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MONI KOUTLOUMOUSSIOU (Monastery) AGION OROS
Tel: +30 23770 23226
Fax: +30 23770 23731
The monastery buildings are set in a rectangular shape with a rather vast courtyard, with the central church (Katholicon) in its center. The refectory is presently built a new (1995), while the central church, built in the 16th century, is covered with five domes and with a glass covered exonarthex.
The original monastery was built before the 12th century but in the 14th centutry, abbot Chariton of Imvros, receeded to the enlargement of the monastery; during its lifetime vast destructions were caused either by fire or by fall of rocks.
Apart from the Katholicon frescoes dated in the mid 16th century, the monastery possesses more than 600 manuscipts, many of which are illuminated, as well as imporant historic archive and a large number of old printed books.
IN THE MEDIEVAL TOWNSHIP of Karyes,
with its picturesque houses dominated by the Protaton
Basilica, the mists of winter weigh as heavy as lead, as if they sought to
halt the advance of time. Only with difficulty can one make out the cobbled road
leading out of the town to a green hillside in the direction of Koutloumousi.
The mist drifts close to the ground, caressing the golden-green leaves of the
hazel trees, the slender trunks of the wild chestnuts, "where nature has
striven to offer a unique model of magnificence and beauty of form", the
vines and the olive trees, the variety of ornamental trees which betray the hand
of man among the natural vegetation. From out of this composition of elements
emerges the silent, formidable old guardian of mysteries, the castle wall, from
which in turn rise a lofty defensive tower and domes covered in lead. They stare
out over the Thracian Gulf,
over Samothrace and Imbros
and the summit of Athos itself,
crowned in white snow during the winter months. The pilgrim pauses for a moment
and quenches his thirst at the vaulted fountain, which faces the gate of the Monastery.
It was built in 1816 in the form of a house of prayer. The marble relief of the
conch bears the words: "O Christ the Word, Transfigured, Saviour, have pity
on those who reside herein. "Christ is the life of this place, and its purpose
is to bring heaven to a little parcel of earth, and to prepare men for their future
life as citizens of heaven.
The gateway to the Monastery is a neo-classical structure, with a fine colonnaded porch. Every period has left its mark here. The iron gate opens at dawn and is locked at sunset. Passing through the vaulted propylon the pilgrim enters the courtyard, where a new world stands revealed, the coming together of the artistic tendencies of a thousand years. Rows of circular arches with decorative brickwork features, corridors and stairways with windows, all in the graceful Byzantine style, look out over the paved courtyard. The Monastery is laid out in the shape of an irregular rectangle. The northern, eastern and southern sides are occupied by three-story buildings, while against the fortified wall of the western side stands the Refectory, an L-shaped building constructed of stone. In the centre of the cluster of buildings, dominating the other structures, stands the Catholikon (main church), which is the heart of monastic life. It was built shortly after 1369 and is an enlarged version of the older and smaller church. It is the first example on Mt. Athos of the evolved type of Athonite Catholikon.
In a conspicuous point in the courtyard stands the Phiale - an octagon of marble with relief panels, white columns and, in the centre, a marble font, where the blessing of the waters takes place. The Phiale was built in 1813 by a talented sculptor from a workshop on the island Tinos. A little farther on, opposite the entrance to the Catholikon, stands the picturesque refectory building. Matthaios, Patriarch of Alexandria built it in 1767, on the site of the earlier wing, which had been destroyed by fire. It has recently been renovated and a number of monks are engaged exclusively in the work of decorating it with paintings.
Within the Church the atmosphere is one of solemn mystery. The elegance of the surroundings blends perfectly with the seriousness of the occasion: the baroque wood-carving of the altar screen, with its undulating zones, the whole surface seeming to vibrate with the rich life of the relief carvings, and the austere wall-paintings of the Cretan School, dating from the 16th century. We first pay homage to the icon of the Lord’s Transfiguration, and then that of the Panagia Stylarini, in which the Virgin enthroned bears the infant Jesus in her arms. This 14th century miracle-working icon comes from Stylari, in Marmaras, where there was a dependency of the Monastery. The local people called the icon "The Healer", for it was said to cure all the ailments of people in the region around, and was held in great esteem. The annex chapel is the place of honour of the household icon of the Monastery, the "Fearsome Protection", painted in the 13th century. The Virgin holds the infant Lord tightly in her embrace, but His face is turned towards the angel who bears the symbols of the Passion. When pirates landed here, intent on plunder, by grace of the icon the Monastery vanished and was spared. Cowering behind barred doors, the monks, their ears ringing with the clamor of voices and firearms from without the walls, were eventually amazed to see that the pirates had left empty-handed. Their only victim was a passer-by whom they had hanged outside the Monastery gate, infuriated at his inability to tell them where the Monastery had gone. Also to be seen here is the Panagia Eleousa, from an old dependency in Serres, long disappeared.
Each afternoon one of the priest-monks brings out the holy relics to be worshipped. Among them is a piece of the True Cross, the foot of Saint Ann (Mother of Virgin Mary), untouched by decay, the hand of St. Gregory the Theologian, the head of St. Alypios, who lived as a hermit for 60 years on a column in the Paphlagonian desert. These were gifts of the Monastery’s first patron, The Great Emperor Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118).
ACCORDING TO ONE SCHOOL OF THOUGHT, the founder of the Monastery was employed in the 11th century in the court of Kutlumus, the head of the Seljuk dynasty of that name in Asia Minor. A more likely theory is that the founder is to be sought among the monastic communities of Palestine in the 11th century, since in one of the old Arab dialects the word Kutlumus denotes the church of Christ the Saviour, to Whom the Catholicon of the Monastery has always been dedicated. The founder of the Monastery was known to later generations as Saint Koutloumousis, "the Chosen and Beloved of God, that most excellent in all things and virtuous Koutloumousis", in the words of the Protos Isaac (14th century). The first signature we have of an abbot of the Koutloumousi Monastery is to be found in a document of 1169, among the signatures of the representatives of 28 Athonite monasteries. At that time, and for another hundred years, the Monastery was in no position to boast of its opulence or its exalted rank in the hierarchy of the Monasteries. Its economic stagnation was exacerbated by the depredations of Franks and Catalans during the period of Frankish rule, and by the brutality of the army of Michael VIII, which descended on Mt. Athos to enforce the union with the Pope which the Greek Emperor had signed in Lyons. Tradition has it that the monks were hanged and their bodies buried behind the Catholikon. Yet their sacrifice was not in vain. In 1263 the Protos of Mt. Athos conceded to Koutloumousi the abandoned Monastery of the Prophet Elias, and later, in 1287, the Monastery of Stavronikita, at that time in a state of dissolution. The Protos at this period was an elected official with administrative jurisdiction over the whole of Mt. Athos. These additions to the Monastery’s assets, together with the progressive temperament and the spiritual struggles of the fathers, led to a period of rapid growth for the Monastery.
However, the pirate raids continued. At the most critical period royal assistance arrived at Koutloumousi in the person of Andronikos II Paleologue, followed shortly after by Theodora Kantakouzini, who wrote: "To those who lead a virtuous life and who do battle so nobly and heroically at the monastery honored with the name of Christ the Saviour, also known as Koutloumousi... I hereby make a gift of the property in Serres known as Eleousa, which I purchased from the Holy Monastery of The Savior and Creator and Pantocrator in Constantinople, glorious to God", stipulating explicitly that none of the provisions of her gift should be altered. In exchange she required that her name be commemorated daily in the holy services and that each year prayers be said for the peace of her soul. The monastic spirit had penetrated into the royal chambers and had touched the hearts of those who shared a sense of the more profound meaning of existence. However, after the fatal blow struck by the Frankish crusaders, the Eastern Roman Empire never recovered its former economic health. The monks of Mt. Athos were obliged to seek help elsewhere.
Hariton of Imbros took over the reins of the Monastery a little before 1362. By vigorous representations to the rulers of Hungary and Wallachia he managed to secure financial assistance in restoring the Monastery, as well as gifts of land. The first benefactors were Alexandros Basarab, and his successor Ioannis Vladislav. The latter, however, insisted that the abbot should abolish the cenobitic system and introduce to the Monastery the new idiorrhythmic rule, which permitted the monks to own personal property and to follow their own daily programme. Such a system well suited the Wallachian monks, who had no tradition of monastic life, and who wished to settle at the Monastery, but without adjusting to the demands of the cenobitic life, with its common spiritual and economic organization. Hariton wrote that "the cenobitic life is heaven on earth, and the allotted fate of the fathers". Finally, however, financial hardship left him no alternative but to yield, in sadness of heart, and to introduce the idiorrhythmic system, but on the inviolable condition that Koutloumousi should remain a Greek monastery.
Another result of these relations was the profound influence exerted by the Greek culture on the spiritual life of the Danubian provinces. It was no coincidence that the Ecumenical Patriarch St. Philotheos Kokkinos appointed Hariton Metropolitan of Hungary and Wallachia, while he continued to carry out his duties as abbot of his Monastery.
In 1393 the Patriarch Antonios proclaimed Koutloumousi a Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery. This meant that it now enjoyed the care and protection of the Patriarch, and was free from interference or influence from any secular power. A similar freedom was conveyed in the imperial golden bulls, by virtue of which the Monasteries are honoured with the appellation of "royal". By and large this privileged status was respected even by the Ottoman rulers. And so, in the following centuries, the Monastery was free to enjoy a course of steady growth and prosperity, by 1574 ascending to occupy sixth position in the hierarchical ranking of the Athonite monasteries.
However, the consequences of the disintegration of the Roman Empire were not easy to bear: an economic crisis brought on by the burden of taxation and the confiscation of monastic estates, a decline in the number of monks. Fortunately in due course the Monasteries succeeded in placing all their civil affairs under the direct authority of the Sultan. At the same time Koutloumousi was able to maintain enclaves of the faith and rallying points for the enslaved Greek people at its dependencies in Serres, on Andros, Imbros, Samos, Limnos, at Marmaras, in Sithonia, Crete and even in Slatina in Romania. Monks were also dispatched as priests to serve the thriving Greek communities of central Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Monastery had to rely exclusively on the support of pious Greeks. The end of the 18th century brought distinction to the Monastery in the work of the most distinguished figure in the modern history of Koutloumousi, the scholar Bartholomew of Imbros, teacher and editor of the liturgical books.
In the mid-19th century the Monastery was subjected to a new ordeal, owing to the new expansionist policy of the Russians. An attempt was made in 1856 by instruments of the new Russian policy to impose a Russian identity on the Monastery. Their plans, which had succeeded at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, came to nothing in the case of Koutloumousi, thanks to the indivisible sense of fellowship binding the monks. This year was a milestone for another reason, too: as the result of a unanimous petition addressed by the monks to the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Monastery returned to its original cenobitic rule. It was at this time that a fire reduced the northern wing of the Monastery to ashes. The priest-monk Meletios, distinguished for his virtue and administrative talents, travelled with the blessing of the Patriarchate as far as Russia, western Europe and even America, with letters from the Monastery seeking financial support. He was successful enough to be able to finance the restoration of the northern wing, but his project of a further construction was interrupted by his demise.
In the wake of the Second World War the Monastery was afflicted by an alarming decline in the number of monks. The ravages of time and the almost total loss of the Monastery’s assets in land, jeopardized its very existence. But eventually the will of God manifested itself in the survival and gradual recovery of the Monastery’s fortunes. It has not of course been a road entirely without obstacles and setbacks: in 1980 the eastern wing was burned, while torrential rains caused landslides and cracks in the Monastery buildings. But God never subjects us to temptation and trial without providing also the necessary patience to endure, and to await the final happy outcome.
THE DAYS AND NIGHTS of the monks are divided between communal worship, private prayer and study, the chores of the Monastery and relaxation, the latter determined with reference to the stamina of the individual. The monk’s striving for oneness with God commences each day at 2 in the morning, in his cell; at 3 am the service in church begins: Midnight Prayers, Matins, Hours, Divine Liturgy. The life of worship follows a ritual pattern established over the centuries and adjusted to the particular conditions of each Monastery.
THE MONASTERY COMMUNITY today numbers thirty monks, while some forty others live in the dependencies of the Monastery. Despite numerous trials and tribulations, and thanks to the support of pious Christians, the Monastery is now on the road of recovery. The new innovations are still guided by the spirit of the traditional rules, while the future of the Monastery is now confronted with a new dynamism, inspired by the spirit of renewal at work in the Orthodox Tradition. The icon painters in the Monastery workshop continue to follow the Byzantine models of the Cretan School. And the old art of calligraphy is still cultivated, faithful to the old tradition, as far as the daily workload of the monks permits. Meanwhile the Monastery, as we pass through a time which tends to ignore the life of the spirit, has been at work building bridges by means of which the Orthodox message can be conveyed, offering old wine in new bottles. First and foremost, however, it perseveres in its main task, that of prayer, the liturgical and mystical reference of all things to God.
This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople URL below.
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