Mountainous region in north-eastern Greece occupying most of the Acte peninsula. Area about 389km² (150 sq. mi.); maximum elevation 2033m (6384 ft). Monastic state devoted to orthodoxy. The narrow peninsula it occupies is about 50km long and 12 km wide at its widest point. Capital Karyes, where the representative body elected by the monasteries convenes.
Mount Athos, according to mythology, was created during the Gigantomachia, the struggle between the Olympian gods and the Giants, when Poseidon threw an enormous rock at the giant Athos, who was buried under it. In another version Athos got away and the rock he was about to throw at the god slipped through his fingers. The peninsula was inhabited until the early Hellenistic era after which, for unknown reasons, it was abandoned and remained largely unpopulated for the next 700 years. In the 5th century CE Christian monks found its solitude and
quietness ideal for the establishment of religious retreats.
In terms of population Mount Athos has about 1700 permanent residents and is the only state outside the Vatican with an all-male resident population. Unlike the Vatican though, which is open to visitors, one needs a permit to visit. No more than 100 Greek Orthodox pilgrims and ten foreigners or non-orthodox persons are admitted daily and for as much as four days at a time (they're more liberal about day trippers). Prospective visitors, by the way, can call the Pilgrims' Office in Thessaloniki at +30 2310 861611 (foreigners), 833733 (Greeks) or fax 861811 for a permit but must do so at least two months in advance. Transport is overland to Ouranoupolis at the base of the peninsula and from there by boat to Dafni on the eastern coast from where visitors ascend to Karyés.
Women are banned from the Hágion Óros or Holy Mount altogether. The reason for this is the belief that the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, while on their way to Cyprus to see Lazarus in ca. 57 CE, found refuge from stormy seas in a small harbour on the rocky coast of the Acte peninsula. The tradition has it that Mary was enchanted by the wild beauty of the land and asked God for the mountain as a gift. A voice from heaven said: "Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation." It has been dedicated to her as the "garden of the Virgin" and no other woman is allowed to set foot. This is one of the greatest taboos of Orthodoxy and zealously enforced. To the best of my knowledge, there have been only two incidents; one unverified one involving a woman who disguised herself as a monk legendary times ago and a better documented one in the 1990s involving a shipwrecked woman who was nonetheless made to wait on the shore for rescue. The prohibition, known as ávaton dates back to an edict of emperor Constantine IX Monomachus in 1045.
Administratively the Holy Mount is an autonomous state within Greece, its independence enshrined in Article 105 of the Greek constitution and recognised by the European Union. There is a civilian governor appointed by the government in Athens whose role is merely that of a liaison with the Greek state. The religious community is represented by monks from the twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries, which also run day to day affairs. Spiritually the Holy Mount falls under the direct guidance of the Patriarchate of Constantinople though it enjoys a strong independence from that too. When in need of a flag its only heraldic symbol is the two-headed eagle, black on yellow, of the Patriarchate.
Each monastery is responsible for itself and the surrounding area, which may include cloisters, hermitages and other monastic establishments. The monasteries themselves have their own strict hierarchy in which the isolated monastery of Megísti Lávra on the south-eastern tip of the peninsula ranks first. The Ivirón monastery, which stands at the legendary site of the landing of the Virgin Mary in the north-west ranks second and the remainder follow. Monks and monasteries are not just Greek Orthodox but there are also one each Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian monasteries. Foreign monks automatically acquire Greek citizenship when accepted into a brotherhood. The twenty monasteries elect representatives who reside in the capital and the whole system is governed by a council of four, selected by the five leading monasteries.
Athos's modern monastic and political history, as stated earlier, dates back to the fifth century, by some accounts even the third century, CE but its formal existence as a shrine of Orthodoxy dates back to 885, by order of the Byzantine emperor Basil I. The first of the existing monasteries was founded in 983 and the rest followed over a period of approximately 700 years, founded by monks and emperors and endowed by the latter as well as benefactors. Over time they also acquired large possessions outside the Mount and were also an economic force to be reckoned with. Most of the scarce documents regarding contracts of the Byzantine era are preserved in monasteries. In its heyday the Holy Mount had as many as forty monasteries and 50000 inhabitants.
Until the end of the 12th century the Holy Mount was a major centre of learning and religion. The Frankish invaders of the early 13th century did dent the lustre a bit and after that it went into a relative decline along with the Empire it belonged to. Following the Ottoman conquest of the empire and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it submitted to the Ottomans but retained its autonomy within the framework of religious tolerance that the conquerors usually offered. It suffered as the result of pirate raids and a lack of funding during the Ottoman occupation but still acted as a spiritual beacon for the Greeks who, under the banner of orthodoxy that the monasteries carried, would rise again in the early 19th century to claim their independence.
In modern times, Mount Athos stands as the greatest centre of orthodox monasticism, a sort of Tibet of the Occident and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its monasteries have in their possession priceless treasures in the form of historical and religious documents, historical objects from the Byzantine Empire, religious artefacts and icons that may well be the cream of Orthodox hagiography as well as an enormous number of venerated relics. Very few of these items ever leave the sacred mount. The most highly regarded of all is the icon of the Virgin called Áxion Estí, a reputedly miraculous icon beside which the Archangel Gabriel appeared on the evening of 980-06-11 and sang different words to a known hymn to the Virgin, words which began with "Áxion Estí... (It is worthy) to Bless Thee..." before performing a classic archangelic vanishing act. Since that day the icon, depicting the Virgin with the child Jesus, is regarded as the crown jewel of Byzantine art. Its religious significance is such that when arriving for its only exhibition outside Mount Athos in living memory its entourage was afforded honours usually reserved for a visiting head of state. Nobody knows just how many less famous treasures are kept by the monks of the Hagion Oros.
In a more mundane role, the Mount is a bastion of ultra-conservative thought and the source of numerous documents that would make select radical conservative members of the Southern Baptist Convention stare in disbelief. A recent example was its opposition to the introduction of bar-coded identity cards because the bar code separators are the same as the number 6 and therefore the number "666" would be present on the cards. Some monasteries are more vocal than others and provide alarm for the establishment and entertainment for the irreverent with the amazing gems of dogma gone mad they publish.
All the monasteries, having been built in unsafe times, are also fortresses. Invaders abounded and pirates roamed the seas. Just as was the case in Lindisfarne hunting was good and bounty plentiful for seaborne raiders, few of whom cared for the sanctuary of a Christian monastery except in terms of booty. The terrain is naturally non-flat and outcrops are abundant. Monasteries were built with high encircling walls on such outcrops or sea-side cliffs. Men and mules are and were the prime methods of transportation. All monasteries were designed to defend themselves and many of the features you might find in other fortifications in Europe also exist here, their prime methods of defence being sheer inaccessibility and apertures for pouring boiling oil or water on any intruder who got too close. Occasionally one might get overrun and sacked but not many pirates were well enough equipped or tenacious enough for such an endeavour, though the Crusades and piracy during the less lawful periods of the 16th and 17th centuries managed to do major damage to some.
The scenery is basically plain breathtaking. Athos is a bare-topped mountain with dense forest on its flanks surrounded by sea. It lies in one of the most beautiful parts of one of the most picturesque parts of Greece, which itself is sometimes stunning. Those monks of old sure knew what they were doing declaring it the Garden of the Virgin.
Sources (memory alone was not sufficient):
Greek Ministry of Culture
National Technical University of Athens
Greek Orthodox archdiocese of Australia