The history of the Holy Mount Athos
Mount Athos is a unique place, where the unique monastic republic is located. Here from generation to generation passing spiritual traditions of Orthodoxy, which for centuries, carefully guarded by monks for over a thousand years. Now the Holy Mountain is considered the main stronghold of Christian monasticism.
The picturesque slopes of the peninsula immersed in the clear waters of the Aegean Sea, the majestic pillar of Mount Athos and valuable Christian relics were attractive to all kinds of invaders. And so there are pages of flourishes and decadence in the book of Athos history. But no obstacle was able to interfere with the good purpose of illuminating all Orthodox people with the light of faith.
Mount Athos in antiquity
Man has lived on Mount Athos since ancient times, helped by the mild climate and the beauty of nature, peculiar to the peninsula of Halkidiki. There is evidence in the works of ancient historians about the existence on Athos of settlements founded even a thousand years before Christ. But the exact location of these cities has never been established.
The peculiarities of the local relief allowed the Greek tribes to lead a rather secluded life. People were mainly engaged in agriculture, fishing and cattle breeding. The sea routes connecting Greece and the East passed through the Athos peninsula and the majestic Athos served as a lighthouse for the sailors. But these prosperous cities declined for unknown reasons, so by the time monasticism began on the Mount, everything there was in disrepair.
The monks who originally came to Athos settled in the mountains. But of those monasteries built by the ancient monks only ruins remained because of the incessant raids of the barbarians. That is why, in particular, there is no written evidence of the early period of Athos monasticism. It is presumed that the first monasteries appeared on Athos in the time of Constantine the Equal Apostle.
In 691-692 after the Council of Trulas, Athos was transformed into an exclusively monastic community, where many wanderers, who had been expelled from their hometowns, found refuge.
The Byzantine heyday of the Holy Mountain
Initially the monks shared the peninsula with the laity. But since 883 the monastic republic on Athos flourished, when Basil the Great ascended the throne and confirmed with his edict the exclusive right of the monks to reside on the Athos peninsula. And the shepherds and herdsmen left the holy land.
Overall, in the ninth century the Holy Mountain was recognized as the leading monastic center of the East. By this time monasticism represented three distinct forms: hermitage, hermitage and monastic residence. All three forms of residence were enshrined in the Charter of the Holy Mountain as equal and equally permissible.
The Charter was worked out, in particular, by Father Peter of Athos and the Venerable Euthymius of New Jerusalem (Solunsk), who represented the different orientations of the forms of monastic residence. It was then that the Holy Mountain was recognized as independent and self-governing. And the rules of monastic life adopted since then have remained unchanged to this day.
Tough trials for Mount Athos
After a period of prosperity, political contradictions, pirate and barbarian raids became the ordeal of life on Mount Athos. And in 1205 the Holy Mountain was subjected to a devastating takeover by heretical crusaders. For a century they plundered monasteries and other monastic settlements. It was during this period that Athos was deprived of many valuable Christian relics.
In 1308 Athos began the invasion of the Catalans who had been hired to fight the Turks, but who soon turned against the Byzantine Empire. The Western mercenaries did not hesitate to kill both laymen and monks and they destroyed to the ground some of the monasteries on Mount Athos. After the conquest of Salonika by the Turks in 1430 the Holy Mountain was regarded as the thimar (estate) of the Catholic Bishop of Sebastia who subjugated his subjects.
There followed an attempt to impose by force the unification of the churches on the monks of Athos following the Union of Lyon in 1724. But the efforts undertaken by the Uniates – exile and confiscation of property, imprisonment and even torture – did not break the spirit of the monks. The Svyatogors remained faithful to Orthodoxy and their traditions.
The scale of the disaster on Athos, which broke out during the invasion of the Crusaders, Uniates and Catalans, can be shown by the following fact – during that period the number of monasteries was reduced by more than 10 times. And then came the XVIII century was a time of general decline of monasticism on the Holy Mountain in connection with the occupation of this territory by the Turks and their ongoing repression.
Beginning in September 1829, when Russia and Turkey signed the Adrianople Peace Treaty, the situation on the Holy Mountain began to be regulated. But only in April 1830, after the final withdrawal of the Turks, the monks were able to begin returning to their native lands on Mount Athos, taking with them their valuable relics, unique manuscripts and holy relics.
Mount Athos as part of Greece
After the liberation from the Turkish invaders, the fate of Athos was unclear. And at the London Conference in 1913 Russia offered to recognize Athos as an independent state, which would be headed by the Ecumenical Patriarch. But the Holy Synod of the Holy Mountain opposed and issued a decree according to which the monks recognized only the authority of the Greek King Constantine. That is why the year 1923 was a special historical milestone for the Athos monks when the Treaty of Lausanne affirmed the sovereignty of Greece over the Athos peninsula.
During the World Wars and the Greek Civil War, the monastic community of Mount Athos suffered many hardships. All this led to a significant decrease in the number of monks for most of the twentieth century. In 1971, the population of the Holy Mountain was minimal (only 1,145 monks were recorded).
But since then there has been a steady growth in the number of Athos monks. The democratization of Greece and the inclusion of Mount Athos in the UNESCO heritage list, which occurred in the last quarter of the 20th century, led to a sharp increase of interest in the Holy Mountain – both for religious and tourist purposes.
Modern Athos Monasticism
At present Mount Athos, in spite of all the hardships, is experiencing the next phase of its revival. New followers came to the Holy Mountain, to whom the elders can pass the traditions of the Holy Mountain, and previously passed on from generation to generation. The population of Mount Athos is currently enriched with people of different professions and ages, including young people with higher education. And all of them decided to become a part of the centuries-old traditions of Athos. The bulwark of Orthodoxy is as strong now as it was in its brightest heyday.
In all periods of the revival of monasticism on the Holy Mountain, the elders of Athos, charismatic figures who had a great spiritual influence on the incoming generations of monks, played an important role. Among them we can highlight Father Joseph Isikhast, Father Paisii Svyatogorets, Father Sophronius and Silouan of Athos. The modern elders, such as Ephrem of Katunak and Theocles of Dionysias and many other ascetics on Athos also work on spiritual enlightenment and make every effort to pass on the traditions of the Holy Mountain to the true followers.