The Silk and the Blood

Mount Athos

The Monastic Mountain

The Holy Mountain

The mountainous peninsula of Mount Athos in northern Greece is an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. It has been inhabited since ancient times and is known for its nearly 1,800-year continuous Christian presence. Its monastic traditions date back to at least 800 CE and the Byzantine era.

Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and other 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. Many younger monks possess a university education and advanced skills that allow them to work on the cataloging and restoration of the Mountain's vast repository of manuscripts, liturgical vestments, icons, precious liturgical objects and other artworks, most of which remain unknown to the public because of their sheer volume.

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, and holy relics.

Mount Athos is governed as an autonomous monastic commonwealth within the Greek Republic. 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 the accession of Greece into the European Community in 1981.

Movement of people and goods in the territory is subject to formal permission by the Monastic State authorities. There is a prohibition on entry for women, called avaton (Άβατον) in Greek, and female animals are barred, except for cats (to hunt rodents).

In each of the 20 monasteries – which constitute the members of the monastic commonwealth – 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 monasteries of Mount Athos, which today follow the coenobitic system, are self-sufficient holy institutions for both spiritual and administrative purposes, consolidated by the Constitutional Chart of the Holy Mountain.

The Founding Myth of Mount Athos

According to the Athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing with 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 Clement, 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 ἐθελόντων σωθῆναι’ (‘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.

After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, many Orthodox monks from the Egyptian desert tried to find another refuge, and some came to Athos. An ancient document states that monks ‘built huts of wood with roofs of straw [...] and by collecting fruit from the wild trees provided themselves with improvised meals.’

Growth of the monasteries

The chroniclers Theophanes the Confessor (late eighth century) and Georgios Kedrenos (11th century) state that the eruption of the Thera volcano in 726 CE was visible from Mount Athos, and say that at the time it was inhabited by monks. The historian Genesios recorded that monks from Athos participated at the seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. Following the naval Battle of Thasos in 829, Athos was deserted for some time due to the destructive raids of Cretan Saracens. Around 860, the famous monk Euthymios the Younger came to Athos and a number of hut-residences (‘skete of Saint Basil’) were created around his hermitage, possibly near the location Krya Nera.

During the reign of Emperor Basil I, the former Archbishop of Crete (and later of Thessaloniki) Basil the Confessor built a small monastery at the place of the modern boat-house (arsanás) of Hilandari Monastery.

Soon after this, a document of 883 states that a certain Ioannis Kolovos built a monastery at Megali Vigla.

On a chrysobull (a decree issued by Byzantine Emperors) of Emperor Basil I, dated 885, the Holy Mountain is proclaimed a place of monks, and no laymen, farmers or cattle-breeders are allowed to settle 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 a kind of monks' administration existed which by that time was already ‘ancient’.

In 908, the existence of a Protos (head of the monastic community) is documented. In 943, the borders of the monastic state were precisely set and mapped. We know that Karyes was already the seat of the administration, named ‘Megali Mesi Lavra’ (Big Central Assembly).

In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite (Άγιος Αθανάσιος ο Αθωνίτης) arrived on Mount Athos and in 962, he built the church of the monastic assembly, the ‘Protaton’ in Karyes.

In the next year, with the support of his friend the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries that exist today. It enjoyed the protection of the Byzantine emperors during the following centuries, and its wealth and possessions grew considerably.

Theology and learning

During the 11th century, Mount Athos gained a centre for Serbian and Russian scribes. Russian monks had first settled there in the 1070s in Xylourgou Monastery (now Skete Bogoroditsa), and in 1089 they moved to the St. Panteleimon Monastery, with the Serbs taking over the Xylourgou.

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. The peninsula was raided by Catalan mercenaries in the early 14th century, a century that also saw the creation of the theological movement of Hesychasm, practised and defended on Mount Athos by Saint Gregory Palamas (Άγιος Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς). In late 1371 or early 1372, the Byzantines defeated an Ottoman attack against Athos.

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 rebuild the Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos together with his son Archbishop Saint Sava in 1198.

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. When Murad II conquered Thessaloniki in 1430, they immediately pledged allegiance to him. In return, Murad recognised the monasteries' properties, something which Mehmed II formally ratified after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In this way, Athonite autonomy was preserved.

The 15th and 16th centuries were particularly peaceful for the Athonite community. This led to a relative prosperity for the monasteries and the foundation of the Stavronikita monastery which completed the current number of Athonite monasteries.

Today, Mount Athos is home to 20 monasteries, under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with rich collections of artefacts, rare books, ancient documents and artworks of immense artistic and historical value.