Athos / Holy Mountain
Location and extent of Mount Athos (red) in Greece
|Government||Autonomous theocratic society led by ecclesiastical council|
• Civil Governor
• Protos (Elder Monk)
|Elder Stefanos Chilandrinos|
|Autonomy within Greece|
• Established under the Constitution of Greece
|335.63 km2 (129.59 sq mi)|
• 2011 census
|5.40/km2 (14.0/sq mi)|
|Currency||Euro[note 1] (€) (EUR)|
|Elevation||2,033 m (6,670 ft)|
|Prominence||2,012 m (6,601 ft)|
|Criteria||i, ii, iv, v, vi, vii|
|Designated||1988 (12th session)|
Mount Athos (//; Greek: Άθως, Áthos [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" (Ἅγιον Ὄρος Hágion Óros) and the entity as the "Athonite State" (Αθωνική Πολιτεία, Athoniki Politia). Other languages of Orthodox tradition also use names translating to "Holy Mountain" (e.g. Bulgarian and Serbian Света гора Sveta gora, Russian Святая гора Svyatya gora, 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.
- 1 Geography
- 2 Access
- 3 History
- 4 Administration and organization
- 5 Culture and life in the Agion Oros
- 6 Friends organization
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
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. In 411 BC the Spartans lost a fleet of 50 ships under admiral Epicleas.
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 2]
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 8th 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 (arsanás) 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 growing 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.
During the 11th century, Mount Athos offered a meeting place for Serbian and Russian monk Scribes. Russian monks first settled there in the 1070s, in Xylourgou Monastery (now Skiti Bogoroditsa); in 1089 they moved to the St. Panteleimon Monastery, while the Serbs took over the Xylourgou. From 1100 to 1169 the St. Panteleimon Monastery was in a state of decay and such Russian monks as remained in Mount Athos lived at Xylourgou among the Serbs; in 1169 the Serbs received St. Panteleimon, which they shared with the Russians until 1198, when the Serbs moved to the Hilandar monastery, which became the main centre of Serbian monasticism; the Russians then remained in possession of St. Panteleimon, known since as Rossikon.
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.
Serbian era and influences
Serbian lords of the Nemanjic Dynasty offered financial support to the monasteries of Mount Athos, while some of them also made pilgrimages and became monks there. Stefan Nemanja helped build the Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos together with his son Archbishop Saint Sava in 1198.
From 1342 until 1372 Mount Athos was under Serbian administration. Emperor Stefan Dušan helped Mount Athos with many large donations to all monasteries; in The charter of emperor Stefan Dušan to the Monastery of Hilandar the Emperor gave to the monastery Hilandar direct rule over many villages and churches, including the church of Svetog Nikole u Dobrušti in Prizren, the church of Svetih Arhanđela in Štip, the Church of Svetog Nikole in Vranje and surrounding lands and possessions. He also gave large possessions and donations to the Karyes Hermitage of St. Sabas and the Holy Archangels in Jerusalem and to many other monasteries. Dušan was the only medieval lord who spent a lot of his time in Mount Athos and at the same time from there ruled the Empire, spending 9 months there together with his wife around 1347. Empress Jelena, wife of the Emperor Stefan Dušan, was among the very few women allowed to visit and stay in Mount Athos.
Thanks to the donations by Stefan, the Serbian monastery of Hilandar was enlarged to more than 10,000 hectares, thus having the largest possessions on Mount Athos among other monasteries, and occupying 1/3 of the area. Serbian nobleman Antonije Bagaš, together with Nikola Radonja, bought and restored the ruined Agiou Pavlou monastery monastery between 1355 and 1365, becoming its abbot.
The time of the Serbian Empire was a prosperous period for Hilandar and of other monasteries in Mount Athos and many of them were restored and rebuilt and significantly enlarged. Donations continued after the fall of the Serbian empire and Lazar of Serbia and the later Branković dynasty continued to support the monastic community. Serbian magnate Radič (veliki čelnik) restored the Konstamonitou Monastery after the 1420 fire and then took monastic vows and received the name Roman (after 1433).
Serbian princess Mara Branković was the second Serbian woman that was granted permissions to visit area, as a wife of Murad II, Mara Branković used her influence on the Ottoman court to secure the special status of Mount Athos inside the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the 15th century five monasteries on Mount Athos had Serbian monks and were under the Serbian Prior: Docheiariou, Grigoriou, Ayiou Pavlou, Ayiou Dionysiou and Hilandar
Under Ottoman rule many Serbian nobles including ones who were under direct Ottoman rule or had accepted the Muslim faith continued their support for Mount Athos. In modern times after the end of Ottoman rule new Serbian kings from the Obrenović dynasty and Karađorđević dynasty and the new bourgeois class continued their support of Mount Athos, after the dissolution of SFRY many presidents and prime ministers of Serbia visited Mount Athos.
The Byzantine Empire ceased to exist 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 preserved.
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.
In 2018, Mount Athos became an issue within the increasingly tense Greece-Russia relations, the Greek government denied entry to Russian clerics headed for the monastery, and the media reported allegations that the Russian government used the mountain as a base for intelligence operations. Relations were worsened in October after the Russian Orthodox Church banned its adherents from visiting sites controlled by Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, which includes Mount Athos.
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, the history of the modern revival of monastic life on Mount Athos and its entry into the technological world of the twenty-first century has been chronicled in Graham Speake's book, now in its second edition, Mount Athos. Renewal in Paradise.
Administration and organization
Athos is governed by the "Holy Community" (Ιερά Κοινότητα – Iera Koinotita) which consists of the representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries, having as executive committee the four-membered "Holy Administration" (Ιερά Επιστασία – Iera Epistasia), with the Protos (Πρώτος) being its head.
Civil authorities are represented by the Civil Governor, appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose main duty is to supervise the function of the institutions and the public order, the current Civil Governor is Aristos Kasmiroglou.
In each of the 20 monasteries – which today all follow again the coenobitic system – the administration is in the hands of the Abbot (Ηγούμενος – Hēgoumenos) who is elected by the brotherhood for life. He is the lord and spiritual father of the monastery, the Convention of the brotherhood (Γεροντία) is the legislative body. All the other establishments (sketes, cells, huts, retreats, hermitages) are dependencies of some of the 20 monasteries and are assigned to the monks by a document called homologon (ομόλογον).
All persons leading a monastic life thereon acquire Greek citizenship without further formalities, upon admission as novices or monks. Visits to the peninsula are possible for laymen, but they need a special permit known as a diamonētērion (διαμονητήριον), similar to a visa.
Of the 20 monasteries located on the Holy Mountain, the brethren of 17 are predominantly ethnically Greek. Of the other 3, brethren are drawn from monks of primarily other origins, who become Greek subjects, these are the Helandariou Monastery (Serbian), the Zografou Monastery (Bulgarian) and the Agiou Panteleimonos monastery (Russian).
Among the sketes, most are predominantly ethnic Greek. However, two are Romanian, the coenobitic "Skētē Timiou Prodromou" (which belongs to the Megistis Lavras Monastery) and the idiorrythmic "Skētē Agiou Dēmētriou tou Lakkou", also called "Lakkoskētē" (which belongs to the Agiou Pavlou monastery). Another one is Russian, "Skētē Bogoroditsa" (which belongs to the Agiou Panteleimonos monastery).
Prohibition on entry for women
There is a prohibition on entry for women, called avaton (Άβατον) in Greek, to make living in celibacy easier for men 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 several emperors, including Constantine Monomachos, in a chrysobull of 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 a hand carriage all the time.
There was an incident in the 1930s regarding Aliki Diplarakou, the first Greek beauty pageant contestant to win the Miss Europe title, who made headlines when she dressed up as a man and sneaked into Mount Athos. Her escapade was discussed in a 13 July 1953 Time magazine article entitled "The Climax of Sin".
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.
Status in the European Union
As part of an EU member state, Mount Athos is part of the European Union and, for the most part, subject to EU law. While outside the EU's Value Added Tax area, Mount Athos is part of the Schengen Area. A declaration attached to Greece's accession treaty to the Schengen Agreement states that Mount Athos's "special status" should be taken into account in the application of the Schengen rules, the monks strongly objected to Greece joining the Schengen Area based on fears that the EU would be able to end the centuries-old prohibition on the admittance of women. The prohibition is unchanged and a special permit is required to enter the peninsula, the monks were also concerned that the agreement could affect their traditional right to offer sanctuary to people from Orthodox countries such as Russia. Such monks do nowadays need a Greek visa and permission to stay, even if that is given generously by the Greek ministry, based on requests from Athos.
Culture and life in the Agion Oros
Art and literary treasures
The Athonite monasteries possess huge deposits of invaluable medieval art treasures, including icons, liturgical vestments and objects (crosses, chalices), codices and other Christian texts, imperial chrysobulls, holy relics etc. However the monks consider them for their religious function only, not as "treasures" and most are in regular use for their original purpose, until recently no organized study and archiving had been carried out, but an EU-funded effort to catalogue, protect and restore them is underway since the late 1980s. Their sheer number is such, it is estimated that several decades will pass before the work is completed.
Greek is commonly used in all the Greek monasteries, but in some monasteries there are other languages in use: in Agiou Panteleimonos, Russian (67 monks in 2011); in Helandariou Monastery, Serbian (58); in Zographou Monastery and Skiti Bogoroditsa, Bulgarian (32); and in the sketes of Timiou Prodromou and Lakkoskiti, Romanian (64). Today, many of the Greek monks also speak foreign languages, since there are monks from many nations in Athos, they naturally also speak their own native languages.
Date and time reckoning
The Julian calendar, which currently has a difference of 13 days from the Gregorian calendar, is still used on Mount Athos; in 1923, as a means to eliminate the divergence existing between the religious and civil dates, after a synod in Constantinople, part of the Eastern Orthodox Churches dropped 13 days and adopted the Revised Julian calendar, which is synchronised with the Gregorian calendar, at least until 2800.[note 3] Although under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual head of the monastic state, nearly all the monasteries of Athos refused to follow the revised calendar and finally, for the sake of uniformity, the patriarch asked the single monastery that used the revised calendar to revert to the Julian.
Also in use is Byzantine time, in which the day commences at sunset as does the liturgical day[note 4] and not at midnight as in the reckoning of civil time, and the difference between the two varies according to the season of the year. Because the time interval from sundown to sundown is not constant, clocks showing the Byzantine time require continual manual readjusting which in current practice is done weekly, on Saturday, if the sky is clear; where the summit of Athos is visible, 12:00 is set when the last rays of sunlight cease to shine on the tip. Some monasteries also have a clock showing civil time since boat schedules run thereon (and on the civil calendar) as well as for pilgrims who may be disoriented by Byzantine time reckoning.
Monastic life: monasteries, sketae, and cells
As described above, today the 20 monasteries of Mount Athos are the dominant holy institutions for both spiritual and administrative purposes, consolidated by the Constitutional Chart of the Holy Mountain. Although, since the beginning of Mount Athos' history, monks were living in lodgings of different size and construction quality. All these monastic lodging types exist until today, named as seats (καθίσματα), cells (κελλιά), huts (καλύβες), retreats (ησυχαστήρια), hermitages (ερημιτήρια), caves (σπήλαια), sketai (σκήτες) and all of them are known under the general term "dependencies" (εξαρτήματα) of the Holy Monasteries, the term "cells" can be used under a more generalised meaning, comprising all the above but sketae, and following this term we can talk about three different kind of institutions in Mount Athos: monasteries, sketae and cells.
Some information is already given above, in the section "Administration and organization". A pilgrim/visitor to a monastery, who is accommodated in the guest-house (αρχονταρίκι) can have a taste of the monastic life in it by following its daily schedule: praying (services in church or in private), common dining, working (according to the duties of each monk) and rest, during religious celebrations usually long vigils are held and the entire daily program is radically reshaped. The gate of the monastery closes by sunset and opens again by sunrise.
A cell is a house with a small church, where 1–3 monks live under the spiritual and administrative supervision of a monastery. Monastic life in the cells is totally different from that in a monastery, some of the cells resemble tidy farmhouses, others are poor huts, others have the gentility of Byzantine tradition or of Russian architecture of the past century. Usually, each cell possesses a piece of land for agricultural or other use, each cell has to organize some activities for income.
Besides the traditional occupations (agriculture, fishing, woodcarving, spirit distillation, iconography, tailoring, book binding etc.) new occupations have been taken up, for example taxi driving, couriers, car repairing and computer services. The monk(s) living in a cell, having to take care of all daily chores, make up their own schedules, for the pilgrim/visitor it is worth experiencing this side of monastic life as well, but most of the cells have very limited or no capacity for hospitality.
Small communities of neighbouring cells were developed since the beginning of monastic life on Mount Athos and some of them were using the word "skete" (σκήτη) meaning "monastic settlement" or "lavra" (λαύρα) meaning "monastic congregation", the word "skete" is of Coptic origin and in its original form is a placename of a location in the Egyptian desert. It is in the Egyptian desert where monasticism made its first steps.
The unknown author of the "History of the Egyptian Monks" (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto), perhaps Flavius Rufinus, visited the area at the end of the fourth century, he tells us: "Then we came to Nitria, the best-known of all monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles [60 km] from Alexandria; it takes its name from a nearby town where Nitre is collected... In this place there are about fifty dwellings, or not many less, set near together and under one father; in some of them, there are many living together, in others a few and in some there are brothers who live alone. Though they are divided by their dwellings they remain bound together and inseparable in faith and love", this is exactly the main idea of a "skete", the communal way, just between the eremitic way and the coenobitic way of monasticism, with all 3 coexisting until today.
In 1680 the ex-patriarch Dionysios III Vardalis built in the Saint Anne skete of the Holy Mountain a big central church to accommodate all the monks of the area and in 1689 an internal regulatory text was constituted by the monks and ratified first by the Monastery of Megisti Lavra and finally by the patriarch Dionysios V Haritonidis; and later again by patriarch Kyrilos V, who contributed in its evolution. Since then, more sketes followed on the same way, and gradually the term "skete" (within the Holy Mountain) came to be used only for the monastic settlements having an internal rule ratified by the Patriarchate.
Later on, some cells came to attract many monks, expanded their buildings and started functioning in the coenobitic way of the monasteries, since the number of the Monasteries in Mount Athos was restricted to 20, a new term was introduced: the coenobitic skete (κοινόβιος σκήτη), while a skete of the traditional form was named idiorhythmic skete (ιδιόρρυθμος σκήτη) in order to underline the difference.
The first ones, both in architecture and lifestyle, follow the typical model of a monastery, that of a community living together, sharing and distributing work, and praying together daily; in contrast, the idiorrhythmic community (intermediary between the coenobitic community and the seclusion of a hermit) resembles a hamlet, and the daily life there is much like that of a cell. But there are also some duties for the community, near the centre of the settlement is the central church called Kyriakon (Κυριακόν, that could be translated "for Sunday"), where the whole brotherhood meets for the Divine Liturgy service, on Sundays and on greater feasts. Usually there are also an administration house, a refectory for common celebrations, a cemetery, a library, storehouses and a guesthouse.
List of religious institutions
The sovereign monasteries, in the order of their place in the Athonite hierarchy:
|Great Lavra monastery||Vatopedi monastery||Iviron monastery||Helandariou monastery||Dionysiou monastery|
ივერთა მონასტერი (Georgian)
|Koutloumousiou monastery||Pantokratoros monastery||Xeropotamou monastery||Zografou monastery||Docheiariou monastery|
|Karakalou monastery||Filotheou monastery||Simonos Petras monastery||Agiou Pavlou monastery||Stavronikita monastery|
|Καρακάλλου||Φιλοθέου||Σίμωνος Πέτρα||Αγίου Παύλου||Σταυρονικήτα|
|Xenophontos monastery||Osiou Grigoriou monastery||Esphigmenou monastery||Agiou Panteleimonos monastery||Konstamonitou monastery|
|Ξενοφώντος||Οσίου Γρηγορίου||Εσφιγμένου||Αγίου Παντελεήμονος
A skete is a community of Christian hermits following a monastic rule, allowing them to worship in comparative solitude, while also affording them a level of mutual practical support and security. There are two kinds of sketes in Mount Athos. A koenobitic skete follows the style of monasteries. An idiorrhythmic skete follows the style of a small village: it has a common area of worship (a church), with individual hermitages or small houses around it, each one for a small number of occupants. There are twelve official sketes on Mount Athos.
|Skiti / Σκήτη||Type||Monastery||Alternative names / notes|
|Idiorrhythmic||Megistis Lavras||(= Saint Anne)
|Agias Triados or Kafsokalyvíon
Αγίας Τριάδος ή Καυσοκαλυβίων
|Idiorrhythmic||Megistis Lavras||(= Holy Trinity)
Kafsokalývia (="burned huts")
|Coenobitic||Megistis Lavras||(= Holy Fore-runner, i.e. St John the Baptist)
Prodromu, Sfântul Ioan Botezătorul – Romanian
|Coenobitic||Vatopediou||(= Saint Andrew)
Also known as Saray (Σαράι)
|Idiorrhythmic||Vatopediou||(= Saint Demetre)
|Timiou Prodromou Iviron
Τιμίου Προδρόμου Ιβήρων
|Idiorrhythmic||Iviron||(= Holy Forerunner, i.e. St John the Baptist)
|Idiorrhythmic||Koutloumousiou||(= Saint Panteleimon/Pantaleon)
|Coenobitic||Pantokratoros||(= Prophet Elijah)|
|Theotokou or Nea Skiti
Θεοτόκου ή Νέα Σκήτη
|Idiorrhythmic||Agiou Pavlou||(=Of God-Bearer or New Skete)|
|Agiou Dimitriou tou Lakkou or Lakkoskiti
Αγίου Δημητρίου του Λάκκου ή Λακκοσκήτη
|Idiorrhythmic||Agiou Pavlou||(= Saint Demetre of the Ravine or Ravine-Skete)
Lacu, Sfântul Dumitru – Romanian
|Evangelismou tis Theotokou
Ευαγγελισμού της Θεοτόκου
|Idiorrhythmic||Xenophontos||(= Annunciation of Theotokos)
|Coenobitic||Agiou Panteleimonos||(= Theotokos, God-Bearer)
Богородица – Bulgarian
The Friends of Mount Athos (FoMA) is a society formed in 1990 by people who shared a common interest for the monasteries of Mount Athos, and a registered charity in the U.K. (Registered Charity No. 1047287). Timothy Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, is the President of the society. Among its members are Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Charles, Prince of Wales, Heir Apparent to the British throne, who is the royal patron of the society. Although founded in the U.K., the society has an extensive international membership, including a large membership in the Americas.
The object of the society, as stated on its official web page, is described as: "the advancement of education of the public in the study and knowledge of the history, culture, arts, architecture, natural history, and literature of the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos and the promotion of the religious and other charitable work of the Holy Community and monasteries of Mount Athos." To that end, the society works to advance education by studying and providing information on the history, culture, arts, architecture, natural history, and literature of Mount Athos. To achieve this, it produces publications, arranges lectures, and organizes conferences and exhibitions devoted to Athonite themes.
The society also supports and promotes the religious and other charitable work of the monasteries and their dependencies as well as other religious communities with links to the Holy Mountain. FoMA acts as a group of concerned friends and supporters, providing assistance where possible, in consultation with the monastic authorities. Appeals may be launched from time to time if funds are needed for specific purposes, but the assistance mainly takes the form of expertise, liaison, or equipment needed by the monks, the society's American membership founded in 2017 a parallel charitable foundation, The Mount Athos Foundation of America.
As a service to the monasteries and to pilgrims, the society clears and maintains the ancient footpaths of Mount Athos, many of the stone-paved (Kalderimi) paths dating back to the Byzantine era, it also provides on its website detailed footpath descriptions with GPS tracks, and a regularly updated report on the condition of the paths. FoMA member and cartographer, Peter Howorth of Christchurch, New Zealand, working with the society's footpath team, has recently published a new Pilgrim Map which incorporates modern mapping technology with study of early maps of Mount Athos.
Among the society's publications are its annual bulletin (Friends of Mount Athos Annual Report) offering articles, book reviews and other features related to Mount Athos. Past issues are available from the society's web site, it also publishes A Pilgrim's Guide to Mount Athos in both printed and continuously updated digital forms, as well as a yearly directory of members.
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- List of historic Greek countries and regions
- New Athos
- Postage stamps and postal history of Mount Athos
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At the end of the 15th century, the Russian pilgrim Isaiah relates that the monks support themselves with various kinds of work including the cultivation of their vineyards....He also tells us that nearly half the monasteries are Slav or Albanian, as Serbian he instances Docheiariou, Grigoriou, Ayiou Pavlou, a monastery near Ayiou Pavlou and dedicated to St. John the Theologian (he no doubt means the monastery of Ayiou Dionysiou), and Chilandariou. Panteleïmon is Russian, Simonopetra is Bulgarian, and Karakallou and Philotheou are Albanian. Zographou, Kastamonitou (see fig. 58), Xeropotamou, Koutloumousiou, Xenophontos, Iveron and Protaton he mentions without any designation; while Lavra, Vatopedi (see fig. 59), Pantokratoros, and Stavronikita (which had been recently founded by the patriarch Jeremiah I) he names specifically as being Greek (see map 6).
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- Mount Athos ISBN 960-213-075-X by Sotiris Kadas. An illustrated guide to the monasteries and their history (Athens 1998), with many illustrations of the Byzantine art treasures on Mount Athos.
- Athos The Holy Mountain by Sydney Loch. Published 1957 & 1971 (Librairie Molho, Thessaloniki). Loch spent most of his life in the Byzantine tower at Ouranopolis, close to Athos, and describes his numerous visits to the Holy Mountain.
- Dare to be Free ISBN 0-330-10629-5 by Walter Babington Thomas. Offers insights into the lives of the monks of Mt Athos during World War II, from the point of view of an escaped POW who spent a year on the peninsula evading capture.
- Blue Guide: Greece ISBN 0-393-30372-1, pp. 600–03. Offers history and tourist information.
- Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise ISBN 978-0300093537, by Graham Speake. Published by Yale University Press in 2002. An extensive book about Athos in the past, the present and the future. Includes valuable tourist information. Features numerous full-colour photographs of the peninsula and daily life in the monasteries. 2nd edition published by Denise Harvey in 2014, which includes revisions, updates, and a new chapter documenting the changes that have occurred in the twelve years since its first publication.
- From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. ISBN 0-8050-6177-0. Published 1997.
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