What is Mount Athos?
In physical terms Mount Athos is a peninsula, 56 kilometres long and not more than 8 kilometres wide, jutting out into the Aegean from Halkidiki, the most easterly of its three splayed claws (see map). Its northern border roughly follows the 100-metre contour across the isthmus. South of it the land rises steeply to wooded peaks of 500 and 600 metres. South of the claw's knuckle the woods give way to scrub and ultimately to bare rock as the contours rise, peaking finally at 2030 metres before a sudden drop down to the sea. From the summit, snow-capped for much of the year, Robert Byron claimed he could see the plains of Troy; but even he admitted that the flat dome of St Sophia in Constantinople 'rose only in the mind'. For in spiritual terms Athos is not of this world at all: it is, at least for those who live there, a station in sacred space, a foretaste of paradise. Not for nothing is it known as the Holy Mountain.
For more than a thousand years Athos has existed as the principal centre of monasticism for the Orthodox Church -- or rather for all the Orthodox Churches. Ever since Byzantine times it has been a pan-Orthodox, multi-national centre. There were once monasteries for Albanians, Amalfitans, Bulgarians, Georgians, Moldavians, Russians, Serbs, and Wallachians as well as Greeks. Today there are still houses for Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians, Russians, and Serbs. Furthermore Athos is unique for being a portion of contemporary Europe entirely devoted to the monastic life and to nothing else.
Today the Mountain has a total population of some 2200 monks, a figure that is steadily rising. Most follow the cenobitic tradition which brings monks into communities for living, working, and worshipping together. Others follow the eremitical tradition and live as hermits, either in small groups or as solitaries. Between them they inhabit a variety of different establishments.
First and foremost are the so-called ruling monasteries. Their number is fixed by charter at twenty (though there were once more); and they follow a rigid hierarchy of precedence, beginning with the oldest, the Great Lavra, Vatopedi, and Iviron, and ending with Konstamonitou. Each is a self-governing coenobium, owing allegiance to no ecclesiastical authority. Even the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch is restricted to matters of spirituality that affect the monks. Of the twenty, seventeen are Greek, one Serbian, one Russian, and one Bulgarian. Between them they rule the Mountain.
In addition to the ruling monasteries there are many other smaller settlements, though each must function as a dependency of one of the principal houses. First in importance come the sketes. These tend to be smaller, poorer, and more ascetic than their parent house; but apart from being ruled by a prior rather than an abbot, their organization is very similar to that of the monasteries. Some, such as the Romanian house of Prodromos, even look like a monastery, having a number of cells grouped around a courtyard with a church in the middle. But the majority are more loosely structured, being little more than a collection of cottages clustered round a central church.
After the sketes come the kellia or cells. Looking very much like an isolated farmhouse, each kellion is completely independent of its neighbours and answers only to its parent monastery. It has its own chapel and usually houses three or four monks. Then come the kalyves and kathismata which are like the kellia but smaller. Finally there are the hesychasteria, the true hermitages, simple huts or more often just caves in the cliff, to which monks resort in search of complete isolation and rigorous asceticism. Many of these cluster around the southern tip of the peninsula in what is called the desert of Athos. Here men spend their lives in prayer and are rarely seen.
Be a Pilgrim
All visitors to Mount Athos are by definition pilgrims. Whatever reason you have for visiting them, the monks will welcome you as a pilgrim. It may be helpful to bear this in mind when planning, making, and recalling your visit. It will help you to decide such things as what clothes to wear, what books to read, what subjects to discuss with the monks, what to do and where to go on the Holy Mountain, how to approach fellow visitors, how to describe your experience when you return.
Pilgrimage means different things to different people. In English the word means a journey undertaken for religious purposes and implies a degree of hardship or discomfort. But the Greek word for pilgrimage, proskynesis , means prostration or veneration: in other words it lays stress on what you do when you arrive rather than on how you got there. Pilgrims therefore hold quite different views on how to travel between monasteries, and the recent proliferation of roads and vehicles means that often there is a choice.
One belief that is shared by the vast majority of pilgrims and certainly by all the inhabitants of Mount Athos is that the Mountain is actually holy ground. The tradition that Athos was visited by the Virgin Mary is very much alive and accounts for the dedication of the Mountain to the glory of the Mother of God and for the exclusion from it of all other women.
The Mountain is unique for many other reasons too: for its history, its architecture, its art, its place in the history of scholarship, its music, its ecology, its flora, its fauna, its incomparable natural beauty, its seclusion, its silence, its worship. For all these reasons -- and it is accepted that any one of them is a perfectly valid motive for visiting Athos -- the Mountain expects and merits our respect.