THE AUTONOMOUS MONASTIC REPUBLIC IN NORTHERN GREECE
The Holy Mount Athos (Άγιον Όρος), lies in northern Greece on the Chalkidiki peninsula and rises to over 2,000 meters above sea level. On the easternmost of the three foothills that are visually reminiscent of fingers, the Orthodox spiritual center has enjoyed self-government status since Byzantine times and has been under state protection since 1923.
The autonomous monastic republic has a relatively small area of 330 square kilometers but consists of 20 large monasteries, (one Serbian, one Russian, one Bulgarian and 17 Greek) which are all part of the UNESCO World Heritage. The monasteries have accumulated over the centuries an extremely valuable multitude of significant treasures and masterpieces, ranging from wall paintings to icons, gold relics, embroidery and old manuscripts.
More than 1,000 years ago, Orthodox monks began to colonize the region around Mount Athos by building monasteries. In the heyday of the monastic republic during the 15th century, they were home to up to 40,000 monks. As in every other state, there are strict rules and laws that must be followed to ensure its continued existence.
It is ruled by the “Holy Community”, a council of representatives from the 20 monasteries under the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, and with the participation of the Greek state through its representative in the capital Karyes, the seat of the clerical and secular administration of the state monastery.
Since the 11th century, women have been strictly prohibited from setting foot in this settlement. Despite the decision of the World Council of Churches a few years ago to allow women access, nothing has changed to this day and even female animals are forbidden to enter the lands. However, women are only allowed to approach the shore from a boat within 500 meters.
Although some hermits lived in the mountains before the monks were settled, organized monastic life began in 963, and the way of life for monks today has remained practically unchanged since then. They adhere to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the more common Gregorian calendar and still used in parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and also used by the Berbers.
About 2,000 monks live on Athos today, most of whom live together in monasteries. But there are also very small communities called Sketes, in which only three or four monks live in total seclusion.
The ancient texts still determine the course of daily life and define everything from nutrition to the liturgy. However, there is not only prayer, everyday tasks such as gardening and cooking but also wood carving, painting icons, calligraphy, making candles are also carried out between sunrise to sunset.
The monasteries are also increasingly dedicated to agriculture and produce and sell their own wines, olive oil and herbal teas. In addition to their daily duty, a new challenge has arisen in recent years. A real pilgrimage boom has posed new tasks for the monks. In order to create more bed capacity for the guests, modern rooms have been created from the former minimalist rooms in the monastery complex and these have to be managed and maintained.
It is not that easy to visit the state, and associated with some bureaucracy. Visitors must obtain a permit from the Pilgrims’ Bureau in Ouranoupoli, the last secular place before the border. Only 100 Greek Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors are allowed per day, where a typical stay is four days and three nights. Accommodation is in the monasteries is generally free, but donations are welcome. Interestingly enough, for a long time, visitors had to wear a beard to prove their manliness.
The article was first published in Issue 15