Athos is a small tongue of land that projects into the Aegean Sea, being the eastern-most of the three strips in which the great mountainous peninsula of Chalcidice ends. It is almost cut off from the mainland, to which it is bound only by a narrow isthmus dotted with lakes and swamps interspersed with alluvial plains. It has been well called "a Greece in miniature", because of the varied contour of its coasts, deep bays and inlets, bold cliffs and promontories, steep wooded slopes, and valleys winding inland. Several cities existed here in pre-Christian antiquity, and a sanctuary of Zeus (Jupiter) is said to have stood on the mountain. The isthmus was famous for the canal (3,950 feet in length) which Xerxes had dug across it, in order to avoid the perilous turning of the limestone peak immemorially known as Mount Athos, in which the small peninsula ends, and which rises to a height of some 6,000 feet. From the summit of this peak on a clear day are visible the coasts of Macedonia and Thrace, even the entire Aegean from Mount Olympus in Thessaly to Mount Ida in Asia Minor. It is the mountain that the architect Dinocrates offered to turn into a statue of Alexander the Great with a city in one hand and in the other a perennially flowing spring. Medieval Greek tradition designated it as the "high mountain" from which Satan tempted Our Lord. Its chief modern interest lies in the fact that at least from the beginning of the Middle Ages it has been the home of a little monastic republic that still retains almost the same autonomy granted a thousand years ago by the Christian emperors of Constantinople. In 1905 the many fortified monasteries and hermitages of Athos contained 7,553 monks (including their numerous male dependents), members of the Orthodox Greek Church: Greeks, 3,207; Russians, 3,615; Bulgarians, 340; Rumanians, 288; Georgians, 53; Servians, 18; other nationalities 32. The principal monasteries bear the following names: Laura, Iviron, Vatopedi, Chilandarion, St. Dionysius, Coutloumousi, Pantocrator, Xiropotamos, Zographu, Docheiarion, Caracalla, Philotheos, Simopetra, St. Paul, Stauroniceta, Xenophon, Gregorios, Esphigmenon, St. Panteleimon, St. Anna (Rossicon), and Karyses.
The origins of monastic life on Mount Athos are obscure. It is probable that individual hermits sought its lonely recesses during the fourth and fifth centuries, and were numerous in the ninth century at the time of the first certain attempts at monastic organization. The nearest episcopal see was that of Hierissus, and in conformity with ancient law and usage its bishop claimed jurisdiction over the monks of the little peninsula. In 885 Emperor Basil the Macedonian emancipated them from the jurisdiction of the monastery of St. Colobos near Hierissus, and allotted to them Mount Athos as their property. Soon after, the oldest of the principal monasteries, Xiropotamos, was built and adopted the rule of St. Basil. Saracen pirates disturbed the monks in the ninth and tenth centuries, but imperial generosity always came to the aid of this domestic "holy land" of the Greeks. About 960 a far-reaching reform was introduced by the Anatolian monk Athanasius of Trebizond, later known as Athonites. With several companions from Asia Minor he founded by the seashore the monastery since known as Laura, where he raised the monastic life to a high degree of perfection. Eventually the new settlement was accepted as a model. With the help of the imperial authority of John Tzimisces (969-976) all opposition was set aside and the cenobitic or community life imposed on the hermits scattered in the valleys and forests. Athanasius was made abbot general or superior (Protos) of the fifty-eight monastic communities then on the mountain. From this period date the monasteries known as Iviron (Iberians), Vatopedi, and Esphigmenon. At this time, also, there arose a cause of internal conflict that has never been removed. Hitherto only one nationality, the Greek, was represented among the monks. Henceforth, Slavic faith and generosity, and later on Slavic interests, had to be considered. The newly converted Slavs sought and obtained admission into the recently opened monasteries; before long their princes in the Balkan Peninsula began to found independent houses for Slavic monks. In this way arose during the reign of Alexius I (1081-1118) the strictly Slavic monasteries of Chilandarion and Zographu. The Byzantine emperors never ceased to manifest their interest in the little monastic republic and even profited politically by the universal esteem that the religious brotherhood enjoyed throughout the Christian world.
With the aid of the Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1046, Constantine Monomachos regulated the domestic government of the monastery the administration of their temporal possessions, and their commercial activity. By the imperial document (typicon) which he issued, women are forbidden the peninsula, a prohibition so strictly observed since that time that even the Turkish aga, or official, who resides at Karyaes (Cariez) may not take his harem with him. About the year 1100 the monasteries of Mount Athos were 180 in number, and sheltered 700 monks, with their dependents. At this time there came into general use the term Hagion Oros (Holy Mountain, hagion oros, Monte Santo). Alexius I granted the monasteries immunity from taxation, freed them from all subjection to the Patriarch of Constantinople, and placed them under his immediate protection. They still depended, however, on the neighboring Bishop of Hierissus for the ordination of their priests and deacons. Alexius also chose to be buried on the Holy Mountain among the brethren (1118). A century later, after the capture of Constantinople (1204), the Latin Crusaders abused the monks, who thereupon appealed to Innocent III; he took them under his protection and in his letters (xiii, 40; xvi, 168) paid a tribute to their monastic virtues. However, with the restoration of Greek political supremacy the monks returned (1313) to their old allegiance to Constantinople.
In the fourteenth century a pseudo-spiritualism akin to that of the ancient Euchites or Messalians, culminating in the famous Hesychast controversies (see HESYCHASM; PALAMAS), greatly disturbed the mutual harmony of Greek monasteries, especially those of Mount Athos, one of whose monks, Callistus, had become Patriarch of Constantinople (1350-54) and in that office exhibited great severity towards the opponents of Hesychasm. Racial and national discord between the Greeks and the Servians added fuel to the flames, and for a while the monks were again subjected to the immediate supervision of the Bishop of Hierissus. In the meantime the Palaeologi emperors at Constantinople and the Slav princes and nobles of the Balkan Peninsula continued to enrich the monasteries of Mount Athos, which received the greater part of their landed wealth during this period. Occasionally a Byzantine emperor took refuge among the monks in the hope of forgetting the cares and responsibilities of his office. Amid the political disasters of the Greeks, during the fourteenth century, Mount Athos appears as a kind of Holy Land, a retreat for many men eminent in Church and State, and a place where the spirit of Greek patriotism was cherished when threatened elsewhere faith ruin (Krumbacher, 1058-59). This period was also marked by the attempts of the monastery of Karyaes to secure a pre-eminence over the others, the final exclusion of the Bishop of Hierissus from the peninsula, fresh attacks from freebooters of all kinds, and the foundation of several new monasteries: Simopetra, Castamonitu, St. Paul and St. Dionysius. The Fall of Constantinople (1453) brought no modification of the conditions on the Holy Mountain. The monks, who had stubbornly opposed all attempts at reunion with the Apostolic See, submitted at once to the domination of the Osmanli, and, with rare exceptions, have never been interfered with by the Turkish authorities. The hospodars of Wallachia remained as ever their friends and benefactors. Though the monks sympathized with the Greeks in the War of Independence (1822-30), their estates on the Greek mainland were secularized by Capo d'Istria and a similar fate has overtaken their properties in the Danubian principal cities. They still hold numerous farms and properties in certain islands of the Archipelago and on the mainland (Kaulen in Kirchenlex., I, 1557-59; Bayet in Grande Encycl., s.v. Athos).
This monastic republic is governed by an assembly of 20 members one representative from each of the 20 principal monasteries; from among these is elected annually, and in due rotation, a committee of 4 presidents. The great seal of the united monasteries is in four pieces and is divided among the members of this committee. One of the members is chosen as chairman, or Protos. Meetings of the assembly are held weekly (Saturday), at Karyaes, and the assembly acts as a supreme parliament and tribunal, with appeal, however, to the patriarch at Constantinople.
The Turkish Government is represented by an agent at Karyaes, the diminutive capital of the peninsula and the landing-place for visitors. A detachment of Christian soldiers is usually stationed there, and no one may land without permission of the monastic authorities. The monks have also an agent at Saloniki and another at Constantinople. Almost the only source of contention among them is the rivalry between the Greeks, inheritors of old traditions and customs, and the Russians of the great monastery of Rossicon (St. Anna), representative of the wealth, power, and interests of their church and country, and generously supported from St. Petersburg. In its present form the constitution of the monasteries dates from 1783.
Each of the twenty great monasteries (twenty-one, including Karyaes) possesses its own large church and numerous chapels within and without its enclosure, which is strongly fortified, recalling the feudal burgs of the Middle Ages. The high walls and strong towers are reminders of the troubled times of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when corsairs abounded and self-defense was imperative. All of the great monasteries are on the Holy Mountain proper, and are most picturesquely situated from sea to summit, amid dense masses of oak, pine, and chestnut, or on inaccessible crags. To each of these monasteries is attached a certain number of minor monasteries (sketai, asceteria), small monastic settlements (kathismata), and hermitages (kellia, cellae). Every monastic habitation must be affiliated to one or the other of the great monasteries and is subject to its direction or supervision. All monasteries are dedicated to the Mother of God, the larger ones under some specially significant title. The ancient Greek Rule of St. Basil is still followed by all.
In the observance of the Rule, however, the greater monasteries are divided into two classes, some following strictly the cenobitic life, while others permit a larger personal freedom. The latter are called "idiorhythmic"; in them the monks have a right of personal ownership and a certain share in the government of the monastery (Council of Elders); they take their meals apart, and are subject to less severe regulations. In the former, known as "cenobitic" (koinobion, coenobium, common life), there is a greater monastic rigor. The superior, or hegoumenos, has absolute authority, and all property is held in common. The chief occupation of the monks is that of solemn public prayer, by night and by day, i.e. recitation of the Divine Office, corresponding to the solemn choir-service of the Latin Church. (See GREEK RITE, BREVIARY, PSALMODY.) This leaves little time for agricultural, industrial, or intellectual labor. Some fish, or practice minor industries in aid of the common support, or administer the monastic estates located elsewhere; others go abroad occasionally to collect a part of the yearly tribute (about two dollars and a half) that each monk must pay to the Turkish Government. A portion of this is collected from the monks themselves; the rest is secured by the revenue of their farms or other possessions, and by contributions from affiliated monasteries in the Balkan Peninsula, Georgia, and Russia. The generosity of the Greek faithful is also a source of revenue, for Mount Athos is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites of the entire Greek Church, and the feasts of the principal monasteries are always celebrated with great pomp. It may be added that the monks practice faithfully the monastic virtue of hospitality. The usual name for the individual monk here, as elsewhere in the Greek Orient, is Kalogeros (good old man). In their dress the monks do not differ from other communities of Greek Basilians.
Most of the buildings of Mount Athos are comparatively modern. Yet, because of the well-known conservative character of the monks, these edifices represent with much fidelity the Byzantine architecture, civil and religious, of the tenth to the fourteenth century. The churches are very richly adorned with columns and pavements of marble, frescoed walls and cupolas, decorated screens, etc.; there are not many mosaics. Some of the smaller oratories are said to be the oldest extant specimens of private architecture in the West, apart from the houses of Pompeii. The ecclesiastical art of the Greek Orient is richly represented here, with all its religious respect, though also with all its immobile conservatism and its stern refusal to interpret individual feeling in any other forms than those made sacred by a long line of almost nameless monastic painters like Panselinos and confided by his disciples to the famous "Painters' Book of Mount Athos" (see Didron, Manuel d'iconographie chrétienne, Paris, 1858). Though there is not in the 935 churches of the peninsula any art-work older than the sixteenth century (Bayet) their frescoes, small paintings on boards, gilt and jeweled metal work, represent with almost unswerving accuracy the principles, spirit, and details of medieval Byzantine art as applied to religious uses.
Each monastery possesses its own library, and the combined treasures make up a unique collection of ancient manuscripts (Montfaucon, Palaeographia Graeca, Paris, 1748, 441 sqq.). By far the richest in this respect is the Russian monastery of Saint Anna (Rossicon). Some of the more valuable classical Greek manuscripts have been purchased or otherwise secured by travelers (Neumann, "Serapeum", X, 252; Duchesne, "Mémoire sur une mission au Mont Athos", Paris, 1876; Lambros, "Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts on Mount Athos", Cambridge, 1895, 1900). It was in this way that the text of Ptolemy first reached the West. Similarly, the oldest manuscript of the second-century Christian text known as "The Shepherd of Hermas" came from Mount Athos. The manuscripts now in possession of the monks have chiefly an ecclesiastical value; their number is said to be about 8,000. There are also in the library and archives of each monastery a great many documents (donations, privileges, charters) in Greek, Georgian, and Old-Slavonic, beginning with the ninth century, some of which are important for the historian of Byzantine law and of the medieval Greek Church (Miklosich and Müller, Zachariä von Linenthal, Uspenskij). The monks of Mount Athos are somewhat indifferent towards these treasures; nothing has been done to make them accessible, except the unsuccessful attempt of Archbishop Bulgaris of Corfu to found at Mount Athos, towards the close of the eighteenth century, a school of the classical languages. The monasteries conduct a few elementary schools for the teaching of reading and writing; nowhere, perhaps, is the intellectual stagnation of the Greek Schism more noticeable. The monks are chiefly devoted to the splendor of their religious services; the solitaries still cherish Hesychast ideas and an apocalyptic mysticism, and the whole monastic republic represents just such an intellectual decay as must follow on a total exclusion of all outside intercourse and a complete neglect of all intellectual effort (Kaulen).
ATHELSTAN RILEY, Athos, the Mountain of the Monks (London, 1887); CURZON, Monasteries of the Levant (6th ed., London, 1881), LANGLOIS, Le Mont Athos et ses monastères (Paris, 1867); DE VOGÜÉ, Syrie, Palestine et Mont Athos (Paris, 1878), NEYRAC, L'Athos (Paris, 1880); KAULEN in Kirchenlex., I, 1555-63; MEYER in Zeitschr. f. Kirchengesch. (1890), XI, 395-435; KRUMBACHER, Gesch. der byzant Litt. (2nd ed., Munich, 1867), 511-515, 1058-59, SCEMIDTKE, Das Klosterland des Athos (1903); among older works, FALLMERAYER, Fragments aus dem Orient (2d ed., Stuttgart, 1877). For the art-treasures of Mount Athos see BROCKHAUS, Die Kunst in den Athos-Klötern (Leipzig, 1891); and for photographs of the principal sites, besides the above quoted works, Vom Fels zum Meer (1892), 19-20.
APA citation. (1907). Mount Athos. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02047b.htm
MLA citation. "Mount Athos." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02047b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by the Cloistered Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of the Infant Jesus, Lufkin, Texas. Dedicated to the flourishing of monastic life.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.