The History of Mount Athos


Athos in the Ancient Greek period

According to one tradition, the name Athos comes from the Giant Athos, who, during the Battle of Gods and Giants, flung a great rock at Poseidon, which landed where the peninsula is today. Another tradition relates that Poseidon flung a huge rock at Athos, which crushed him at the place where the mountain stands today.

Homer mentions Athos in the Iliad (Rhapsody Ξ 219). Herodotos lists the following ancient cities in the area of Athos: Sane, Holophyxos, Akrothoon, Thyssos, and Kleonai. Strabon also mentions the city of Charadria, while Pliny, several centuries later, refers to the cities of Ouranoupolis, Palaiotrion, Thysson, Kleonas, and Apollonia.

It is not easy to determine the sites of these cities. Most scholars place Sane on the site of Trypiti, hard by the canal of Xerxes; Dion at Platys Yalos near Ierissos in the Bay of Ierissos; Holophyxos on the east coast of the peninsula; Akrothoon near the Athos headland; Thyssos in the area of Docheiariou and Konstamonitou Monasteries, and Kleonai near Xiropotamou. Charadria was probably near Vatopedi.

These cities were chiefly inhabited by Thracians and Pelasgians. All were subjugated by Philip II of Macedon. Later on, in 168 bc, they were taken over by the Romans, like the rest of Macedonia. Most of the cities mentioned above were destroyed before the Romans arrived, but some of them must still have been inhabited in the centuries which followed, because they have yielded finds from the Early Christian period.

Athos in the Early Christian period

The legend goes that the Virgin Mary and St John were on their way to meet Lazarus when a storm forced them to put in at the site now occupied by Iviron Monastery. The Virgin liked the place very much and she asked Christ to make her a gift of the peninsula.

We do not know precisely when the first ascetics settled on Athos; but some iconophile monks must have sought refuge there in the 8th century, because ascetic monks from Bithynian Olympus, Ida, and Athos took part in the Oecumenical Council of 843. So not only must ascetic monks have settled on Athos in the preceding years, they must also have been renowned for their virtue and their theological opinions.

At the end of the 9th century, there were many hermits and small monastic communities on Athos, chiefly in the area of the isthmus. Two notable recluses were Peter the Athonite and Euthymios of Thessalonike. According to a sigillion of Basil I, now lost, Kolobou Monastery was founded in this period (872) near Ierissos.

In 911, the seat of the Protos—“the ‘kathedra of the elders’”—was transferred from near the Canal of Xerxes to a new site, Mese (‘middle’), as Karyes was called then. The transfer was probably due to an increase in the number of monks and to the fact that monasticism had by now spread over the entire Athos peninsula. Mese was the residence of the Protos, who was elected by the monks of all the monasteries and was the spiritual leader. He wielded ecclesiastical power, took part in the patriarchal councils, and had the right to ordain priests and to appoint and dismiss abbots.

St. Athanasios the Athonite
St. Athanasios the Athonite

All the same, the state of monasticism in the first half of the 9th century was not good. Most of the monks were still hermits, living in improvised huts, eating the fruits of wild trees, and suffering the effects of frequent pirate raids. This situation changed with the arrival of St Athansios the Athonite.

St. Athanasios the Athonite

Born in Trebizond to wealthy parents, Athanasios became a monk and lived in Bithynia in Asia Minor for four years, after which he left for Mount Athos. In 961, after meeting the then powerful strategos and later emperor Nikephoros Phokas, he began to build the Great Lavra, a monastery to which Nikephoros Phokas himself retired in his old age.

However, Athanasios’s vigorous building activity provoked the opposition of most of the ascetics, who rallied round Paul Xiropotamites and accused Athanasios before Emperor John Tsimiskes of corrupting the character of Mount Athos. The Emperor responded with an imperial chrysobull, the Tragos, which is the oldest document bearing an imperial signature. The Tragos was the first rule for Mount Athos, and lent further support to what Athanasios was doing. By the time he died in 1000, Athanasios had not only constructed the large and imposing group of buildings that make up the Great Lavra, but also secured sufficient funding to maintain the monastery and laid the foundations of coenobitic monasticism.

Athos in the 11th–15th centuries

The Monastery of Simonos Petra as seen by Vassilios Barski during his visit to Athos in 1744
The Monastery of Simonos Petra as seen by Vassilios Barski during his visit to Athos in 1744

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Athos became one of the most important monastic centres in the Byzantine Empire. Many monasteries were founded and the Byzantine emperors issued chrysobulls and sigillia granting them numerous privileges and vast tracts of farmland. At the time when the monastic communities in Asia Minor were being wiped out by Seljuk Turk raids, on Athos the coenobia were flourishing and their landed property was constantly increasing, as was their influence. The tradition of the ascetic hermits also remained very much alive.

After the armies of the Fourth Crusade had seized Constantinople, the Latins settled in Greece, bringing down such tribulations on the Athonite monasteries that the monks were forced to seek the protection of Pope Innocent III. But even after Michael VIII Palaiologos had liberated Constantinople, the Athonites continued to suffer, because they opposed the Byzantine emperors’ efforts to pursue the union of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

In the 14th century, Mount Athos faced great perils, but nonetheless prospered and flourished. Early in the century, the mercenaries of the Catalan Grand Company raided the Holy Mountain for two years (1307–9), sacking many monasteries, plundering the treasures of Christendom, and terrorising the monks. Of the 300 monasteries on Athos at the beginning of the 14th century, only 35 were left by the end. In the middle of the century, however, Macedonia came into the hands of the Serbian ruler Stefan Dushan, who visited Mount Athos and gave many of the monasteries his financial support. New monasteries were founded, churches and refectories were frescoed, and the quality of monastic life improved, owing to the emergence of the Hesychast movement.


The monks of Mount Athos accepted Hesychasm. According to Gregory of Sinai, the founder of hesychia, monks could see the ‘uncreated light of God’, the light that shone about Christ at his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, if they were virtuous and devoted themselves exclusively to prayer, seated from morn to eve in the same place, concentrating and repeating silently the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’. The hope that they could thus come close to God was perhaps a reaction to the ever increasing external dangers and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire.

The issue of Hesychasm divided Byzantine society. Some zealously embraced it, others violently rejected it, mainly because of the excesses of some zealots. Hesychasm was also supported by the Byzantine aristocrats and ultimately prevailed at three councils (in 1341, 1347, 1351). Gregorios Palamas, formerly a monk on Mount Athos, then Archbishop of Thessalonike and a supporter of Hesychasm, was elevated to sainthood, as were many other Hesychast leaders. The efforts made by Barlaam the monk and Emperor Andronikos III to combat the Hesychast movement and limit its spread were unsuccessful, on Mount Athos at least.

Gregorios Palamas
Gregorios Palamas

Ottoman rule

The Western side of Mount Athos as seen by Vassilios Barski in 1744
The Western side of Mount Athos as seen by Vassilios Barski in 1744

The Ottoman Turks first appeared on Mount Athos at the end of the 14th century, and it became part of the Ottoman Empire early in the 15th. The monks managed to secure their privileges, their administrative autonomy, and their landed property from Sultan Murad II and his successors, but they were obliged to pay an annual poll tax (haraci), as well as very high extra taxes.

Despite the Sultans’ occasional formal guarantees, the Ottomans still made two attempts to seize the Athonite monasteries’ immovable property, the first by Murad in 1432–3 and the second by Selim II in 1568. On both occasions, the monks managed to redeem their land by handing over large sums of money.

The uncertainty of the times, together with the high taxes, reduced the number of monks, and a number of monasteries were abandoned, the monks preferring to live in kellia and sketae. The remaining monasteries were obliged to convert from the coenobitic to the idiorrhythmic system. An attempt by the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to reconvert them to the coenobitic system at the end of the 16th century met with no lasting success. In the 16th century and the first half of the 17th, the monasteries were quite unable to maintain their monks and pay off their debts. By the second half of the 17th century, however, the abbots were turning to the rulers of Russia, Wallachia, and Moldavia, who began to make generous donations to the Athonite monasteries.

The Athonite School

Evyenios Voulgaris
Evyenios Voulgaris
Aerial view of the Old Athonite School at the Monastery of Vatopedi
Aerial view of the Old Athonite
School at the Monastery of Vatopedi

The monasteries continued in penury in the 18th century. But despite their destitution, a movement arose for the dissemination of learning in the Athos area. In the middle of the 18th century, the Athonite School was established in a building near Vatopedi Monastery, its purpose being to teach theology, philosophy, and logic to the monks and to those wishing to become monks. In the early years, when the Greek enlightener Evyenios Voulgaris was director, the school attracted large numbers of students and gained a considerable reputation. But when Voulgaris left, it fell into a decline, and closed down in 1799.

Several moves were made in the 19th century to reopen the school, and in 1832 it began to operate again as a kind of seminary. The Athonite School was officially reestablished in 1953. Now named the ‘Athonite Ecclesiastical Academy’, it occupies a wing of the Skete of St Andrew in Karyes and follows the Greek secondary school curriculum combined with ecclesiastical education. There are six teachers and about 100 students.

Mount Athos in the modern era

Map of the Athonite Manasteries’ holdings (metochia) in Chalkidiki until its incorporation into the Greek state
Map of the Athonite Manasteries’ holdings (metochia) in Chalkidiki until its incorporation into the Greek state

The first two decades of the 19th century boded well for a new period of prosperity on Mount Athos. Almost all the monasteries’ debts had been paid off, construction of new buildings had begun, and a number of monasteries reverted to the coenobitic system. But the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 brought new misfortunes to the Holy Mountain. Many of the monks took part in the first clashes of the war, thousands of women and children sought refuge on Athos, and Turkish armed forces also entered the peninsula, imposed heavy taxes, and installed military garrisons in some of the monasteries.

With the end of the War of Independence, peace and calm returned to Athos, and the number of monks began to increase. Many of them were not Greeks, in fact, but Bulgarians, Serbs, Russians, Romanians, and other nationalities. Some Slavonic countries, Russia first and foremost, saw this as an opportunity to extend their influence into the area, donating large sums of money to rebuild old monasteries and establish new sketae. Zographou Monastery thus came under Bulgarian influence, Chelandari under Serbian influence, and St Panteleimon under Russian influence. The Bulgarians also founded the coenobitic Bogoroditsa Skete, the Russians the coenobitic Skete of St Andrew, and the Romanians the coenobitic Skete of St John the Baptist.

Ottoman rule ended in 1912, when the First Balkan War broke out. A Greek naval squadron landed at Daphne and occupied the area. The international conferences which followed the Balkan Wars were unable to clarify the status of Mount Athos. The Treaty of Lausanne eventually recognized Athos as being under Greek sovereignty, but as ‘a self-governing part of the Greek state’.

When the Germans occupied Greece during the Second World War, the Epistassia, the four-member executive committee appointed annually by the Holy Community, asked Hitler to place Mount Athos under his personal protection, and he agreed. So the German and Bulgarian conquerors did not interfere with Mount Athos. After the Germans had withdrawn, Athos was briefly under the sway of the partisans, before the Greek authorities took over.

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