Header Image: Fingalo in Wikimedia, CC-SA 2.0 license

Mount Athos, a mountain on a peninsula of the same name in the Chalkidiki region of mainland Greece, is a fascinating destination despite the fact that it is inaccessible for a large number of visitors and that it takes a bit of luck to get there.

As a matter of fact, despite the mountain being a part of Greece, it constitutes an autonomous region that in many regards sets its own rules. This is due to the fact that the area around the mountain has been home to orthodox monasteries since at least the early 9th century. Today, the community consists of twenty monasteries and has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. It covers a total area of 336 kmĀ² and is home to some 1800 people living in the monasteries plus a number of civilian and administrative employees. All of these are male as females are not allowed to set foot inside the monk republic, which has set up discernible border markers at several points. Visitors may stay overnight in one of the monasteries for a few days, but Athos is definitely not a tourist destination. It rather styles itself as a spiritual place for meditation. To gain entry, one has to secure a permit from the pilgrims bureau as well as an invitation from one of the monasteries. Overall access to the peninsula is strictly limited in numbers, so anyone wishing to come will need several months of planning time ahead.

Athos has a small town, Karyes, where some shops with a very limited selection can be found, but other than that, pilgrims will spend their time at one of the monasteries and eat, pray and attend church services together with the monks. In the time in between those elements of the daily schedule, most foreigners on the peninsula will spend their time hiking. The entire area is a nature conservation area that’s home to everal endemic plant species as well as to foxes, eagles, badgers, wolves, seals and many other animals. A popular hiking route leads onto the top of the mountain and despite its elevation of more than 2000 meters, access to the summit is relatively easy.

Mount Athos / image credit michael clarke stuff on Wikimedia, license CC-SA 2.0

There are 20 monasteries in the republic, 17 of which are Greek and one each is Bulgarian, Serbian and Russian. Many of them host valuable artifacts, artworks and historic documents that those staying overnight might sometimes get a chance to see. Among the most notable monasteries are:

  • Great Lavra
    With a founding date in the year 963, the Great Lavra was the first monastery on the holy mountain. It holds one of the world’s largest collections of Greek manuscripts as well as more than 2000 icons.
  • Vatopedi
    Considered the richest of Athos’ monasteries, Vatopedi is home to some 120 monks. It has been expanded several times but still has its center in the Katholikon church building and a tower built in the 10th century.
  • Iviron
    The Iviron monastery was built from 980 on and was originally set up by clergy from Georgia. It has since become Greek and is considered to be the monastery that holds the most relics in the monk republic.
  • Dionysiou
    The monastery building was destroyed in a fire in the 16th century and has been rebuilt on walls more than 80 meters tall above the sea coast. It is home to about 50 monks.
  • Simonopetra
    The tall walls of the monastery, ten floors high, stand on a rugged rock some 300 meters above the sea. Apart from its architecture, the monastery is also known for its choir and its Byzantine music.
  • Gregoriou
    This monastery is perhaps the best known one as it is the one where ferries land. Built on rocks by the sea, it hosts a library and has a few accommodations or pilgrims.

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