Helandari Monastery rises from its ashes

THESSALONIKI – Smoking ruins, and monks left without so much as the cassocks on their backs or a piece of bread was the legacy of last spring’s fire at the Monastery of Helandari on Mt Athos. The disastrous fire, which broke out in one wing, disrupted the quiet monastic life of 25 monks of Serbian origin on the night of March 4, turning cells, furnaces, storehouses, the abbey, the guest quarters and four chapels into ashes. Eight months after the fire, which destroyed roughly half of the Byzantine-era complex, monastic life is slowly returning to normal. Within a short duration, the monks had relocated to the unburnt areas, while both by their own efforts and with the help of other monasteries, they dealt with the problems of day-to-day survival. The central entrance to the monastery, which had been blocked by burned building material, was freed, putting an end to the need to carry in all the monastery’s supplies by hand. The Vatopediou Monastery still keeps the monks in bread, while the other monasteries banded together to find them cassocks and other personal objects that were burnt in the cells. And one of the first funding projects approved by the Center for the Preservation of the Mt Athos Heritage (KEDAK), which operates under the auspices of the Macedonia-Thrace Ministry, was for a number of works to restore the monastery after the fire. The state response to the first project, which sought to render the burnt wing safe again, was swift. To prevent further damage from the winter rains, work to support the remaining masonry shell are proceeding at a rapid pace. The extent of the damage and the special character of the monument require detailed redesigning and work that will take a decade, said representatives of the bodies responsible, KEDAK and the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. The overall cost is estimated at 30 million euros. Three of the initial, highest-priority projects are already under way. The teams that have been working on the monastery since the fire have removed the dangerous sections of the perimeter wall. Recently, steel supports were put in place to protect against earthquakes, while the next step is to position a temporary cover over the burnt wing. «The remaining sections, all five floors of them, are the core of the restoration work and will be those that preserve the architectural style of the monastery’s Byzantine building,» said Yiannis Tavlakis, director of the 10th Ephorate. One of the most difficult projects is digging into the burnt mass of matter and retrieving destroyed heirlooms and the remnants of equipment that could be reused. «The cost of the work until today has come to over 680,000 euros, which came out of KEDAK’s budget,» said KEDAK’s president, and general secretary of the Macedonia-Thrace Ministry, Loukas Ananikas. But with teams working around the clock, restoration is proceeding apace. As a result, the ministry has submitted a proposal to the Economy Ministry that a new project of 10 years’ duration, which will restore the burnt wing, be incorporated into the program for public investment. The Greek state will set in motion procedures to secure the money, as it has done up till now in order to save a Mt Athos monument.