In antiquity, the peninsula of Athos was known as Akte. Here too, as on the other two fingers of Chalkidike, small cities grew and prospered – Dion, Thyssos, Cleones, Olophyxos and Acrothooi or Akrothoon. All of these, however, were already deserted by the time the first monks began to arrive.
According to legend, the name “Athos” derives from that of the Thracian giant Athos, who hurled a huge rock at Poseidon during the Gigantomachy – the battle of the gods and the giants. Another version of the legend says that, when the god of the sea vanquished the giant, he buried him under the mountain, which thereafter took his name. Etymologically speaking, the name of the peninsula may derive from the Greek verb, which means “sparkling, luminous” – an adjective which appropriately describes the way the peak of Mt. Athos appears as one approaches it from the sea.
As a result of its geographical particularity, Athos became a place of retreat from the world. It is almost isolated from the main bulk of northern Greece, to which it is linked only by a narrow piece of land to the northwest, and it is surrounded on three sides by the sea which here, in contrast to that of Cassandra and Sithonia, is deep. The coasts have no natural harbors and are often buffeted by strong winds. The peninsula is mountainous, with range upon range of peaks becoming higher all the way to the southern tip, where the summit of Mt. Athos reaches an altitude of 2,030 meters.
These mountains are clad in a dense mantle of trees, whose leaves change color according to the season; the landscape is one of incomparable beauty and is made up of ravines, gullies, dry river beds, glens, springs, torrents and small plains, while the mountainsides, from the rocky coastline to the sub-alpine zones, are covered with forests of pine, chestnut, oak, beech, fir, holly oak, mastic, maple, heather, plane-trees, myrtle, laurel, arbutus. Here grow over 300 types of mushrooms, and rare wild flowers many of which are to be found nowhere else. Its forests echo with the songs of birds and the rustling of animals hiding among the trees and greenery.
Mt. Athos, The Holy Mountain – A Monastic State
Already in the middle of the 9th century, when Chalkidike was a place of refuge for organized groups of monks, a certain number of them had settled on Athos. These first groups of monks lived in caves or huts and fed on the fruit they found in the woods. However, they very soon began to cultivate vines and olives.
The “new era” for the Athonite state began with the arrival here, in the middle of the 10th century, of St. Athanasius, who became known as “the Athonite”, who, with the financial support of the Byzantine court, proceeded to found monasteries. His first great work was the building of the great basilica of the Protaton, which today dominates the center of Karyes. After that followed the monastery of the Great Lavra, that of Vatopedi, of Iviron, and the other monasteries. Olive growing developed, as well as the cultivation of cereals and vines, and the exploitation of the forests. Finally, paved roads were opened to facilitate communication between the various monasteries.
Today, on Mt. Athos, the “Holy Mountain”, also known as the “Garden of the Virgin”, there are twenty monasteries, to which also belong a number of kellia and sketes. All the monasteries are cenobitic. Their number is fixed and the Constitution of the theocratic republic of Athos does not permit the foundation of a 21th monastery. The Holy Community, that is the governing body of the monastic state is based at Karyes, once known as “Messi” (“the middle one”), in the center of the peninsula, while its little seaport where the small craft which come to Athos from Ouranoupolis put in, is at Daphne. The monasteries, large and compact, are actually fortified compounds and stand on both sides of the peninsula. Some seem to be literally hanging from the rock face, while others snuggle in small inlets or hide on densely wooded mountain slopes. Outside their walls are built their ancillary buildings, such as storerooms and stables, while on the shore stands the boat-shed for their boats.
In hierarchical order, the twenty monasteries of the Holy Mountain are the following:
The Monastery Of The Great Lavra
First in the monastic hierarchy, and also the largest monastery, is the impressive monastic complex of the Great Lavra, dominating an area of flat land, with the Aegean shimmering in the background. Its southwestern side is dominated by the proud tower of Nikephorus Phocas. The Great Lavra was the first monastery to be founded by St. Athanasius the Athonite, who arrived in the region in 957., and it was richly endowed by the Byzantine emperor Nikephorus Phocas, and later by his successor, Ioannes Tsimisces, as well as by other Byzantine emperors – in particular Basil II. The Catholicon is the first building to have been built in the entire area of the Holy Mountain. Its walls were painted in 1535., by Theophanes the Cretan, while the double narthex was decorated in 1854. Of the two chapels of the church, that of St. Nicholas was painted by Frango Castellano in 1560., while in the other chapel, that of the Forty Martyrs, lies the tomb of St. Athanasius containing his relics.
The Catholicon is dedicated to the Annunciation and celebrates its feast day on March 25.
Opposite its entrance stands the Refectory, the murals of which have also been executed by Cretan painters. In the library of the monastery are kept 2,500 manuscripts and another 20,000 printed books, while among the sacred objects in its sacristy are many precious relics, such as the crown and the sakkos of Nikephorus Phocas, an ancient quiver, Gospel covers, crosses, bishops’ pectoral crosses, noteworthy portable icons and holy vessels. The monastery is dedicated to its founder, St. Athanasius.
The monastic complex of Vatopedi, which resembles a mighty fortress, towers over a picturesque bay on the north-eastern side of the peninsula of Athos. This monastery is also dedicated to the Annunciation and celebrates its feast day on March 25.
Legend has it that it was founded at the end of the 4th century by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius the Great, but its founding has also been attributed to SS Constantine and Helen, at a much earlier date. However, historical sources date the foundation of the monastery to around 972 AD and attribute it to the saints Athanasius, Antonios and Nikolaos. The Catholicon of the monastery is a 10th-century building with some newer additions. Its frescoes were painted in the 14th century, its mosaics in the 11th and in the 14th centuries, while of particular note is its inlaid marble floor. In the front of the Catholicon is set the philae with Holy Water, behind it the clock dating from 1426 with the “Negro” striking the hour and, opposite the church, the refectory, built in 1785 on the site of an older, 12th century edifice and decorated in 1786. In the northeastern corner of the monastery rises the high 16th century tower of the Virgin Mary, one of the many towers of the fortified enclosure to have survived to our day. Among the valuable works of art kept in the monastery are rare relics, portable icons, gold embroidered vestments, holy vessels, beautifully bound and illustrated Gospels and other sacred objects, as well as more than 2,000 manuscripts and over 25,000 printed volumes.
On a height overlooking the monastery stands the original Athonian Academy built in 1748., and looming mute and in ruins, today.
The Russian skete of St. Andrew or Semi, now empty of monks, was a dependency of the Vatopedi monastery. Its richly decorated kyriakon is considered to be the largest church of the Holy Mountain and one of the grandest of the East. In one wing of the skete is housed today the Athonian Academy.
This monastery stands in a picturesque little bay on the northeastern side of Athos. It is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin and celebrates its feast day on August 15. It was founded in the last quarter of the 10th century, after the Great Lavra and Vatopedi. It owes its name to its founder, Ioannes Thornikios or Ioannes the Iberian, who was a member of the court of David, the ruler of Iberia (in Georgia), and a Byzantine official. The Catholicon of the monastery was built in the first half of the 11th century by the monk George Varasvatze, also an Iberian, and was restored in 1513. Of the old edifice is preserved the inlaid marble floor with its geometric design. The murals of the Catholicon date from the 16th to the 19th century. In the sacristy are kept priceless treasures, while the library contains precious imperial and patriarchal documents, emperor’s chrysobulls (a golden ornament) , over 2,000 manuscripts and over 20, 000 printed books.
Chelandari Monastery (Serbian Hilandar)
This monastery also stands on the northeastern side of the peninsula of Athos. It is built amid the dense vegetation at only half an hour’s distance on foot from the sea. It is dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin and celebrates its feast day on November 21. Its founder was the Serbian ruler Stevan Nemanja, and his son, prince Rastko. Rastko, having disclaimed his rights to the throne, became a monk under the name of Sava. Later, his father also followed him in the monastic life, and took the name of Simeon. Both of them came and settled in the then deserted monastery of Chelandari, which they rebuilt and extended with the help of the Serbian king Stevan II, who was Sava’s brother.
The monastery was endowed by the Serbian kings, in particular by Stevan Dušan (1331.-1355.), as well as by the Byzantine emperors. On the outside, the monastery, as is the case with the other Athonite monasteries, resembles a strong fortress surrounded by walls and towers. Its Catholicon was built in the early 14th century and was decorated in 1319.-1320. In the monastery are kept important relics, such as noteworthy portable icons, many dating from the Byzantine period, the episcopal staff of Radovan Zigović (1757.), a glass belonging to Stevan Dušan embroidered vestments, cloths, a cross adorned with precious stones etc. There are also documents, chrysobulls, codices and many printed books.
This monastery was founded in the second half of the 14th century by the Blessed Dionysios. As you look at the monastery from the sea it seems to have just alighted on the steep and narrow rock rising some 80 meters above sea level, on the southwestern side of the peninsula, while in the background can be made out the greyish bulk of Mt. Athos. At the back of the complex rises its strong tower.
The monastery of Dionysiou lies between the Grigiriou and Aghiou Pavlou monasteries. It is dedicated to the Birth of St. John the Baptist, and celebrates this day on the 24th June. Its Catholicon was built and decorated in 1537.-1547. The frescoes were painted by the Cretan artist Tzortzis, who also worked in the monastery of Docheiariou. The iconostasis of the Catholicon dates from the 18th century and has a gilding of pure gold. In the monastery are kept important icons, noteworthy relics, manuscripts and printed books.
On a verdant slope very near Karyes is built the monastery of Koutloumousiou. It is dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Lord and celebrates its feast day on August 6. It owes its name to its founder, a certain Koutloumous, who appears to have lived in the 11th century. The Catholicon of the monastery, in the middle of the courtyard, was built in 1540. Many and valuable are the treasures kept in the sacristy of the monastery: portable icons, holy vestments, holy vessels, crosses etc. In the library are to be seen manuscripts, many of which are on parchment, and a great number of documents and printed books.
On a low rock washed by the sea, on the northeastern side of Athos, is built the monastery of Pantocrator, near the monastery of Stavronikita. It celebrates its feast day on August 6th, the day of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It was founded in the middle of the 14th century by Alexius, the “Great Stratopedarch” and by Ioannes, the “Great Primikerius”, who lie buried in the small Catholicon. The murals of the Catholicon date from the 14th century and were repainted in 1854., while the refectory was built in 1741. Among the relics of the Panatocrator monastery of particular note is the icon of the Virgin Gerontissa, in which the Virgin is represented in a standing position turning slightly toward the left. Also treasured are a part of the shield of St. Mercurius. vestments, holy vessels, saints’ relics, crosses, bishops’ pectoral crosses and other holy objects, while in the library are kept rare manuscripts and printed books.
On the slopes of a wooded mountain looking out over the Singitic Bay rises the impressive building complex of the Xeropotamou monastery. It lies near the Panteleimonos Monastery – only 45 minutes away on foot. Its foundation is attributed to the empress Pulcheria (450.-457.), sister of Theodosius II. Other sources mention the founders as being the Byzantine emperors Constantine Porphyrogennetus (913.-959.) and Romanus I Lecapenus (920-944). Yet other sources believe its founder to have been the monk Pavlos Xeropotanrenus. The Catholicon of the monastery is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs, and celebrates its feast day on March 9. It was built in 1761.-1763., and its walls were painted in 1783. Many relics are kept in Xeropotamou. among which of note is the largest piece of the True Cross in the world, as well as precious episcopal staffs, gold embroidered vestments, holy vessels, the famous steatite paten known as the paten of Pulcheria, manuscripts and printed books.
On a gentle wooded slope was founded in the 10th century the monastery of Zographou (Bulgarian) by three monks, Moses, Aaron and John. According to legend it owes its name to the icon of St.George which was found mysteriously painted on a plain wooden panel which had been left inside the Catholicon of the monastery by the three monks. Thus, the monastery honors St. George’s day, on April 23.
The Catholicon is relatively new, because it was only built in 1801, and was painted shortly afterwards, in 1817. In the middle of the courtyard there is a cenotaph which commemorates the martyrdom of 26 “anti unitarian” monks who were burnt in 1873., by the “Unitarians”, that is by those who were in favor of the unification of the two Churches, East and West. Among the relics kept in the monastery are two noteworthy icons of St. George, of which the one is considered as “not having been made by human hands” (acheiropoietos), also an icon of the Virgin of the Akathistos Hymn, other portable icons, vestments, holy vessels, many Greek and Slav manuscripts (26 of which on parchment), and over 8,000 printed books, most of which are in Bulgarian.
The monastery of Docheiariou rises by the sea on the southwest coast of the Athonite peninsula. It is the first we come to after the boatyards of the monasteries of Zographou and Kastamonitou. Legend has it that it was founded in the second half of the 10th century by Euthymios, who came as a monk to Athos together with St. Athanasius. Euthymios was the “docheiarios”, that is the superintendent of stores, who looked after the “docheia”, or storage jars, of oil, wine and other foodstuffs in the monastery of the Great Lavra. The monastery was named after his ministration. Its Catholicon is dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and celebrates their feast day on November 8. It was built in the 16th century by the ruler of Moldo-Wallachia Alexander, and his wife Roxandra (1568.). Its murals, displaying characteristic features of the art of the Cretan School were created by the Cretan artist Tzortzis in 1568. Among the relics of the monastery’s are the icon of the Virgin Gorgoepikoos, a fragment of the True Cross, holy vessels and vestments, gold-embroidered cloths, chalices, 545 manuscripts (62 of which on parchment) and over 5,000 printed books.
On a verdant slope of the northeastern side of Athos which looks out over the Aegean, at an altitude of 200 meters, stands the fortress complex of the Karakalou Monastery. The monastery, dominated by a strong defensive tower at its entrance, is dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul and celebrates their feast day on June 29. According to a rather far-fetched legend, the monastery was founded by the Roman emperor Caracalla (211.-217.) and owes its name to him. However, it is more likely that it owes its name to the monk Karakalas – a common name in Byzantine times – who probably founded the monastery in the early 11th century.
The foundations of the Catholicon were laid in 1548., and the building completed in 1563. In the early 18th century restorations and additions were made, and its painted decoration executed. Besides the tower at the entrance of the monastery, of interest also is the small seaside fort that stands near the monastery’s boat-shed, which was built by the ruler of Wallachia Ioannis Petrou and by the abbot Germanos in the first half of the 16th century. The relics of the monastery include a fragment of the True Cross, vestments, holy vessels, portable icons, chrysobulls, 279 manuscripts of which 42 on parchment, 2,500 printed books etc.
This monastery was probably founded in the last quarter of the 10th century by Hosios Philotheos, a contemporary of St. Athanasius the Athonite. The impressive monastery complex rises amid the lush vegetation of a wooded slope on the northeastern side of the peninsula. It is dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin and celebrates its feast day on March 25. Its Catholicon was erected in 1746., on the foundations of an older one that had been destroyed. Its frescoes were finished later, in 1752. In the monastery is kept the icon of the Virgin Glykophilousa, one of the most revered icons of the Holy Mountain, a fragment of the True Cross, relics of saints, crosses, vestments, holy vessels, 250 manuscripts of which 54 on parchment, etc. Also among its treasures is a tetra evangelical bearing the representation of St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the oldest of its kind on Athos.
Simonos Petra Monastery
The monastery of Simonos Petra is one of the most impressive Athonite monasteries. It is built right on the edge of a sheer rock which rises 200 meters above the sea, on the southwestern side of the peninsula. It appears to be hanging on the rim of the precipice, while immediately below the rocks are constantly battered by the waters of the Singitic Bay. The balconies of the peculiar seven storied edifice look out over the sea, while behind it rises the steep grey cone of the Athos mountain. The monastery, which is dedicated to the Nativity of Christ and celebrates its feast day on December 25th, was founded in the middle of the 13th century by Hosios Simon.
Initially its founder named it the “New Bethlehem”, but it was later given his name, with the addition of the word “petra”, which refers to the site – the “rock” on which the monastery is built. It was destroyed many times, the greatest damage being that which it suffered as a result of a fire which broke out in 1891. After this disaster, the monastery was restored thanks to funds raised in Russia. It was then that the relatively small Catholicon was built. Among its relics are a fragment of the True Cross, the relics of saints, richly-embroidered vestments, holy vessels, crosses, elaborately-wrought Gospel covers, portable icons etc.
Monastery Of St. Paul
In a ravine at the foot of the grey peak of Athos, at an altitude of 140 meters and at a distance of 20 minutes from the sea, by which lies its boatyard, rises the whitish bulk of the monastery of St. Paul. It celebrates its feast day on February 2. the day of the Presentation of Christ to the Temple. This monastery was probably founded in the second half of the 10th century by Paul of Xeropotamos, a contemporary of St. Athanasius the Athonite. Its Catholicon began to be built in 1839., and was completed in 1844. Its walls are made of marble. The treasures of the monastery include a fragment of the True Cross, saints’ relics, pectoral crosses, holy vessels and vestments, a large wooden cross and a diptych – two objects which are counted among the most important relics on the Holy Mountain – portable icons, 494 manuscripts and 12,500 printed books.
On the flat surface on a rock of the northeastern shores of Athos is built the monastery of Stavronikita, the smallest monastery on the Holy Mountain. The view from its “archontariki” – the room in which guests are received – is superb. A strong crenelated tower dominates the entrance. The monastery, which is dedicated to St. Nicholas, celebrates its feast day on December 6th. According to one legend, its founders were the monks Stavros and Nikitas who lived in two kellia on the site where the monastery was later built. Another legend has it that its founder was Nikephorus Stavronikitas, an official of the Byzantine emperor Ioannes Tzimiskes. The Catholicon of the monastery is also the smallest of all those on Mt. Athos. It was built in the middle of the 16th century on the site of an older church dedicated to the Holy Virgin and was restored in 1627.-28. The aqueduct of the monastery was built in 1680. Among its relics, particularly prized is the icon of St. Nicholas Streidas (it was found in the sea with an oyster – streidi in Greek – attached to the saint’s forehead, whence its name), and also the 16th-century Dodekaorton on the iconostasis, the relics of saints, embroidered vestments, holy vessels, 171 manuscripts and many printed books.
By a beach on the southwestern side of the Holy Mountain rises the building complex of the monastery of Xenophontos, near the Dochciariou monastery – at a walking distance of about 20-30 minutes. It is dedicated to St. George and celebrates its feast day on April 23. It was founded in the 10th century by Hosios Xenophon, after whom the monastery is named. In 1817., a large part was burnt down, but it was rebuilt with money offered by the metropolitan bishop Philotheos, who also covered the expenses of the construction of the Catholicon (1809.-1919.), – the largest Greek Catholicon of the Holy Mountain, adorned with a beautiful marble iconostasis. A few meters from the gate of the monastery is the old Catholicon, with murals executed by the Cretan painter Antonios in 1544., while the decoration of the lite dates from 1564., and that of the exonarthex from 1637. Among the treasures of the monastery are the two marvelous mosaic icons of St. George and St. Demetrius in the newer Catholicon, a small icon on steatite representing the Transfiguration, a fragment of the True Cross, reliquaries containing the relics of saints, richly-embroidered vestments, holy vessels, about 600 precious manuscripts of which eight are on parchment and over 7,000 printed books.
The monastery of Grigoriou appears to emerge suddenly from the rocks by the sea on the southwestern side of the peninsula. It is dedicated to St. Nicholas and celebrates its feast day on December 6. It was built in the 14th century and its most likely founder was Gregorios of Sinai. Its Catholicon began to be built by the sacristan of the monastery, Ioakeim Akarnanas, who had been a monk there since 1740. He also began the restoration of the main building of the monastery, which had been severely damaged by fire in 1761., with money provided by the rulers of Moldo-Wallachia, the metropolitan bishops of Hungary and Wallachia Gregory and many Phanariots from Constantinople. Its murals were painted in 1779., by two painters from Kastoria, Gabriel and Gregorios. The relics of the monastery include portable icons – the most prized among them being one representing St. Nicholas and two representing the Virgin – the icons of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa and of the Virgin Pantanassa, a fragment of the True Cross, saints’ relics, two gold-embroidered ephitaphios, embroidered vestments, holy vessels, crosses, richly decorated Gospel covers and other holy objects. In the library of the monastery are kept 297 manuscripts, of which 11 are on parchment, among which is the only existing manuscript copy of the Shepherd of Hernias, a hortatory and prophetic work written in the 1st or 2nd century AD, about 6,000 printed books, sigils (patriarchal decrees), firmans, official wax-sealed documents, etc.
By the sea, in a bay which lies nears the boat-shed of the Chelandari monastery, rises the monastery of Esphigmenou. It celebrates the Ascension of the Lord, forty days after Easter. It was probably founded at the end of the 10th or beginning of the 11th century.
Its Catholicon was built in 1806.-1810., on the site of an older church and the main church was decorated in 1811., while the sanctuary was painted in 1818., by artists from Galatista. The monastery preserves many relics, such as pectoral crosses, holy vestments, sacred vessels, the cross of Pulcheria, sister of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (5th century), reliquaries containing the relics of saints, a beautiful miniature Byzantine mosaic representing Christ holding the New Testament in his left hand, portable icons, chrysobulls, lead bulls, sigils, etc. In the library are kept 372 manuscripts (75 on parchment) and about 2,000 printed books.
St. Panteleimon Monastery (Russian)
Built beside the sea, in a small bay which is formed before we reach the harbor of Daphne, this monastery, viewed from a distance, looks like a small city. On approaching from the seaward side you can see the many-storied buildings and the green onion shaped domes topped with gold crosses gleaming in the sunlight. The monastery was built on the present site at the end of the 18th century, that is after 1765. It had originally been situated at Palaiomonastiro, at one time known as the monastery of Thessaloniki, which had been founded in the 11th century following the arrival of Russian monks.
These monks had settled at first in the monastery of Xylourgos, but, as their numbers increased, had moved to the monastery of Thessaloniki. After the end of the 18th century the monastery closed down. It was reopened by Greek monks and then built on its present site.
After 1840., Russian monks once again began to arrive, and soon outnumbered the Greeks. Thus, in 1875., they elected a Russian abbot. The Catholicon of the monastery began to be built in 1812., and was completed in 1821. On its roof rise eight onion shaped domes, while the interior is decorated with 19th-century murals in Russian style, and an iconostasis of Russian origin. By an edict issued in 1875., it was decreed that the liturgy be sung in both Greek and Russian.
In the belfry of the monastery hang many bells of different sizes, while nearby stands the phiale of the monastery, which is unlike those of the other monasteries. Among the treasures of the monastery are portable icons, vestments – mainly of Russian manufacture – crosses, pectoral crosses, fragments of the True Cross, saint’s relics, as well as a chalice, and a precious illuminated Gospel – a gift, in 1845., of the archduke Constantine Nikolayevic. The library preserves 1320 Greek manuscripts, 600 Slav manuscripts, some parchment leaves and over 20,000 printed books in Greek and Russian.
In a ravine in the woods, half hidden by the dense vegetation, lies the last Athonite monastery on our tour, the monastery of Kastamonitou, mentioned in texts of the 11th century. In the 14th century it was destroyed, as were other monasteries of the Holy Mountain, by Catalans.
Its Catholicon is a later building which was erected in 1860.-1871., on the ruins of an older church. It has a marble floor and a marble iconostasis and celebrates its feast day on the day of St. Stephen, December 27. Among its relics are an icon of St. Stephen dating from the 16th century, a fragment of the True Cross, saint’s relics in reliquaries, crosses, holy vestments and vessels, a Byzantine ephitaphios, a Gospel in a silver and gold revetment, chrysobulls, lead bulls etc. While the library preserves 110 manuscripts, of which 14 on parchment, and many rare printed books.
With the monastery of Kastamonitou ends our brief tour of the monastic state of Mt. Athos.