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Mount Athos is largest of Greece's monasteries

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 2nd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A mountainous peninsula in northern Greece, Mount Athos or the "Holy Mountain" is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and forms an autonomous state under Greek sovereignty. Only monks are allowed to live on Athos. The current population hovers around 1,400.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Mount Athos peninsula is the easternmost "leg" of the larger Chalkidiki peninsula, protruding into the Aegean Sea. The seas around the end of the peninsula can be dangerous. In 483 BC, Xerxes I had a channel excavated across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet.

Formally founded in 963, Mt. Athos is a monastic community established by monk Athanasios and established the monastery of Great Lavra, which is still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries. Mt. Athos enjoyed the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries, its wealth and possessions grew considerably.

The Fourth Crusade in the 13th century brought new Roman Catholic overlords, which forced the monks to seek protection from Pope Innocent III until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. Raided by Catalan mercenaries in the 14th century, it was a century that overlooked the theological conflict over the hesychasm, practiced on Mount Athos and defended by Gregory Palamas.

The Byzantine Empire collapsed in the 15th century and the Muslim Ottoman Empire took over. While for the most part left alone, the Turks taxed the monasteries heavily.

The monk population and their wealth declined over the next centuries, but saw new activity around the 19th century. Donations and new arrivals from other Eastern Orthodox countries, such as Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia brought a new vitality to the area. Each country came to exert its influence on individual monasteries.

During the First Balkan War in 1912, the Ottomans were forced out and after a brief conflict between Greece and Russia over sovereignty. The peninsula formally came under Greek sovereignty after World War I.

Mount Athos monasteries have repeatedly been struck by wildfires in recent years, including in August 1990 and in March 2004. Due to the secluded locations of the monasteries and the unavailability of suitable firefighting gear, the damages inflicted by these fires are often considerable.

Essentially self-governed, the peninsula consists of 20 main monasteries plus the capital city and administrative centre, Karyes, which is also home to a Greek governor.

In addition to the monasteries there are 12 sketes, smaller communities of monks, as well as many solitary hermitages throughout the peninsula.

In order to reduce temptation, women, beardless boys and eunuchs are completely barred from the peninsula. Even female domestic animals (with the exception of cats that control rodents and hens who provide the yolk needed for the paint used in iconography) are forbidden.

However, during the Greek Civil War, Athos did shelter refugees including women and girls, and the rule against beardless boys is not strictly enforced.

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