History of Mount Athos

The peninsula of the Holy Mountain (HM), the north-eastern ‘finger’ of the gigantic ‘palm’ of myth of Chalcidice, which juts out more than 60 km. into the Aegean Sea, occupies an area of 332.5 sq. km. Its terrain can be described as irregular, consisting of rows of hills which start out from Megali Vigla side by side in the direction of Athos to culminate at the end of the peninsula in the legendary stone giant of Athos, of a height of 2,035 m. The land is well-planted, without being particularly rich soil. It has become rich, however, in the gardens of the settlements, where centuries of the toil of monks have produced a soil which is fruitful because of a natural fertiliser - leaf mould - brought from the woods. Before its monastic community was established, the peninsula was the home of tribes "speaking two languages", "a few Chalcidic, for the most part Pelasgic". Their communities were no more than "small towns", with few inhabitants and of little historical significance (Thucydides IV, 109 - Strabo VII, 35). The names of some of the towns within the boundaries of the peninsula are known to us: "Dion, Olophyxos, Acrothoon, Thyssos, Cleonae" (Herodotus VII, 22). Beyond the peninsula were the towns of Panormos, Stratonice, Acanthos, Singos, Apollonia, Stagira, Amphipolis, Galepsos, Olynthos, Assa, Pylorus, Sarte, Torone, Potidaea, Ouranoupolis, etc. (Claudius Ptolemaeus, Geogr., 13, 11 - Herodotus VII, 122 - Strabo VII, 35 - Stephen of Byzantine, ed. Meineke, 6.65, 135, 229, 523, 557, 685).

The history of Athos is associated with the sinking of two fleets. The first took place in 492 BC, when the Persian general Mardonius mounted a campaign against Athens and Eretria. His 300 ships, with 20,000 foot soldiers, sank on the rocks of Nymphaeum. In 411 BC, 50 Spartan ships, under their admiral Epicleus, also sank (Diodorus Siculus, XIII 41, 1-3). The colonisation of Athos began in very ancient times and is lost in the mists of prehistory. The first settlers we hear of were the Pelasgians from Lemnos (Strabo VII 35). After the end of the Trojan War, around 1150 BC, large areas extending from Troy as far as Chalcidice were deserted and uninhabited. It was at that time that two dynamic cities of Euboea, Eretria and Chalcis, together with Andros, colonised Chalcidice, naturally including Athos (Thucydides IV 109 - Strabo X 8, VIII 31 - Stephen of Byzantium, ed. Meineke, p. 685). One great achievement in antiquity which certainly should be mentioned is the completion in 481 of the digging of a canal across the peninsula by Xerxes. The work had taken three years (Herodotus VII 22 - Strabo VII 35 - Aelius Aristides, Panathenaeicus, 120-122 and 126-128).

Athos played an important part in mythology, as it was dedicated to Zeus (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 282 - Hesychius, under ‘Athos’). Only the gods set foot on the summit, on their way from place to place (Homer, Iliad 14, 229), or from there they sent signals by beacons - "blazing fire" - on the occasion of major historical events such as the fall of Troy (Aeschylus, op. cit.).

During the great upheaval of history which was the spread of the Christian Gospel to the Gentiles, Athos again received a "blazing fire", which it would radiate forth in due time. The Apostle Paul and his companions passed close to Athos " travelling by way of Amphipolis and Apollonia" (Acts 17, 1). Its Christianisation was rapid, in preparation for its sublime role in the future.

With Islamic expansionism, from the 7th century onwards, the towns of Athos were frequently the victims of raids by barbarous tribes. They lay waste for perhaps two centuries, in preparation for the beginning of a new vocation. The first settler we know of to initiate Athos into its new role was St Peter the Athonite (8th century). This Father lived the ascetic life on Athos for 53 years, without ever meeting another human being. After his death, his myrrh-exuding relics and the fame of his ascetic practices attracted his first imitators, who probably came from Palestine, uprooted from their monastic homes by the advance of Islam. This receives some confirmation from the use of names of Palestinian monasteries on Athos. All these were the first leaven of the Athonite monastic community. For this reason, and because they had a history of support for the icons, they took part in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 843 (Joseph Genesius, publ. Bonn, p. 82).

During the 9th century, many famous ascetics by their spiritual warfare established the ‘Holy Mountain’ as the name for Athos. Around 859-860, St Euthymius, together with one Joseph, lived the ascetic life here. Two of the Saint’s disciples, John Colobus and the Blessed Basil, founded the first monasteries on Athos: the former one which took his name, near Ierissos, and the other one with his name at what is now the arsanas of the Chilandari Monastery. Another monk, their contemporary, St Basil of Amorion, set up a small monastic house at the foot of the mountain.

In the year 883 the first imperial chrysobull concerning Athos was issued by Basil I the Macedonian. This favoured the unimpeded development of the HM into a monastic republic, with the request that those living the monastic life there should pray "for peace and for the whole community of Christians". The second chrysobull was issued in 908, and the third in 934, thus demonstrating the interest of the Emperors in the HM. From this point on, it is evident that the spiritual centre of the HM, with administrative powers, had been transferred from Zygos to Karyes, and that the Protaton, as the "seat of the elders" was the symbol of spiritual power and of the unity of all the Athonites. In 942-944, by a special official document, the demarcation of the boundary between the monks of Athos and the monks of Ierissos - at the natural frontier of Zygos, as it is today - was settled.

In the 10th century, the HM was established as a monastic community for the whole orthodox Christian world by the presence there of St Athanasius, who was born at Trebizond in 930 and died at the Megiste Lavra Monastery, which he had founded, in 997. In 961, Athanasius, invited to visit Crete by the valorous general and subsequently Emperor (963) Nicephorus Phocas, contributed to the re-taking of the island from the Saracens who had held it. This campaign, of great importance for the whole Mediterranean, was crowned with success through the prayers of the Saint. The pirate treasure hidden in 1,500 caves in Crete passed into the hands of the conquerors. A part of this treasure was given by Nicephorus in gratitude to his teacher for his contribution to this victory, for him to found the Lavra.

The building of the Megiste Lavra was the beginning of a revolutionary era for the affairs of the Athonites. The conservative elements on Athos regarded this as a dangerous innovation which would overthrow the now established institution of the eremitical way of life on the HM. A climate of division and quarrelling grew up, and the matter reached the Emperor John Tsimiskes (967-976), who sent Euthymius, Abbot of the Studium Monastery, to the Mountain. Euthymius restored good order, issuing the First Typikon (972).

The 11th century began with the period of the HM’s greatest fame and prosperity. It was now acknowledged as the greatest monastic community in the world, with a prestige which carried great authority. Here all the modes of monastic life complemented each other, from the extremes of eremitism to the idiorrhthymic system. The great monasteries were already firmly established: the Megiste Lavra, Vatopaidi, Iveron, Xeropotamou, Zographou, Docheiariou, Philotheou, Esphigmenou, the Rossikon, the Monastery of the Amalfitans. There were about 180 small monastic houses, kellia and kalyves, while the number of monks was in excess of 3,000. The great monasteries were self-governing and independent of the will of the Protos. These were termed ‘royal’, ‘great’, ‘first’, while the rest were described as ‘lesser’, ‘second’, ‘monasteries under the Protos’.

In 1045, the Second Typikon was drawn up, with a view to bringing back into force various provisions which had been neglected. This was signed by Constantine IX Monomachus. The Protos is recognised as chairman of assemblies, while in parallel with the assembly of elders, a small standing assembly, the Epistasia, was to operate.

But, alas, the great days of the HM were drawing to an end. The Athonite community was mortally threatened by the sacrilegious domination of a great part of Byzantine territory, including Athos, by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade (1204). Now the HM, by a letter of Pope Innocent III (27 November 1206), was made subject politically to the ‘state’ of Thessaloniki under Boniface of Montserrat, and ecclesiastically to the ‘Bishop’ of Samareia-Sebasteia, a papal titular bishopric in Thrace (PL 215, 1030). From this point on, tyranny, pillaging, humiliations and murder became a way of life. The monasteries "were at once wiped out and utterly collapsed, and those living in them were slaughtered like sacrificial victims" (PG 145, 432 et seq., 140, 1061 BC).

In 1222, the Despot of Epirus, Theodore Ducas, re-took Macedonia and Athos was once again free. When Constantinople itself was recovered, in 1261, the HM renewed its ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. However, things remained in a state of flux, which was exacerbated by the frequent raids of Bulgars, Sicilians, Franks, and Turks.

While the dark memory of the rule of the Latins was still fresh in the minds of the Greeks, the Emperor Michael VIII began attempts to achieve a union between Orthodoxy and the Papacy - a union understood by the latter as meaning the submission and absorption of the former. This union was established in 1277. The Athonites respectfully, but firmly, called upon the Emperor and the Council to come to themselves, but Michael "was so enraged, being intoxicated with savage thoughts" that he imposed penalties on any movement: "on any single person who made a move ..." (Pachymeres, E’ 18, 24 vi 24). The HM ceased to commemorate the Emperor in its services, and he responded by sending troops, to take revenge. "He ordered that all [the Athonites] should be put to the sword." Monasteries were burnt down, together with the Protaton: "they consigned to the flames the whole Protaton with the church" (ibid. E’ 24 - Laurent & Darrouzes, Dossier Grec de l’Union de Lyon, 1976, pp. 487-507).

After Michael’s death, his son Andronicus II (1282-1328) was proclaimed Emperor and devoted all his efforts to reconstruction and the healing of wounds, issuing specially for the HM no fewer than 100 chrysobulls. During the period 1307-8, a wave of Catalan brigands, led by a Jewish charlatan, Arnaldo de Villanova, overran Athos, bringing with them ruin and destruction. With the advance of the Serbs, and the visit to the HM of the kral Stephen Dushan, in 1347-48, Serbian bishops sought that Athos should be made subject to the newly set-up Patriarchate of the Serbs. The Athonites, with the Patrirach Philotheus Coccinus acting on their behalf, engaged in an evasive move by declaring dependence upon the Greek Bishop of Ierissos, for a few years. As the century drew to a close, the Third Typikon was issued, in 1393.

Up to this point, a historical overview of the life and activity of Athos presents the following picture: Athos is adopted as a centre for ascetics and acquires its own identity as such (9th century); it is given a personality by laws and typika (10th century); it is equipped with buildings and develops in proportion to its fame (11th century); it experiences a zenith and a decline in dramatic forms (12th century); it emerges from the dangerous vicissitudes of history through prudence and determination (13th century). But the century in which the HM triumphantly distinguished itself for the first time in theology, art, and mysticism was the 14th - the age of Hesychasm. Hesychasm was not simply a movement: it was, and is, a practice and experience of Orthodox spirituality; it is a participation in a hidden mystery; it is theological aspiration, an immersion in otherwise inaccessible penetration of dogma. Only here has the aristocracy of the spiritual community coincided with the humility of Hesychast life. Here the theologian communes with a structured and consistent system, the mystic with an authentic and unerring rule of spiritual life, the artist with an inexhaustible source of inspiration (for more, see Monk Dorotheos, To Aghion Oros, 1985, pp. 66-77).

From 1380, the HM was dominated for quarter of a century by "the impious and God-hating and all-abominable race of the Ottomans" (Neos Ellinomnimon 16, 1922, 10), but in 1403 the valiant Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus recovered Macedonia as far as Tempe, and compelled the Turks, by a special term of 29 September 1404, to abstain from entering Athonite territory and troubling the monks. The devotees of Allah not only stole property, not only razed buildings to their foundations, not only burnt down crops, but rounded up human beings as prisoners.

In 1424, the HM surrendered itself to Sultan Murat II, having extracted from him the promise that the institutions of Athos would be respected. Now the Athonites were called upon to use all their ingenuity, as well as a great deal of money, to maintain the integrity of Athos, which groaned under the burden of vast taxation, the arbitrary conduct of state officials, the billeting of soldiers, and pirate and robber raids. In these critical times, the protection of the HM was undertaken by Orthodox princes of the North - of Hungro-Wallachia, Moldavia, Georgia, Russia.

From the second half of the 16th century, the darkness thickened, as the tyranny became more systematic. In 1568, Sultan Selim II confiscated the Athonite estates, together with all their immovable property. The monasteries, in order to recover them, resorted to Jewish money-lenders, with the consequence that their property was in danger of falling into their hands. This threat was great and manifest. St Dionysius, a child of the HM, who lived the ascetic’s life at Olympus in Thessaly, reproved the Athonites for their foolishness: You had many valuable objects, he told them, "and you did not sell them, but gave them to the Jews, the enemies of God, and they acquired them only for the interest ..." (Meyer, pp. 218 et seq.). At the same time they had the consolation that there were many saints on the Mountain. The number of monks on the HM at that period was in excess of 6,000 (see Dorotheos, Vol II, p. 117, note 6). In 1574, the Fifth Typikon was issued.

The Greek world and the HM no less were preparing themselves to throw off the Turkish yoke. Such preparations, always inconspicuous, took place at all levels. The latter-day martyrs, souls filled with fire and passion, set the seal on their faith and their Greekness with their blood, while they armed the souls of their enslaved brothers with strength and aspiration. Of the latter-day martyrs there were thousands, and one in every two was an Athonite. They are followed by the potential martyrs: the mentors of the latter-day martyrs, the men of letters, the missionaries to the nation, the gunsmiths, the guerrilla fighters, the teachers, the members of the secret Society for the Liberation of Greece, the prophets. Of the latter, we should mention the great St Cosmas of Aetolia (1714-79), who, like Atlas, supported the Greek world on his shoulders. For 19 years he ranged the Balkans, but particularly Greece. He encouraged and inspired the timorous subject Greek, reminding him of his noble ancestry and his superiority over the Turk and the Jew, the former of whom was mercilessly grinding him down, and the latter fiendishly defrauding him.

The message of the Revolution found Athos vibrant with passion. The uprising was unanimous, without hesitation. The number of Athonites who took part is variously estimated from a thousand to more than two thousand (see Dorotheos, p. 132, note 7). But the ammunition gave out and their fortunes were reversed in a manner horrifying to relate. The liberation of Athos was long delayed. It was on 2 November 1912 that the forceful presence of the flagship Averof and the legendary Admiral Pavlos Koundouriotis ensured the liberty of the HM. Athos had been increasing in strength and prosperity since the beginning of the century, reaching the highest point in 1917. At that time there were 10,000 monks, 500- 600 traders and craftsmen, 120 shops and workshops, and three shipping companies. The year 1924 saw the voting of the Charter of the HM, which regulates the relations between Athos and the Greek State. In 1963, the thousandth anniversary of the HM, the latest major event in the tumultuous history of Athos, was celebrated with Byzantine grandeur and grace. Today, the monks number around 1,500.

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