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The Catholic Encyclopedia

Mount Athos

  Athos is a small tongue of land that projects into the Aegean Sea, being the eastern-most of the three strips in which the great mountainous peninsula of Chalcidice ends. It is almost cut off from the mainland, to which it is bound only by a narrow isthmus dotted with lakes and swamps interspersed with alluvial plains. It has been well called “a Greece in miniature”, because of the varied contour of its coasts, deep bays and inlets, bold cliffs and promontories, steep wooded slopes, and valleys winding inland. Several cities existed here in pre-Christian antiquity, and a sanctuary of Zeus (Jupiter) is said to have stood on the mountain. The isthmus was famous for the canal (3,950 feet in length) which Xerxes had dug across it, in order to avoid the perilous turning of the limestone peak immemorially known as Mount Athos, in which the small peninsula ends, and which rises to a height of some 6,000 feet.From the summit of this peak on a clear day are visible the coasts of Macedonia and Thrace, even the entire Aegean from Mount Olympus in Thessaly to Mount Ida in Asia Minor.
  Its chief modern interest lies in the fact that at least from the beginning of the Middle Ages it has been the home of a little monastic republic that still retains almost the same autonomy granted a thousand years ago by the Christian emperors of Constantinople. In 1905 the many fortified monasteries and hermitages of Athos contained 7,553 monks (including their numerous male dependents), members of the Orthodox Greek Church: Greeks, 3,207; Russians, 3,615; Bulgarians, 340; Rumanians, 288; Georgians, 53; Servians, 18; other nationalities 32. The principal monasteries bear the following names: Laura, Iviron, Vatopedi, Chilandarion, St. Dionysius, Coutloumousi, Pantocrator, Xiropotamos, Zographu, Docheiarion, Caracalla, Philotheos, Simopetra, St. Paul, Stauroniceta, Xenophon, Gregorios, Esphigmenon, St. Panteleimon, St. Anna (Rossicon), and Karyses.
  The origins of monastic life on Mount Athos are obscure. It is probable that individual hermits sought its lonely recesses during the fourth and fifth centuries, and were numerous in the ninth century at the time of the first certain attempts at monastic organization. The nearest episcopal see was that of Hierissus, and in conformity with ancient law and usage its bishop claimed jurisdiction over the monks of the little peninsula. In 885 Emperor Basil the Macedonian emancipated them from the jurisdiction of the monastery of St. Colobos near Hierissus, and allotted to them Mount Athos as their property. Soon after, the oldest of the principal monasteries, Xiropotamos, was built and adopted the rule of St. Basil.
  About 960 a far-reaching reform was introduced by the Anatolian monk Athanasius of Trebizond, later known as Athonites. With several companions from Asia Minor he founded by the seashore the monastery since known as Laura, where he raised the monastic life to a high degree of perfection. Eventually the new settlement was accepted as a model. With the help of the imperial authority of John Tzimisces (969-976) all opposition was set aside and the cenobitic or community life imposed on the hermits scattered in the valleys and forests. Athanasius was made abbot general or superior (Protos) of the fifty-eight monastic communities then on the mountain. From this period date the monasteries known as Iviron (Iberians), Vatopedi, and Esphigmenon. At this time, also, there arose a cause of internal conflict that has never been removed. Hitherto only one nationality, the Greek, was represented among the monks. Henceforth, Slavic faith and generosity, and later on Slavic interests, had to be considered. In this way arose during the reign of Alexius I (1081-1118) the strictly Slavic monasteries of Chilandarion and Zographu.
  With the aid of the Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1046, Constantine Monomachos regulated the domestic government of the monastery the administration of their temporal possessions, and their commercial activity. By the imperial document (typicon) which he issued, women are forbidden the peninsula. About the year 1100 the monasteries of Mount Athos were 180 in number, and sheltered 700 monks, with their dependents. At this time there came into general use the term Hagion Oros (Holy Mountain, hagion oros, Monte Santo). Alexius I granted the monasteries immunity from taxation, freed them from all subjection to the Patriarch of Constantinople, and placed them under his immediate protection. They still depended, however, on the neighboring Bishop of Hierissus for the ordination of their priests and deacons.
  A century later, after the capture of Constantinople (1204), the Latin Crusaders abused the monks, who thereupon appealed to Innocent III; he took them under his protection and in his letters paid a tribute to their monastic virtues. However, with the restoration of Greek political supremacy the monks returned (1313) to their old allegiance to Constantinople. Amid the political disasters of the Greeks, during the fourteenth century, Mount Athos appears as a kind of Holy Land, a retreat for many men eminent in Church and State, and a place where the spirit of Greek patriotism was cherished when threatened elsewhere. The Fall of Constantinople (1453) brought no modification of the conditions on the Holy Mountain.
  This monastic republic is governed by an assembly of 20 members one representative from each of the 20 principal monasteries; from among these is elected annually, and in due rotation, a committee of 4 presidents. The great seal of the united monasteries is in four pieces and is divided among the members of this committee. One of the members is chosen as chairman, or Protos. Meetings of the assembly are held weekly (Saturday), at Karyaes, and the assembly acts as a supreme parliament and tribunal, with appeal, however, to the patriarch at Constantinople. The Turkish Government is represented by an agent at Karyaes, the diminutive capital of the peninsula and the landing-place for visitors. A detachment of Christian soldiers is usually stationed there, and no one may land without permission of the monastic authorities. The monks have also an agent at Saloniki and another at Constantinople. In its present form the constitution of the monasteries dates from 1783.
  Each of the twenty great monasteries (twenty-one, including Karyaes) possesses its own large church and numerous chapels within and without its enclosure, which is strongly fortified. The high walls and strong towers are reminders of the troubled times of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when corsairs abounded and self-defense was imperative. All of the great monasteries are on the Holy Mountain proper, and are most picturesquely situated from sea to summit, amid dense masses of oak, pine, and chestnut, or on inaccessible crags. To each of these monasteries is attached a certain number of minor monasteries (sketai, asceteria), small monastic settlements (kathismata), and hermitages (kellia, cellae). Every monastic habitation must be affiliated to one or the other of the great monasteries and is subject to its direction or supervision. All monasteries are dedicated to the Mother of God, the larger ones under some specially significant title.
  The ancient Greek Rule of St. Basil is still followed by all. In the observance of the Rule, however, the greater monasteries are divided into two classes, some following strictly the cenobitic life, while others permit a larger personal freedom. The latter are called “idiorhythmic”; in them the monks have a right of personal ownership and a certain share in the government of the monastery (Council of Elders); they take their meals apart, and are subject to less severe regulations. In the former, known as “cenobitic” (koinobion, coenobium, common life), there is a greater monastic rigor. The superior, or hegoumenos, has absolute authority, and all property is held in common.
  The chief occupation of the monks is that of solemn public prayer, by night and by day. This leaves little time for agricultural, industrial, or intellectual labor. Some fish, or practice minor industries in aid of the common support, or administer the monastic estates located elsewhere; others go abroad occasionally to collect a part of the yearly tribute (about two dollars and a half) that each monk must pay to the Turkish Government. A portion of this is collected from the monks themselves; the rest is secured by the revenue of their farms or other possessions, and by contributions from affiliated monasteries in the Balkan Peninsula, Georgia, and Russia. The generosity of the Greek faithful is also a source of revenue, for Mount Athos is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites of the entire Greek Church, and the feasts of the principal monasteries are always celebrated with great pomp.
  It may be added that the monks practice faithfully the monastic virtue of hospitality. The usual name for the individual monk here, as elsewhere in the Greek Orient, is Kalogeros (good old man). In their dress the monks do not differ from other communities of Greek Basilians.
  Most of the buildings of Mount Athos are comparatively modern. Yet, because of the well-known conservative character of the monks, these edifices represent with much fidelity the Byzantine architecture, civil and religious, of the tenth to the fourteenth century. The churches are very richly adorned with columns and pavements of marble, frescoed walls and cupolas, decorated screens, etc.; there are not many mosaics. Some of the smaller oratories are said to be the oldest extant specimens of private architecture in the West, apart from the houses of Pompei. The ecclesiastical art of the Greek Orient is richly represented here, with all its religious respect.
  Each monastery possesses its own library, and the combined treasures make up a unique collection of ancient manuscripts. By far the richest in this respect is the Russian monastery of Saint Anna (Rossicon). Some of the more valuable classical Greek manuscripts have been purchased or otherwise secured by travelers. The manuscripts now in possession of the monks have chiefly an ecclesiastical value; their number is said to be about 8,000. There are also in the library and archives of each monastery a great many documents (donations, privileges, charters) in Greek, Georgian, and Old-Slavonic, beginning with the ninth century, some of which are important for the historian of Byzantine law and of the medieval Greek Church.

Thomas J. Shahan, ed.
Transcribed by: the Cloistered Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of the Infant Jesus, Lufkin, Texas
This extract is cited June 2003 from The Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent online edition URL below.

Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)


Athos (Athon, Ep. Athoos, gen. Athoo: Eth. Athoites), the lofty mountain at the extremity of the long peninsula, running out into the sea from Chalcidice in Macedonia, between the Singitic gulf and the Aegaean. This peninsula was properly called Acte (Akte, Thuc. iv. 109), but the name of Athos was also given to it, as well as to the mountain. (Herod. vii. 22.) The peninsula, as well as the mountain, is now called the Holy Mountain (Hagion Oros, Monte Santo), from the great number of monasteries and chapels with which it is covered. There are 20 of these monasteries, most of which were founded during the Byzantine empire, and some of them trace their origin to the time of Constantine the Great. Each of the different nations belonging to the Greek Church, has one or more monasteries of its own; and the spot is visited periodically by pilgrims from Russia, Servia, Bulgaria, as well as from Greece and Asia Minor. No female, even of the animal kind, is permitted to enter the peninsula.
  According to Pliny (iv. 10. s. 17. § 37, Sillig), the length of the peninsula is 75 (Roman) miles, and the circumference 150 (Roman) miles. Its real length is 40 English miles, and its average breadth about four miles. The general aspect of the peninsula is described in the following terms by a modern traveller:--The peninsula is rugged, being intersected by innumerable ravines. The ground rises almost immediately and rather abruptly from the isthmus at the northern end to about 300 feet, and for the first twelve miles maintains a table-land elevation of about 600 feet, for the most part beautifully wooded. At this spot the peninsula is narrowed into rather less than two miles in breadth. It immediately afterwards expands to its average breadth of about four miles, which it retains to its southern extremity. From this point, also, the land becomes mountainous rather than hilly, two of the heights reaching respectively 1700 and 1200 feet above the sea. Four miles farther south, on the eastern slope of the mountain ridge, and at a nearly equal distance from the east and west shores, is situated the town of Karyes picturesquely placed amidst vineyards and gardens. Immediately to the southward of Karyes the ground rises to 2200 feet, whence a rugged broken country, covered with a forest of dark-leaved foliage, extends to the foot of the mountain, which rears itself in solitary magnificence, an insulated cone of white limestone, rising abruptly to the height of 6350 feet above the sea. Close to the cliffs at the southern extremity, we learn from Captain Copeland's late survey, no bottom was found with 60 fathoms of line. (Lieut. Webber Smith, in Journal of Royal Geogr. Soc. vol. vii. p. 65.) The lower bed of the mountain is composed of gneiss and argillaceous slate, and the upper part of grey limestone, more or less inclined to white. (Sibthorp, in Walpole's Travels &c. p. 40.)
  Athos is first mentioned by Homer, who represents Hera as resting on its summit on her flight from Olympus to Lemnos. (Il. xiv. 229.) The name, however, is chiefly memorable in history on account of the canal which Xerxes cut through the isthmus,, connecting the peninsula with Chalcidice. (Herod. vii. 23, seq.) This canal was cut by Xerxes for the passage of his fleet, in order to escape the gales and high seas, which sweep around the promontory, and which had wrecked the fleet of Mardonius in B.C. 492. The cutting of this canal has been rejected as a falsehood by many writers, both ancient and modern; and Juvenal (x. 174) speaks of it as a specimen of Greek mendacity: creditor olim Velificatus Athos, et quidquid Graecia mendax Audet in historia.
Its existence, however, is not only attested by Herodotus, Thucydides, and other ancient writers, but distinct traces of it have been discovered by modern travellers. The modern name of the isthmus is Provlaka, evidently the Romaic form of Proaulax, the canal in front of the peninsula of Athos. The best description of the present condition of the canal is given by Lieut. Wolfe :--The canal of Xerxes is still most distinctly to be traced all the way across the isthmus from the Gulf of Monte Santo (the ancient Singitic Gulf) to the Bay of Erso in the Gulf of Contessa, with the exception of about 200 yards in the middle, where the ground bears no appearance of having ever been touched. But as there is no doubt of the whole canal having been excavated by Xerxes, it is probable that the central part was afterwards filled up, in order to allow a more ready passage into and out of the peninsula. In many places the canal is still deep, swampy at the bottom, and filled with rushes and other aquatic plants: the rain and small springs draining down into it from the adjacent heights afford, at the Monte Santo end, a good watering-place for shipping; the water (except in very dry weather) runs out in a good stream. The distance across is 2500 yards, which agrees very well with the breadth of twelve stadia assigned by Herodotus. The width of the canal appears to have been about 18 or 20 feet; the level of the earth nowhere exceeds 15 feet above the sea; the soil is a light clay. It is on the whole a very remarkable isthmus, for the land on each side (but more especially to the westward) rises abruptly to an elevation of 800 to 1000 feet. (Penny Cyclopaedia, vol. iii. p. 23.)
  About 1 1/2 mile north of the canal was Acanthus, and on the isthmus, immediately south of the canal, was Sane, probably the same as the later Uranopolis. In the peninsula itself there were five cities, Dium, Olophyxus, Acrotihoum, Thyssus, Cleonae, which are described under their respective names. To these five cities, which are mentioned by Herodotus, Thucydides and Strabo (vii. p. 331), Scylax (s. v. Makedonia) adds Charadriae, and Pliny Palaeorium and Apollonia, the inhabitants of the latter being named Macrobii. The extremity of the peninsula, above which Mt. Athos rises abruptly, was called Nymphaeum (Numphaion), now Cape St. George (Strab. vii. p. 330; Ptol. iii. 13. § 11.) The peninsula was originally inhabited by Tyrrheno-Pelasgians, who continued to form a large part of the population in the Greek cities of the peninsula even in the time of the Peloponnesian war (Thuc. l. c.). (Respecting the peninsula in general see Leake, Northern Greece, vol. iii. p. 114; Bowen, Mount Athos, Thessaly, and Epirus, London, 1852, p. 51, seq.; Lieuts. Smith and Wolfe, Sibthorp, ll. cc.)

This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited June 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities


   The mountainous peninsula also called Acte, which projects from Chalcidice in Macedonia. At its extremity it rises to the height of 6349 feet; the voyage round it was so dreaded by mariners that Xerxes had a canal cut through the isthmus which connects the peninsula with the mainland to afford a passage to his fleet. The isthmus is about 1 1/2 mile across, and there are distinct traces of the canal to be seen at the present day. The peninsula contained several flourishing cities in antiquity, and is now studded with numerous monasteries, cloisters, and chapels. In these monasteries some valuable MSS. of ancient authors have been discovered.

This text is cited Oct 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

Perseus Project index

Mount Athos

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