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Map of Mount Athos

Mount Athos ( ) is a mountain on the peninsula of the same name in Macedoniamarker, of northern Greecemarker, called in Greek Agion Oros (Άγιον Όρος, transliterated often as Hagion Oros), or in English, "Holy Mountain". In Classical times, the peninsula was called Aktí (Ακτή) (sometimes Acte or Akte). Politically it is known in Greecemarker as the Self-governed Monastic State of the Holy Mountain. (The term "Autonomous" is wrong. Laws applied are the laws of Greece). This World Heritage Site is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and forms a self-governed monastic state within the sovereignty of the Hellenic Republicmarker. Spiritually, Mount Athos comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinoplemarker.

The peninsula, the easternmost "leg" of the larger Halkidikimarker peninsula, protrudes into the Aegean Seamarker for some at a width between 7 to 12 km and covers an area of , with the actual Mount Athos and its steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to . The seas around the end of the peninsula can be dangerous.

Though land-linked, it is accessible only by boat. The number of visitors is restricted and all are required to get a special entrance permit before entering Mount Athos. Only males are allowed entrance into Mount Athos, which is called "Garden of the Virgin" by monks, and Orthodox Christians take precedence in the permit issuance procedure. Only males over the age of 18 who are members of an Eastern Orthodox Church are allowed to live on Athos (?). A quite big number of Albanians (Muslims) are working in the Holy Mountain. There is a small number of (not armed) religious guards (Σερδάρηδες), who are not monks, for keeping the order. Police and Coast Guard presence is very discreet. Any other people not monks are required to live in the peninsula's capital, Karyes (?) Most workers are living at the place where they work. Small low class hotels exist at Karyes (administrative center) and Dafni (main port). The 2001 Greek national census counted a population of 2,262 inhabitants.

List of holy institutions

The twenty monasteries

The sovereign monasteries, in the order of their place in the Athonite hierarchy:
  1. Megistis Lavras monasterymarker (Μεγίστη Λαύρα, Megísti Lávra)
  2. Vatopediou monasterymarker (Βατοπέδι or Βατοπαίδι)
  3. Iviron monasterymarker (Ιβήρων; ივერთა მონასტერი, iverta monasteri) - built by Georgians
  4. Helandariou monasterymarker (Χιλανδαρίου, Chilandariou; Хиландар) - Serbian
  5. Dionysiou monasterymarker (Διονυσίου)
  6. Koutloumousiou monastery (Κουτλουμούσι)
  7. Pantokratoros monasterymarker (Παντοκράτορος, Pantokratoros)
  8. Xiropotamou monasterymarker (Ξηροποτάμου)
  9. Zografou monasterymarker (Ζωγράφου; Зограф) - Bulgarian
  10. Dochiariou monasterymarker (Δοχειαρίου)
  11. Karakalou monastery (Καρακάλλου)
  12. Filotheou monasterymarker (Φιλοθέου)
  13. Simonos Petras monastery (Σίμωνος Πέτρα or Σιμωνόπετρα)
  14. Agiou Pavlou monasterymarker (Αγίου Παύλου, Agiou Pavlou)
  15. Stavronikita monasterymarker (Σταυρονικήτα)
  16. Xenophontos monasterymarker (Ξενοφώντος)
  17. Osiou Grigoriou monastery (Οσίου Γρηγορίου)
  18. Esphigmenou monasterymarker (Εσφιγμένου)
  19. Agiou Panteleimonos monasterymarker (Αγίου Παντελεήμονος, Agiou Panteleimonos; Пантелеймонов; or Ρωσικό, Rossikon) - Russian
  20. Konstamonitou monasterymarker (Κωνσταμονίτου)

The twelve sketes

A skete is a community of Christian hermits following a monastic rule, allowing them to worship in comparative solitude, while also affording them a level of mutual practical support and security. A skete usually has a common area of worship (a church or a chapel), with individual hermitages, or small houses for a small number of occupants. There are 12 official sketes on Mount Athos.

Skiti / Σκήτη Type Monastery Alternarive names / notes
Agias AnnasΑγίας Άννας idiorrhythmic Megistis Lavras (=Saint Anne)Agiánna
Agias Triados or KafsokalyvíonΑγίας Τριάδος ή Καυσοκαλυβίων idiorrhythmic Megistis Lavras (=Holy Trinity)Kafsokalývia (="burned huts")
Timiou ProdromoumarkerΤιμίου Προδρόμου coenobitic Megistis Lavras (=Holy For-runner, i.e. St John the Baptist)Prodromu, Sfântul Ioan Botezătorul - Romanian
Agiou AndreaΑγίου Ανδρέα coenobitic Vatopediou (=Saint Andrew)also known as Saray (Σαράι)
Agiou DimitriouΑγίου Δημητρίου idiorrhythmic Vatopediou (=Saint Demetre)Vatopediní
Timiou Prodromou IvironΤιμίου Προδρόμου Ιβήρων idiorrhythmic Iviron (=Holy For-runner, i.e. St John the Baptist)Ivirítiki
Agiou PanteleimonosΑγίου Παντελεήμονος idiorrhythmic Koutloumousiou (=Saint Panteleimon/Pantaleon)Koutloumousianí
Profiti IliaΠροφήτη Ηλία coenobitic Pantokratoros (=Prophet Elijah)
Theotokou or Nea SkitiΘεοτόκου ή Νέα Σκήτη idiorrhythmic Agiou Pavlou (=of God-Bearer or New Skete)
Agiou Dimitriou tou Lakkou or LakkoskitimarkerΑγίου Δημητρίου του Λάκκου ή Λακκοσκήτη idiorrhythmic Agiou Pavlou (=Saint Demetre of the Ravine or Ravine-Skete)Lacu, Sfântul Dumitru - Romanian
Evangelismou tis TheotokouΕυαγγελισμού της Θεοτόκου idiorrhythmic Xenophontos (=Annunciation of Theotokos)Xenofontiní
VogoroditsaΒογορόδιτσα idiorrhythmic Agiou Panteleimonos (=Theotokos, God-Bearer)Богородица - Bulgarian

Main settlements



The peninsula as seen from the summit of Mount Athos ( ), looking north-west
In the context of Greek mythology Athos was the name of one of the Gigantes that challenged the Greek gods during the Gigantomachia. Athos threw a massive rock against Poseidon which fell in the Aegean seamarker and became the Athonite Peninsula. According to another version of the story, Poseidon used the mountain to bury the defeated giant.

Herodotus tells us that Pelasgians from the island of Lemnosmarker populated the peninsula, then called Acte or Akte. (Herodotus, VII:22) Strabo reports of five cities on the peninsula: Dion (Dium), Cleonae (Kleonai), Thyssos (Thyssus), Olophyxos (Olophyxis), Acrothoï (Akrothoön), of which the last is near the crest. (Strabo, Geography, VII:33:1) Eretriamarker also established colonies on Acte. Two other cities were established in the Classical period: Acanthusmarker (Akanthos) and Sane. Some of these cities minted their own coins.

The peninsula was on the invasion route of Xerxes I, who spent three years excavating a channel across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet in 483 BC. After the death of Alexander the Great, the architect Dinocrates (Deinokrates), proposed to carve the entire mountain into a statue of Alexander.

The history of the peninsula during latter ages is shrouded by the lack of historical accounts. Archaeologists have not been able to determine the exact location of the cities reported by Strabo. It is believed that they must have been deserted when Athos' new inhabitants, the monks, started arriving at some time before the 7th century AD.

Early Christianity

According to the athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing accompanied by St John the Evangelist from Joppamarker to Cyprusmarker 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 " " (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 4th century, and possibly since the 3rd. 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 (383-395), the pagan temples were destroyed. The lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria states that in the 5th century there was still a temple and a statue of "Zeus Athonite". After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th 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

A pirate watching tower of the Byzantine era, protecting "arsanas" (αρσανάς, =dock) of Xiropotamou Monastery.

The chroniclers Theophanes the Confessor (end of 8th century) and Georgios Kedrenos (11th century) wrote that the 726 eruption of the Thera volcanomarker was visible from Mount Athos, proving that it was inhabited at the time. The historian Genesios recorded that monks from Athos participated at the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. 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 Cretemarker (and later of Thessalonikimarker) Basil the Confessor built a small monastery at the place of the modern harbour ("arsanas") 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 " ancient seat of the council of geron (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 as the monastery of Kolovos is growing more and more and they lose their peace. In 908, the existence of a Protos ("First monk") is documented, who is the "head" of the monastic community. In 943, the borders of the monastic state was precisely mapped while we know that Karyes is already the capital town and seat of the administration and has the name "Megali Mesi Lavra" (Big Central Assembly). In 956, a decree offered land of about 1/4 of an acre (2 500 m²) to the Xiropotamou monastery, which means that this monastery was already quite big.

In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite (Άγιος Αθανάσιος ο Αθωνίτης) arrived on Mount Athos. In 962, he builds 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 Lavramarker was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries existing today. It enjoyed the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries and its wealth and possessions grew considerably. 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 came. 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.

Ottoman era

Xenophontos Monastery

The Byzantine Empire was conquered in the 15th century and the newly established Islamic Ottoman Empire took its place. The Athonite monks tried to maintain good relations with the Ottoman Sultans and therefore when Murad II conquered Thessalonikimarker in 1430 they immediately pledged allegiance to him. In return, Murad recognized the monasteries' properties, something which Mehmed II formally ratified after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In this way the Athonite independence was somewhat guaranteed.

The 15th and 16th centuries were particularly peaceful for the Athonite community. This led to relative prosperity for the monasteries. An example of this is the foundation of Stavronikita monasterymarker which completed the current number of Athonite monasteries. Following the conquest of the Serbian Despotate by the Ottomans many Serbian monks came to Athos. The extensive presence of Serbian monks is depicted in the numerous elections of Serbian monks to the office of the Protos during the era.

Sultan Selim I was a substantial benefactor of the Xiropotamou monasterymarker. In 1517, he issued a fatwa and a Hatt-i Sharif ("noble edict") that "the place, where the Holy Gospel is preached, whenever it is burned or even damaged, shall be erected again." He also endowed privileges to the Abbey and financed the construction of the dining area and underground of the Abbey as well as the renovation of the wall paintings in the central church that were completed between the years 1533-1541.

Despite the fact that most time the monasteries were left on their own, the Ottomans heavily taxed them and sometimes they seized important land parcels from them. This eventually culminated in an economic crisis in Athos during the 17th century. This led to the adoption of the so called "idiorrhythmic" lifestyle (a semi-eremitic variant of Christian monasticism) by a few monasteries at first and later, during the first half of the 18th century, by all. This new way of monastic organization was an emergency measure taken by the monastic communities to counter their harsh economic environment. Contrary to the cenobitic system, monks in idiorrhythmic communities have private property, work for themselves, they are solely responsible for acquiring food and other necessities and they dine separately in their cells, only meeting with other monks at church. At the same time, the monasteries' abbots were replaced by committees and at Karyes the Protos was replaced by a four member committee.

Russianmarker tsars, and princes from Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbiamarker (until the end of the 15th century) helped the monasteries survive with large donations. The population of monks and their wealth declined over the next centuries, but were revitalized during the 19th century, particularly by the patronage of the Russian government. As a result, the monastic population grew steadily throughout the century, reaching a high point of over 7000 monks in 1902. In 1912, during the First Balkan War, the Ottomans were forced out by the Greek Navy. Greece claimed the peninsula as part of the peace treaty of London signed in May 30, 1913. As a result of the shortcomings of the Treaty of London, the Second Balkan War broke out between the combatants in June 1913. A final peace was agreed at the Treaty of Bucharest on 10 August 1913.
In June 1913 a small Russian fleet, consisting of the gunboat Donets and the transport ships Tsar and Kherson, delivered the archbishop of Vologdamarker, and a number of troops to Mount Athos to intervene in the theological controversy over imiaslavie (a Russian Orthodox movement).The archbishop held talks with the imiaslavtsy and tried to make them change their beliefs voluntarily, but was unsuccessful. On July 31 the troops stormed the St. Panteleimon Monastery. Although the monks were not armed and did not actively resist, the troops showed very heavy-handed tactics. After the storming of St. Panteleimon Monastery the monks from the Andreevsky Skete (Skiti Agiou Andrea) surrendered voluntarily. The military transport Kherson was converted into a prison ship and several imiaslavtsy monks were sent to Russia.

After a brief diplomatic conflict between Greece and Russia over sovereignty, the peninsula formally came under Greek sovereignty after World War I.

Modern times

The self-governed region of the Holy Mountain, according to the Decree passed by the Holy Community on the 3rd October 1913 and according to the international treaties of London (1913), Bucharest (1913), Neuilly (1919), Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923), is considered part of the Greek state. The Decree, "made in the presence of the Holy Icon of Axion Estin", stated that the Holy Community recognised the Kings of Greece as the lawful sovereigns and "successors on the Mountain" of the "Emperors who built" the monasteries and declared its territory as belonging to the then Kingdom of Greece. Later a "Special Double Assembly" of the Holy Community in Karyes passed the "Constitutional Charter" of the Holy Mountain, which was ratified by the Greek Parliament. This regime originates from the "self-ruled monastic state" as stated on a chrysobull parchment signed and sealed by the Byzantine Emperor Ioannis Tzimisces in 972. This important document is preserved in the House of the Holy Administration in Karyes. The self-rule of the Holy Mountain was later reaffirmed by the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1095. According to the constitution of Greece, Mount Athos (the "Monastic State of Hagion Oros") is, "following ancient privilege", politically self-governed and consists of 20 main monasteries which constitute the Holy Community, and the capital town and administrative centre, Karyes, also home to a governor as the representative of the Greek state. The governor is an executive appointee. The status of the Holy Mountain and the jurisdiction of the Hagiorite institutions were expressly described and ratified upon admission of Greece to the European Union (then the European Community).

On September 12, 2004, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Peter VII, was killed, together with 16 others, in a helicopter crash in the Aegean Seamarker off the peninsula. The Patriarch was heading to Mount Athos. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

The monasteries of Mount Athos have a history of opposing ecumenism, or movements towards reconciliation between the Orthodox Church of Constantinoplemarker and the Roman Catholic Church. The Esphigmenoumarker monastery is particularly outspoken in this respect, having raised black flags to protest against the meeting of Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI in 1972 . Esphigmenou was subsequently expelled from the representative bodies of the Athonite Community. The conflict escalated in 2002 with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople declaring the monks of Esphigmenou an illegal brotherhood and ordering their eviction; the monks refuse to be evicted, and oppose their replacement with a new brotherhood.

After reaching a low point of just 1145 mainly elderly monks in 1971, the monasteries have been undergoing a steady and sustained renewal. By the year 2000, the monastic population had reached 1610, with all 20 monasteries and their associated sketes receiving an infusion of mainly young well-educated monks. Many younger monks possess university education and advanced skills that allow them to work on the cataloguing and restoration of the Mountain's vast repository of manuscripts, vestments, icons, liturgical objects and other works of art, most of which remain unknown to the public because of their sheer volume. Projected to take several decades to complete, this restorative and archival work is well under way, funded by UNESCOmarker and the EU, and aided by many academic institutions.

Administration and organization

The Holy Mountain is governed by the "Holy Community" (Ιερά Κοινότητα - Iera Kinotita) which consists of the representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries, having as executive committee the four-membered "Holy Administration" (Ιερά Επιστασία - Iera Epistasia), with the Protos (Πρώτος) being its head. Civil authorities are represented by the Civil Governor, appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose main duty is to supervise the function of the institutions and the public order. Spiritually, Mount Athos comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

In each of the 20 monasteries - which today all follow again the coenobitic system - the administration is in the hands of the Abbot (Ηγούμενος - Hēgoumenos) who is elected by the brotherhood for life. He is the lord and spiritual father of the monastery. The Convention of the brotherhood (Γεροντία) is the legislative body. All the other establishments (sketes, cells, huts, retreats, hermitages) are dependencies of some of the 20 monasteries and are assigned to the monks by a document called "homologon" (ομόλογον).

All persons leading a monastic life thereon acquire Greek citizenship without further formalities, upon admission as novices or monks. Visits to the peninsula are possible for laymen, but they need a special permission (διαμονητήριον, a kind of "visa").

Of the 20 monasteries located on the Holy Mountain, the brethren of 17 are predominantly ethnically Greek. Of the other 3, brethren are drawn from monks of primarily other origins, who become Greek subjects. These are the Helandariou Monasterymarker (Serbian), the Zografou Monasterymarker (Bulgarian) and the Agiou Panteleimonos Monasterymarker (Russian).

Among the sketes, most are predominately ethnically Greek. However, two are Romanian, the coenobitic "Skētē Timiou Prodromoumarker" (which belongs to the Megistis Lavras Monasterymarker and the idiorrythmic "Skētē Agiou Dēmētriou tou Lakkou", also called "Lakkoskētēmarker" (which belongs to the Agiou Pavlou Monasterymarker). Another one is Bulgarian, "Skētē Bogoroditsa" (which belongs to the Agiou Panteleimonos Monasterymarker).

Visiting procedure

Aerial photo from North
Mount Athos
Entry to the mountain is usually by ferry boat either from the port of Ouranoupoli (for west coast monasteries) or from Ierrisos for those on the east coast. Before embarking on the boat all visitors must have been issued a diamonētērion, a form of Byzantine visa that is written in Greek, dated using the Julian calendar, and signed by four of the secretaries of leading monasteries. There are generally two kinds of diamonētērion: the general diamonētērion that enables the visitor to stay overnight at any one of the monasteries but only to stay in the mountain for three days, and the special diamonētērion which allows a visitor to visit only one monastery or skete but to stay as many days as he has agreed with the monks. The general diamonētērion is available upon application to the Pilgrims' Bureau in Thessaloniki. Once this has been granted it will be issued at the port of departure, on the day of departure. Once granted, the pilgrim can contact the monastery where they would like to stay in order to reserve a bed (one night only per monastery). The ferries require reservations, both ways.

Most visitors arrive at the small port of Dafnimarker from where they can take the only paved road in the mountain to the capital Karyes or continue via another smaller boat to other monasteries down the coast. There is a public bus between Dafni and Karyes. Expensive taxis operated by monks are available for hire at Dafni and Karyes. They are all-wheel drive vehicles since most roads in the mountain are unpaved. Visitors to monasteries on the mountain's western side prefer to stay on the ferry and disembark at the monastery they wish to visit.

Prohibition of entry for women

Monks feel that the presence of women alters the social dynamics of the community and therefore slows their path towards spiritual enlightenment, though they deny that the prohibition is in order to reduce sexual temptation.

Athos did shelter refugees including women and girls twice in its history: during the aftermath of the failed 1770 Orlov Revolt, and during the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

In the 14th century, Tsar Stefan Uroš IV Dušan brought his wife, Helena of Bulgaria, to Mount Athos to protect her from the plague.

There was an incident in the 1930s regarding Aliki Diplarakou, the first Greek beauty pageant contestant to win the Miss Europe title, who shocked the world when she dressed up as a man and snuck into Mount Athos. Her escapade was discussed in the July 13, 1953, Time magazine article entitled "The Climax of Sin".

A 2003 resolution of the European Parliamentmarker requested lifting the ban for violating "the universally recognised principle of gender equality".

On May 26, 2008, five Moldovans illegally entered Greece by way of Turkey, ending up on Athos; four of the migrants were women. The monks forgave them for trespassing and informed them that the area was forbidden to females.

Status in the European Union

For the purposes of the European Union treaty, Mount Athos is a part of a member state, only outside EU VAT territory. Because of its strict entry requirements, it is considered to be exempt from the Schengen Agreement. A number of female European M.P.s have called for Mount Athos to be opened to women, in response the monks have criticised the Schengen Agreement as being Satanic, and have complained that some of the identification numbers used in the passport database include the combination 666 - the Number of the Beast in the Book of Revelation.

Culture and life in the Hagion Oros

Art treasures

The Athonian monasteries possess huge deposits of invaluable medieval art treasures, including icons, liturgical vestments and objects (crosses, chalice), codices and other Christian texts, imperial chrysobulls, holy relics etc. Until recently no organized study and archiving had been carried out, but an EU-funded effort to catalogue, protect and restore them is under way since the late 1980s. Their sheer number is such, it is estimated that several decades will pass before the work is completed.


Greek is commonly used in all the Greek monasteries, but in some monasteries there are other languages in use: in Agiou Panteleimonosmarker, Russian (35 monks in 2000); in Helandariou Monasterymarker, Serbian (46); in Zographou Monasterymarker and Skiti Vogoroditsa, Bulgarian (15); and in the sketes of Timiou Prodromoumarker and Lakkoskitimarker, Romanian (64). Today, many of the Greek monks also speak foreign languages. Since there are monks from many nations in Athos, they naturally also speak their own native languages.

Time measurement

The Julian Calendar, nowadays having a difference of 13 days from the Gregorian calendar, is the calendar still used on Mount Athos. In 1923, as a means to eliminate the divergence existing between the religious and civil dates, after a synod in Constantinoplemarker, part of the Eastern Orthodox Churches dropped 13 days and adopted the Revised Julian Calendar, which will be in sync with the Gregorian one until 2800. However, the Easter date, based on the lunar cycle, is still calculated following the original Julian calendar, making the Eastern Orthodox world celebrate Easter on the same day. It is to be noticed that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinoplemarker, the spiritual head of the monastic state, follows the revised calendar.

Also, hours are not in sync with the civil time. The liturgical day begins at sunset in accordance with the Old Testament practice (not at midnight as in civil time measurement), so the difference between Athonite time and ordinary time is not a fixed offset. Some of the clocks in the monasteries are in pairs, one of them displaying the civil time for the pilgrims who are not familiar with the Byzantine time followed on the mountain. Since sunset time varies on season, clocks showing the Byzantine time have to be continuously readjusted. Current practice is readjusting once a week, usually on Saturdays.

Monastic Life: Monasteries, Sketae and Cells

As described above, today the 20 Monasteries of Mount Athos are the dominant holy institutions for both spiritual and administrative purposes, consolidated by the Constitutional Chart of the Holy Mountain. Although, since the beginning of Mount Athos' history, monks were living in logings of different size and construction quality. All these monastic loging types exist until today, named as seats (καθίσματα), cells (κελλιά), huts (καλύβες), retreats (ησυχαστήρια), hermitages (ερημιτήρια), caves (σπήλαια), sketae (σκήτες) and all of them are known under the general term "dependencies" (εξαρτήματα) of the Holy Monasteries. The term "cells" can be used under a more generalised meaning, comprising all the above but sketae, and following this term we can talk about 3 different kind of institutions in Mount Athos: Monasteries, Sketae and Cells.


Some info is already given above, in the section "Administration and organization". A pilgrim/visitor of a Monastery, who is accommodated in the Guest-house (αρχονταρίκι) can have a taste of the monastic life in it by following its daily schedule: praying (services in church or in private), common dining, working (according to the duties of each monk) and rest. During religious celebrations usually long vigils are held and the entire daily program is radically reshaped. The gate of the Monastery closes by sunset and opens again by sunrise.


A cell is a house with a small church, where 1-3 monks live under the spiritual and administrative supervision of a Monastery. Monastic life in the cells is totally different from that in a Monastery. Some of the cells resemble tidy farmhouses, others are poor huts, others have the gentility of Byzantine tradition or of Russian architecture of the past century. Usually, each cell possesses a piece of land for agricultural or other use. Each cell has to organize some activities for income. Besides the traditional occupations (agriculture, fishing, woodcarving, spirit distillation, iconography, tailoring, book binding etc.) new occupations have been taken up, for example taxi driving, couriers, car repairing and computer services. The monk(s) living in a cell, having to take care of all daily chores, make up their own schedules. For the pilgrim/visitor it is worth experiencing this side of monastic life as well, but most of the cells have very limited or no capacity for hospitality.


(or sketae in the Latinized form of the word). Small communities of neighbouring cells were developed since the beginning of monastic life on Mount Athos and some of them were using the word "skete" (σκήτη) meaning "monastic settlement" or "lavra" (λαύρα) meaning "monastic congregation". The word "skete" is of Arabic origin and in its original form is a placename of a location in the Egyptian desert. It is in the Egyptian desert where monasticism made its first steps. The unknown author of the "History of the Egyptian Monks" (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto), perhaps Flavius Rufinus(?) visited the area at the end of the fourth century. He tells us: "Then we came to Nitria, the best-known of all monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles from Alexandria; it takes its name from a nearby town where Nitre is collected... In this place there are about fifty dwellings, or not many less, set near together and under one father. In some of them, there are many living together, in others a few and in some there are brothers who live alone. Though they are divided by their dwellings they remain bound together and inseparable in faith and love". This is exactly the main idea of a "skete", the communal way, just between the hermetic way and the coenobitic way of monasticism, with all 3 coexisting until today.

In 1680 the ex-patriarch Dionysios III Vardalis built in Saint Anne skete of the Holy Mountain a big central church to accommodate all the monks of the area and in 1689 an internal regulatory text was constituted by the monks and ratified first by the Monastery of Megisti Lavra and finally by the patriarch Dionysios V Haritonidis; and later again by patriarch Kyrilos V, who contributed in its evolution. Since then, more sketes followed on the same way, and gradually the term "skete" (within the Holy Mountain) came to be used only for the monastic settlements having an internal rule ratified by the Patriarchate.
An abandoned skete in Holy Mount
Later on, some cells came to attract many monks, expanded their buildings and started functioning in the coenobitic way of the monasteries. Since the number of the Monasteries in Mount Athos was restricted to 20, a new term was introduced: the "coenobitic skete" (κοινόβιος σκήτη), while a skete of the traditional form was named "idiorrythmic skete" (ιδιόρρυθμος σκήτη) in order to underline the difference.

The first ones, both in architecture and life-style, follow the typical model of a monastery, that of a community living together, sharing and distributing work, and praying together daily. In contrast, the idiorrhythmic community (intermediary between the ceonobitic community and the seclusion of a hermit) resembles a hamlet, and the daily life there is much like that of a cell. But there are also some duties for the community. Near the centre of the settlement is the central church called Kyriakon (Κυριακόν, that could be translated "for Sunday"), where the whole brotherhood meets for the Divine Liturgy service, on Sundays and on greater feasts. Usually there are also an administration house, a refectory for common celebrations, a cemetery, a library, storehouses and a guesthouse.

Philately and Postal History

Russian post office and stamps

A Russian post office was established at Karyai in the last years of the 19th Century. This post office was selling Russian Levant stamps and, from 1910, special ROPIT stamps overprinted with "Mont-Athos" and values in Ottoman currency.

Contemplated WW1 allied postage stamp issue

In the winter of 1915-1916 the Allied forces were considering occupation of the Holy Mountain. In anticipation of this they prepared a set of stamps which were intended for issue on 25 January 1916 for the use of the Governing body of the Monastic Community.

These stamps were produced in sheets of 12, (3 rows of 4), on board the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Six values were produced, ranging up to one shilling, and all were printed in black but on various different paper types.

The design of these stamps consisted of a square border with the name MOUNT ATHOS at the bottom in English, the left in Russian and on the right in Greek. At the top was inscribed THEOCRACY. The denomination appeared at each corner with the English in the lower corners, Greek in the top left and Russian in the top right. The inner section showed a double headed Byzantine eagle with the effigy of the Madonna and Child in an oval on its breast.

These stamps have no official status but fall into the category of prepared for use but not issued.

Greek 1916 overprint

For political reasons in 1916 the Greek Government overprinted Greek "Campaign 1912" and postage due (1913 issue) stamps, as well as postal stationary, with the inscription "Ι. Κοινότης Αγ. Όρους" (Holy Community of Sacred Mountain). The decision was recalled before the stamps were officially issued.

2008 Mount Athos stamp issue

In 2008 the Hellenic Postal Service started issuing postage stamps for postal use only at the two post offices of Mount Athos (Karyai and Dafni). The first set of 5 stamps was issued on May 16, 2008. The Hellenic Post issues the modern era Mount Athos stamps despite opposition from the Hellenic Philatelic Federation (Ελληνική Φιλοτελική Ομοσπονδία)and the Hellenic Philatelic Society. A second set of five stamps was issued on June 13, 2008, according to the published programme.

The Friends of Mount Athos

The Friends of Mount Athos is a society formed in 1990 by people who shared a common interest for the monasteries of Mount Athos. Timothy Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, is the President and Chairman of the society. Among its members are Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Charles, Prince of Wales, Heir Apparent to the British throne.

The object of the society, as stated on its official web page, is officially described as: "the advancement of education of the public in the study and knowledge of the history, culture, arts, architecture, natural history, and literature of the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos and the promotion of the religious and other charitable work of the Holy Community and monasteries of Mount Athos." In keeping with those objects, the society is empowered "to make grants, donations and other payments for the restoration or conservation of buildings or of works of art and books of educational or religious significance on Mount Athos within the above objects." To that end the society produces publications, arranges lectures, and organizes conferences and exhibitions devoted to Athonite themes.

Among the Society's publications are its annual bulletin (Friends of Mount Athos Annual Report) offering articles, book reviews and other features related to Mount Athos. It also publishes A Pilgrim's Guide to Mount Athos as well as a yearly directory of members.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Athonite monasticism at the dawn of the third millennium, Pravmir Portal
  2. Warry, J. 1998 Warfare in the Classical World Salamander Book Ltd., London p 35
  3. This tradition has been included by St Gregory Palamas into his book "Life of Petros the Athonite" p.150, 1005AD, but researchers say that this "tradition" does not seem to be quite old.
  4. Biography of Saint Athanasius the Athonite
  5. Municipality of Stagira, Acanthos
  6. The number 7000 is disputed. According to some Greek records, about 4000 or more of the monks were Russians, but not all of them real monks. They were soldiers dressed as monks, in an effort to transform the Holy Mountain into a Russian Naval Base. Of course Russian records deny this. But it is a fact that after the communist revolution of 1917, when Russian government stoped financing the monasteries, most of the Russian monks returned home in their own expences - even on foot.
  7. Article 105 of the Constitution of Greece - The regime of Mount Athos.
  8. The Climax of Sin, Time Magazine, 1953
  9. Women breach all-male Greek site
  10. Variant names: Skiathis - Sketis - Skithis - Skitis - Skete - Oros Nitrias (Nitria) - Wadi el-Natrun - sites including Deir el-Surian (Deir el-Syriani), the monastery of Maria Deipara, Kellia, the monastery Deir Abu Maqar, Qaret el-Dahr, Quçur el-Rubaiyat according to the on-line dictionary "Trismegistos" (
  11. BBC, Prince visits 'monastic republic'


  • The 6,000 Beards of Mount Athos ISBN 0-85955-251-9 by Ralph H. Brewster. A guide to the peninsula, first published in 1935, detailing the landscape, monasteries, skites, and the life of the inhabitants, including customs and more not usually discussed.
  • Mount Athos ISBN 960-213-075-X by Sotiris Kadas. An illustrated guide to the monasteries and their history (Athens 1998). With many illustrations of the Byzantine art treasures on Mount Athos.
  • Athos The Holy Mountain by Sydney Loch. Published 1957 & 1971 (Librairie Molho, Thessaloniki). Loch spent most of his life in the Byzantine tower at Ouranopolis, close to Athos, and describes his numerous visits to the Holy Mountain. A fascinating travelogue. The famous Molho Bookstore in Thessaloniki may have a few copies left.
  • Dare to be Free ISBN 0-330-10629-5 by Walter Babington Thomas. Offers insights into the lives of the monks of Mt Athos during WWII, from the point of view of an escaped POW who spent a year on the peninsula evading capture.
  • Blue Guide: Greece ISBN 0-393-30372-1, pp. 600–03. Offers history and tourist information.
  • Mount Athos Renewal in Paradise ISBN 0-300-10323-9, by Graham Speake. An extensive book about Athos in the past, the present and the future. Includes valuable tourist information. Features numerous full-color photographs of the peninsula and daily life in the monasteries.

External links

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