Mount Athos is the oldest monastic republic still in existence. Located on the Athos peninsula of Chalkidiki, in the Greek part of Macedonia, it was officially established in 963, when a monk named Athanasios the Athonite built the Monastery of the Great Lavra. However, anchorites had been living at the northern end of the Athos peninsula since the middle of the ninth century. In the centuries that followed, twenty monasteries were built, together with a number of smaller communities known as sketae. Nowadays, many monks live in kellia, kalyvae, kathismata, and hesychasteria, which are various forms of small monastic communities or hermitages. The administrative center of Mount Athos is the village of Karyes.
As time went by, three forms of monastic life evolved: coenobitic, idiorrhythmic, and solitary.
The coenobitic rule is characterised by discipline, and the monks come together for worship and meals. In the coenobitic monasteries, the monks rise an hour after midnight to pray, alone in their cells at first and then all together in the main church, the katholikon, where they remain until daybreak. They then eat together in the refectory. The meal is followed by prayers, and the monks withdraw to occupy themselves with the tasks assigned to them by the monastery. No-one is exempt from work, not even the hegumen (abbot). After midday, the monks sleep or rest. In the late afternoon, they gather in the church again for the evening liturgy (esperinos), and they then go to the refectory, if it is not a fast day. The last liturgy of the day follows (apodeipnon). The monastery gates are closed, and the monks retire to their cells, where they read, pray, and sleep.
The idiorrhythmic way of life came about as a result of the Ottoman conquest and the attendant imposition of harsh taxes on the monks, as also the establishment of the sketae. In the sketae and the idiorrhythmic monasteries, the monks organise their own time, dividing it between prayer and work in accordance with their personal needs. They come together for the Divine Liturgy only on Sundays and feast days; on ordinary days, each fulfils his religious obligations in the chapel in his own kalyva, or hut.
The solitary life is the most difficult of all. The monks who have chosen to be hermits live in complete solitude in caves or rudimentary dwellings on precipitous slopes or cliff sides. They eat as much as they need to stay alive, work to keep their minds alert, and devote all their time to prayer. Occasionally, they go to the nearby monasteries to receive communion.
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