset, as the rocks cast their long shadows on the Thessalian plane, I often felt as though I were standing on the top of the world. And when the darkness fell, I sometimes felt as if I were floating above a starry sky. From the tiny window of my cell, the lights of the village below looked indeed like many little bright stars. I remember the utter silence of the night being occasionally interrupted by the chant of the nightingale, the bark of a dog in the village, a car in a distance. Sounds from the valley reached that magic world rarefied, as echoes from a distant life. I think those moments will stay with me for a long time.
 
Your book contains many beautiful photographs. Did you take many of these yourself, on your travels? How many were you able to visit, as opposed to discovering them from written sources or photographs? How long did your book take to research and write?
 
Yes, a few of the photographs in the book were taken by myself. Others were purchased from various archives. Most of them, however, were taken by Fr Apolló from the monastery of Docheiariou (Mount Athos), who taught me modern Greek, guided me to Orthodoxy, and with whom I have been in continuous contact for the past eighteen years or so.
 
I have been fortunate to visit many of the places I discuss in the book. These include major biblical topoi such as Sinai, Tabor, the church of the Holy Sepulchre (which shelters Golgotha), the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, as well as non-biblical places connected to the lives of holy men and women, such as Meteora, Aegina and Lesvos, among others. Places I have discovered from textual sources but have not visited include the former holy mountains of Asia Minor (e.g. Auxentios, Galesion, Latros, Olympus of Bithynia, etc.). These and other holy mountains flourished around the Empire between the fifth and eleventh centuries. They were initially attributed an aura of holiness because of the presence of charismatic hermits, and later because of the establishment of organized monastic communities. Today their names have disappeared from the map. Other vanished places and symbolic topoi that I discuss in the book but I have not visited are, of course, gardens, including the Garden of Eden!
 
Of course, I feel enormously privileged to have visited all the sites I have visited, but I think at the end of the day this book is not so much about the physical places as such, as their symbolic significance, and how Byzantine representations of these places shed light on specific perceptions of space and creation.
 
While the actual write-up started during my first sabbatical at Dumbarton Oaks in 2011, this book is the result of a much longer journey that began sixteen years ago, when I first embarked on my PhD on representations of Mount Athos. Many of the materials on Athos that I use in the book come from that research, which subsequently materialized in my first monograph Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II. Other materials I gathered over the years while working on other smaller projects, individual talks and conference papers presented to various audiences, including geographers, Byzantinists and medievalists. The fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks gave me the opportunity to bring these different stories and research strands together and, of course, to complement them with a wealth of new materials and stories.
 
Athos provides some of the most vivid examples for your story. You have, of course, written about Athos before, and you make clear in your acknowledgements to this book that you enjoy close friendships with some of the Fathers in the monasteries there. Does it upset you that, as a female, you cannot actually go there?
 
This is a question I have often been asked and the answer is ‘no’. For me Mount Athos is a spiritual home, a beacon, and a treasure. But even before that, Mount Athos is a sacred place, a place akin to the altar space of an Orthodox church. It does not upset me that I cannot cross the icon screen and access that space; I know it is a space restricted to the clergy and few other people. The point is really the mystery of the Eucharist taking place there (and me receiving the Eucharist), rather than me being able to see what the space looks like and perhaps taking a picture of it. Physical separation from the altar space does not mean exclusion, but rather revelation through concealment. As Fr. Maximos Constas, Sharon Gerstel and other scholars have so eloquently shown, the icon screen is first of all a point of contact between earth and heaven, a surface thanks to which which a two-way dialogue is established. The same I guess goes with Mount Athos.
 
As I said elsewhere, while Athos is commonly narrated and imagined as a sort of exotic place cut off from society, in reality it plays a vital function in the spiritual life of thousands of people who live outside of its boundaries, half of whom are women. Among that half I include myself. I have been visiting the women’s convent, which is a metochi (or ‘dependency’), of Docheiariou on a yearly basis for the past eighteen years, from its beginnings, when a small team of monks were still excavating the foundations of some of the buildings, to its completion and transformation into shrine. The metochi is located on the top of a hill deep in the countryside of the Lagkada region. It is about an hour drive from Thessaloniki. A group of monks works there over the summer, and priests from the monastery are sent throughout the year to celebrate services and confess the nuns and laypeople.
 
Over the years, I have seen all sorts of people turning to the Fathers for spiritual advice and help, especially suffering, broken people: the childless couple and the couple who lost their only child, the terminally sick and the mother of the drug addicted, the victim of domestic violence, the orphan, the widow, and many more. I have personally experienced the care and compassion of the monks for the suffering. Theirs is not simply preaching from afar, but living that suffering from within. This is precisely what their Byzantine predecessors did. And this is how most Byzantine ‘holy mountains’ came about: as soon as the fame of a holy man or community spread, widows, peasants, generals, and even emperors flocked there (or sent their requests) for advice and prayer—the life of Saint Lazaros of Galesion (966-1053) is rich with such examples. While the specific topography of the site might have set the preconditions for ascetic life and attracted the first hermits, at the end of the day what people were after were the holy men associated to the place and their prayers, rather than the place itself.
 
It is hard for us in this day and age to feel real enthusiasm for the hermit’s choice of cave-dwelling. Some famous western ascetics have chosen life in the desert, as travellers and explorers. It comes more easily to us to praise rivers, as the patristic fathers did. As you put your story together, did you find yourself drawn more to one or other of the topographical features?
 
As a Venetian I feel naturally drawn to the watery element. I was raised on the Lido and the sea had been a living presence throughout my youth. Every time I return home and smell the breeze of the Adriatic I feel as if I am encountering an old friend again. Perhaps to remedy that absence, here in Surrey (where I live and work) I spend most of my free time on the banks of the Thames. I find solace in contemplating this feature that is in a constant state of becoming and yet always the same. Like Gregory of Nazianzus, I do find comfort in its quiet rhythms, and feel a delightful melancholy in the trees and their changing colours reflected on the surface of the water. I find rest in the whisper of the wind and in the birds’ songs. I certainly see why this sort of environment led the Cappadocian Fathers to an appreciation of the cosmos as a holy tapestry, in which each thread had its own place and purpose.
 
On the other hand, I must confess that in putting together this book I was absolutely taken by desert stories, perhaps given the prominence the desert is accorded in Scripture and in much of the literature I explored. What I found especially compelling about the desert (and about wilderness in general) is the way in which it is used throughout the centuries to give expression to an inner quest, to a process of inner transformation which lies at the heart of Byzantine asceticism. I was interested in this archetypal landscape not simply as a backdrop for ascetic life, but as powerful symbol with which certain figures and a certain ideal of asceticism came to be identified—think of the lives of Saint Anthony and Saint Mary of Egypt, for example. I was also charmed by the mutability and mobility of the desert as a topos. The desert can ‘bloom’ through tears of repentance, as we hear again and again in Byzantine hymnography. But the desert can, and did, also move around, from Egypt and Palestine as far as to Greece, Italy and even the North Atlantic (by the fourteenth century Meteora was referred to as ‘the Thebaid of Thessaly’).
 
It is true, nowadays, that a hermitic life in the wilderness does certainly not have the appeal it might have had in the third century or in the Middle Ages, but I think in our secularized society wilderness continues to play a crucial role—perhaps because it is an idea (or an ideal) more than anything else. An entire travel industry has been erected on the spoils of Thoreau. Some buy wilderness in tourist packages. Others try to walk off the map, after untrodden landscapes, or simply after a break from an increasingly hectic and mechanized routine. The most popular destinations of my final-year students planning a gap year abroad are New Zealand and Australia. They are attracted to that part of the world precisely because of the wild open spaces it conjures up in their geographical imagination. It seems trekking in the remote wilderness has become a sort of rite of passage from a student’s life to a professional life. The true story of Christopher MacCandless, a contemporary ‘secular hermit’ who tragically lost his life during his existential quest in a remote region of Alaska, has become one of the most popular bestsellers and celebrated movies of the last two decades. The place where he spent the last days of his life has turned into a true shrine attracting every year dozens of ‘pilgrims’. Here in Britain, and I suspect in other Western countries, less people might be flocking to church than in the past, but surely more and more dream to walk ‘into the wild’.
 
‘Topoi utter stories,’ you say in your book. Are these stories being preserved, and if so by whom? Or are they fading away, and if so, why?

Old and New Testament stories are preserved in Scripture and they continue to be re-enacted every time a liturgy is celebrated. And so the places associated to them. Other stories are preserved through memorials. Others through shrines—and through their guardians. Athonite monks and the nuns of Meteora I know are the most extraordinary living depositories of topographical knowledge and reservoirs of stories. Their charismatic accounts have the power to bring landscape to life. They are the custodians not just of shrines and relics, but of tradition and ancient wisdom. As long as this wisdom will be passed on to the new generations, topoi will continue to utter stories.
 
It is true, however, that the world moves at different speeds and certain stories are fading away. Last summer I was driving with Fr Apolló and Fr Theoktistos from Ouranoupolis to a village near Corinth, where the monastery of Docheiariou has some olive trees. It had been a very dry year, so the two monks were driving down to oversee the construction of a water cistern. The journey, on a dusty pick up car, took about eight hours. We drove for over seven hundred kilometres, mostly along the E75, a highway recently completed with EU funds (I just found out it starts from the northernmost tip of Norway and crosses eight EU countries). We passed by a number of sites which the two Fathers promptly connected to ancient myths, historical events and more recent happenings. ‘Look, there is the spring of the Nereids’. ‘Further down in that direction is the Peneios River. That is where the Greeks had organized their defence against the Persians’. ‘Behind that turn is a memorial to an Italian highway engineer who was killed in an accident ten years ago’. ‘In a bit we will pass the Thermopylae’. Sometimes some of these sites triggered stories, like the miraculous intervention of the Mother of God against the Nazis in the village of Skripos (Fr Theoktistos had visited the site on a school trip 50 years ago). Other times ‘memory places’ invited melancholic reflection. ‘We just passed the shrine of Aghia Paraskeve. You know, before the E75 was built, we used to stop here and at other small shrines along the old road and used to light candles every time we journeyed from Mount Athos to Corinth for the harvest. But now we cannot get off the highway. True, thanks to the E75 we are getting to destination faster. But this highway has separated entire villages and isolated many of those small shrines’.
 
Italian geographer Franco Farinelli called the straight line the ‘hallmark of modernity’. He claims that the straight line is a monster far more frightening than those populating the seas and oceans on Renaissance maps and baroque atlases. The straight line cutting across the land, he argues, is a feature that we do not find in nature. It comes about when it is no longer the map to copy the world, but the world to copy the map. It started off with the road, and then the railway, and then the highway. In turning places into space, the straight line of the E75 obliterates local topographies and I fear it will progressively silence their stories. But I bet this is just one of innumerable examples around the world. This is the drama of modernity. And this also is the paradox of globalization: by cutting distances and ‘shrinking the world’, it also takes places apart.
 
Has writing this book changed your view of the Byzantines? And of the western, more linear view of the world?

 

Certainly. Writing this book has been a learning journey more than anything else. Along the way I was fortunate to encounter leading scholars who played a decisive role in broadening my horizons and my knowledge of Byzantium. The one towards whom I feel most indebted is Fr Maximos Constas. Among many other things, he made me realize the absolute centrality of theology to Byzantine perceptions of creation to an extent I had not anticipated when I set off to write this book. I don’t think I could have written this book without his help and guidance.
 
The history of Byzantium stretches across over a millennium (330-1453). Taking a longue-durée approach and bringing together materials from different periods and parts of the Empire of course highlighted differences. At the same time, however, it also revealed recurring patterns, typologies and symbols. For the Byzantines human history was first of all a history of revelation, of continuous foreshadowings. According to the Greek Church Fathers, Old Testament events were prefigurations of New Testament events and revelations—and so were the physical places attached to them (deserts, mountains, caves, rivers, etc.). Through the centuries, Byzantine hagiographers superimposed these biblical topoi on geographically distant or unrelated places. Inscribed on the land, these topoi ended up signposting lives of medieval saints, who were in turn appropriated as models by other holy men and women. Hence, the same topoi recurred generation after generation, as in a spiral, that is, remaining always the same, yet never exactly the same.
 
Setting topoi within this framework has helped me appreciate Byzantine spiritual culture as a reality that transcends the history of the Empire and continues to live through the Orthodox Church. Conversely, writing this book helped me recast western ways of seeing ‘into perspective’ and realize that the way in which we approach and represent space is just one out of many, even if we take it for granted.
 
In your book you talk about the ‘progressive separation and alienation from nature’ as the hallmark of western modernity and the root of the environmental crisis, and connect this with the modern, linear view of the world. Is there a way for us to reconnect with our place in nature? If ‘nature ultimately depends on our way of seeing’, can we relearn to see differently?
 
I think one of the teachings we can take from the Greek Church Fathers is regaining a sense of purpose, the sense of being part of a larger whole, rather than detached spectators—in other words, seeing ‘the bigger picture’ and our place within the bigger picture. I believe modernity has led to a loss of this sense of interrelation and integration. Treated as a commodity or mere resource, nature has become ‘other’, external to us, and today we are paying the consequences of this. Likewise, our lives have become increasingly fragmented. Our eyes are constantly bombarded by images; our gaze is saturated with distractions. Perhaps the first step to relearn to see differently is slowing down, or in the words of Fr Constas, relearning to ‘be attentive’. Wrapping the viewer through inverse perspective, or simply arresting the gaze by way of some strange feature, Byzantine icons resist detached mastering. They open up a two-way dialogue and invite that kind of attentiveness we seem to have lost. Maybe the icon is a good starting point to re-educate our gaze.
 
One unexpected spin-off from your explanation of topoi is that we shall look at the wall decoration of Roman villas with new eyes, thanks to you. Where will you turn your attention next? Do you have another project in the pipeline?
 
I have been recently awarded a British Academy/Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship to work on a new book project that traces the evolution of the ‘mantle of the earth’ metaphor from Classical antiquity to the present. I intend to explore how changes in the use and representation of this metaphor reflect significant shifts in ways of apprehending and describing the world throughout Western history: from the closed cartographic space of medieval Christian mappae mundi (literally meaning ‘world cloths’) to the mantles and curtains opening on the expanding world of the Age of Discovery in Renaissance maps; from Romanticism’s vapoury veils shrouding sublime landscapes and nature’s mysteries to twentieth-century geographers’ conceptualization of landscape as a screen at once revealing and concealing the complex workings of society. As our world is being enveloped in a digital mantle and our lives are being increasingly interlaced in its texture, I believe the metaphor is acquiring a new and yet unexplored significance, which I also intend to investigate in this project.

What effect do you hope to have on the readers of your book? Do you hope to teach and enlighten them about Byzantium, or do you hope also to inspire them to find and experience ‘places of the soul’, as you describe them, or to see nature differently?


This book started off as a sort of ‘link book’. I have always been frustrated by the scarce attention my discipline (geography) pays to pre-modern, let alone Byzantine, culture. So my original goal was to bring Byzantium to the attention of my fellow colleagues. At the same time, I was also hoping to offer Byzantinists a cultural geography perspective, which I thought was lacking in their field, in spite of a recent ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities. And then, I guess, I also grew tired of naïve statements that have long populated geography textbooks blaming ‘Judaeo-Christianity’ as the root of modern exploitation of nature. Hence, my hope was to problematize such statements by expounding a story (or a ‘way of seeing’, if you want) different from those I had been exposed to as a student. As I put the book together, however, I realized the importance of this story and its potential to transcend not only disciplinary boundaries, but also the boundaries of academia. If this book ends up challenging the reader with a new ‘way of seeing’, then I think it will have been worth my efforts.

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