Mount Athos is a holy mountain located on a large peninsula extending from Macedonia, Greece, into the Aegean Sea. Now considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the densely forested hills of Mount Athos have been considered holy ground by members of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. The 130 square miles of Mount Athos are home to nearly 1,400 monks and entirely off-limits to women. Mount Athos is considered an autonomous and self-governing member of the Hellenic Republic. The peninsula’s capital city is Karyes, home to its governor.
Today, visitors to Mount Athos are limited by strict rules. No women are allowed at all, including female animals larger than a cat. Those males that do visit are required to obtain an entrance permit prior to visiting. These permits also restrict when and where visitors may venture throughout the peninsula. The only access to this sacred land is by a ferry, and the surrounding seas can be very dangerous. The peninsula uses Byzantine time and the Julian calendar.
Evidence of Mount Athos’ ancient history includes coins found from a network of established cities and a channel built by Xerxes I in 483 BC. The mountain is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Legend claims the peninsula has been a holy site since it was visited by the Virgin Mary and St. John in 49 AD. When Mary delighted in the natural beauty of the mountain and its surrounding hills, the peninsula was consecrated as her garden, a holy place, off limits to all other women. From then on, the land was considered sacred ground, and relics from all other religions were destroyed.
While historic documents can only confirm the existence of monks on Mount Athos as of the ninth century, it is believed they began establishing themselves on the peninsula in the third or fourth centuries, surviving and thriving throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Mount Athos became a key center of learning in the 18th century. The monasteries even survived the political instabilities of the Balkan Wars and the World Wars, including a personal promise of protection from Adolf Hitler after the Nazi occupation of Greece in the early 1940s. Today, the monk population stands at nearly 2,000 intellectual men. In addition to their reverent, monastic lifestyle, these university-educated men are dedicated to the restoration and archival of the peninsula’s vast collection of historic artifacts.
Mount Athos is home to twenty historic monasteries that range in age and size and form an Athonite hierarchy within this self-governing state. At the top of this hierarchy is the Great Lavra monastery, the original Athonite monastery founded in 963 AD by Athanasius. Together, these holy communes represent multiple factions of Eastern Orthodox religions, including Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox. Mount Athos is also home to 12 smaller monk communities called sketes.