Greece’s Eastern Orthodox Fortresses of Mt. Athos

st pauls monastery mt athos greece by s_end flickr

A closely guarded spiritual center of Eastern Orthodoxy, Mount Athos is the only place in Greece totally dedicated to prayer and worship of God. Known also as the “Holy Mountain,” it has enjoyed political self-rule since the time of the Byzantine Empire with the first constitution of Athos signed by Emperor John I Tzimiskes in 972AD.

Mount Athos is unique in many ways. A peninsula covering an area of around 390 square kilometers, the lushly forested land rises 2,033 meters from the shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the highest point of Mt. Athos. For Christians, this famous peninsula is known as the “Garden of the Virgin,” a priceless gift given by Jesus to his mother, but in ancient Greek mythology the peninsula was reputed to be a huge stone thrown at Poseidon by the giant Athos.

Although physically located in the gorgeous land of sun-kissed Greece, Mount Athos is self-governed and is only politically subject to Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Religious authority over the area is maintained by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomaios 1, in Turkey.

image (Image note and source: FM Droutsas visits Mount Athos (3-4.06.2011), greecemfa, Flickr)

The First Monastery of Athos Founded in 963AD

This intriguing monastic community was formally founded in 963, with the establishment of the Great Lavra monastery by St. Athanasius. Lavra is still today the largest and more prominent of the 20 monasteries.

During the Eastern Roman Empire the monasteries gained great wealth and treasures, but with the arrival of Roman Catholic overlords during the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, fortunes waned until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, monasteries were heavily taxed, but left to govern themselves in peace.

Revitalization occurred in the 19th century by donations and new Eastern Orthodox arrivals from Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, and each of these countries came to occupy and exert influence on individual monasteries. The multinational community on Mount Athos finally came under Greece’s sovereignty after World War I, but nevertheless still enjoys self-rule.

Greek is commonly used in all monasteries of Greece, but many of the Greek monks on Mount Athos can also understand English or other European languages. In St. Panteleimon monastery, Russian is also spoken; in Chilandari, Serbian; in Zographou, Bulgarian; and Romanian is spoken in the Prodromou of the Great Lavra Monastery.

Communes Self-Governed Through Democratic Elections

Divided into twenty self-governed territories, each territory of Mount Athos consists of a cardinal monastery and surrounding monastic buildings. Each monastery has a Superior, elected for life by the resident monks. As a group, the Superiors form the Holy Assembly, and hold joint legislative authority. Administrative and Executive Authorities are also elected by the monks.

Each monastery forms a commune, with common worship services, prayers, housing, food services, and work shared by the monks. With a current population of around 1,400, only monks are allowed to establish permanent residency on Athos. Famous throughout the Orthodox Christian world, laymen are allowed to visit the peninsula, but special permission is required. Many thousands of visitors, scholars, and pilgrims arrive by sea to visit Mount Athos every year.

image (Image note and source: Mount Athos, Dochiariou Greek Orthodox Monastery (10th century), Chalkidiki, Aegean Sea, by bilwander, Flickr)

Warning: No Women or Cows Allowed!

Women, however, are absolutely forbidden anywhere on the island. Even female farm animals and pets are subject to this ban. Various reasons are offered as explanations for the ban, most commonly jealous devotion to the “Theotokos,” or Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, God’ peace be upon them both.

Although it is reported that refugees, including women and girls, were sheltered at Mount Athos during the Greek Civil War, the ban against women is protected scrupulously by guards and shore patrols. Punishment is set at a year in jail for females breaching the borders of the jealous monks of Mount Athos.

Greece’s Mt. Athos a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Listed in 1988 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, efforts are ongoing to preserve historical properties and conserve the natural landscape of Mount Athos. Mural paintings, manuscripts, and diverse artworks of rich historical value are also the focus of conservation efforts.

Because of the heavily wooded areas and remote locations of the monasteries, protection and management of the forests is of high concern, especially from wildfires. The Holy Community is engaged with UNESCO and scientists to develop a Management Plan addressing ecological sustainability, road and port construction and maintenance, waste management, and a risk preparedness plan for all of the monasteries and their dependencies.

The monasteries of Athos are, according to UNESCO, “a veritable conservatory of masterpieces, ranging from wall paintings by Frangos Castellanos at the Great Lavra to portable icons, gold objects, embroideries, or illuminated manuscripts which each monastery jealously preserves.”

image (Image note and source: the “Acheiropoietos” Icon of Theotokos, (Prodromiţa), ca. 1863. Wikicommons)

A Secure Fortress Against the Outside World

With traditional ways of life preserved since medieval times at Mount Athos, ideals of monasticism seem perfectly aligned with the timeless landscape. Architectural wonders posted on the rocky outcrops jealously guard the spiritual freedom of Athos’ inhabitants.

Free to worship in their time-honored way, the environment offers a welcome privacy, a secure fortress against the outside world. At peace with their surroundings, the monks have transformed their mountain home into a sacred place outside the conventional boundaries of modern times and common sensibilities. But it all makes perfectly good sense, when gazing at the magnificent architecture set like precious stones within the majesty of the “Holy Mountain.”

image (Image note and source: Mount Athos by Feson, Flickr)

(Top image note and source: St. paul’s monastery. Mt Athos, Greece by S_end, Flickr)
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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.