The treasure of the monastery
The Panteleimon monastery seen from the sea, around 1915
Sailors from the Angele Achaque based on Mt. Athos for the Orient Campaign
Portrait of a Russian pilgrim
A rare outdoor picture of monks on horseback. The photographer seems to have dismounted to take the picture
Two monks in their cell
Two French soldiers posing against a painted background, showing the Panteleimon monastery
Three French soldiers
Three monks having tea on a balcony
Two monks posing with a bible
Monk posing with a parchment. In icons, Jesus is often depicted with a parchment to stress his wisdom
Visitors and monks posing in the courtyard of the monastery
A highly unusual scene of a celebration (maybe a baptism) shot outside the Athos region
The Panteleimon monastery as it looks today
Mt. Athos is the eastern-most peninsula of Khalkidiki in northern Greece. It is an autonomous theocratic republic, currently inhabited by some 2600 monks.
It was during one of my first visits to this unique region, in 1982, when I found an abandoned photo studio in the hills overlooking the gigantic Panteleimon or Roussikon monastery. A handful of mostly octogenerian monks dwelled there at the time, leaving most of the surrounding buildings and structures prey to fires, earthquakes and time.
In a corner of the room stood an old wooden cupboard. With some effort I managed to open the door and found a 50 cm pile of broken glass negatives. Picking up pieces I saw body parts, faces and outdoor scenes. After removing a plank at the bottom of the pile I found what I had started hoping for: 100 intact glass negatives. I took them with me.
There were portraits of soldiers, of monks, of pilgrims and the occasional scene of daily monastic life on the holy mountain. The only dated photo showed French sailors from the 1917 Campagne de L'Orient. It must have been one of the last photos taken by the photographer. After the Russian revolution many monks from Panteleimon went back to Russia to fight the communists. They never returned.
Since the early 1990s hundreds of young monks have joined the community, bringing with them fresh energy and technology. One monastery now even has a project to collect historic photographic material about Mt Athos. This means the original negatives will soon return home.
Paul Robert (1955) is a Dutch photo-journalist, based in Amsterdam. He works for several Dutch and international magazines, covering general interest travel stories.