Mount Athos (/ˈæθɒs/; Greek: Άθως, Áthos [ˈaθos]) is a mountain and peninsula in northeastern Greece and an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. It is governed as an autonomous polity within the Greek Republic. Mount Athos is home to 20 monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Mount Athos is commonly referred to in Greek as the Holy Mountain or Agion Oros (Greek: Ἅγιον Ὄρος, Hágion Óros), and the entity as the “Athonite State” (Αθωνική Πολιτεία, Athoniki Politia). Other languages of Orthodox tradition also use names translating to “Holy Mountain”, including Bulgarian and Serbian Света гора, Sveta gora; Russian Святая гора, Svyataya gora; Georgian მთაწმინდა, mtats’minda. In the classical era, while the mountain was called Athos, the peninsula was known as Acté or Akté (Ἀκτή).

Mount Athos has been inhabited since ancient times and is known for its nearly 1,800-year continuous Christian presence and its long historical monastic traditions, which date back to at least 800 A.D. and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries, including Eastern Orthodox countries such as Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, live an ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. The Athonite monasteries feature a rich collection of well-preserved artifacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value, and Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1988.

Although Mount Athos is legally part of the European Union like the rest of Greece, the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain and the Athonite institutions have a special jurisdiction which was reaffirmed during the admission of Greece to the European Community (precursor to the EU). This empowers the Monastic State’s authorities to regulate the free movement of people and goods in its territory; in particular, only males are allowed to enter.

Early Christianity

The peninsula as seen from the summit of Mount Athos (40°9′28″N 24°19′36″E)
According to the Athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing accompanied by St John the Evangelist from Joppa to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown off course to then-pagan Athos, it was forced to anchor near the port of Klement, close to the present monastery of Iviron. The Virgin walked ashore and, overwhelmed by the wonderful and wild natural beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice was heard saying “Ἔστω ὁ τόπος οὗτος κλῆρος σὸς καὶ περιβόλαιον σὸν καὶ παράδεισος, ἔτι δὲ καὶ λιμὴν σωτήριος τῶν θελόντων σωθῆναι” (Translation: “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved”). From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and was out of bounds to all other women.

Historical documents on ancient Mount Athos history are very few. It is certain that monks have been there since the fourth century, and possibly since the third. During Constantine I’s reign (324–337) both Christians and pagans were living there. During the reign of Julian the Apostate (361–363), the churches of Mount Athos were destroyed, and Christians hid in the woods and inaccessible places.

Later, during Theodosius I’s reign (379–395), the pagan temples were destroyed. The lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria states that in the fifth century there was still a temple and a statue of “Zeus Athonite”. After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, many Orthodox monks from the Egyptian desert tried to find another calm place; some of them came to the Athos peninsula. An ancient document states that monks “built huts of wood with roofs of straw and by collecting fruit from the wild trees were providing themselves improvised meals.”

Byzantine era: the first monasteries

The chroniclers Theophanes the Confessor (end of 8th century) and Georgios Kedrenos (11th century) wrote that the 726 eruption of the Thera volcano was visible from Mount Athos, indicating that it was inhabited at the time. The historian Genesios recorded that monks from Athos participated at the seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. Following the Battle of Thasos in 829, Athos was deserted for some time due to the destructive raids of the Cretan Saracens. Around 860, the famous monk Efthymios the Younger came to Athos and a number of monk-huts (“skete of Saint Basil”) were created around his habitation, possibly near Krya Nera. During the reign of emperor Basil I the Macedonian, the former Archbishop of Crete (and later of Thessaloniki) Basil the Confessor built a small monastery at the place of the modern harbour (arsanás) of Hilandariou Monastery. Soon after this, a document of 883 states that a certain Ioannis Kolovos built a monastery at Megali Vigla.

On a chrysobull of emperor Basil I, dated 885, the Holy Mountain is proclaimed a place of monks, and no laymen or farmers or cattle-breeders are allowed to be settled there. The next year, in an imperial edict of emperor Leo VI the Wise we read about the “so-called ancient seat of the council of gerondes (council of elders)”, meaning that there was already a kind of monks’ administration and that it was already “ancient”. In 887, some monks expostulate to the emperor Leo the Wise that as the monastery of Kolovos is growing more and more, they are losing their peace.

In 908 the existence of a Protos (“First monk”), the “head” of the monastic community, is documented. In 943 the borders of the monastic state were precisely mapped; we know that Karyes was already the capital and seat of the administration, named “Megali Mesi Lavra” (Big Central Assembly). In 956, a decree offered land of about 940,000 m2 (230 acres) to the Xeropotamou monastery, which means that this monastery was already quite big.

Nicephorus Phocas

Athanasios the Athonite
In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite (Άγιος Αθανάσιος ο Αθωνίτης) arrived on Mount Athos. In 962 he built the big central church of the “Protaton” in Karies. In the next year, with the support of his friend Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the twenty monasteries existing today. It enjoyed the protection of the Byzantine emperors during the following centuries, and its wealth and possessions grew considerably.

From the 10th to the 13th centuries, there was a Benedictine monastery on Mount Athos (between Magisti Lavra and Philotheou Karakallou) known as Amalfion after the people of Amalfi who founded it.

During the 11th century, Mount Athos offered a meeting place for Serbian and Russian monk Scribes. Russian monks first settled there in the 1070s, in Xylourgou Monastery (now Skiti Bogoroditsa); in 1089 they moved to the St. Panteleimon Monastery, while the Serbs took over the Xylourgou. From 1100 to 1169 the St. Panteleimon Monastery was in a state of decay and such Russian monks as remained in Mount Athos lived at Xylourgou among the Serbs. In 1169 the Serbs received St. Panteleimon, which they shared with the Russians until 1198, when the Serbs moved to the Hilandar monastery, which became the main centre of Serbian monasticism; the Russians then remained in possession of St. Panteleimon, known since as Rossikon.

The Fourth Crusade in the 13th century brought new Roman Catholic overlords, which forced the monks to complain and ask for the intervention of Pope Innocent III until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. The peninsula was raided by Catalan mercenaries in the 14th century, a century that also saw the theological conflict over the hesychasm practised on Mount Athos and defended by Gregory Palamas (Άγιος Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς). In late 1371 or early 1372 the Byzantines defeated an Ottoman attack on Athos.