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Mount Athos

ETHNONYMS: Athonite Monks, Hagiorites; also terms that designate the monastic brotherhoods to which individual monks belong: e.g., Lavriotes (monks belonging to the Lavra monastery); Philotheites (Philotheou monastery), Vatopedini (Vatopedi monastery), etc.


Identification. Mount Athos is an autonomous republic of Eastern Orthodox monks situated on the easternmost Peninsula of the Chalkidiki in northeastern Greece. It is also known as the Holy Mountain (in Greek, "Hagion Oros," whence the ethnonym "Hagiorite"). Both names refer to the 2,039-meter mountain at its southern tip. The Holy Mountain is venerated throughout Eastern Orthodox Christianity as a holy land and place of pilgrimage. Its monastic Community has played a major role in shaping the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy and in the development of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Most contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians and ecclesiastical leaders have passed a novitiate in an Athonite monastery. Aside from the monastic and personal regimen required of monks and the higher levels of education prevalent today among contemporary abbots and Hagiorite leaders, the ethos and values of the Hagiorites in general reflect those of the rural, northern Balkan villages from which most of the monks come.

Location. The Athonite Peninsula, a promontory of about 360 square kilometers, about 8 to 12 kilometers in width, extending approximately 60 kilometers from northwest to southeast, is divided longitudinally by a steep ridge rising at its southern end to the mountain peak.

Demography. Mount Athos is occupied predominantly by Greeks, reflecting the present Greek protectorate, but also by brotherhoods of Bulgarian, Georgian, Romanian, Russian, and Serbian monks. The monastic population, in decline throughout most of the twentieth century, has grown in the last quarter of the century to over 2,000, owing in part to the worldwide revival of conservative religion. The revival on Mount Athos has also benefited from disillusionment with the pace and quality of life in the overpopulated major cities of Greece, nostalgia for the traditions and distinctive cultural identity of the past as Greece has been absorbed into the European Community, the problems of depopulation and Economic collapse in rural mountain villages, and the threats that materialism and atheism represent to traditional Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Greece.

Linguistic Affiliation. The major language of Mount Athos is demotic Greek colored with archaisms instilled in monks continuously through the language of the liturgy, the psalmody, and hagiographical readings that accompany the common meals in the refectory. The archaic quality of the language is also partly a result of conscious use of traditional monastic phrases that evoke central symbolic features of monastic life, a sense of unchanged adherence to the tradition of the fathers, and a sense of separation from "the world." As elsewhere in northeastern Greece, it includes an extensive vocabulary of Turkish loanwords. The languages of the other Orthodox ethnic groups are also spoken, with similar monastic and archaizing features.

History and Cultural Relations

As early as the seventh century the Athonite Peninsula, depopulated since the classical age, was settled by hermits, many of them refugees from the Arab conquests of that time or victims of the iconoclasts, who sought to end the veneration of icons, a custom deeply rooted in Byzantine monasticism. The Byzantine emperor Basil I recognized Athos as a territory for male hermit monks in 885, banishing from the territory all resident laymen and shepherds as well as women and female domestic animals. The first monastery, the Megisti Lavra ("the Great Lavra"), was founded by the Emperor, Nicephoros Phocas, in 963 as an independent monastery. Its charter was a landmark in the reform of abuses associated with the economic control of monasteries and their lands by secular overseers and local bishops. From the perspective of the abbots, the charter's importance was the reestablishment of their authority, without which the traditional discipline based on submission would break down. During the Latin occupation of Byzantium (1204-1261), when the Holy Mountain was under the jurisdiction of the Latin Kingdom of Salonica, and immediately thereafter, the Athonite monasteries resisted pressure to support union of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. During the Turkish occupation of Greece, 1453-1822 (the Turkocrateia), the monasteries were impoverished by heavy taxation and loss of outlying endowment properties. In the sixteenth century, the monasteries resisted the Turkish regime's intensified "Islamization" by collecting and copying theological, hagiographical, and liturgical books on a large scale and by training and ordaining priests for outlawed missionary work. This resistance produced hundreds of "neomartyrs," Hagiorites and others, who continue to be commemorated. The Greek revolution brought depopulation, disrupting the continuity of monastic life and oral tradition as monks left to join the "holy war" against the "infidel" Turks. During World War II and the subsequent Greek civil war, the monasteries served as places of refuge for the injured and displaced, including women and children. The monastic republic has been a protectorate of Greece since 1912, when the first Balkan War ended Turkish hegemony there, and is under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate.

All of the Athonite monasteries, Greek and other, maintain close ties with traditional geographical areas where they have possessed monastic properties, from which they have received patronage, and which are the homelands of many of their present monks. These ties are reflected in architectural styles, styles of hymnody, commemoration of founders and patrons, patterns of pilgrimage, and of course, language. As with the Greek monasteries under the Turkocrateia, the rious ethnically defined monasteries have tended to be symbols of nationalism, exploited to promote or preserve cultural identity.


Large, fortified monasteries with defensive towers (against piracy) dating from as early as the tenth century dot the Athonite coasts. The oldest monasteries (the Lavra, Iveron, Vatopedi) were built facing toward Byzantium (modern Istanbul), the major source of their patronage, from the northeastern coast, as did the main port of Athos during the Turkocrateia. Most of the monasteries, however, were founded on the southwestern coast because of its more favorable climate, while some (smaller monasteries) were built on arable highland plateaus. In addition to those monks living in the twenty ruling monasteries, many monks live individually in small houses near the monasteries (kathismata ), taking their meals and attending services in the monastery proper; others live in groups of three or more in farms with chapels (kellia, "cells"); others reside in houses or small settlements with chapels (kalyvia ), where they support themselves in specialties such as icon painting; still others live in subordinate monasteries (skites ). Hermit monks live in remote places on the peninsula, the most austere in caves overlooking the sea from the cliffs on the southwestern point of the peninsula (Karoulia). In addition, there are three Hagiorite villages, Saint Anne and New Skiti, both skites, and the capital, Karyes. Located centrally on the ridge, Karyes is occupied mostly by monks serving in the central government or tending the small houses or apartments maintained by most ruling monasteries for their members while on business at the Capital. Shops run by monks cater to pilgrims and provide supplies and services needed in the village. The port, Daphni, on the southwest coast, is Athos's main link with the world, consisting mainly of postal, police, and rescue services, a customs inspection station, and dock facilities.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Historically the economy of the monastic community has depended upon income from profitable farms and other properties (metochia ) dedicated to the monasteries as endowments by royal or other wealthy patrons. The property acquired in this fashion during the Byzantine period, much of it located in the northern Balkans, was confiscated during the Turkocrateia or in more modern nationalistic confiscation. The pattern continues, however, with many monasteries deriving income from endowment properties in or near Thessaloniki.

Today as in the past the monasteries and the smaller Institutions depend on subsistence farming, with maintenance and other services provided when necessary by hired resident lay workers, but otherwise by monks trained in the requisite specialties (masonry, carpentry, shoemaking, tailoring, etc.). Some monks and kellia support themselves or contribute to the economy of their ruling monasteries by such traditional arts as icon painting and wood carving. The monasteries also harvest and package for sale herbs, hazelnuts, tea (especially herbal and linden teas), incense used in the church services, and other products.

Extensive chestnut forests on the central ridge provide the monasteries with building materials, as they always have, and increasingly in today's income-based economy, supply Greece with much-needed hardwood. Lumbering is managed by outside syndicates employing local lay workers and, in the past decade, increasingly sophisticated equipment. The monasteries practice a method of clear-cutting, harvesting yearly on a twenty-year cycle about one-twentieth of the timberland, a practice that has drawn protest from those concerned to preserve the unique Athonite ecosystem.

Land Tenure. All land on Mount Athos is allotted to one of the twenty ruling monasteries, which grant to monks or small brotherhoods nonheritable short-term or lifetime leases of kathismata, kellia, or other properties.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In accord with the classic monastic social structurethat is, the cenobitic (common-life) Monasteryhousing, meals, clothing, and observance of liturgy and other services are governed by a central rule that applies to all monks alike, and monks relinquish control of personal possessions. The abbot is a patriarch who serves for life, the absolute authority and spiritual father of the brotherhood (whose members are usually referred to as fathers). The superior is assisted by a council of elders. Some "idiorhythmic" monasteries also survive on Mount Athos. In these, internal regulations are determined by a council of superiors, Members for life, who also determine what monks shall be admitted to that council. A board of two or three monks elected for one-year terms is head of the council and the monastery. Monks in idiorhythmic monasteries may be paid for their services, retain control of their personal property, earn money from outside sources or through personal skills such as icon painting, and eat in their own apartments according to their own schedules. Accommodations are the common property of the monastery. Attendance at services, observance of fasts and festal periods, work assignments, and schedules of work are all according to the central rule and the decision of the board of elders. Skites also may be either cenobitic or idiorhythmic. Athonite law devalues idiorhythmism as an anomalous condition necessitated by extreme economic or other difficulties; it allows monasteries to convert to cenobitism but not to idiorhythmism. The current revival on Mount Athos has been characterized by widespread conversion of long-standing idiorhythmic institutions to cenobitism. Following an age-old pattern of social change on Mount Athos, young brotherhoods, many of them led by charismatic disciples of the modern Athonite hermit and spiritual father, Iosif the Cave-dweller, have moved first into smaller settlements (kellia and skites) and then into depopulated ruling monasteries, which they have converted to cenobitism. As their numbers have grown, fed by the Contemporary conservative religious revival, they have colonized and restored run-down and depopulated idiorhythmic monasteries. New wealth that has accompanied the religious revival has enabled these brotherhoods to found new monasteries and missions outside of Athos, as far away as the United States and Canada.

Political Organization. The monastic community is governed, in accord with the constitutional charter of 1924, by a tripartite government. The representative legislative assembly and the representative administrative body (the Holy Community) each consist of twenty members holding one-year terms of office, one from each of the ruling monasteries. The executive is a committee of four monks, the "Holy Epistasia," on which each of the twenty monasteries is represented once every five years in a regular cycle. The chair of the Holy Epistasia rotates among the representatives from the Megisti Lavra, Vatopedi, Iveron, Chilandari, and Dionysiou in the same five-year cycle. In addition, a civil governor appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the general maintenance of law and order, supported by a small office staff, and oversees government functionaries responsible for financial records, forestry, antiquities, etc., plus a small contingent of the Greek National Guard, which maintains several posts on the peninsula.

Social Control and Conflict. The monastic system requires of all monks suppression of the will and all forms of self-assertiveness, to be exercised constantly in relations with other monks, especially elder monks and the abbot or spiRitual father. By this system, external conflict among monks is minimized and internal conflict heightened. This internalizing of conflict, linked to the belief that only through the purification of the monk's soul through suppression of his own will is it possible to be receptive to the will of God, contributes to a social order to which all are committed for reasons of personal salvation.

Nevertheless, a number of conflicts characterize Athonite monasticism, both in relation to the secular world and within or among the brotherhoods. As religious professionals who take a strong stand regarding such matters as interdenominational ecumenism and the relations of church and state in "Orthodox" nations, the monks constitute a Religious right wing within Eastern Orthodoxy. Their association with conservative grass-roots organizations, which are legitimized by that association, puts them in conflict with ecclesiastical officials whose authority they undermine. Today the Hagiorites are threatened, as well, by a vocal call in Greece for conversion of Mount Athos and the monasteries into a national park with museums. Internally, the Hagiorite Community has had difficulties, especially in the past century, with ethnic conflicts. During the last decades before the Russian Revolution, for example, the population of Russian monks swelled so greatly as to create fears among the Greeks of a Russian takeover of the Holy Mountain, a fear that lingers today.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The preservation of the relics of saints and martyrs, the presence of miracle-working icons in the ruling monasteries, the presence of holy men viewed by pious laypeople as saints, the tradition of the Virgin's protection of the Holy Mountain and all her monks and pilgrims (the monks call it the "Garden of Our Lady"), and recognition and patronage by the Byzantine emperors and the royalty of other Orthodox nations have combined to make this a holy land and place of pilgrimage venerated throughout Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Easter, the commemoration of the resurrection of Christ, is the major pilgrimage event of the year. Each individual monastery also commemorates its dedication day with a festival of all-night psalmody culminating in the liturgy, a litany, and a feast (another major pilgrimage event in the monastery's year). The service expresses through ritual symbols the renewal of blessing on the monastery at the beginning of the monastery's "new year." Pilgrims, at whatever season they come, are brought into the monastery church (catholicon ) to venerate the relics and receive blessing from them. Some pilgrims whose spiritual fathers are at an Athonite monastery come for confession, blessing, and spiritual guidance from the spiritual father. Yet another purpose of pilgrimage may be prayer for healing or other aid before a miracle-working icon. These activities, along with participation in the liturgy, represent the spiritual climax of the pilgrimage. For the monks, the pilgrimage festivals are high points in a life whose rhythm is based on the medieval liturgical calendar with its festal and fast periods, its vigils and commemorations of the traditional saints and martyrs. Daily life is structured around observance of the liturgy and services of the canonical hours conducted in the monastic churches, on the medieval almanac of changing hours of light and dark each month, and on the traditional personal regimen of Eastern Orthodox monks, including physical labor ("service") performed for the brotherhood, dietary rules (monks abstain from meat, eating mostly fruits and vegetables, bread, olives, olive oil, and wine), meditation, and continuous prayer. Through meditation, ascetic practices, and suppression of pride and willfulness, monks hope to behold the mystical divine light represented in the biblical account of the transfiguration of Christ, which is understood to be a prefiguration of the apotheosis that is the objective of human life. Since monks must struggle against the sin of pride of accomplishment, they constantly acknowledge Personal imperfection and sin, in particular through continuous utterance of the "Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner." Monks live a life of symbolic death to the world, symbolized in their black robes, which will eventually serve as their burial shrouds. The funeral is a public rite of major importance, for the deceased monk's body, never stiff with rigor mortis, indicates the fulfillment of the monk's hopes. As persons who have died to life and now live "the angelic life," they look forward with hope to immediate resurrection.


Cavarnos, Constantine (1973). The Holy Mountain. Belmont, Mass.: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.

Choukas, M. (1935). Black Angels of Athos. 2nd ed. London: Constable & Co.; Brattleboro, Vt.: Stephen Daye Press.

Kadas, Sotiris (1979). Mount Athos: An Illustrated Guide to the Monasteries and Their History. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon.

Mamalakis, Ioannis (1971). The Holy Mountain (Athos) through the Ages (in Greek). Thessalonica: Society of Macedonian Studies.

Le millénaire du Mont Athos, 963-1963: Études et mélanges (1963). Chevetogne, Belgium: Éditions de Chevetogne.


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Athos name of the eldest and most serious of the Three Musketeers who befriend D'Artagnan in Dumas' novel; it is revealed that the murderous agent of Cardinal Richelieu whom they eventually defeat is his estranged and treacherous wife.

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Mount Athos a narrow, mountainous peninsula in NE Greece, projecting into the Aegean Sea. It is inhabited by monks of the Orthodox Church, who forbid women and even female animals to set foot on the peninsula.

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Mount Athos (centre of Orthodox monasticism): see ATHOS, MOUNT.