Mount Athos, located on the Chalkidike peninsula near Thessalonica, Greece, is a holy site which first saw hermit monks living there in the 9th century CE. Regarded as one of the most important monastic sites in the Byzantine Empire, there were at one time 46 monasteries on the mountain, which attracted monks from all over Europe and beyond. Today the peninsula boasts 20 monasteries, many of which offer a well-preserved glimpse into Byzantine monasticism as well as being treasuries of medieval Christian architecture, art, and manuscripts. Mount Athos is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Location & Name
Mount Athos, height 1,935 m (6,350 ft), is situated on the easternmost of the three promontories of Chalkidike which is located to the southeast of the city of Thessalonica in northeast Greece. The name Athos comes from the giant of Greek mythology who threw a mountain into the sea. For the ancient Greeks this mountain, which descends directly into the Aegean Sea, was sacred to Zeus. The rocks of the peninsula certainly proved troublesome and were responsible for many shipwrecks, notably the entire fleet of the Persian king Darius on its way to the battle of Marathon in 491 BCE. As a result of this loss, a decade later Darius’ successor Xerxes decided to avoid the mountain altogether in his invasion of Greece and built a canal across the promontory which measured 2.4 km (1.5 miles) in length and up to 30 metres (100 ft.) in width. Another maritime victim of Athos was a Spartan fleet in 411 BCE during the Peloponnesian War.
A common name for Mount Athos is simply the “Holy Mountain”, or Ayion Oros in Greek, which is derived from the area’s use by holy men living there as ascetics and then the monasteries which were later built there. Exactly when the first monastery was built on the mountain is uncertain, but it is thought that monks were certainly using the location as a hermit retreat in the 9th century CE, even living together in small informal communities.
Looming over the sea below, the mountain is a wild and provocative location. No wonder, then, that ascetics chose the site to escape their communities and practise their faith here. The first formal lavra on the mountain was built by Euthymios the Younger in the mid-9th century CE. A lavra was a type of monastery where monks practised semi-independent asceticism where each monk lived, worked, and prayed separately in their own cell. The monks would only gather collectively in their shared church and at meal times.
The first cenobitic or koinobion monastery, that is a place where all property was communal, the monks followed the same daily routines and were led by an abbot (hegoumenos), was the Kolobou monastery, founded during the reign of Basil I (867-886 CE). Basil, like many emperors after him, supported the monks and their territorial claim, even issuing a decree in 883 CE which forbade local shepherds from grazing their sheep on the mountain.
Around 941 CE Mount Athos once again benefitted from imperial patronage when emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944 CE) granted the monks annual pension rights. Around 955 CE the first named monastery was built thanks to a donation of land, the Xeropotamou, named after its founder Paul Xeropotamites.
The Great Lavra
The Great Lavra (Megiste Lavra) was established in 963 CE by Athanasios of Athos thanks to funding from the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969 CE). The name is actually a misnomer since it was more than a lavra and functioned as a communal koinobion monastery, the first large one to be built in the Byzantine Empire and a model copied by many subsequent monasteries. The emperor took the unprecedented step of making the monastery independent from the Patriarch of Constantinople, the first bishop and leader of the Byzantine church, and answerable only to the emperor himself (although from 1311 CE the right reverted to the Patriarch). Thanks to an imperial annual grant of 244 gold coins and free supplies of wheat, the monastery flourished.
The Great Lavra was to be a model example of how Nikephoros and Athanasios envisioned the true monastic life and an antidote to the increasing worldliness of the church at that time. As Athanasios himself notes in his typikon:
I have found by experience that it is right and beneficial…for all the brothers to live in common. All together they are to look to the same goal of salvation…They form one heart in their common life, one will, one desire, and one body, as the apostle prescribes. (Herrin, 192)
Some of the abbots of the Great Lavra over the centuries were famous figures, including Gregory Palamas, the defender of Hesychasm (where monks controversially repeatedly chanted the same prayer) in the first half of the 14th century CE, and Philotheos Kokkinos, twice patriarch of Constantinople (1353-4 and 1364-76). The monastery remained the largest and most important even when others were built at the site and the original katholikon or main church is still standing today.
Growth in Monasteries
The Iviron (or Iveron) monastery was founded by Georgian monks c. 980 CE and became noted for the production of manuscripts in its scriptorium. Its main church was constructed in 983 CE making it one of the oldest original structures on Mount Athos still intact.
By the 11th century CE the mountain had 46 monasteries, and besides the Greek and Georgian monks already mentioned, others came from across the empire and even beyond. The mountain thus became a cosmopolitan mix which included Armenians, Russians, Serbs, Italians, and Bulgarians amongst others. Monks travelled the other direction, too, spreading Byzantine culture throughout Europe and beyond when they embarked on pilgrimages and missionary work. The monasteries grew in wealth, too, acquiring donations and land around the mountain from which further revenue rolled in. Land was also donated from areas of no connection to Mount Athos so that, in time, the monasteries possessed estates as far as Serbia and Romania, as well as several islands in the Aegean.
The various monasteries on Mount Athos were under the overall supervision of the archimandrite of Mount Athos. Each monastery voted for a monk to represent them, a Protos, who attended a joint governing council. The exceptions were the Grand Lavra, Iviron, and Vatopedi monasteries which remained fully independent, and the abbots of these three always took precedence over the others. A bi-annual meeting of all the monks of Mount Athos took place at the Karyes monastery which became the administrative centre on the mountain. The collective organisation of the monasteries was important for them to continue their privileged position within the Byzantine Empire’s state apparatus, for example, they successfully extended their exemption from state taxes.
The monasteries were not without their controversy. There were sometimes reports of rivalries between groups and of controversial or prohibited practices such as ordaining under-age boys, even behaviour unbecoming of Christians. Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-4055 CE) was driven to issue a new charter for Mount Athos in 1045 CE and make the following statement to the abbots and monks there who he required to attend a general assembly and
participate in the decision [of the assembly] with the fear of God and with truth, free from all favoritism and bribe-taking, from party feeling, from partiality and from any other passion: from envy, strife and vengefulness (Herrin, 199)
The monasteries were threatened several times in their long history, notably by the Latin Empire (1204-1254 CE) and then the Spanish mercenaries of the Catalan Grand Company from 1304 to 1309 CE. When the Ottomans invaded Byzantine territory in 1430 CE Mount Athos was allowed to remain independent in exchange for an annual tribute. In 1924 CE, the Mount Athos Charter granted the mountain and its monasteries independence from Greece.
Mount Athos remains an important site of monasticism today and hosts 20 monasteries: 17 Greek, one Serbian (Hilander Monastery, founded 1198 or 1208 CE by Saint Sava), one Bulgarian (Zographou Monastery) and one Russian (Panteleemon Monastery, re-founded 1169 CE). Thanks to its isolated location and avoidance of destructive invasions over the centuries, the site remains a well-preserved example of Byzantine monastic life with invaluable medieval manuscript libraries, administrative archives, frescos, and icons. Even today the monasteries of Athos continue to fly the ancient flag of Byzantium.