Mount Athos, Monastic Republic of
MOUNT ATHOS, MONASTIC REPUBLIC OF
The Monastic Republic of Mount Athos is unique in being a theocratic republic whose principal inhabitants are multi-ethnic Orthodox monks from Greece, Turkey and the Slavic countries. Although it is within the physical boundaries of Greece, the Greek Constitution recognizes its administrative autonomy. Ecclesiastically, it is subject to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of constantinople rather than the Greek Orthodox Church.
History. Mount Athos is the outside promontory of the three-pronged peninsula in northern Greece called Chalcidice that extends about 35 miles into the Aegean Sea and is named after a pyramid-like peak that rises to 6,760 feet. Before the arrival of Christian monks the site contained several cities dating from pre-Christian antiquity. Legend places a sanctuary of Zeus or Jupiter on the peninsula. Even today the traces can be seen of the canal, 3,950 feet long, that Xerxes constructed on the isthmus in his attempt to invade Greece in 480 b.c. without having to undergo the dangers of rounding the cape of the peninsula.
Although there were individual hermits inhabiting the Holy Mountain earlier, the first documentary records of Christian hermitages are from the 9th century when fugitives from the persecutions of iconoclasm increased the hermit population. Organized monastic life began there in 963, when Saint athanasius the Athonite built the first cenobitic monastery, known as the Great Lavra. His Rule derived chiefly from that of Saint basil the Great and Saint theodore the studite. Despite opposition to the innovations of organized community monasticism on Mount Athos, and with the support of the Byzantine Emperors Nicephorus Phocas and John I Tzimisces, the Rule of Saint Athanasius was accepted as a model; cenobitic life was imposed upon the hermits and Athanasius became the abbot, ruling 58 monasteries.
Under the constitution approved by the Emperor Constantine Monomachus, the famous law excluding women and female animals from the holy mount was enacted in 1045. In the 11th century other Christian nations began to send representatives to Mount Athos, and princes of the Balkan peninsula and of the northern Slav countries (especially Russia) endowed monasteries, thus making the peninsula pan-Orthodox in its representation. Even after the Eastern Schism (c. 1054), Benedictine monks of Amalfi, Italy, maintained a Catholic monastery there.
The monks turned to Pope innocent iii for protection against the Latin Crusaders and Catalan invaders in the 13th century; but when the Turks captured Salonica in 1430, the monks broke off all contact with Rome and submitted to their Turkish rulers.
Monasteries. Today Mount Athos exists as a republic under the Greek government, but enjoys self-rule. Internal government is centered in the holy Koinotis (central governing body) made up of 20 members chosen from the 20 monasteries that have the sole voting power. From these 20 members, a committee of four called the epistatae is chosen to form the executive branch. A president elected for one year presides over the sessions, which are held in the capital of Karyes, the seat of government since the 10th century. Of the 20 monasteries with voting power, 17 are Greek, one Bulgarian, one Russian, and one Serbian; these are: the Great Lavra (the oldest), Vatopedi, Saint Panteleimon (Russian), Hilandari (Serbian), Xeropotamou, Xenophontos, Docheiariou, Kastamonitou, Zographou (Bulgarian), Esphigmenou, Pantokratoros, Iviron, Koutlomousiou, Philotheou, Karakallou, Saint Paul's, Dionysiou, Gregoriou, Simopetra, and Stavroniketa (the last built, in 1545). Historically some of the monasteries adopted the idiorhythmic monastic life, while others adopted the cenobitic monastic life. Under the cenobitic system, monks give a great degree of obedience to an abbot (higoumenos ) chosen for life, perform all liturgical services in common, and submit to a stricter discipline in regard to food and property. In contrast, the idiorythmic (literally, one's own rhythm) model allowed the individual monk to set his own pace. The idiorythmic model came under much criticism for its propensity to tolerate abuses and laxity among the monks. By 1992, all 20 principal monasteries became cenobitic, when the Pantokratoros officially adopted the cenobitic model, being the last to do so.
Besides the 20 main monasteries, there are others, called sketes, some of which are even larger than the 20 main monasteries. These sketes, or clusters of ascetics living together, are also divided into the cenobitic and idiorrhythmic types. The cenobitic sketes differ externally from the main cenobitic monasteries, only in that rather than an abbot, a superior (dikaios ) rules and is subject to the abbot of the main monastery to which the skete belongs. The idorrhythmic sketes are groups of small huts with three of four monks living together in each hut. In the midst of these clusters of huts there is the central church (kyriakon ), so called because the monks come to common liturgical services only on Sunday, the day of the Lord (Kyrios ). An elder rules the hut or hermitage, while the whole group of huts comes under the rule of a superior chosen by the main monastery to which the skete is attached. Observance in the idiorrhythmic skete, unlike the idiorrhythmic life in the main monasteries, is usually conducive to strict discipline and fervor in religious life.
Scattered throughout the rugged terrain of Mount Athos there are independent hermitages, called kalyves. The hermits who inhabit the southernmost tip of the peninsula (called Karoulia meaning pulleys), live one to a hut or in very small groups; each hermitage is independent and directly under one of the main monasteries. There are also kellia, separated houses ruled by an elder and dependent only upon the main monasteries, but in which the ascetical rule is not so austere as that practiced in the kalyves. Thus one finds a great deal of variety in monastic rule and observance, with much left to individual preference.
Architecture, Art, Libraries. Because of the ravages of time, earthquakes, plundering by pirates and the coming of Latin Crusaders, little of the architecture and art work dates back further than the 16th century; yet because of the utter conservatism, all that is found exactly reflects the Byzantine architecture and art of the 10th to 14th centuries. All the large monasteries follow an identical architectural plan and have fortified walls on the outside and on the inside a quadrangle, where the central church (katholikon ) is found. The walls of the church and the numerous cupolas are frescoed; along with the art work of icons painted on wood, the metal work, and the iconastasis, the frescoes reflect very well the style of medieval Byzantine religious art.
Many of the libraries, such as those in the monasteries of Saint Paul and Simopetra, have been destroyed by fire; some were ravaged by the Turks during the War of Greek Independence (1821–29); and others were depleted by the neglect or even the vandalism of monks. Many ancient manuscripts were sold to libraries and museums in Russia and France; but about 11,000 remain, dealing mostly with theological and ecclesiastical subjects. Since contemplation rather than intellectual culture has characterized the monks of Mount Athos, little research has been done on these manuscripts. There has been a steady movement to give the monks a better education, and aspirants now spend five years training at the Athonias school in Karyes before they are attached to a monastery.
Mount Athos is unique as the last outpost where Byzantine religious culture and the spirituality of hesychasm are preserved in contemporary times.
Bibliography: Le Millénaire du mont Athos, 963–1963, 2 v. (Chevetogne, Belgium 1963–64) r. m. dawkins, The Monks of Athos (New York 1936). f. w. hasluck, Athos and Its Monasteries (New York 1924). s. loch, Athos: The Holy Mountain (New York 1959). c. karambelas, Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos (Platina, California 1991). s. kadas, Mount Athos: An Illustrated Guide to the Monasteries and Their History (Athens 1993). r. gothÓni, Tales and Truth: Pilgrrimage on Mount Athos Past an Present (Helsinki 1994). a. golitzin, The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos (South Canaan, Pennsylvania 1996). a. bryer and m. cunningham, eds. Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism: Papers from the Twenty-eighth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 1994 (Brookfield, Vermont 1996). r. roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey (6th ed. Rome 1999). x. zimbardo and b. unsworth, Monks of Dust: The Holy Men of Mount Athos (New York 2001).
[g. a. maloney/eds.]