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Mt. Athos

Listed under Sacred Spaces in Macedonia, Greece.

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A mountainous and deeply forested peninsula in northern Greece, Mt. Athos the home of twenty Orthodox monasteries built between the 9th and 11th centuries. Known as Agion Oros, or the 'Holy Mountain' in modern Greek, Athos is a semiautonomous republic of the Greek Orthodox Church and is strictly off-limits to tourism and all women. Many hundreds of monks inhabit the large monasteries, smaller monastic houses and remote mountain caves. The religious history of Athos goes back long before the birth of Christianity however. The great marble peak of Mt. Athos (6670 feet, 2033 meters) was mentioned as early as Homer as being the first home of the Greek gods Zeus and Apollo before they moved to Mt. Olympus.

According to legend the Christian history of Mt. Athos begins with the Virgin Mary. In 49 AD, Mary set sail for the island of Cyprus to visit her friend Lazurus. During her journey a great storm arose and Mary's ship, blown far off course, was guided by divine signs to a protected bay on the eastern coast of Athos. Gazing upward at the towering mountain and its beautiful forests Mary declared, "This mountain is holy ground. Let it now be my portion. Here let me remain." Mooring her boat near the site of the present day monastery of Iveron, Mary came upon an ancient temple and oracle dedicated to Apollo. As she stepped ashore a great crashing sound resounded across the peninsula and all the idols and pagan statues came crashing to the ground (it is interesting to note that a well documented earthquake occurred in northern Greece in 49 AD). The great stone statue of Apollo spoke out, declaring itself a false idol and calling the forest hermits of Athos to come and pay homage to the Panaghia, the true mother of God. So the legend goes, Mary baptized the hermits and thus began the glorious Christian history of Mt. Athos.

According to historical sources, Athos first became a refuge for Christian hermits in the 6th and 7th centuries, and during the 8th and 9th centuries these hermits began to gather into small monastic communities. The era of the great monastic establishments began in 963 AD. Under the protection of the Byzantine emperors, the building of monasteries flourished until its zenith in the 15th century, when Mt. Athos harbored 40 monasteries and 20,000 monks. Slowly declining after that, there has been a reawakening of interest in the monastic life since the 1950’s and currently more than 3000 monks live among the monasteries and forest hermitages. An edict of the Emperor Constantine Manomachos in the year 1060, enforced to this day, forbids women from setting foot on the peninsula. Most of the monasteries are along the coastal lands and consist of a quadrangle of buildings enclosing a church. The churches contain some of the finest examples of Byzantine art, icons and treasure, and the monastery libraries hold a vast number of classical and medieval manuscripts. There are 17 Greek monasteries, 1 Russian, 1 Bulgarian, and 1 Serbian. The author has lived for some months in fifteen of these monasteries and also climbed the sacred peak.

More about Mt. Athos from Sacred Sites.

Written by  Martin Gray.

Other expert and press reviews

“Mount Athos”

'An Orthodox spiritual centre since 1054, Mount Athos has enjoyed an autonomous statute since Byzantine times. The 'Holy Mountain', which is forbidden to women and children, is also a recognized artistic site. The layout of the monasteries (about 20 of … Read more...

Written by press. UNESCO

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