Mount Athos (/ˈæθɒs/; Greek: Άθως [ˈaθos]) is a mountain and peninsula in northeastern Greece and an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. It is governed as an autonomous polity within the Greek Republic. Mount Athos is home to 20 monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Mount Athos is commonly referred to in Greek as the “Holy Mountain” (Greek: Ἅγιον Ὄρος, Agion Oros [ˈaʝ(i)o(n) ˈoros]) and the entity as the “Athonite State” (Greek: Αθωνική Πολιτεία, Athoniki Politia). Other languages of Orthodox tradition also use names translating to “Holy Mountain” (e.g. Bulgarian and Serbian Света гора, Russian Святая Гора, Georgian მთაწმინდა). In the classical era, while the mountain was called Athos, the peninsula was known as Acté or Akté (Ἀκτή).
Mount Athos has been inhabited since 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 countries, including Eastern Orthodox countries such as Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia and 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, and Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage Site since 1988.
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, and only males are allowed to enter.
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 men are permitted to visit the territory, which is called the “Garden of Virgin Mary” by the monks, with Orthodox Christians taking precedence in permit issuance procedures. Residents on the peninsula must be men aged 18 and over who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church and also either monks or workers.
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.
Homer mentions the mountain Athos in the Iliad. Herodotus 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, telling us that Pelasgians from the island of Lemnos populated it and naming five cities thereon, Sane, Cleonae (Kleonai), Thyssos (Thyssus), Olophyxos (Olophyxis), and Acrothoï (Akrothoön). Strabo also mentions the cities of Dion (Dium) and Acrothoï. 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 the Xerxes Canal 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 carving the entire mountain into a statue of Alexander.
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.
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.[note 1]
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 (379–395), 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 the Thera volcano was visible from Mount Athos, indicating 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 that as the monastery of Kolovos is grows more and more, they are losing 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; we know that Karyes was already the capital and seat of the administration, named “Megali Mesi Lavra” (Big Central Assembly). In 956, a decree offered land of about 940,000 m2 (230 acres) to the Xeropotamou monastery, which means that this monastery was already quite big.
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 Emperor Nicephorus 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 Byzantine emperors 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. 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). In late 1371 or early 1372 the Byzantines defeated an Ottoman attack on Athos.
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 Athonite independence was somewhat guaranteed.
From the account of the 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 were Greek; and 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 Protos during the era.
Sultan Selim I was a substantial benefactor of the Xeropotamou 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.
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.
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.
In November 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.
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 Greece was 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.
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.
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.