I have never been to Mount Athos, and I doubt that I ever will.
It is a peninsula, stretching nearly 50km long and crowned by a peak some 2,000m tall, which extends from the Greek headland of Chalkidis into the Aegean sea, and for the past 966 years, it has been formally closed off from all women–and all female animals too. In the year 1046, this exclusivity was confirmed by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, with the agreement of the monks and hermits who have populated it continuously at least since the 10th century, and probably long before.
From this brief introduction alone, it is easy to grasp both the unusual nature of Mount Athos, and its significance for historians hoping to catch glimpses of a mediaeval way of life which is very nearly extinct.
On this small stretch of land, 20 inhabited monasteries and approximately 1,400 monks still order their lives around the rhythms of Orthodox asceticism, making this a rare bastion of Byzantine traditions and beliefs. For some, this means life under the absolute control of an abbot, regular cycles of prayer, and rigorous fasting. For still others, it means a spare and punishing existence of asceticism perched in a cave above the sea. For all of the residents of the mountain, though, a devotion to God is paramount.
Although the goal of Athos–as with all monastic communities–has been the withdrawal from the world, however, its modern seclusion belies a turbulent history, in which the holy men of Athos often found their fates intertwined with the greater patterns of history in the Mediterranean.
At times, this has meant interactions with the great men (usually Emperors) who both patronised the peninsula’s mission and, at time, compromised it. St Athanasius, founder of the monastery of the Great Lavra, for example, built his foundation in 963 thanks to the patronage of Nikephoros Phokas. Phokas, a powerful and respected Byzantine general, had expected to retire there–only to go back on his words and become emperor instead. Imperial patronage continued throughout the Byzantine phase of Athos’ history, confirmed from 972 onwards by agreements (typika) which protected the monks from the meddling of local administrators.
Thanks to their attentions, the monasteries on the peninsula flourished, and their collections of valuable relics and icons grew. This became especially significant after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, when the loss of that city’s treasures confirmed Athos’ status as the paramount centre of Orthodox sanctity.
With the power of its sponsor imperial Byzantium waning, Athos suffered. In the wake of the Fourth Crusade, the fragmenting of the Greek territories led to depredations by mercenaries and damaging religious disputes. Most damaging was the ‘reconciliation’ of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1274, bitterly opposed by the Athonite monks and enforced by a deadly inquisition on the peninsula (perpetrated by Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos). Later, from 1307-1309, the infamous Catalan Grand Company ravaged the area (a symptom of further decline), shortly followed by another theological dispute (this time over a mystical doctrine called Hesychasm.)
What these events reveal is the entanglement of religion and politics which characterised not only the Byzantine Empire, but the whole of the mediaeval Mediterranean. These two aspects of life were so entrenched, in fact, that Athos–like many other Byzantine communities–looked upon Ottoman rule in the 15th century as an acceptable alternative to the compromises their Emperors had made with the Catholic powers.
In the face of such reverses, it is not only surprising, but downright remarkable that Athos should have preserved its autonomy throughout the centuries. Today, it is considered a self-governing region of modern Greece, and is recognised by UNESCO as an ark of vernacular traditions both religious and agricultural. This status captures both the unique value and irony of Mount Athos: as a place where mediaeval people went to withdraw from the world, it has become a last representative of that world in a new, and radically altered era.
Norwhich, John Julius, Sitwell, Reresby, and Costa, A., Mount Athos (New York, 1966).