From Legend to History
Athos is the east of the three promontories of Chalkidiki - a Greek peninsula that stretches into the Aegean Sea between the Thermaic and Strimonic gulfs. Some 60 kilometres in length, Athos varies in width from 8-12 kilometres covering in all an area of approximately 360 square kilometres. The landward end of the promontory is low and flat, with small plains and hillocks; but as it extends seawards, clusters of peaks swell higher and higher to end finally in the bare slopes of Mount Athos, whose pyramidal summit rises sheer from the sea to more than 2000 meters.
The ancients called the whole peninsula Akte. The according to a legend, first recorded by Strabo and repeated by Plutarch, Deinokrates, architect to Alexander the Great, wanted to transform the whole of Mount Athos into an immense figure of the Macedonian king. The sculptured effigy was to hold in one hand a city swarming with people, while from the other a copious stream of water would push towards the sea as a continuous libation to the gods. Alexander declined the offer and ordered that the mountain should be left as it was, perhaps because he did not wish to appear to his descendants as arrogant as the Persian King Xerxes. In 481 B.C. Xerxes cut a canal through the narrow neck of land at the beginning of the peninsula, between Ierissos and the Singitic gulfs, so that his fleet should avoid the stormy waters round Cape Akrothoos where earlier the ships of the Persian general Mardonius had sunk. Some historians doubt that the cutting was ever completed, while others dispute that it was ever undertaken. The latter claim that Xerxes transported his fleet overland on wooden rollers.
During the centuries that follow, little - very little, indeed - is known of the history of Athos. Sources refer to several small towns or ‘small settlements’ there, such as Sani, Thissos, Kleonae, Dion, Olophixos, Akrothooi, and Apollonia, whose exact locations have not been determined. But we know for certain that, although they prospered for a while, they must have been already in ruins by the time the first hermits came to the Mountain.
Monasticism On Mount Athos
Monasticism is the individual’s renunciation of the world and his retreat into a solitary life to achieve the salvation of his soul through contemplation and closer communion with God. Christian monasticism originated at the beginning of the fourth century, as a reaction to the prevailing social corruption. The way was already paved by the gospel teaching, the tendency towards Judaic ascetism and the spirit of contemporary Greek philosophy. Above all, however, monasticism grew apace because of the persecution of Christians by the state during the preceding three centuries. The keystones of monastic life are the virtues of chastity, poverty and obedience. These ideals are achieved by continual bodily and spiritual exercises, and through an absolute and unquestioning devotion to God.
Monastic communities first appeared and flourished in Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor. Others were founded later in Palestine and Constantinople. Many have since disappeared. The few still in existence are either in ruins or are inhabited by a mere handful of monks existing in what remains of their past magnificence. Though founded later than those mentioned above, the sole monastic centre which can claim a continuous and unbroken history is Mount Athos. Its monasteries remain today, what they have always been, the cradle of Orthodoxy and the bastion of Eastern Christianity.
Legend reveals to us how the Mother of God became celestial patron and protectress of Mount Athos. According to one tradition, the Virgin Mary, accompanied by St John the Evangelist, was on her way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, when a sudden storm arose and her ship was carried by a violent wind to Athos. They are said to have come ashore close to the present monastery of Iveron. There the Holy Virgin rested for a while, and, overwhelmed by the beauty of the place, she asked her Son to give her the Mountain, despite the fact that its inhabitants were pagans. In response, a voice was heard saying: let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved’. Thus the Holy Mountain was consecrated as the inheritance and garden of the Mother of God.
Athos was an area eminently suited to those wishing to practice the rigours of an ascetic life, and from the earliest years of the Byzantine period it attracted men from all parts of the Empire. By the Middle Byzantine period the whole peninsula was commonly known as the Holy Mountain, a name officially adopted and confirmed in a special chrysobull of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1046). Other similar monastic centres, where there were groups of monasteries, such as Sinai and Olympos in Bithynia, were referred to by this same term.
The exact date of the first monastic settlement on Athos cannot be determined. Neither can we be very specific about the development and dissemination of monastic life. The information available today, especially for the period before the ninth century, is not only scanty and sporadic, but is, for the most part, based on traditions and legends. The Athonite monks themselves claim Constantine the Great as the founder of certain monasteries, later destroyed by Julian the Apostate, only to be built again by Theodosius the Great and Pulcheria. With a degree of certainty we can assert that contemplatives had al- ready begun to frequent the Mountain by the seventh century.
Apart from the reasons previously mentioned, the development monasticism on Athos was strongly influenced by three historical factors: the break-up of the earliest village communities; the Arab conquests; and anti-monastic feeling. The decline of the small towns in the vicinity of Mount Athos and the desertion of the peninsula turned it into an attractive place for those inclined to contemplation and religious devotion. The advances and conquests of the Arabs in the eastern countries, and the consequent ruin of the big monastic centres there, forced the dispersal of their many monks. These men hastened to seek new lands on which to re-establish their monasteries and continue their ascetic way of life. Lastly, Athos became an ark of refuge from the hostility emanating from the Byzantine emperors and the inhabitants of Constantinople towards monks and monasticism in general, especially during the iconoclastic period.
The Holy Mountain first appears as a monastic centre in the historical sources of the ninth century. It is recorded that monks from Athos participated in the Council of 843 convened by the Empress Theodora to discuss the restoration of the holy icons. At about the same time we come to know the names of two men who mere influential in the history of Athos, Peter the Athonite and Euthymios of Salonica. These two men, nearly contemporaries, represented different ascetic trends; Peter the eremetical and Euthymios the semi-eremetical. The reputations of these two men attracted recruits to the Mountain, and Athos began to emerge as a notable monastic centre, modelled on the communities of the East and those which existed in, or near, Constantinople. In 885 the chryso-bull of the Emperor Basil I officially recognised Athos as a territory belonging exclusively to monks and hermits It laid down that only men of religion should live there, and that henceforward all shepherds and laymen who until that time had roamed freely there, should be forbidden the 'Garden of the Virgin’,
Although it is not possible to reach any curtain conclusions about the antecedents of organized monastic life on athos, we may suppose that Athonite monasticism followed the same pattern of development as other monastic centres. That is to say, it developed within a relatively short space of time from the eremetical to the semi-eremetical stage, and from there to the coenobitic form. Thus the hermits first established themselves at the landward end of the peninsula where the terrain is gentle. Later, fleeing from the various raiders, especially the Saracen pirates, the solitaries abandoned this area: some sought the greater security of the peaks, others the protection of almost inaccessible slopes. Later still, hermits grouped into loosely organised communities, the lavras, modeled after those of Palestine. The names or the two such communities are known to us; Clementos, near the present day monastery of Iveron, and the more important ‘Assembly of the Elders’ (the Kathedra) on the heights of Zygos, of which we shall speak in more detail later. The third stage, the coenobitic, took root in the ninth century with the founding of a monastery near Ierissos by John, abbot of Kolobos. The coenobitic life was firmly established about a century later with the building of the Great Lavra by Athanasios.
The monks of the ‘Assembly of the Elders’, gathered together for communal worship in a central church (the katholikon). The leaders from each of its constituent cells formed an assembly-synaxis- which met whenever necessary, and at least three times a year at the feasts of Christmas, Easter and the Dormition of the Virgin. At these councils, over which the Protos presided, matters of common interest mere debated. In a chrysobull of Romanos I Lekapenos (934), the kathedra is described as ‘ancient’, which shows that it had been in existence sometime before, and certainly since the ninth century. During the tenth century, as we shall see below, new monasteries were founded. These attracted many monks, with the result that the numbers of the kathedra diminished, declining to the point where the community all but disintegrated. This new turn of events forced the Protos to transfer his seat closer to the centre of the peninsula, to the area called Mesi, later named Karyes, where it has remained ever since.
Although Kolobos had introduced the coenobitic life, it was decisively established by Athanasios the Athonite. Friend and confessor of the Emperor Nicephoros Phocas, Athanasios founded about 963 the famous monastery of the Great Lavra with monies provided by the emperor himself. Thus the wattle huts were replaced by great stone edifices and the eremetical life by an organised, communal one. This innovation, however, provoked a storm of protest from many Athonites, including those dwelling in loosely organised lavras (Lavriotes). Their leader was the powerful and uncompromising personality, the monk Paul Xeropotaminos. A Byzantine of noble birth, Paul conceived the ascetic life in its most austere form: escape to the wilderness, total withdrawal from secular life, absolute solitude. He eschewed involvement in temporal affairs, and shunned participation in great deeds. Athanasios, on the contrary, though no less pious and virtuous, was a man of broader outlook, with wide-ranging administrative talents. Although not opposed to the solitary life, he considered communal activities and the interdependence of monks no less important.
It was inevitable that these two men, representing contrary approaches to the monastic life, should clash. Paul Xeropotaminos, accompanied by other monks, departed for Constantinople in order to protest against Athanasios to the Emperor John Tzimisces. He claimed that Athanasios had brought luxury to the Mountain, broken its ancient customs and norms and given a worldly aspect to the holy place. The emperor despatched a monk, Euthymios Studitis, to investigate these allegations. But Euthymios, being a friend of Athanasios, naturally found in his favour, to the extent of recognising the form:, and rights of the big monasteries. These decisions confirmed the rules and disciplines of Athanasios, and were embodied in the first Typikon (Charter) (971/2), which still governs life on Athos today.
With this wider concept of monasticism, Athanasios attracted the following of many hermits who lived in isolation in separate dwellings. Amongst them were Georgians, Armenians and Latins. Indeed, at the instigation of St Athanasios, the latter founded the monastery of the Virgin of the Amalfians, near Morphonou, a small bay north of Great Lavra. This monastery owes its name to the inhabitants of the Amalfi quarter of Constantinople, who came from southern Italy and who supported the monastery financially. It was eventually deserted as a result of the hostile attitude of the Orthodox towards the Latins, and only its magnificent tower remains.
In addition to Great Lavra, two other large monasteries were established in the tenth century, Vatopedi and Iveron. Several smaller ones were founded, including Docheiariou, Philotheou and Xenophontos, and others which today are known only as names.
In the eleventh century, when the coenobitic life on the Mountain had been firmly established, more monasteries were founded, and their number reached 180. In reality, however, most of these foundations more closely resembled large kellia, and not monasteries in their present form. But from the end of the century, and especially during the reign of the Emperor Alexios Comnenos I, the vigour of Athonite monasticism was undermined by frequent pirate raids in which many monasteries were pillaged and others totally destroyed. During this period the Mountain suffered incursions, fortunately only for a short time, by Vlach shepherds who upset its peaceful monastic life. This fact is mentioned in a chrysobull of Alexios I in which, among other matters, every female human or animal, was forbidden entry to the Mountain.
During the twelfth century fewer monastic houses were founded, but numerous existing kellia expanded into monasteries. Increasing numbers of monks of other nationalities - Iberians (Georgians), Latins, Serbs and Russians - all having in common the link of Orthodox Christianity, came to share the Mountain in worship.
During the thirteenth century, the period of the Latin Occupation (1204-61), the Mountain suffered in common with the rest of the Byzantine Empire from the Frankish raids. These came to an end only when the Paleologue dynasty re-established Constantinople as capital of the Empire. During the years following the Latin conquest, Mount Athos was replaced under the jurisdiction of the Latin Kingdom of Salonica, and the monks were subjected to much pressure to accept the Union of the two churches, East and West. These pressures unfortunately continued long after 1261, and were exerted by Michael VIII and the Patriarch John Vekkos, both Unionists. In their effort to ‘latinise’ the monks, they despoiled the monasteries, destroyed the churches and tortured a number of monks. They went so far as to execute Athonite fathers in the Protaton, at the monasteries of Vatopedi, Zographou, and elsewhere.
After the death of the Emperor Michael, however, life on the Mountain resumed its normal course. His son and successor, Andronicos II, unlike his father, was opposed to the Latin rites and the Union, and helped the monks restore their properties. Unwittingly, however, Andronicos was to deal a near fatal blow to Athos. The Catalan mercenaries, whom he had hired to protect colonies in Asia Minor, became uncontrollable and were dismissed. They encamped on Kassandra, the westernmost of the three promontories of Chalkidiki, and from there, for two years, they plundered the Mountain, massacred monks, burned down monasteries and then departed, taking with them priceless treasures. Thus the number of monasteries was reduced to 25, of which 19 still survive.
Andronicos and successive Emperors of Constantinople and Trebizond helped to restore buildings and encourage monastic life. At the same period, the Serbian nation was at the height of its power. Many Serbian rulers sent generous donations to the Athos monasteries, and particularly to Chelandari whose monks were then, as they are now, their fellow-countrymen, while many new Serbian monks travelled to Athos. As happened earlier, many kellia were constructed as dependencies of the monasteries, while others were raised to the status of monasteries; several monasteries were also amalgamated.
Its calm restored, Athos enjoyed in the fifteenth century one of the most peaceful periods in its history. Its monks continued their fanatical resistance to any suggestion of Union of the East with the western half of Christendom, and took an active part in the struggle for Orthodoxy. Eventually, with the fall of Thessalonica (1430) and later of Constantinople (1453), Mount Athos passed under the Turkish yoke, along with the rest of the Greek people. In order to save Athos, the monks chose to have good relations with the Sultans. As soon as Murat II captured Salonica they offered him submission. In exchange for there capitulation Murat II recognised the properties of the monasteries, a recognition confirmed by Mohamet II, conqueror of Constantinople. So, up to a point, the independence of Mount Athos was secured by the sultans’ firmans, which refer to the Mountain as ‘the country in which day and night the name of the God is revered', and as a refuge for the needy and for travellers. During this period a certain prosperity obtained, which lasted throughout the sixteenth century. An example of this is the foundation of the monastery of Stavronikita about the middle of the century, which completed the number of monasteries now in existence. Moreover, during these years, or to be more exact, after the subjugation of Serbia by the Turks, so many Serbs took refuge on the Mountain that sometimes one of their number was elected to the office of Protos.
However, the heavy taxation imposed by the Turks and the confiscation of estates brought about an economic crisis in the monasteries. The difficulties were in part overcome by the adoption of the idiorrhythmic life, which became widespread in the early eighteenth century. One might fairly say that monasticism in this form took root to lighten the economic difficulties on the Mountain. In such monasteries abbots were replaced by committees of monks, just as the Protos in Karyes was replaced by four overseers. But even so, the number of monks decreased further. This resulted in the depopulation of many monasteries and the adoption of sketal life. The sketae built at that time still exist and function as monastic dependencies.
Even in these lean times the Mountain was not left totally without protectors and benefactors. The Tsars of Russia, the rulers of Hungary and Moldo-Wallachia, many patriarchs and many a pious layman hastened to help it to some extent out of its difficulties. The names of such donors are rightly found amongst those of the founders and builders of each monastery, for it is to them that the monasteries owe much of the restoration work carried out during the Turkish rule. The monks were permitted by the countries mentioned above to take to their domains fragments of the True Cross and relics of the saints in order to organise processions and services for the purpose of collecting donations. This permission, as well as the gifts, whether of cash or of other kinds, I liven to the monks, was really a means of recognising their many services, especially to the rulers of Moldo-Wallachia, as secretaries, teachers and preachers. They were also an expression of gratitude for the miracles perfomed by the relics and icons brought from the Holy Mountain.
At this point we should stress the intellectual contribution of the Holy Mountain to the enlightenment of the enslaved Greek people throughout the Turkish Occupation. Particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Athos became the educational centre of Greece and the home of scholars and wise men. From the Mountain came many men of high intellectual calibre to serve the Greek people as patriarchs, bishops, teachers and preachers. The times cried out for such men to encourage the Greeks, to help them remain true to their ancestral traditions and to strengthen their faith, thus preparing the rebirth of Hellenism. It was to this end that the Athonite Academy was founded close to the monastery of Vatopedi. The Academy attracted famous teachers, such as Eugenios Voulgaris, and produced such illustrious pupils, as Athanasios Parios, Kosmas Aitolos, and Tzertzoulas. At the same lime the monk Kosmas Lavriotis established a Greek printing press at Lavra. Up to its destruction shortly before the outbreak of the War of Independence, it contributed to the spread of books on Athos and among the enslaved Greek people.
The intellectual development of Mount Athos and its generally progressive course stopped with the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. The monasteries, which had given advice during its preparation now offered practical support. A large number of monks abandoned Athos, where a Turkish garrison was quartered. Some sought to avoid the atrocities of the Turkish soldiers, others felt it their duty to fight against them, casting aside the habit and taking up the sword to join combat alongside their fellow-countrymen. A decade later, when the struggle for independence had ended in victory, the survivors returned to start the re-building and the restoration of the monasteries. Thus Athos embarked upon a new period of development which continues to this day.
In the last century a marked inflow of monks from abroad - Bulgarians, Romanians and especially Russians - who harboured not the interests of Orthodoxy but more earthly motives, tried to internationalise Mount Athos, without success. The Athonite monks resisted proudly the various external pressures, remaining an integral part of the Greek State, and a mostly Greek-born community, where Greek was the chief language, as it had always been, notwithstanding the existence of monks of other nationalities.
Source: Mount Athos, Sotiris Kadas, Ekdotike Athenon S.A.