What is Athos? Everyone may have his own answer to this complex question. It is a peninsula in Northern Greece, one of the branches of the peninsula of Halkidiki. Athos Mountain, or Agion Oros, is one of the highest mountains in Greece (2033 meters). Athos is a historically significant place: it was here that the fleet of Xerxes, who sought to conquer Greece, was wrecked.
Athos was the name of one of the titans who, during a war with the gods, threw a huge stone at Poseidon, which later became a mountain. No doubt, Mount Athos has a centuries-old story, but for millions of people it is also a bastion of faith, a beacon of Orthodoxy that lights the way for us even in the darkest times. It is here that the world's only Orthodox monastic republic, Holy Mount Athos, is located.
Mount Athos Location
Mount Athos is the third, most eastern, "branch" of Halkidiki Trident in eastern Macedonia (Mount Athos is on the Halkidiki Peninsula in Northern Greece). The Athos peninsula is 57 km long, at its widest point it is 10 km wide, the total area is 336 km2.
In the center of the peninsula there is a vast mountain range which ends with Mount Athos. The top of the mountain as if piercing the sky, and its slopes, covered with old trees, are striking with the incomparable beauty of pristine nature of the area.
The borders of the monastic state are defined by the place called "Frangokastro" and extend to the Cape Arapis on the other side of the peninsula.
Mount Athos Weather
The climate of the peninsula of Mount Athos is generally Mediterranean, with mild winters and cool summers. This is due to the beneficial effects of the sea that washes it. The rainfall ranges from 600 to 800 millimeters, but at its highest point, the top of the Athos Mountain, it exceeds 1000 millimeters.
Mount Athos History
The old name of Mount Athos peninsula is "Akti". It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of Athos were Pelasgians. They were succeeded by the "Chalkidians" from Evia, who most probably also gave their name to the whole peninsula of Halkidiki. The history of Athos goes back a few thousand years.
Athos in Mythology: What was on Athos before the Orthodox Monasteries?
On the western tip of the peninsula, on a plain called Phlegra ("fiery"), the legendary battle of the Titans took place. The ancient Greek gods, led by Zeus, fought the sons of Uranus and Gaia.
Halkidiki is a sacred place - the battlefield of the gods. On top of Mount Athos was once built a temple with a statue of Zeus with two huge diamonds instead of eyes that glowed at night.
Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, Hercules, Titan Creus, Aphrodite, Urania, Morpho, Artemis, Dimitra and other deities were worshipped here.
The Pantheon of ancient Greek pre-Christian Athos was dominated by Artemis. Because of the wildlife and rich fauna, it was this goddess who was best associated with the area. Apollo's sister reigned in the wild virgin forests, unspoiled by human hands.
Christianity on Mount Athos
According to Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary and St. John were caught in a storm on their way to Cyprus, which forced them to moor ashore 1000 km northwest of where the Iviron Monastery now stands. Since then, the Mother of God became the only queen and ruler of Mount Athos, while other women are strictly forbidden to enter this place. Legend has it that when the Virgin Mary happened to be on Mount Athos, she liked it so much that she herself asked her Son to give her the patronage of this place.
Thus, the Holy Mountain in Greece became known as the "garden of the Mother of God". Mount Athos is dedicated to Her glory and She is the only woman allowed to be there.
In the first half of the eleventh century the name "Mount Athos" began to appear in manuscripts. Paul the Apostle passed through the town of Apollonia on Mount Athos, on his way from Philippi to Thessaloniki. This moment is considered the beginning of the spread of Christianity on Athos. The monk Gerasimus Smirniotakis in his book "The Holy Mountain" says that the "transition" to Christianity was quite rapid, pointing to the time of Constantine the Great, about 321.
The main pagan temple of Artemis began to decay in the sixth century AD. It was first converted into a Frankish church in 1204, and during the Turkish occupation in 1456 it was converted into a mosque. Some monasteries were built on the remains of ancient Greek temples, whose architectural details were integrated into the structure as building decoration. Finally, in many places, large parts of the ruins of ancient walls remain.
Today there are 20 Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos: 17 of them are Greek: Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Iviron, Koutloumousiou, Agiou Pavlou, Dionysiou, Xenophontos, Stavronikita, Osiou Grigoriou, Konstamonitou, Esphigmenou, Docheiariou, Karakalou, Filotheou, Simonopetra, Xeropotamou and Pantokratoros.
There is 1 Russian monastery - St. Panteleimon, 1 Serbian - Helandariou and 1 Bulgarian - Zografou.
There are also 14 sketes and a lot of cells and kathismas on the Holy Mountain.
The number of monasteries on the Holy Mountain always remains the same; it is impossible to build a new monastery on Athos. Each monastery is a large and complex structure surrounded by a strong wall, the main feature of which is a tower with loopholes. The fortifications helped the coastal monasteries to repel the raids of pirates and conquerors.
There are two types of monasteries:
a) Royal (vasilikes), which are so called because they were founded by order and with the assistance of Byzantine emperors, or because they were approved by an imperial Golden Bull,
b) Patriarchal and stauropegial, because they were associated with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which undertook their spiritual supervision, and also because the cross in such monasteries was erected by the Patriarch or bishop himself.
List of Mount Athos Monasteries
1. Great Lavra, 963, patron saint's day is 5/18 July, the day of St. Athanasius the Athonite.
2. Vatopedi, 972, patron saint's day is March 25/April 7, the day of the Annunciation.
3. Iviron, 972, patron saint's day is August 15/28, the day of the Dormition.
4. Hilandar (Serbian), 1197, patron saint's day is November 21/December 4, the day of the Presentation of Mary.
5. Dionysiou, 1375, patron saint's day is June 24/July 7, the day of the Nativity of John the Baptist.
6. Koutloumousiou, late 13th century, patron saint's day is August 6/19, day of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
7. Pantokratoros, 1363, patron saint's day is August 6/19, the day of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
8. Xeropotamou, 10th century, patron saint's days are March 9/22, the day of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, and September 14/27, the day of the Exaltation of the Cross.
9. Zograf, 10th century, patron saint's day is April 23/May 6, the day of St. George the Victorious.
10. Docheiariou, 10th century, patron saint's days are November 8/21, the day of the Archistratigus Michael, and October 1/14, in honor of the holy icon of the Mother of God "Gorgoepikoos".
11. Karakal, 10th century, patron saint's day is June 29/July 12, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
12. Filotheou, 990, patron saint's days are 25 March/April 7, the day of the Annunciation, and 24 August/6 September, the day of St. Kosmas of Aetolia.
13. Simonopetra, 1257, patron saint's days are December 25/January 7, the day of the Nativity of Christ, and July 22/August 4, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.
14. Agiou Pavlou, 10th century, patron saint's days are February 2/15, the feast of the Purification, and 28 July/10 August, the day of St. Paul of Xeropotamou.
15. Stavronikita, 1541, patron saint's day is December 6/19, the feast of St. Nicholas.
16. Xenophontos, 11th century, patron saint's day is April 23/May 6, the feast of St. George.
17. Gregoriou, 1345, patron saint's day is December 6/19, the feast of St. Nicholas.
18. Esphigmenou, 11th century, patron saint's day is the day of the Ascension of the Lord. The monastery of Esphigmenou does not commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch, nor does it have canonical communion with the other monasteries of the Holy Mountain.
19. St. Panteleimon, early 10th century, patron saint's day is July 27/August 9, the feast of St. Panteleimon.
20. Konstamonitou, 11th century, patron saint's day is December 27/January 9, the feast of St. Stephen.
Athos Governance: Who Governs the Monastic Republic?
Mount Athos is governed by the Holy Kinot, a council of representatives of 20 monasteries with the participation of the Greek state through its representative in the capital of the monastic republic of Karyes. The executive body of the Holy Kinot is the four-member Holy Epistasis. Responsibility for spiritual matters rests with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, while matters of public order and security rest with the representative body of the Greek state.
Diamonitirion — Mount Athos Visa
Only men are allowed to cross the border of Holy Mount Athos. The rule known as "Avaton" forbids access to the Holy Mountain by any woman. Violation of this prohibition is punishable by law, not only earthly but also divine law. According to the procedures established by the Holy Kinot, male visitors must obtain written permission (Diamonitirion) to visit the monastic republic from the at the Mount Athos office in Ouranoupoli.
Diamonitirion is the document that allows us to enter Mount Athos and stay there. We present it together with our passport at the check in the ships, at the customs, as well as at the entrance of each monastery.
You will be asked for your exact identity information, and in addition, you must know and indicate in advance which of the monasteries you are going to visit. So it would be a good idea to contact the holy monasteries in advance and find out where you can stay.
Permits are issued to adult male pilgrims over the age of 18. Young men under the age of 18 are allowed to enter the Holy Mountain if accompanied by their father. Young males accompanied by the leader of an adult group visiting Mount Athos for educational purposes need the written consent of their parents, which is verified by the official authorities of their country.
The monasteries do not charge for accommodation, but donations are accepted. Most monasteries and sketes ask pilgrims to contact them in advance to make reservations. Also, pilgrims with a special hostel (an invitation from a monastery) can only stay at the monastery that invited them.
The Diamonitirion specifies the details of the pilgrim, his code number, date and days of stay at the specified monastery. Usually a period of 4 days is set, but in case the pilgrim wants to stay longer, he can request an extension of the "visa" at the Holy Kinot in Karyes.
The cost of Diamonitirion
The cost is €25 for orthodox Christians and €35 for non orthodox pilgrims. A discount is available for special groups of pilgrims, such as schoolchildren, students and the disabled, who pay the amount of €10. Large families (four or more children) are free of charge.
How to get to Athos from Greece? Communication with Monasteries
Transportation serves both the coastal and the most remote monasteries. However, there are many hiking trails that can be accessed on foot. Video filming is forbidden, photography is allowed, but not inside the monasteries. The use of bicycles is also forbidden.
The boat to Athos departs at 09:45 from Ouranoupoli. The ferry arrives at the port of Daphne on the Holy Mountain at about 12:00. From Daphne you can take a bus to the capital of Athos, Karyes, and from there to the other monasteries.
There is also another ferry, "Agia Anna", which departs from the port of Ouranoupolis at 06:30 (except Saturday/Sunday). It is best to spend the previous night in Ouranoupoli.
Some pilgrims prefer to reach the monasteries on foot. The reason is that then there is an opportunity to meet and interact with the hermits and ascetics who live at a distance from the monasteries and to walk through the unique forest where there are no roads, but only paths. Pilgrims can also climb to the top of Mount Athos and visit the Church of the Transfiguration at an altitude of 2033 meters.
What is at the top of Mount Athos?
Not far from the shore of Mount Athos there is one of the deepest points of the Aegean Sea with a depth of 1,500 meters.
Due to its shape and location, Mount Athos has an unpredictable microclimate; it is also worth considering that northwest winds and large temperature variations are frequent even during the summer months and that there is a lot of snow in winter.
At the top of Mount Athos, at the end of the peninsula, at an altitude of 2033 meters, there is a beautiful holy Church of the Transfiguration of Christ the Savior. This special Temple is a true miracle created by Father Diomidis (the monk of the Great Lavra in charge of the construction).
Mount Athos Hiking Trails
Hiking on Mount Athos is common, but it is best to prepare in advance. Lush vegetation, virgin forests, beautiful paths, streams, small waterfalls, springs and the many wondrous beauties of Mount Athos await the pilgrims on their way.
It is worth bearing in mind that in all the beauty of this pristine land there are pitfalls. To be safe, one must remember that pilgrims, travelers and just tourists should know that the paths of Mount Athos are marked for each direction in the monasteries, cells, sketes and arsanas (ports).
One should never deviate from one's course, as small crossings and overgrown trails can lead to many dangers. The lush vegetation that covers roads or paths often leads to crevices, ravines, and rocks that are adjacent to the roads and trails. Inattention can lead to injury.
Due to numerous natural disasters, the ground is loose in many places. Walk on solid ground as much as possible and avoid approaching roadsides or trails where you are unsure of the stability of the ground.
The Life of Mount Athos Monks
A monk, like every God's creature, gets born and dies, but a monk's birth is not identified with a biological birth, but with a new hypostasis, which he acquires after a long and intense test of his faith. The candidate first enters the brotherhood as a novice. There, under the guidance of the Father-Superior, he follows a special program of prayer and service for a year, and sometimes for a longer period.
Monks awaken early, after midnight. Before going to the church, the monk performs penance in his cell, praying with the rosary and reading soul-saving books. At 7:30 Byzantine time, the clergymen light the candles, candlesticks, lanterns, and chandeliers of the main temple.
Not unlike any small community that needs a proper distribution of work in order to function and survive, monasteries and sketes survive, develop and fulfill its saving mission by entrusting monks with various ministries. For example, the archondaris (welcoming guests) wait to offer rest to newly arrived pilgrims, serve them a glass of water, raki and sweet lukum, and distribute everyone to their rooms. Other brothers take care of the workers who come to Athos, of the elderly, of the animals; the bakers bake bread and the cooks prepare food in the kitchen.