Mount Athos is a mountain and peninsula in Macedonia, Greece. A World Heritage Site, it is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and forms a self-governed monastic state within the sovereignty of the Hellenic Republic. Spiritually, Mount Athos comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Today Greeks commonly refer to Mount Athos as the “Holy Mountain“. In Classical times, the peninsula was called Akté.
Coordinates: 40°09′26″N 24°19′35″E
The peninsula, the easternmost “leg” of the larger Chalkidiki peninsula, protrudes 50 kilometres (31 mi) into the Aegean Sea at a width of between 7 and 12 kilometres (4.3 and 7.5 mi) and covers an area of 335.637 square kilometres (129.59 sq mi). The actual Mount Athos has steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to 2,033 metres (6,670 ft). The surrounding seas, especially at the end of the peninsula, can be dangerous. In ancient Greek history two fleet disasters in the area are recorded: In 492 BC Darius, the king of Persia, lost 300 ships under general Mardonius (Herodotus “Histories” book VI (Erato), Aeschylus “The Persians”). In 411 BC the Spartans lost a fleet of 50 ships under admiral Epicleas. (Diodorus Siculus, “Bibliotheca historica” XIII 41, 1–3).
Though land-linked, Mount Athos is accessible only by a single boat, the St. Eshpigmenitis. The daily number of visitors entering Mount Athos is restricted and all are required to obtain a special entrance permit valid for a limited period. 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 the Eastern Orthodox Church are allowed to live on Athos, either as monks or as workers.
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 sea 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 Lemnos populated the peninsula, then called Acte or Akte. (Herodotus, VII:22) Strabo reports of five cities on the peninsula: Dion, Cleonae, Thyssos, Olophyxos, Acrothoï, of which the last is near the crest. (Strabo, Geography, VII:33:1) Eretria also established colonies on Acte. Two other cities were established in the Classical period: Acanthus 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 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.
According to the athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing accompanied by St John the Evangelist from Joppa to Cyprus 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 “Ἔστω ὁ τόπος οὖτος κλῆρος σός καί περιβόλαιον σόν καί παράδεισος, ἔτι δέ καί λιμήν σωτήριος τῶν θελόντων σωθῆναι” (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.
Read more of the history of Mount Athos at Wikipedia’s website
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 diamonētēria: 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 he would like to stay in order to reserve a bed (one night only per monastery). The ferries require reservations, both ways.
The duration of the general visa can be extended by several days by personally applying at the main office in Karyes.
Most visitors arrive at the small port of Dafni 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.
Links to Mount Athos:
• The Official Site of Mount Athos
Including the total list of the 20 monasteries
• Mount Athos Travel Guide
Where to get Diamonitiria (permits to stay as a pilgrim)
• The Friends of Mount Athos
find information about both Mount Athos itself and ways to participate in the activities of the Friends of Mount Athos