Mount Athos – Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain in Greece

Agio Oros (Mount Athos) comprises of 20 majestic monasteries and 12 hermitages. It is a unique monastic community organized in the peninsula of Halkidiki. Karyes is the capital of Agio Oros, and this is where you will find the 10th century Church of Protato with the famous icon “Axion Esti” (meaning: “It is worthy to bless Thee, the Virgin”). Only men are allowed at Mount Athos, but even men must obtain a special permission to be granted entrance.

What is Mount Athos?

Where is Mount Athos?

Map of Mount Athos

How to enter Mount Athos?

Why is Mount Athos holy?

Mount Athos in Greek mythology

History of Mount Athos

Mount Athos – How to visit?

Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism

20 Monasteries at Agio Oros

Agio Oros in Modern History

Mount Athos – Weather and Climate

Osiou Gregoriou monastery at the holy Mount Athos in Northern Greece
Osiou Gregoriou monastery at Agio Oros, the holy Mount Athos

What is Mount Athos?

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.

Where is Mount Athos?

Phospfori tower in Ouranopolis, Athos Peninsula, Mount Athos, Chalkidiki, Greece
Ouranopolis, the entrance to Agio Oros, Athos Peninsula

The peninsula, the easternmost “leg” of the larger Halkidiki peninsula, protrudes 50 kilometres into the Aegean Sea at a width of between 7 and 12 km and covers an area of 335.637 km2. The actual Mount Athos has steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to 2,033 metres. 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).

Mount Athos on a map

Map of Halkidiki (Chalkidiki) Macedonia, Greece
Mount Athos – Coordinates: 40°09′26″N 24°19′35″E – Click to enlarge map

How to enter Mount Athos?

Diamonētērion of 1978, Mount Athos

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.

Why is Mount Athos holy?

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

Mucha Alfons - The Holy Mount Athos (1926)
The Holy Mount Athos by Mucha Alfons (1926)

Mount Athos in Greek mythology

In Greek mythology Athos was the name of one of the Gigantes (Giants) 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.

History of Mount Athos

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 the new inhabitants in Athos, the monks, started arriving at some time before the 7th century AD.

Mount Athos – How to visit?

Dionisiou Monastery at Mount Athos, Halkidiki, Greece
Dionisiou Monastery at Agio Oros, Athos peninsula

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 visum 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 on the mountain for three days, and the special diamonētērion which allows a visitor to visit only one monastery or sketai (collection of small cells with a central chapel), but to stay as many days as he has agreed with the monks. The general diamonētērion is available upon application to the Mount Athos Office for Pilgrims 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 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.

Holy Monastery Hilandar (HDR), Mount Athos, Halkidiki, Greece
Holy Monastery Hilandar (HDR), Agio Oros

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.

Mount Athos and Byzantine monasticism

Dochiariou Monastery, Athos Peninsula, Mount Athos, Chalkidiki, Greece
Dochiariou Monastery, Agio Oros, Athos Peninsula

Agio Oros (meaning: Holy Mountain) is a self-governed part of the Greek state, but politically subject to the Ministery of Foreign Affairs and in regard of its religious aspect to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The mountain is dedicated to the Holy Mother of God. By an imperial document, the rule was established that no female may set foot on the peninsula of Athos.

Most inhabitants at Agio Oros are Orthodox monks living in monasteries, sketai, cells and hermitages. Other inhabitants include employees and workers, as well as several male pilgrims (up to 110 are allowed entrance per day). They come to Agio Oros for the purposes of prayer, meditation, and study.

20 monasteries at Agio Oros

Simonopetra monastery on the Mount Athos, Agios Oros, Chalkidiki, Greece
Simonopetra monastery at the Mount Athos

Among the total of 20 monasteries, one is Russian, one is Serbian, one is Bulgarian, one is Georgian, and the rest are Greek. There are Bulgarian and Romanian sketai as well. The foreign monasteries and sketai are supported by their respective countries.

Inside the monasteries, holy icons, relics, mosaics, and frescos of great value are kept. Some items have been lost during fires or raids, but today an enormous number of historical texts, rare manuscripts and documents are kept in their respective libraries.

The first Christian inhabitants at Agio Oros were members of the clergy fleeing the persecution of the iconoclasts. In the beginning they were living alone in the caves. Later, monasteries were built and organized. In this way, Agio Oros became a refuge for Christian souls seeking salvation through praying and fasting. The prestige of Agios Oros grew fast and soon Byzantine emperors spent time here here as monks.

Agio Oros in modern history

Phospfori Tower in Ouranoupoli in Athos peninsula, Chalkidiki, Greece
Phospfori Tower in Ouranoupoli in Athos peninsula

Gradually, Agios Oros was granted the right of autonomy, at first by the Byzantine emperors Nikiforos Fokas and Ioannis Tsimiskis. The autonomy of Agios Oros was maintained throughout history till today, even through the period of Ottoman rule when it was enhanced. After the First World War, different international treaties have recognized the unique status of Mount Athos. It has gained its own special status in regard to the accession of Greece to the European Union.

Mount Athos – Weather and climate

Tropical Beach bar view at Athos mountain/ Halkidiki coast Mediteranean sea, Chalkidiki Greece, Sithonia
View towards Mount Athos from Sithonia peninsula
Rainfall (days)171517151819131213131415
Average day and night temperatures in °C and average rainfall in days in Athos peninsula