Mount Athos: The Holy Land of Greece
The heart of Byzantine splendor still beats on the steep slopes of Mount Athos. The “Holy Mountain” and the “Garden of the Virgin Mary” are some of the names given to Mount Athos over the years, a place which the Virgin Mary had chosen to be her garden on earth. In antiquity the entire region was called Ακτή (shore), and according to legend, the sea god Poseidon once killed a giant named Athos here using a massive piece of stone; the deceased’s name then given to the whole peninsula.
Mount Athos lies in northeastern Greece, on the first of the “three fingers” outside Thessaloniki. Ten cities were established during the classical era of the area, all of which were connected with significant historical events. Though prosperous in those early days, very little would remain. The imposition of Christian power was made by fire and sword. Nevertheless, a glorious era was born from the ancient ashes. The new inhabitants of Mount Athos, Christian monks, began to settle in the steep mountains around the 9th century AD, after a long period of abandonment had overshadowed the regal mountain scape
The Middle Ages were times of growth and expansion for the monks. Around 1100 AD the number of monasteries rose to more than 180, an unknown number of monk-huts spread across the valleys and forests. Often conflict between monastery life and ascetic isolated life was inevitable, though in general all the monks of Athos were under the protection of the Byzantine Emperors and thus enjoyed a number of privileges and donations, as well as the benefit of not enduring taxation. Therefore, as larger monasteries owned such vast tracts of land and property, a state of hierarchy and oppression resulted and put small land owners, and poor monks, at a disadvantage. Eventually, Mount Athos would also be separated between the Greek Byzantine monasteries and newcomers, monks from Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia.
After the 3rd Crusade (1204 AD), the Mount Athos peninsula was conquered by the army of the Latin kingdoms, primarily from Italy and France. The privileges Byzantine Emperors once offered abruptly came to an end. In 1261, after the restoration of the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Mountain began to thrive again until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Byzantine world.
The Athonite monks tried to maintain good relations with their oppressors. In return, the Ottomans recognized the monasteries’ importance and the independence of Mount Athos was somewhat guaranteed. Although there where periods of high taxation, the monasteries continued to flourish and receive substantial donations from Russian Tsars and other Christian kings. Hence, the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were periods of prosperity with no incursions or invasions.
Nowadays, the Athonite community is an autonomous monastic state that “following an ancient privilege, is a self governed part of the Greek State, whose sovereignty thereon should remain intact”. It is comprised of 20 monasteries (most noted are Great Lavra and Vatopedi monasteries) that constitute the Holy Community described and confirmed upon admission of the Greek Constitution and the European Union.
Today the Mount Athos peninsula is a serene place open for visitation by men seeking solace and isolated environment that combines religion with natural beauty. Thousands of visitors come to Mount Athos every year to find peace of mind and an opportunity to seek guidance from monks who prescribe to an ascetic perception of life. Byzantium is reflected in every monastery complex, giving the feeling of leaping in the past.
A “Byzantine” visa is needed in order to enter the area that allows the visitor to stay as many days as has been agreed upon with the monastery authorities. Women are not allowed to enter the Mountain, as monks believe that women change the social structure of the community by making the path to spiritual enlightenment more difficult. This rule has been followed since Byzantine times with only very few exceptions every being made. Some bans exist for female animals as well, apart from female cats, insects and songbirds.
The monasteries will reveal a charming surprise for the modern visitor: treasures including icons, garments, texts, and other holy relics dating back from the beginning of monastic life through modern times. The difference is that most of these objects are not just museum artifacts, but rather they are still actively in use by monks just as they were a thousand years ago.
The Holy Mountain is not just a tourist attraction for tranquility-seeking men it is also an eternal fight with the philosophical notion of time. The sense of isolation and connection with nature and God are dominant when visiting the slopes of the Mount Athos peninsula. Being “religious” or less than religious matters not when you question the meaning of life. Mount Athos will capture both your mind and heart.
Mount Athos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Learn more here: whc.unesco.org/en/list/454
Learn about the various monasteries of Mount Athos here: www.inathos.gr/athos/en/