The Holy Mountain of Athos
The peninsula of Athos or the Holy Mountain (AGION OROS), the most easterly of the three fingers of Chalcidice, stretches 45 kilometers south-east into the Aegean Sea. Only five to ten kilometers wide, it is linked to Chalcidice by an isthmus two kilometers across known as Provlaka (formerly the Slav Prevlaka), the spot where the Persian emperor, Xerxes, in the 5th century B.C. had a canal dug for the passage of his fleet on its way to attack Athens, since he wished to avoid the dangerous headlands and cliffs of the peninsula’s southern tip. The low mostly wooded ridge of hills and mountains, intersected by gullies, gorges and narrow valleys, rises abruptly to the domelike Mounth Athos (2,033 m). Mount Megale Vigla (Great Guard, 510 m) forms a natural boundary towards the midland. East of Vigla there has been no lay settlement for more than a thousand years – only monasteries, sketes and kellia. Even today, no woman may see foot on the soil of the Holy Mountain. Greek fishing villages lie to the west of Vigla on the Provlaka isthmus outside the Holy Mountain. These are Ouranoupolis and Trypiti on the southern shore and Nea Rhoda and Hierissos on the northern.
The majority of the Holy Mountain monasteries stand on the shore or a little way inland beside springs or in the gorges of streams. On the north-east coast of the peninsula, the first is Chilandar, about two kilometers inland, in the valley of a short river, encircled by low steep hills. Next in order come Esphigmenou, Vatopedi, Pantokrator, Stavronikita, and Iviron on the coast; Philotheou is about a kilometre and a half from the sea, and Karakallou less than a kilometre, while the Holy Mountain monastery, Great Lavra, stands on a hundred metre high terrace above the sea at the foot of Athos. On the south-west coast, the first monastery one comes to is Zographou, about three kilometers from the sea at the head of a gorge. Kastamonitou is one and a half kilometers inland, while Docheiariou, Xenophontos and St. Pantelemon are on the shore. Xeropotamou stands at about 300 metres above sea level, two kilometres from Daphne, the main Holy Mountain harbour. Further south lie Simopetra, Gregoriou, Dionysiou and St. Paul’s, almost all on scarcely accessible slopes and cliffs above the sea. In the center of the peninsula, in a depression 350-400 metres above sea level and opened towards the monastery of Iviron, lies Karyes the administrative center of the Holy Mountain, in which all the monasteries and the Greek authorities have their representatives. Close by are the monastery of Koutloumoussiou and the Russian sketes (monasteries with a subordinate status) of St. Andrew and, a little further off, the Prophet Elijah. The Athos massif, the southern slopes of which are known locally as the “Desert”, is fairly densely settled with sketes, kellia and hermitages. There are a number of larger monastic and eremitical colonies here: the Moldavian skete of St. John the Baptist, the Holy trinity (Kapsokalyvia), Karoulia, Katounakia, St. Anne’s, the New Skete, and further up towards the peak of Athos: the kellia of the Prophet Elijah, Kerasia and Panaghia (1,500 m). On the summit of Athos stands the chapel of the Transfiguration.
The monks call the Holy Mountain “the garden of the Most Holy
Mother of God” (to
periboli thV PanagiaV).
This expression recalls the ancient tradition concerning the dedication
of Athos and the origin of the monastic life in the peninsula. After
Christ’s ascension, the legend goes, the Virgin set out for Cyprus to
visit the resurrected Lazarus. A miraculous storm carried her ship in
the opposite direction to Athos, which was then the site of pagan shrine
to Apollo. At the place where the monastery of Iviron now stands, the
Virgin received divine instructions to preach the Gospels on Athos:
“This place shall be your garden, and a haven of salvation for those
who desire to be saved”. Since the appearance of monasticism on Athos
was ultimately the outcome of missionary work by the Virgin herself, the
Holy Mountain is under her sovereign protection. As can be seen from the
many icons, stories, and shrines on all sides, veneration of the Mother
of God is indisputably the main cult on Athos.
It is historically impossible to ascertain precisely when the first monks appeared on Athos. Documents mention Holy Mountain anchorites for the first time in 843, at the Council of Constantinople which sanctioned the victory of Orthodoxy over Iconoclasm. From the first half of the 9th century we also have the names of the first great Athos saints: Peter the Athonite and Euthymius of Thessalonica. Peter was the founder of anchoritic, eremetical monasticism on the Holy Mountain, and Euthymius the representative of the cenobitic, communal type of monasticism. The anchorites live alone or in very loosely connected groups, while cenobitic monks live in a close-knit, rigidly disciplined religious community. By the end of the 9th century, colonies of anchorites known as lavrai had already been formed. These were semi-eremetical settlements with very scattered huts and caves whose inhabitants used to gather in one place for common prayer and Eucharist under the spiritual and disciplinary leadership of a respected elder, the "first" among the monks. At that time there were already at least two layral one at Erissos, on the very border of the Holy Mountain (Euthymius's), and the other first at Zygos on Vigla, and later, from the 10th century on, at Karyes. This place in the centre of the peninsula (and therefore long called Mesh, meaning Middle) took over the position of "ancient seat of the elders" from Zygos, and the "first" elder or protos (o prwtoV) incontestably became the highest authority on Athos. The golden-sealed charters (chrysobulls) of Byzantine Emperors Basil 1(883) and Leo VI (893) guaranteed the complete freedom and inviolability of the Holy Mountain as autonomous monastic territory. This was later confirmed by the chrysobull of Emperor Romanus I Lecapenus in 934.
Following this "prehistoric" period, as we might call it, the Holy Mountain entered into history with the foundation of the Lavra (Monastery) of St. Athanasius in 963, an event of decisive importance for the future development of monasticism on the Holy Mountain, and, indeed, in Byzantium and the whole Orthodox world. Athanasius, a native of Trebizond, came to Athos firmly convinced of the absolute superiority of the cenobitic, communal form of monasticism. He considered that it was easier in a community to achieve the monastic virtues, overcome pride, and practice the commandment of brotherly love. With the aid of his friend Nichephorus Phocas (963-969), the general who ascended the imperial throne just at that time, Athanasius gathered the Holy Mountain anchorites into a lavra of a new type: the cenobitic monastery. The typikon (rule) he gave his monastery (Hypotyposis, and somewhat later Diatyposis) established the general principle of a life of complete renunciation of all personal desires, rights and property, and of unconditional obedience to the abbot as the community's spiritual leader. Athanasius's new monastery was built in a new fashion: it was not a scattered eremetical village, like the one in existence at Karyes at the time, but a strongly built complex of interconnected buildings with rooms (cells) for the monks, ancillary premises and a church in the centre, on the model of the old and extensive cenobitic monasteries of Sinai, Palestine and Constantinople. Thus the very word laura (lavra) from that time on came to mean a large monastery of communal type.
The majority of the Holy Mountain's inhabitants, headed by the protos, opposed Athanasius innovations, so that Emperor John Tzimisces had to intervene in the dispute. On his authority, a new, so-called Tzimisces typikon was adopted in 972. Generally known as Tragos, meaning goat, since it was on goatskin parchment, it is still kept at Karyes. Priority was given to the cenobitic rule, and the abbots, as the heads of monasteries, thenceforward held a more important position than the hermits, who soon lost their independence and came under the supervision of one of the cenobitic monasteries.
With the strengthening of the Great Lavra and growth of other large houses shortly after, such as the Georgian monastery of Iviron (980) and the Greek Vatopedi (985), the position of protos of the Karyes lavra became less important. The 10th and 11th centuries saw the foundation of a large number of cenobitic monasteries, big and small, on the Holy Mountain. The monastery of Xeropotamou certainly existed in the 10th century. From the same period date Docheiariou, Zographou and the first Chilandar ("Chelandar"). Monasteries from the beginning and later years of the 11th century are Xenophontos, the Russian Xilourgos and old St. Panteleimon ("Roussikon"), Kastamonitou, Karakallou and Esphigmenou. In the same century there is mention of the monastery of Amalfitans, housing Italian Benedictines, which existed until the second half of the 13th century. The process of differentiation between large and small monasteries led to the latter becoming kellia, subordinated to one of the big houses. The monasteries that were thus downgraded or completely disappeared included Philadelpha, Monoxilita, Hagiolita, Chalda, Kallika, Ichtiophaga, Hagiopatita, Phakina, Zygos, Chremitzena and others.
The period of the Latin Empire (1204-1261) was one of great crisis for the Holy Mountain, sharing the fate of the western Byzantine territories. Athos came under the rule of the Latin Thessalonica state, and hence under the jurisdiction of the Latin see. But various abuses and taxes imposed by the Latin hierarchy and the barons of the fort of Prosphorion ("Frankokastron", today Ouranoupolis) were not of long duration and caused no lasting disruption of monastic life on Athos. Similarly, a certain closening of ties with the Church of Rome -imposed by circumstances - during the papacy of Innoncent III (1216) was transitory in character. However, the overthrow of Latin rule in Thessalonica in 1224 did not mean the settlement of the Holy Mountain's affairs. Its inhabitants did not recognize the jurisdiction of the Epirus emperor in Thessalonica, and even less the jurisdiction of the Thessalonica metropolitan during the brief reign of the Bulgarian emperor, John II Asen (1230-1235). The situation returned to normal only after the accession of the Nicene emperor, John III Vatatzes, in Thessalonica in 1246. It was not until the early 14th century that further troubles ensued, following the mutiny of Byzantium's Spanish mercenaries (the Catalan Company) in 1307-1310.
The 14th century saw many innovations on the Holy Mountain. The large old monasteries gained in strength, new houses were built, and some that had been revived in the 13th century now became particularly powerful. This was the case with the Serbian monastery of Chilandar, a fact which reflected the growing might of the Serbian state in the Balkans and its in creased influence on the Holy Mountain's affairs. In the middle of this century St. Gregory of Sinai founded the monastery named after him: Gregoriou. A little later Dionysiou, Simopetra, St Paul's and Pantokrator were established (all in the sixties and seventies). Certain changes occurred in the status of the Holy Mountain. Without abolishing its autonomy, Emperor Andronicus I. Palaeologus established the supreme authority of the ecumenical patriarch (of Constantinople over Athos by the chrysobull of 1312. This subordinated the protos to the patriarch on a number of questions. A further step was taken in 1368 when Patriarch Philotheus placed the whole of the Holy Mountain under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Hierissos.
A fresh chapter in the history of Athos began with the Turkish penetration of Byzantine and South Slav lands after the Battle on the Maritza (1371), and particularly after the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the fall of Bulgaria (1393). The first Turkish occupations of the Holy Mountain occurred in 1387 and 1393-1403; the final took place in 1430 after a short revival of Byzantine rule in the Thessalonica region. In keeping with its administrative policy, the Ottoman Empire sanctioned the autonomous organization of the Holy Mountain, not interfering in the internal affairs of the monastic republic. But certain fundamental changes occurred nevertheless: in the economic position and basic conditions for survival of the Athos monasteries. The Holy Mountain's wealth was undermined by the loss of many of its estates and revenues outside the peninsula and the abolition of its tax immunity. During the period of Turkish rule, the monasteries were burdened by large or small taxes levied on the basis of the number of monks.
But the most far-reaching were those changes brought about by the fact that the system of Turkish rule and the circumstances thereby created accelerated certain processes in the internal development of the Athos monasteries themselves.
Whereas in previous centuries, especially the 10th and 11th, the cenobitic regime h met opposition from the Holy Mountain's eremetical tradition, at the end of the 14th century I tendency was towards a breakdown of the internal structure of the cenobitic monasteries by adoption of the idiorrhythmic rule. This was based on the individual's economic independence within the collective and the replacement of a monarchic system, embodied in the authority of abbot, by an oligarchic (ostensibly democratic) system of "collective government". At first, tendency encountered fierce opposition. The struggle was to last, in fact, for two centuries before the idiorrhythmic rule triumphed. Early indications of this struggle could be perceived in mid-l4th century, even, with the revival of Hesychasm on the Holy Mountain.
Hesychasm, a doctrine of Orthodox monastic theology, originated
as early as the century, at the time when monasticism first appeared,
but was formulated and elaborated during the Middle Ages in the works of
many Byzantine writers. The actual name of the doctrine come from the
word hsucazw meaning to be
still or quiet, or from h hsucia:
divine quietness. It was founded on the idea that through contemplation
of God in uninterrupted “intellectual" prayer, it is
possible to achieve direct contact with the divinity, receive divine
"energy" and see the created light, thereby attaining a higher
level of grace and spiritual being. The Hesychast doctrine and practice
were revived on Mount Athos by St. Gregory of Sinai (c. 1280-1346).
flourishing there was to become the subject of great theological and
political dispute in Byzantium in the mid- 14th century. This ended in a
victory for the Hesychasts, headed by St. Gregory Palamas, a Mount Athos
monk, later archbishop of Thessalonica.
is possible to achieve direct contact with the divinity, receive divine "energy" and see the created light, thereby attaining a higher level of grace and spiritual being. The Hesychast doctrine and practice were revived on Mount Athos by St. Gregory of Sinai (c. 1280-1346). flourishing there was to become the subject of great theological and political dispute in Byzantium in the mid- 14th century. This ended in a victory for the Hesychasts, headed by St. Gregory Palamas, a Mount Athos monk, later archbishop of Thessalonica.
Apart from its theological, dogmatic side, Holy Mountain Hesychasm in the mid- 14th century was motivated by a direct moral and intellectual reaction against the degeneration of cenobitic monastic life, a reaction to the changes already adumbrating the idiorrhythmic rule a different attitude to personal property.
The cenobitic system survived, formally, for a long time, but was
fundament destroyed by the new relationship towards personal property
ownership and by the establishment of new administrative bodies which
restricted the abbots' powers. At the same time, there was further
limitation of the power of the protos, now simply prim us
inter pares, while the Synaxis
(Assembly) at Karyes became the main body. The Turkish period
saw the strengthening and eventual prevalence of the idiorrhythmic rule and the
abolition of the abbot's function in the majority of Athos monasteries
during the 18th century, despite extremely strong ideological
resistance. The creation of new sketes and kellia on the Holy
Mountain in the 16th century, for instance,
is connected with this process: these small communities and new forms of
eremetical life, purely Hesychast in spirit, reflected opposition to the
The victory of the latter was primarily due to its economic advantages under the Turkish system. Directed towards the acquisition of earnings in cash rather than kind, it even brought prosperity to some monasteries (Lavra, Vatopedi, Iviron). However, signs of moral decadence and deviation from the general ideological foundations of Byzantine monasticism became evident. In the 18th century, the idiorrhythmic monasteries opened their doors to rationalism and enlightenment: Vatopedi set up a high school ("Athoniad") in 1749, in which the famous Greek educator Eugenios Vulgaris taught a purely humanistic curriculum (not only Latin and Greek classics, but also West European philosophers - Locke, Leibnitz, Wolff).
The Greek uprising of 1821 brought great misfortune to the Holy Mountain. Inspired by fervent patriotism, the monks aided the insurgents, thereby provoking severe Turkish reprisals and the imposition of a ten-year occupation and special regime on Athos. A large number of monks then fled from the Holy Mountain, the monasteries were plundered, and many antiquities and art treasures destroyed.
After the Balkan Wars and First World War (1912-1918), the Holy
Mountain became part of the Greek state, with a certain autonomy, in
keeping with the international agreements signed in London (1913) and
Lausanne (1923). The Statute ("Constitution") of 1924,
confirmed by the law of 1926, regulated matters pertaining to the
administration and system of the Holy Mountain, mostly in accordance
with the typikon of 1783 issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch
Gabriel. The highest body on Athos is the Holy Community (‘Iera
KoinothV), consisting of representatives of all twenty
monasteries. The first five places are held by Great Lavra, Vatopedi,
Iviron, Chilandar and Dionysiou. The executive body of the Holy
Community is the Holy Epistasia, composed of four members serving a
one-year term of office. They are chosen by rotation on the basis of
the "tetrad" system: the twenty monasteries are divided into
five tetrads (each comprising four monasteries), with one of the five
leading monasteries as the first member of each tetrad. When the
representatives of a tetrad provide the four members of the Holy
Epistasia, once every five years, the first member of the tetrad becomes
the protepistates (formerly protos). Thus, the five
leading monasteries (among them Chilandar) take it in turn to provide
the protepistates of the Holy Mountain. The Greek Government is
represented by a governor or prefect (dioikhthV)
with a police force at Karyes. Athos enjoys wide judicial autonomy
(except in criminal cases, which are under state jurisdiction).
Bogdanovic et al.: Chilandar, Jugoslovenska Revija, Belgrade, 1978.
Chilandar Monastery, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Belgrade, 1998.
Karyes, the administrative centre of the Holy Mountain. In the background , at the bottom of a valley, the monastery of Iviron, formerly Georgian.
A permission to visit the Holy Mountain issued in Karyes