Mount Athos is a mountain and peninsula in Northern Greece. A World Heritage Site and autonomous polity within the Hellenic Republic under the official name Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain , Mount Athos is home to 20 stauropegial Eastern Orthodox monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of theEcumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Mount Athos is commonly referred to as the “Holy Mountain” and the entity as the “Athonite State” In the Classical era, while the mountain was called Athos, the peninsula was known as Acté or Akté (Ἀκτὴ).
Mount Athos has been inhabited since the ancient times and is known for its nearly 1,800-year continuous Christian presence and its long historical monastic traditions, which date back to at least 800 A.D. and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other Eastern Orthodox countries, such as Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbiaand Russia, live an ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. The Athonite monasteries feature a rich collection of well-preserved artifacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value.
A 3D model of Athos
Although Mount Athos is technically part of the European Union like the rest of Greece, the status of the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, and the jurisdiction of the Athonite institutions, were expressly described and ratified upon admission of Greece to the European Community (precursor to the EU). The free movement of people and goods in its territory is prohibited, unless formal permission is granted by the Monastic State’s authorities.
The peninsula, the easternmost “leg” of the larger Chalkidiki peninsula in central Macedonia, protrudes 50 kilometres (31 mi) into the Aegean Sea at a width of between 7 and 12 kilometres (4.3 and 7.5 mi) and covers an area of 335.6 square kilometres (129.58 sq mi). The actual Mount Athos has steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to 2,033 metres (6,670 ft). The surrounding seas, especially at the end of the peninsula, can be dangerous. In ancient Greek history two fleet disasters in the area are recorded: In 492 BC Darius, the king of Persia, lost 300 ships under general Mardonius (Herodotus “Histories” book VI (Erato), Aeschylus “The Persians”). In 411 BC the Spartans lost a fleet of 50 ships under admiral Epicleas. (Diodorus Siculus, “Bibliotheca historica” XIII 41, 1–3).
Though land-linked, Mount Athos is practically accessible only by ferry. The Agios Panteleimon and Axion Estin travel daily (weather permitting) between Ouranoupolis and Dafni, with stops at some monasteries on the western coast. There is also a smaller speed boat, the Agia Anna, which travels the same route, but with no intermediate stops. It is possible to travel by ferry to and from Ierissos for direct access to monasteries along the eastern coast.
The number of daily visitors to Mount Athos is restricted, and all are required to obtain a special entrance permit valid for a limited period. Only males are permitted to visit the territory, which is called “Garden of Virgin Mary” by the monks, with Orthodox Christians taking precedence in permit issuance procedures. Residents on the peninsula must be males aged 18 and over who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and must be either monks or workers.
The peninsula as seen from the summit of Mount Athos (40°9′28″N 24°19′36″E), looking north-west
Athos in Greek mythology is the name of one of the Gigantes that challenged the Greek gods during the Gigantomachia. Athos threw a massive rock against Poseidon which fell in the Aegean sea and became Mount Athos. According to another version of the story, Poseidon used the mountain to bury the defeated giant.
View of Athos from Sartri
Homer mentions the mountain Athos in the Iliad (book 14, 229). Herodotus (VI.44) writes that, during the Persian invasion of Thrace in 492 BC, the fleet of the Persian commander Mardonius was wrecked, with losses of 300 ships and 20,000 men, by a strong North wind while attempting to round the coast near Mount Athos. Herodotus mentions the peninsula, then called Acte or Akte, telling us thatPelasgians from the island of Lemnos populated it and naming five cities thereon, Sane, Cleonae (Kleonai), Thyssos (Thyssus),Olophyxos (Olophyxis), Acrothoï (Akrothoön). (Herodotus, VII:22) Strabo also mentions the city of Dion (Dium) and that Acrothoï is near the crest. (Strabo, Geography, VII:33:1) Eretria also established colonies on Acte. At least one other city was established in the Classical period: Acanthus (Akanthos). Some of these cities minted their own coins.
The peninsula was on the invasion route of Xerxes I, who spent three years excavating a channel across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet in 483 BC. After the death of Alexander the Great, the architect Dinocrates (Deinokrates) proposed to carve the entire mountain into a statue of Alexander.
The flag used by the Greek Orthodox Church, which is also the flag of Mount Athos
The history of the peninsula during latter ages is shrouded by the lack of historical accounts. Archaeologists have not been able to determine the exact location of the cities reported by Strabo. It is believed that they must have been deserted when Athos’ new inhabitants, the monks, started arriving some time before the ninth century AD.
An icon of Jesus, Hilandar monastery
According to the Athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing accompanied by St John the Evangelist from Joppa to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown off course to then pagan Athos it was forced to anchor near the port of Klement, close to the present monastery of Iviron. The Virgin walked ashore and, overwhelmed by the wonderful and wild natural beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice was heard saying “Ἔστω ὁ τόπος οὖτος κλῆρος σὸς καὶ περιβόλαιον σὸν καὶ παράδεισος, ἔτι δὲ καὶ λιμὴν σωτήριος τῶν θελόντων σωθῆναι” (Translation: “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved”). From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and was out of bounds to all other women.
Historical documents on ancient Mount Athos history are very few. It is certain that monks have been there since the fourth century, and possibly since the third. During Constantine I’s reign (324–337) both Christians and pagans were living there. During the reign of Julian the Apostate (361–363), the churches of Mount Athos were destroyed, and Christians hid in the woods and inaccessible places. Later, during Theodosius I’s reign (383–395), the pagan temples were destroyed. The lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria states that in the fifth century there was still a temple and a statue of “Zeus Athonite”. After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, many orthodox monks from the Egyptian desert tried to find another calm place; some of them came to the Athos peninsula. An ancient document states that monks “built huts of wood with roofs of straw […] and by collecting fruit from the wild trees were providing themselves improvised meals.”
Byzantine era: the first monasteries
The chroniclers Theophanes the Confessor (end of eighth century) and Georgios Kedrenos (11th century) wrote that the 726 eruption of theThera volcano was visible from Mount Athos, proving that it was inhabited at the time. The historian Genesios recorded that monks from Athos participated at the seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. Following the Battle of Thasos in 829, Athos was deserted for some time due to the destructive raids of the Cretan Saracens. Around 860, the famous monk Efthymios the Younger came to Athos and a number of monk-huts (“skete of Saint Basil”) were created around his habitation, possibly near Krya Nera. During the reign of emperor Basil I the Macedonian, the former Archbishop of Crete (and later of Thessaloniki) Basil the Confessor built a small monastery at the place of the modern harbour (“arsanas”) of Hilandariou Monastery. Soon after this, a document of 883 states that a certain Ioannis Kolovos built a monastery at Megali Vigla.
On a chrysobull of emperor Basil I, dated 885, the Holy Mountain is proclaimed a place of monks, and no laymen or farmers or cattle-breeders are allowed to be settled there. The next year, in an imperial edict of emperor Leo VI the Wise we read about the “so-called ancient seat of the council of gerondes (council of elders)”, meaning that there was already a kind of monks’ administration and that it was already “ancient”. In 887, some monks expostulate to the emperor Leo the Wise as the monastery of Kolovos is growing more and more and they lose their peace.
In 908, the existence of a Protos (“First monk”), the “head” of the monastic community, is documented. In 943, the borders of the monastic state were precisely mapped while we know that Karyes is already the capital town and seat of the administration and has the name “Megali Mesi Lavra” (Big Central Assembly). In 956, a decree offered land of about 940,000 m2 (10,118,075.79 sq ft) to the Xiropotamou monastery, which means that this monastery was already quite big.
A fresco with Saint Mercurius and Artemius of Antioch.
In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite (Άγιος Αθανάσιος ο Αθωνίτης) arrived on Mount Athos. In 962, he built the big central church of the “Protaton” in Karies. In the next year, with the support of his friend, EmperorNicephorus Phocas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the twenty monasteries existing today. It enjoyed the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries, and its wealth and possessions grew considerably. The Fourth Crusade in the 13th century brought new Roman Catholic overlords which forced the monks to complain and ask for the intervention of Pope Innocent III, until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire came. The peninsula was raided by Catalan mercenaries in the 14th century, a century that also saw the theological conflict over the hesychasm practised on Mount Athos and defended by Gregory Palamas (Άγιος Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς).
A watch tower from the Byzantine era, protecting the “arsanas” (αρσανάς, =dock) of Xiropotamou monastery
The Byzantine Empire was conquered in the 15th century and the Ottoman Empire took its place. The Athonite monks tried to maintain good relations with the Ottoman Sultans and therefore when Murad II conquered Thessaloniki in 1430 they immediately pledged allegiance to him. In return, Murad recognized the monasteries’ properties, something which Mehmed II formally ratified after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In this way the Athonite independence was somewhat guaranteed.
From the account of Russian pilgrim Isaiah by the end of the 15th century half of the monasteries were either Slav or Albanian, in particular, Docheiariou, Grigoriou,Ayiou Pavlou, Ayiou Dionysiou, and Chilandariou were Serbian, Karakalou and Philotheou were Albanian, Panteleïmon was Russian, Simonopetra was Bulgarian, Pantokratoros and Stavronikita was Greek while he mentions that Zographou, Kastamonitou, Xeropotamou, Koutloumousiou, Xenophontos, Iviron and Protaton did not bear any designation.
The 15th and 16th centuries were particularly peaceful for the Athonite community. This led to relative prosperity for the monasteries. An example of this is the foundation of Stavronikita monastery which completed the current number of Athonite monasteries. Following the conquest of the Serbian Despotate by the Ottomans many Serbian monks came to Athos. The extensive presence of Serbian monks is depicted in the numerous elections of Serbian monks to the office of the Protosduring the era.
View of the area around Vatopedi monastery
Sultan Selim I was a substantial benefactor of the Xiropotamou monastery. In 1517, he issued a fatwa and a Hatt-i Sharif (“noble edict”) that “the place, where the Holy Gospel is preached, whenever it is burned or even damaged, shall be erected again.” He also endowed privileges to the Abbey and financed the construction of the dining area and underground of the Abbey as well as the renovation of the wall paintings in the central church that were completed between the years 1533–1541.
Although most time the monasteries were left on their own, the Ottomans heavily taxed them and sometimes they seized important land parcels from them. This eventually culminated in an economic crisis in Athos during the 17th century. This led to the adoption of the so-called “idiorrhythmic” lifestyle (a semi-eremitic variant of Christian monasticism) by a few monasteries at first and later, during the first half of the 18th century, by all.
View of Nea Skiti.
This new way of monastic organization was an emergency measure taken by the monastic communities to counter their harsh economic environment. Contrary to the cenobitic system, monks in idiorrhythmic communities have private property, work for themselves, they are solely responsible for acquiring food and other necessities and they dine separately in their cells, only meeting with other monks at church. At the same time, the monasteries’ abbots were replaced by committees and at Karyes the Protos was replaced by a four-member committee.
In 1749, with the establishment of the Athonite Academy near Vatopedi monastery, the local monastic community took a leading role in the modern Greek Enlightenment movement of the 18th century. This institution offered high level education, especially under Eugenios Voulgaris, where ancient philosophy and modern physical science were taught.
Walking on the street of Karyes
Russian tsars, and princes from Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbia (until the end of the 15th century), helped the monasteries survive with large donations. The population of monks and their wealth declined over the next centuries, but were revitalized during the 19th century, particularly by the patronage of the Russian government. As a result, the monastic population grew steadily throughout the century, reaching a high point of over 7,000 monks in 1902.
Athanasios the Athonite
In 1912, during the First Balkan War, the Ottomans were forced out by the Greek Navy. Greece claimed the peninsula as part of the peace treaty of London signed on 30 May 1913. As a result of the shortcomings of the Treaty of London, the Second Balkan War broke out between the combatants in June 1913. A final peace was agreed at the Treaty of Bucharest on 10 August 1913.
In June 1913, a small Russian fleet, consisting of the gunboat Donets and the transport ships Tsar and Kherson, delivered the archbishop of Vologda, and a number of troops to Mount Athos to intervene in the theological controversy over imiaslavie (a Russian Orthodox movement).
The archbishop held talks with the imiaslavtsy and tried to make them change their beliefs voluntarily, but was unsuccessful. On 31 July 1913, the troops stormed the St. Panteleimon Monastery. Although the monks were not armed and did not actively resist, the troops showed very heavy-handed tactics. After the storming of St. Panteleimon Monastery, the monks from the Andreevsky Skete (Skiti Agiou Andrea) surrendered voluntarily. The military transport Kherson was converted into a prison ship and more than a thousand imiaslavtsy monks were sent to Odessa where they were excommunicated and dispersed throughout Russia.
After a brief diplomatic conflict between Greece and Russia over sovereignty, the peninsula formally came under Greek sovereignty after World War I.
View of Dafni
The self-governed region of the Holy Mountain, according to the Decree passed by the Holy Community on 3 October 1913 and according to the international treaties of London (1913), Bucharest (1913), Neuilly (1919), Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923), is considered part of the Greek state. The Decree, “made in the presence of the Holy Icon of Axion Estin”, stated that the Holy Community recognised the Kings of Greece as the lawful sovereigns and “successors on the Mountain” of the “Emperors who built” the monasteries and declared its territory as belonging to the then Kingdom of Greece.
Political instability in Greece during the mid-20th century that affected Mount Athos included Nazi occupation from the Easter season of 1941 through late 1944, followed immediately by the Greek Civil War in a struggle where Communist efforts failed. The Battle of Greecewas reported in Time Magazine, “The Stukas swooped across the Aegean skies like dark, dreadful birds, but they dropped no bombs on the monks of Mount Athos”. After the Nazi takeover of Greece, the Epistassia, Athos’s four-member executive committee, formally asked Hitler to place the Autonomous Monastic State under his personal protection, and Hitler agreed. Mount Athos survived World War II nearly untouched, and for the remainder of the war, the monks of Mount Athos referred to Adolf Hitler as “High Protector of the Holy Mountain” (German: Hoher Protektor des heiligen Berges).
Later a “Special Double Assembly” of the Holy Community in Karyes passed the “Constitutional Charter” of the Holy Mountain, which was ratified by the Greek Parliament. This regime originates from the “self-ruled monastic state” as stated on a chrysobull parchment signed and sealed by the Byzantine Emperor Ioannis Tzimisces in 972. This important document is preserved in the House of the Holy Administration in Karyes. The self-rule of the Holy Mountain was later reaffirmed by the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1095.
Agiou Panteleimonos monastery, traditional home of Russian monks, was the main theater of theImiaslavie dogmatic controversy during the early 20th century
According to the constitution of Greece, Mount Athos (the “Monastic State of Agion Oros”) is, “following ancient privilege”, “a self-governed part of the Greek State, whose sovereignty thereon shall remain intact”, and consists of 20 main monasteries which constitute the Holy Community, and the capital town and administrative centre, Karyes, also home to a governor as the representative of the Greek state. The governor is an executive appointee. The status of the Holy Mountain and the jurisdiction of the Agiorite institutions were expressly described and ratified upon admission of Greece to the European Union (then the European Community).
On 11 September 2004, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Peter VII, was killed, together with 16 others, when a Greek military Chinook helicopter in which he was travelling crashed in the Aegean Sea off the peninsula. The Patriarch was heading to Mount Athos. The cause of the crash remains unknown.
Jesus in Golgotha by Theophanes the Cretan, Stavronikita monastery
The monasteries of Mount Athos have a history of opposing ecumenism, or movements towards reconciliation between the Orthodox Church of Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church. The Esphigmenou monastery is particularly outspoken in this respect, having raised black flags to protest against the meeting of Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI in 1972. Esphigmenou was subsequently expelled from the representative bodies of the Athonite Community. The conflict escalated in 2002 with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople declaring the monks of Esphigmenou an illegal brotherhood and ordering their eviction; the monks refused to be evicted, and the Patriarch ordered a new brotherhood to replace them.
After reaching a low point of just 1,145 mainly elderly monks in 1971, the monasteries have been undergoing a steady and sustained renewal. By the year 2000, the monastic population had reached 1,610, with all 20 monasteries and their associated sketes receiving an infusion of mainly young well-educated monks. In 2009, the population stood at nearly 2,000. Many younger monks possess university education and advanced skills that allow them to work on the cataloging and restoration of the Mountain’s vast repository of manuscripts, vestments, icons, liturgical objects and other works of art, most of which remain unknown to the public because of their sheer volume. Projected to take several decades to complete, this restorative and archival work is well under way, funded by UNESCO and the EU, and aided by many academic institutions.
Diamonētērion of 1978 Entry Visa
Entry to the mountain is usually by ferry boat either from the port of Ouranoupoli (for west coast monasteries) or from Ierrisos for those on the east coast. Before embarking on the boat all visitors must have been issued a diamonētērion (διαμονητήριον), a form of Byzantine visa that is written in Greek, dated using the Julian calendar, and signed by four of the secretaries of leading monasteries. Clergy of the Orthodox Church are required to obtain permission of the Patriarch of Constantinople. For laymen there are generally two kinds of diamonētēria: the general diamonētērion that enables the visitor to stay overnight at any one of the monasteries but only to stay in the mountain for several days (more in winter, when there are fewer visitors, than in summer), and the special diamonētērion which allows a visitor to visit only one monastery or skete but to stay as many days as he has agreed with the monks. Laymen are required to have short hair and any non-cleric arriving on Athos with long hair has his hair cut. The general diamonētērion is available upon application to the Pilgrims’ Bureau in Thessaloniki. Once this has been granted it will be issued at the port of departure, on the day of departure. Once granted, the pilgrim can contact the monastery where he would like to stay in order to reserve a bed (one night only per monastery). The ferries require reservations, both ways.
Decorated wall of the Catholicon, Vatopedi monastery
The duration of the general visa can be extended by several days by personally applying at the main office in Karyes or, as is done typically for someone seeking to become a monk, by a request from a monastery.
Most visitors arrive at the small port of Dafni from where they can take the only paved road in the mountain to the capital Karyes or continue via another smaller boat to other monasteries down the coast. There is a public bus between Dafni and Karyes. Expensive taxis operated by monks are available for hire at Dafni and Karyes. They are all-wheel drive vehicles since most roads in the mountain are unpaved. Visitors to monasteries on the mountain’s western side prefer to stay on the ferry and disembark at the monastery they wish to visit.
Prohibition on entry for women
Sign at entrance to Mount Athos Barring the entry of Women
There is a prohibition on entry for women, called avaton (Άβατον) in Greek, to make living in celibacy easier for those who have chosen to do so. Monks feel that the presence of women alters the social dynamics of the community and therefore slows their path towards spiritual enlightenment. The ban was officially proclaimed by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos, as a chrysobull, in 1046.
In the 14th century, Serbian Emperor Dušan the Mighty brought his wife, Helena of Bulgaria, to Mount Athos to protect her from the plague, but she did not touch the ground during her entire visit, as she was carried in the hand carriage all the time.
French writer Maryse Choisy entered Mount Athos in the 1920s disguised as a sailor, and later wrote about her escapade in Un mois chez les hommes (“A Month With Men”).
Bulgarian monastery Saint George the Zograf, Mount Athos (the “Holy Mountain”),
There was an incident in the 1930s regarding Aliki Diplarakou, the first Greek beauty pageant contestant to win the Miss Europe title, who shocked the world when she dressed up as a man and sneaked into Mount Athos. Her escapade was discussed in the 13 July 1953, Time magazine article entitled “The Climax of Sin”.
In 1953, Cora Miller, an American Fulbright Program teacher from Athens, Ohio, landed briefly along with two other women, stirring up a controversy among the local monks.
en:Simonopetra monastery in Mount Athos, en:Greece as seen from the south. Photo taken by Thodoris Lakiotis, August 2006. Posted under GFDL with his permission.
A 2003 resolution of the European Parliament requested lifting the ban for violating “the universally recognised principle of gender equality”.
On 26 May 2008, five Moldovans illegally entered Greece by way of Turkey, ending up on Athos; four of the migrants were women. The monks forgave them for trespassing and informed them that the area was forbidden to females
The sovereign monasteries, in the order of their place in the Athonite hierarchy:
Number one is monastère de la Grande Laure (Mont Athos)