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Mount Athos, also called Holy Mountain, Modern Greek Áthos Óros, or Áyion Óros, mountain in northern Greece, site of a semiautonomous republic of Greek Orthodox monks inhabiting 20 monasteries and dependencies (skítes), some of which are larger than the parent monasteries. It occupies the easternmost of the three promontories of the Chalcidice (Khalkidhikí) Peninsula, which projects from the Macedonia region into the Aegean Sea. The Aktí promontory, 30 miles (50 km) long and 6.5 miles (10.5 km) wide at its broadest point, has a mountainous spine thickly wooded on the north and culminating in the marble peak of Athos (6,670 feet [2,033 metres]), which rises abruptly from the sea at the southern tip. The capital and only town of the subdivision is Kariaí (Karyaes). Mount Athos was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
The mountain was discussed by Homer in the Iliad. In the 5th century bce the Persian king Xerxes I, to avoid taking his fleet around the treacherous cape, cut a 1.5-mile- (2.4-km-) long canal through Aktí’s neck, traces of which are still visible. Although hermits inhabited Athos before 850 ce , organized monastic life began in 963, when St. Athanasius the Athonite, with the help of his Byzantine imperial patron, Nicephorus II Phocas, founded the first monastery, the Great Laura. Despite objections by the hermits to organized community monasticism, the rule of St. Athanasius was imposed on them by the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimisces, who granted Athos its first charter (Typikon). A traditional prohibition bars women and female animals from the Holy Mountain. Several more monasteries were built in the 11th century. With the endowment of monasteries by Russia and other Slavic countries, the peninsula took on an almost pan-Orthodox character. By 1400, the number of monasteries had reached 40 (half of which survive) the last to be built was Stavronikita, which was reconstructed in the 16th century (it has been damaged several times by fire).
In the 15th century some of the monasteries abandoned the strict regimen of the community under the rule of an abbot for a more liberal system in which monks could possess personal property and be governed by two annually elected trustees (epitropoi).
When the Turks captured Thessaloníki (Salonika) in 1430, the monks submitted to Turkish rule, a relation that led to the rapid decline and impoverishment of the monasteries and increased adoption of the more liberal system of governance. In reaction, the first skítes, or ascetic settlements, were founded in the 16th century, grouped around a common church as dependencies of the monasteries. In 1783 the patriarch Gabriel IV introduced successful reforms with a new charter. The Athos community suffered greatly from Turkish depredations during the War of Greek Independence (1821–29), when entire libraries were burned. By contrast, the patronage of the tsars in the 19th century brought about the expansion of the Russian monasteries and their properties.
The community’s present constitution dates from 1924 and is guaranteed by the Greek constitution of 1975. The Greek government is represented by a governor (dioikitís) appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to underline the mountain’s semiautonomy, but actual administration is in the hands of the Holy Council (Ierá Sýnaxis), comprising one representative of each of the monasteries. Executive power is vested in the Epistasia, composed of four representatives by annual rotation. About half of the monasteries are conservative, with much stricter rules on discipline and fasting. Most of the monasteries hug the coast and consist of a quadrangle of buildings enclosing a church. The churches contain some of the most important examples of Byzantine art, icons, and treasures. The surviving libraries hold a vast number of classical and medieval manuscripts, most of which have been cataloged. Area 130 square miles (336 square km). Pop. (2001) 1,961 (2011) 1,811.
The History Of Mount Athos (15 th century - 18 th century)
The Byzantine Empire was conquered in the 15th century and the Ottoman Empire took its place. The monks of Holy Mount (to avoid the pillage and devastation of the Holy Mountain), when Murad II conquered Thessaloniki in 1430, 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 independence of Mount of Athos was somewhat guaranteed.
The Monastery of Simonos Petra
From the account of the Russian pilgrim Isaiah, by the end of the 15th century many the monasteries were largely occupied by foreign monks: these included the Monasteries of Iviron (Georgians), Panteleimon (Russians), Helandarion, Gregorion, St Paul (Serbs), and Zographou, Philotheos and Simon Petra (Bulgarians). But their numbers gradually began to wane, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the only Slav monasteries remaining were those of Helandarion, Zographou, St Paul and Xenophon.
The 15th and 16th centuries were peaceful for Mount Athos. This led to relative prosperity for the monasteries. An example of this is the foundation of Stavronikitas monastery which completed the current number of Athonite monasteries. Russian tsars and princes from Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbia (until the end of the 15th century), helped the monasteries survive with large donations.
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.
The Monastery Of Stavronikita
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 "idiorhythmic" 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 idiorhythmic 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 Vatopedion 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.
Eugenios Voulgaris, 1716–1806. A Greek scholar, prominent Greek Orthodox educator & bishop of Kherson, Ukraine.
Other places women are barred
Sabarimala temple in India's south-western state of Kerala is out-of-bounds to women aged between 10 and 50 - that is, those at an age at which they could be menstruating. Campaigners are currently seeking to overturn this ban in India's Supreme Court.
Mount Omine in Japan. The area is considered a holy site by followers of Shugendo, a Japanese folk-religion, and a place where its male adherents test their faith through strenuous physical challenges.
Herbertstrasse in Hamburg's red-light district of St Pauli has signs saying: "No entrance for juveniles under 18 years of age and women."
This means that dairy products and eggs have to be brought in from outside.
"They eat very little dairy. There is a bit of cheese. they do quite like cheese in salads," says Speake.
"They have eggs at Easter - hens' eggs which they paint red. That is absolutely standard. Again they have to import them as there are no chickens on the mountain."
An exception has to be made for wild animals, which would be near-impossible to control.
With boys, the policy has become more flexible over the years.
"The rule is and always has been that men should be capable of growing a beard if they were going to go to Athos, and there was a prohibition against eunuchs and boys in the Byzantine period," says Speake. The fear was that a woman could pretend to be a boy or a eunuch in order to sneak in.
"What happens nowadays is that boys frequently come if they're accompanied by an adult - usually their father - and I've seen boys as young as ten. And the monks are very indulgent towards them. They actually like having boys around.
"So the answer is that yes, boys do come occasionally, but invariably when accompanied by an adult."
Women have visited the peninsula, however, despite the ban.
During the Greek Civil War, between 1946 and 1949, Mount Athos granted sanctuary to peasants' flocks, and women and girls were part of a raiding party which entered Athos in pursuit of the animals.
And in 1953, the three-day visit of a Greek woman, Maria Poimenidou - who dressed as a man - caused Greece to pass a law which prohibits women from entering Athos, with a maximum penalty of 12 months' imprisonment for those who break it.
More recently, in May 2008, four Moldovan women were dropped there by Ukrainian people smugglers. Police briefly detained them, but one officer said "they were forgiven" by the monks.
This is President Putin's second visit to the Russian Orthodox monastery of Saint Panteleimon on Mount Athos.
When he first visited in 2005 the majority of pilgrims were Greek. Now, Speake says, as many as half of the 40,000 yearly visitors are Russian, and the Russian monastery has room for 500 guests.
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Mount Athos Timeline - History
The first anchorites settled in the peninsula in about AD 800. Local traditions referring to monasteries said to have been established there as early as the fourth century have no basis in historical fact. They appear in the sixteenth century and they have been created by monks who, in an age when the decline in the general cultural level made verification of such stories difficult, thought they were glorifying the foundations in which they served. The number of hermits seems to have grown fairly rapidly. According to the historian Genesios, writing in the tenth century, monks from Mount Athos and other monastic centres across the Empire went to Constantinople in 843 to celebrate the restoration of the veneration of the icons. This means that there must already have been a monastic centre of sufficient size and repute to be included in an official delegation to an important church manifestation. The earliest Athonite saints known lived in the ninth century: these included St Euthymios the New and the austere anchorite known as Peter the Hermit. Euthymios came from a monastic community on Mount Olympus in Bithynia (Asia Minor), and the fact that he moved to Mount Athos indicates that it had already acquired considerable renown, even in other older monastic centres in the Empire.
Mount Athos was mainly a place of reclusion for hermits and anchorites from neighbouring regions (from Thessaloniki to Kavala) who dwelt alone or in small groups. The asceticism they practised – the severe fasting, the constant prayer, the exposure to heat and cold – gave them the strength to resist the temptations of the flesh. Some monks saw visions, occasionally prophetic. They lived in total tranquillity, close to nature, with minimal needs and minimal contact with the outside world. And of course they won the whole-hearted admiration of the population of Chalkidiki.
They also resisted the introduction of organized monastic life. The first cenobite foundations were established (sometimes by former Athonites) outside the Holy Mountain, in Chalkidiki, near some settled locality. The antipathy of the early Athonites towards organised community monasticism is apparent in the Life of Peter the Hermit, where pro-cenobite propaganda is ascribed to the Devil himself. The attempt by St Blasios of Amorion in about AD 900 to introduce the Studite Rule to Mount Athos also failed.
The earliest known privilege enjoyed by the Athonites dates back to AD 833 and the benevolent interest of the Emperor Basil I. It was designed to protect them (and the Colobos Monastery at Ierissos) against the incursions of state officials and the local population – including shepherds, who were forbidden to graze their flocks on the peninsula. The Emperor wanted to safeguard the tranquillity of the monks, who maintained close contacts among themselves and with those who dwelt beyond the confines of the peninsula. In 908, however, the Athonites were obliged to seek the protection of Emperor Leon VI, because the monks of the Colobos foundation were claiming the peninsula for themselves. In 941-2, Romanos I Lecapenos granted an annual subsidy of one gold piece for each Athonite monk, as was the custom in other major monastic centres in the Empire, such as Olympus in Bithynia, Mount Cymina and Mount Latros. The monks thus became salaried public servants, praying for the monarch and his army, especially when on campaign.
In the meanwhile Mount Athos had acquired both its principal local institutions and its own internal rules. We know that there was a Protos (Primate), who served as governor of the monastic state and as its representative in the outside world, as early as 908 until 1312, this officer was appointed directly by the Emperor. Other administrative officials also began to appear at the Protaton in Karyes, including the oikonomos, the ecclesiarchis (972) and the epitiritis (1049). Regular assemblies, known as synaxes, were held three times a year (at Christmas and Easter and on August 15th, the Feast of the Koimesis of the Virgin) at Karyes, the administrative capital of the peninsula at these meetings representatives of all the foundations, down to the very smallest, conferred together and decided on matters of common concern. It was at this time that the first somewhat larger institutions began to appear, including the Monastery of Clementos, later taken over by Iverian monks, and the Monastery of Xeropotamou.
Soon after this a major change was initiated by St Athanasios the Athonite. A native of Trebizond who became a teacher in Constantinople, Athanasios went to Mount Athos as a hermit, probably in 957. He accompanied his friend Nikephoros Phocas on the Cretan campaign of 960/61, and after the capture of Candia used some of the spoils to found a new lavra, or small community of anchorites. When Nikephoros Phocas became Emperor, however, this lavra was transformed into a lavishly endowed royal foundation for approximately 80 monks, with annual revenues in cash and kind and with lands and property exempt from taxation. This Great Lavra, as it was known from the outset, was quite unlike the other Athonite foundations, and at first provoked hostile reactions from the traditional eremitic communities. A large, populous and wealthy monastery, with its own workshops and its own ship, not only disturbed the serenity of the Holy Mountain but was diametrically opposed to the way of life and the customs of the anchorites, since from their point of view it turned the Holy Mount into a temporal world. Led by St Paul the Xeropotamite they protested to the Emperor, but in vain. After the assassination of Phocas, they approached his successor and opponent John Tsimiskis he, however, referred the matter to a venerable Studite monk named Euthymios, who was a proponent of communal rule. In 972 the Emperor granted Athos its first Charter (Typikon): this was the famous Tragos, drawn up by Euthymios, recognising the special needs of the Great Lavra and legislating a regime prescribing the co-existence of both traditional eremitic monasticism and the new cenobite system. It also defined the responsibilities of the Protos, who among other things was required to oversee the punishments imposed by the hegumens and who had the final say on whether or not foreign monks should be admitted to the Holy Mountain. The responsibilities of the hegumens were also defined: they were to be the spiritual fathers of the monks in their communities. Solitary reclusion was permitted only to experienced monks, who were in addition required to observe a certain discipline: for example, peregrination was not permitted. The Rule further defined and circumscribed the economic and social relations between hermits and monks, and monks and lay folk. Compulsory unpaid labour was abolished, and discipline was imposed on relations between monks: any who were quarrelsome were liable to be expelled. The numbers of cattle owned by the foundations was severely restricted: only the Great Lavra, with its large community, was permitted to own a yoke of oxen (for the purpose of kneading the bread). The document also set out the duties of the Steward of the Athonite state.
As we have seen, in 972 the Great Lavra was the only large monastery on the Mountain. From its original brotherhood of approximately 80, it grew so rapidly that by the eleventh century it was a community of seven hundred.
The second substantial establishment was the Monastery of Iviron, also founded and endowed by the Emperor. It owed its origins to a group of Iberian (Georgian) nobles who became monks in Athanasios' lavra in about 963. In 978-9 one of their number, Ioannis Tornikios, afforded Basil II such vigorous and such successful support in putting down the revolt led by Bardas Scleros that he returned to Athos laden with the spoils of war: his grateful Emperor also showered him with lands and privileges, granted him subsidies and exemption from taxes, and permitted him to found the Monastery of Iviron, a large establishment, also with its own ship. The protests of the traditional Athonites again went unheard.
The third large monastery, that of Vatopedi, was formed by internal evolution rather than imperial fiat. A small community of that name is first mentioned in 985, which would seem to have been founded not long before by its hegumen, Nicholas, an aristocrat from Adrianople. It was another nobleman from the same city, Hegumen Athanasios (1020-48), who effected the great change: during his administration the population of the Monastery of Vatopedi grew to several hundreds, becoming the third largest foundation on the peninsula – and that before attracting its first imperial endowment.
After this, the cenobite system became widespread throughout the Holy Mount. Many of the older hermitages, as they attracted more monks, adopted the model of organised monasticism. The solitary hermits and anchorites remained, of course, but their influence waned. The new regime was confirmed in 1045, when the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos published the second typikon for Mount Athos – for the first time officially using the appellation of 'The Holy Mount' that had been used unofficially since 985 and which was to remain in use across the centuries to come. By this time the influence and the authority of the Athonites, extending from one end of the Empire to the other and resting on the economic might of the monastic foundations, was tremendous.
The new Rule, however, sought to circumscribe, or rather to regulate, the economic activities of the monasteries: it prohibited their ships from trading in Constantinople, permitting no more than the sale of agricultural surpluses within a radius extending from Thessaloniki to Ainos. The issue of the number of domestic animals on the peninsula was re-examined, but while the Great Lavra was permitted four yoke of oxen for the kneading of the bread required to feed its seven hundred monks, the Monastery of Vatopedi, apparently of similar size, was permitted only one. New regulations were established for the administration of the estates belonging to the Protaton and for the participation of the hegumens and their clerks at the assemblies in Karyes. The Synaxis, presided over by the Protos, was recognized as the supreme judicial authority within the Athonite territory.
The rapid and spectacular growth of the communities of Athonite monks, which was to become even more spectacular over the next few centuries, was not merely the result of imperial favour, for such favour was displayed towards other monastic communities as well, but was also the product of a number of objective factors.
The Athonite peninsula had one great advantage in comparison with the other 'Holy Mountains' of this middle Byzantine period: its inhabitants had direct access to the sea, and thus to the whole world, but in a manner easily and effectively controlled by the conventual authorities. The Athonite monasteries, during the very period when they were beginning to expand, were able to profit from the general explosion of maritime communications which heralded the beginning of the end of the Middle Ages. This also explains imperial efforts to limit the commercial activities of the monasterial ships.
From this point of view, the fact that the development of Mount Athos coincided with the retaking of Crete from the Arabs, once again making the seas relatively safe, was particularly significant, for it meant that monasteries could be built right on the water. The safety of the seas was troubled again in the fourteenth century, but for a shorter period and with less real impact.
In addition, the fact that Mount Athos was surrounded by territory inhabited by devout Orthodox Christians who entertained the profoundest respect for the monastic community, meant that it never really faced peril from its landward side, unlike the other 'Holy Mountains' in Asia Minor which in the years after 1071 lay exposed to Turkish aggression and were repeatedly sacked.
Moreover, by its very nature a monastic peninsula of such size offered considerable scope for growth and development. Naturally cut off from the inhabited world, its inviolability was easy to enforce. Only semi-nomadic shepherds could stray onto its territory, and even that was a rare occurrence. Its interior 'desert' had room for many monasteries and innumerable hermitages, which could expand without ever approaching secular communities like those that surrounded and circumscribed the other 'Holy Mountains'.
Protected to landward and open to the sea, Mount Athos rapidly attracted more and more monks of many different nationalities and origins. By the tenth century records spoke of monastic communities of Iberians (Georgians) and Amalfians (from Amalfi, in Italy), and of foundations known by the origin of their founders: the Chaldean (from Eastern Pontus), the Paphlagonian, the Sicilian. In 1016 there is mention of a small community founded by a Russian, and in 1033 of another founded by one Zelianos, who must certainly have been a Slav. But the large foundations which officially housed non-Byzantine monks did not appear until later. The Russian monastery seems to have been established before 1142 the Monastery of Chelandari was made over to the Serbs in 1198, and that of Zographou to the Bulgars in the thirteenth century, after the founding of the second Bulgar state.
While the monastic communities in Asia Minor were disappearing one after the other, Mount Athos continued to acquire an ever greater trans-Orthodox character and unbounded dominance over Eastern Christendom. The monasteries flourished, their landed estates grew steadily in both extent and influence, while the tradition of eremitic asceticism remained as vigorous as ever and continued to inspire the admiration of the Orthodox world.
With the Fourth Crusade, Mount Athos was briefly occupied by the Latins they quickly withdrew, however, leaving behind them – as they did throughout the Byzantine world – a legacy of bitterness and indignation. Thenceforth relations between Athos and the Roman Church were hostile, especially when the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos attempted, for reasons of foreign policy, to impose upon the East the reunification of the churches effected by the ecumenical council of Lyon (1274). The image of the Latins was further blackened when the Catalan Company (1307-9) settled in Eastern Macedonia and pillaged the monasteries and their estates. But the crisis passed and, thanks to the gifts which the weak central administration and pious private citizens were unable to refuse them, the monasteries quickly recovered their wealth and continued to grow and prosper. This development coincided with the period of substantial demographic and economic growth in Macedonia which marked the first half of the fourteenth century.
After that, however, things began to deteriorate. First came the raids launched by the pirates of Aydin and Menteshe in Western Asia Minor, which caused much destruction and drove many of the monks towards the west in search of safety. Next came the civil wars of 1341-7, during which Macedonia and Thrace were laid waste by the (mainly) Turkish allies of John Cantacuzenos. After that came the Serbs, led by Stefan Dusan, who seized Serres in 1345 and had himself crowned Emperor. The central administration passed into the hands of the Serbs, who distributed the lands of the Protaton with lavish generosity. This stirred the Byzantine authorities – and particularly the Patriarchate in Constantinople – to action, but the Serbian occupation of Mount Athos lasted, with only a single brief interruption, until 1371.
The restoration of Byzantine sovereignty over Eastern Macedonia, however, proved short-lived, and was accompanied by an attempt to requisition some of the monasterial revenues to raise an army to fight against the Turks. But these measures could not halt the unremitting advance of the Ottoman forces: they took Serres in 1383, and immediately afterwards Mount Athos itself. The Athonites acted with prudence and foresight in the face of the Ottoman advance into Europe. Made wiser by the experience of the monastic communities in Asia Minor, which had virtually disappeared during the course of the fourteenth century, and by their own sufferings at the hands of the marauding pirates from the Turkish emirates, they approached the Ottoman Sultan before he crossed into Europe and won his protection for their monasteries and their property, thus ensuring that they would not be injured by the Ottoman occupation.
Quite the contrary: they managed to increase their wealth. Since the monasteries were institutions under the protection of the Turks, they were used as treasuries by the wealthy, who deposited their riches there for safe-keeping. They also received numerous endowments. Finally, it was during this period that the institution of 'brotherhood' was established: a monastery would accept a gift of one hundred gold coins or a piece of land, in exchange guaranteeing the donor a life annuity in kind (the quantities of wheat, oil, wine, cheese and legumes corresponding to a monk's ration), even if he remained a layman and never set foot in the monastery. In this manner the monasteries turned their probity to good account and found a profitable way of disposing of their surplus produce.
The brotherhood system demonstrates just how much ground idiorrhythmic monasticism had gained in Mount Athos. Even within the communal life of the monasteries certain monks were able to own and hold private property, and to eat in the privacy of their own quarters. This system, of course, was based on the model of the lives of the hermits who lived in dependencies of the large foundations and took their meals apart, and was a survival of pre-cenobite forms of monasticism originating in the earliest history and traditions of Mount Athos. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the cenobite model having become the rule, idiorrhythmic monasticism within the conventual foundations was a great innovation.
By the fourteenth century substantial changes were taking place on Mount Athos. In 1312 it was legislated – for the first time – that the Protos must receive the 'seal' of the Patriarch, that is, that his election must be confirmed. In other words, the spiritual authority of the Patriarch, which even in earlier times had been sought by the Athonites when faced with difficult problems, was now officially recognised. This of course did not mean that the other privileges enjoyed by Mount Athos, and particularly its direct dependence on the Emperor, were abolished. Far from it: it merely meant that the Patriarch acquired a new authority which in the days to come, when Mount Athos fell under foreign domination – and particularly during the Serbian occupation –, enabled him to exercise his influence with the monastic authorities.
At the same time, many new monasteries were being founded, and the peninsula acquired a marked pan-Orthodox and cosmopolitan character. The Monasteries of Pantokrator, Konstamonitou, Gregoriou, Simonopetra, Dionysiou, St Paul and Koutloumousiou were all founded or re-established during the second half of the fourteenth or the early fifteenth century, this time not with endowments from the Byzantine Emperor but with gifts from local notables or foreign rulers. The position of Mount Athos within the international orthodox community was a highly enviable. It was made crystal clear that each national leader had a moral obligation to subsidise an Athonite monastery, both for the sake of his own soul and to accommodate nationals of his country. Mount Athos had become a pan-Orthodox centre, while at the same time enjoying political recognition. Furthermore, at least some of the new dwellers on the Mountain found it difficult to adapt to the traditional way of life, and proceeded to a revision of the severe rules dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries. Naturally, the number of non-Greek-speaking monks increased dramatically, especially after the Ottoman occupation.
This occurred in two stages. The first Turkish conquest, which began in 1383, ended in 1402 when Sultan Bayezid I was defeated at Ankara by Timur the Lame. The following year, his son and successor Suleyman the Magnificent signed treaties with the Byzantine authorities, restoring to the Empire the district of Thessaloniki – including Mount Athos. The imperial authorities in turn sought to strengthen the monasteries and, while maintaining the Ottoman system of taxation, accorded them certain new, but minor, grants of land and revenues.
In the meanwhile, however, problems had arisen in the relations of the Athonites among themselves. The older Rules were no longer applicable in current conditions, and this created contestation. An internal attempt to sort things out having failed, the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos eventually intervened with a Chrysoboullon Typikon, promulgated in June 1406, based on the traditional practice of the Great Lavra. This document dealt chiefly with the internal organisation of the monasteries, and attempted to curb excessive violations of the rules of monastic life, particularly the retention of private property by individual monks.
The restored Byzantine regime, however, soon collapsed under increasing Ottoman pressure. Mount Athos was cut off from Thessaloniki, and finally, in 1424, a delegation of monks, with the approval of the Despot Andronicos Palaeologos, paid homage to Sultan Murad in Adrianople, thus ushering in the second period of Ottoman rule over the Holy Mount. The Mount continued, in spite of the change of regime, to maintain an active relationship with Constantinople, for as long as that city remained Christian. During the preparations for the Synod of Florence, the Emperor sent to Mount Athos for books which could no longer be found in Constantinople, and a group of Athonite monks were in fact included in the Byzantine delegation that attended the Synod.
Throughout this difficult period Mount Athos, as a pan-Orthodox centre, was a testing-ground for new ideas and new ideologies. Defenders of the tradition of the East and at the same time exposed to a profusion of different currents, the Athonites eventually adopted Hesychasm, a theory which had split fourteenth century Byzantine society. This mystic system, which had resurfaced with Gregory of Sinai, aspired to direct contact with the divine through constant prayer and the exercise of certain practices, contact which was revealed by the apparition of a divine light similar to that witnessed by the disciples on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasm won fervent support, but aroused equally violent opposition, mainly because of the simplistic exaggerations practised by certain of its ardent enthusiasts. It marshalled its followers in the East, and set them against anything Western. It was supported by the Byzantine aristocracy and prevailed in three Synods (1341, 1347, 1351). Gregory Palamas, a former Athonite monk and Bishop of Thessaloniki, and a staunch defender of Hesychasm, was canonised, as were numerous other Hesychast leaders, including Germanos the Athonite, Sabbas, and Makarios Makris. In these circumstances, Mount Athos developed into an aggressive defender of the Orthodox faith, acquiring an authority and a sphere of influence that were inestimable.
Despite being under Ottoman rule, Mount Athos remained the greatest spiritual centre of the Orthodox world, much of which of course was itself under the Ottoman yoke.
The Monks of Mount Athos
The first monks arrived on Mount Athos during the 5 th century AD, drawn perhaps by the secluded nature of the site. Additionally, according to Christian tradition, when the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist were sailing to visit Saint Lazarus on Cyprus, they were blown off course and landed at Mount Athos. The Virgin Mary admired the beauty of the place so much that she asked God to give the mountain to her as a present. God granted her request and Mount Athos has been known since then as the ‘Garden of the Mother of God’. It is due to this tradition that women have never been allowed to visit this sacred site. Incidentally, female animals (with the exception of wild animals) are also prohibited from stepping foot on Mount Athos.
Although Mount Athos was already home to monks since the 5 th century AD, it was only in 963 AD that organized monastic life began at the site when the first monastery, the Great Laura, was founded by Saint Athanasius the Athonite, with the aid of his patron the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas . During the reign of Nikephoros’ successor, John I Tzimisces, the Rule of Saint Athanasius was imposed on the hermits living on Mount Athos and the site received its first charter.
Saint Athanasius the Athonite of Athos. (Sebastian Wallroth / Public Domain )
An Orthodox spiritual centre since 1054, Mount Athos has enjoyed an autonomous statute since Byzantine times. The 'Holy Mountain', which is forbidden to women and children, is also a recognized artistic site. The layout of the monasteries (about 20 of which are presently inhabited by some 1,400 monks) had an influence as far afield as Russia, and its school of painting influenced the history of Orthodox art.
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.
Cloaked by beautiful chestnut and other types of Mediterranean forest, the steep slopes of Mount Athos are punctuated by twenty imposing monasteries and their subsidiary establishments. Covering an area of just over 33,000 hectares, the property includes the entire narrow rocky strip of the easternmost of the three peninsulas of Chalcidice which jut into the Aegean Sea in northern Greece. The subsidiary establishments include sketae (daughter houses of the monasteries), kellia and kathismata (living units operated by the monks), where farming constitutes an important part of the monks’ everyday life.
An Orthodox spiritual centre since the 10th century, Mount Athos has enjoyed a self-administered status since Byzantine times. Its first constitution was signed in 972 by the emperor John I Tzimiskes. The landscape reflects traditional monastic farming practices, which maintain populations of plant species that have now become rare in the region.
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 Sitesince 1988.
A thickly forested, mountainous ridge thirty miles long and two to five miles wide, Athos is the easternmost of the three promontories of the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece. Known as Agion Oros, or the 'Holy Mountain' in modern Greek, Athos is a semiautonomous republic of the Greek Orthodox church. Many hundreds of monks inhabit twenty large monasteries, smaller monastic houses and remote mountain caves. The religious history of Athos goes back long before the birth of Christianity however. The great marble peak of Mt. Athos (6670 feet, 2033 meters) was mentioned as early as Homer and Aiskhylos as being the first home of the Greek gods Zeus and Apollo before they moved to Mt. Olympus. Pagan hermits have lived in the deep forests since prehistoric times for it was known then, as it has been forgotten now, that places where the ancient gods had lived still held great powers for humans.
According to legends told by the monks of the Athonite monasteries, the Christian history of Mt. Athos begins with the Virgin Mary. In 49 AD, Mary set sail for the island of Cyprus to visit her friend Lazurus. During her journey a great storm arose and Mary's ship, blown far off course, was guided by divine signs to a protected bay on the eastern coast of Athos. Gazing upward at the towering mountain and its beautiful forests Mary declared, "This mountain is holy ground. Let it now be my portion. Here let me remain." Mooring her boat near the site of the present day monastery of Iveron, Mary came upon an ancient temple and oracle dedicated to Apollo. As she stepped ashore a great crashing sound resounded across the peninsula and all the idols and pagan statues came crashing to the ground (it is interesting to note that a well documented earthquake occurred in northern Greece in 49 AD). The great stone statue of Apollo spoke out, declaring itself a false idol and calling the forest hermits of Athos to come and pay homage to the Panaghia, the true mother of God. So the legend goes, Mary baptized the hermits and thus began the glorious Christian history of Mt. Athos.
According to historical sources however, Athos first became a refuge for Christian hermits and anchorites in the 6th and 7th centuries, and during the 8th and 9th centuries these hermits began to gather together into small monastic communities. The era of the great monastic establishments began with the founding in 963 AD of the first and most renowned of the monasteries, the Great Lavra, on the southeast coast of Athos. Under the protection of the Byzantine emperors, the building of monasteries flourished until, at its zenith in the 15th century, Mt. Athos harbored 40 monasteries and some 20,000 monks. When the Turkish armies captured nearby Thessaloniki in 1430, the monastic community prudently surrendered, thus remaining unplundered and relatively autonomous. The long period of Turkish rule brought about a decline and impoverishment of the monasteries that was later somewhat alleviated by the patronage of the Russian tsars in the 19th century. In 1926, a decree by the Greek government made the Monks Republic an official part of Greece while allowing it to retain an autonomous theocratic government. Since the 1950's there has been a gradual reawakening of interest in the monastic life and currently more than 3000 monks live amongst the monasteries and forest hermitages of Athos.
Most of the monasteries are along the coastal lands and consist of a quadrangle of buildings enclosing a church. The churches contain some of the finest examples of Byzantine art, icons and treasure, and the monastery libraries hold a vast number of classical and medieval manuscripts. There are 17 Greek monasteries, 1 Russian, 1 Bulgarian, and 1 Serbian. While a few of the Greek monasteries have basic electricity, most function very much as they did in medieval times. The monks grow their own food, spend long hours each day in prayer, and rarely venture off the peninsula. The author has spent time in 17 of the 20 monasteries and finds Mt. Athos to be one of the most wonderful sacred places he has visited in the world.
An edict of the Emperor Constantine Manomachos in the year 1060, enforced to this day, forbids women from setting foot on the peninsula. This stringent exclusion of females applies to domestic animals as well. While some readers may deem the original edict foolish and its continued enforcement to perpetuate anachronistic patriarchal attitudes, it is important to note that Athos is one of the very few remaining places on the entire planet that has resisted the relentless culture-destroying machines of 'modernization' and 'social liberty'. Furthermore it is interesting to note that the entire peninsula of Athos has preserved a richness and luxuriance of vegetation unique in Greece and all of Europe. For nearly ten centuries the fields have lain ungrazed by cattle, the trees have escaped the ravages of goats, and the flowers have been unpicked. In a world so rapidly being destroyed and homogenized by the 'culture of progress' it is, for this author at least, refreshing to know that at least a few ancient human ecosystems are left intact and relatively undisturbed. The so-called 'enlightened' attitudes of science and democracy have neither promised nor provided this. Greek Orthodox monasticism, on the other hand, has done so and, in the process, has protected a place with a rare, enchanting and powerful presence of peace.Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study and documentation of pilgrimage places around the world. During a 38 year period he has visited more than 1500 sacred sites in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide web site is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.
015-0019 Mount Athos
*Click on image to enlarge.
For additional information, read the Nomination Form PDF
VLR Listing Date 02/18/1975
NRHP Listing Date 07/24/1975
NRHP Reference Number 75002016
This stone ruin atop a wooded ridge overlooking the James River is of a plantation house built ca. 1800 for William J. Lewis. Its elevated site, one-story plan, classical portico, and polygonal projections have led to the speculation that its design was influenced by Thomas Jefferson, who showed partiality to all these elements in his own works. Lewis family tradition holds that Lewis and Jefferson were friends and that Jefferson advised on the house. Mount Athos was gutted by fire in 1876. The Lynchburg Daily Virginian noted the many valuable paintings and fine library it had contained and commented: “It is sad to see an ancient abode of so much refinement, elegance, and hospitality swept away.” Archaeological investigation of the ruins and their immediate surroundings could provide additional information on this enigmatic structure.
VLR: Virginia Landmarks Register
NPS: National Park Service
NRHP: National Register of Historic Places
NHL: National Historic Landmark
Mount Athos Timeline - History
Ancient Greek Mythology has it that in a clash between Giants and Gods, a Giant from Thrace named Athos, threw a huge rock at Poseidon. He missed the God and the rock fell in the sea. It has been standing there ever since and the mountain that it formed was named after this Giant. Mount Athos.
Since then many things happened. The first inhabitants of the third peninsula of Halkidiki were from Andros island and nearby Thrace and Lemnos island. In 5th century BC, the Persian king Xerxes trying to avoid sailing with his fleet around Athos, he ordered a channel to be dug at the narrowest point. The channel was 1,5 mile long, 100 feet wide and only 12 feet deep. The granite rock did not allow him to achieve his goal. He took his fleet from another route and managed to travel south and fight in Salamina and Thermopyles.
However, this cut led the peninsula to isolation. Many centuries passed as the place slipped to oblivion. Alexander the Great was another visitor of the place. His advisor suggested that they have the General’s face carved on the rock. But the plan was never realized and the place remained vacant.
Later, John the Apostle, the author of the Gospel and Revelation, along with the Virgin Mary were sailing to Cyprus when the rough weather forced them to land on the northern side of the peninsula. Mary was astonished by the serenity of the place and asked her Son to offer this wonderful garden to her. Since then, Mount Athos is also known as the Garden of Mary. This resulted to the austere and absolute ban of all female creatures. Only Virgin Mary has the right to visit Mount Athos.
Some three centuries later, Emperor Constantine thought of founding his new capital of his Empire there. But he respected the tradition and finally decided to choose Byzantium, Constantinople, for that role. Mount Athos peninsula remained empty. Although legends mention the presence of hermits since the 3rd century AD, positive presence of monks is identified around 7th century. The first hermit was Peter of Athos, an army officer for Istanbul who spent 50 years in a cave.
The sanctity of the place was made official by a gold sealed document signed by Emperor Basil 1st (867-886). This secured that from then on, Mount Athos would be dedicated to monks and prayer. The name “Agio Oros” (Holy Mountain) came to identify Mount Athos as a place of worship.
One century later, Athanasios of Trapezounta chose to live in Mount Athos and further develop the ascetic discipline. In 963 at the tip of the peninsula, Athanasios founded the Monastery of Lavra, where it stands active till today. The years passed and Agion Oros lived many adventures. Pirates and conquerors tried to steal the treasures. Young monks moved in giving a blooming only to be followed by desolation. New monasteries flourished and others were deserted. People from other orthodox countries came here to establish their cove or prayer. Agion Oros was greatly supported and occasionally fought by the various Byzantine Emperors. It also survived the four centuries of occupation by the Ottoman Empire.
But through all this hardship, Agion Oros, continued its existence and prosperity. Today there are 20 monasteries and numerous sketes, hermitages and cells. Around two thousand people permanently reside there. The old buildings are being renovated and the cultural production knows new richness. The living history of Mount Athos is still active and attractive.