AGION OROS - Land of Virgin Mary

Far away from the rest of Macedonia and the whole world as well, there is a natural and spiritual paradise with a special glory and magnificence, namely the eastern peninsula of Halkidiki, Mount Athos (Agion Oros), the bay of ancient Greeks or as monks put it, the “Land of Virgin Mary”. Mount Athos consists of twenty monasteries, several skites (hermitages) and places of absolute tranquility. This is the religious community of Mount Athos, with historical monasteries, cells in caves or between the rocks, towers, domes, belfries, chants, etc. Mount Athos is a big temple under the sky; it is the main carrier of Orthodox Christianity. Mount Athos covers an area of about 336 sq. kilometers, with 112 kilometers of coastline and 1.550 monks. It is an imposing place in the northern Aegean, surrounded by trees and bluff cliffs. Its mountains are 2.033 meter high, extend to the sky and approach the clouds. When the atmosphere is clean you can see from the small church of Metamorphosi Sotiros almost half the Aegean; the bays of Troy in the east and the mountain Olympos in the west. Some of the monks claim to be able to see the dome of Agia Sofia springing like a flower from the earth in the East.

Agion Oros, 630 87, Greece

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History

Mythology

According to mythology the name Athos belongs to a Thracian giant. During the conflict between the Gods and the Giants, Athos threw a huge rock against Poseidon (the God), but the rock slipped through his fingers and fell to the sea creating a huge block of land which is now Mount Athos. In a different version it was Poseidon who threw the rock against Athos. The rock crushed Athos and burried him underneath. This rock was called Mount Athos.

Antiquity

Up to the 3rd century BC, there where quite a few small greek towns in the peninsula. Later, for unknown reasons, these towns fell into decay or were destroyed, resulting in a deserted area for many centuries. Herodotus tells us that Pelasgians from the island of Lemnos populated the peninsula, then called Acte or Akte. (Herodotus, VII: 22) Strabo reports of five cities on the peninsula: Dion (Dium), Cleonae (Kleonai), Thyssos (Thyssus), Olophyxos (Olophyxis), Acrothoï (Akrothoön), of which the last is near the crest. (Strabo, Geography, VII: 33:1) Eretria also established colonies on Acte. Two other cities were established in the Classical period: Acanthus (Akanthos) and Sane. Some of these cities minted their own coins. The peninsula was on the invasion route of Xerxes I, who spent three years excavating a channel across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet in 483 BC. After the death of Alexander the Great, the architect Dinocrates (Deinokrates), proposed to carve the entire mountain into a statue of Alexander. The history of the peninsula during latter ages is shrouded by the lack of historical accounts. Archaeologists have not been able to determine the exact location of the cities reported by Strabo. It is believed that they must have been deserted when Athos' new inhabitants, the monks, started arriving at some time before the 7th century AD.

Christianity

ΣAccording to tradition, the Virgin Mary with John the Evangelist, on their way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, encountered a stormy sea that forced them to temporarily seek refuge in the port which is now the Holy Monastery of Ivira. The Virgin Mary, admiring the wild beauty of the place, asked God to give her the mountain as a present. Then the voice of our Lord was heard saying: "Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation". Since then, Mount Athos is considered as "The Garden of the Virgin Mary". In the 5th century AD, the first monks came to Mount Athos, who disappointed from the boredom of everyday communal life, found this beautiful and uninhabited place ideal for worship their God.

Establishment of the Name

The self-governed region of the Holy Mountain, according to the Decree passed by the Holy Community on the 3rd October 1913 and according to the international treaties of London (1913), Bucharest (1913), Neuilly (1919), Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923), is considered part of the greek state. The Decree, "made in the presence of the Holy Icon of Axion Estin", stated that the Holy Community recognized the Kings of Greece as the lawful sovereigns and "successors on the Mountain" of the "Emperors who built" the monasteries and declared its territory as belonging to the Kingdom of Greece. Later a "Special Double Assembly" of the Holy Community in Karyes passed the "Constitutional Charter" of the Holy Mountain, which was ratified by the Greek Parliament. This regime originates from the "self-ruled monastic state" as stated on a chrysobull parchment signed and sealed by the Byzantine Emperor Ioannis Tzimisces in 972. This important document is preserved in the House of the Holy Administration in Karyes. The self-rule of the Holy Mountain was later reaffirmed by the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1095. According to the constitution of Greece, Mount Athos is, "following ancient privilege", politically self-governed and consists of 20 main monasteries which constitute the Holy Community, and the capital town and administrative centre, Karyes, also home to a governor as the representative of the greek state. The governor is an executive appointee. The status of the Holy Mountain and the jurisdiction of the Hagiorite institutions were expressly described and ratified upon admission of Greece to the European Union.

Political Situation

According to the old customs and the bill of rights, Mount Athos is a self-governed territory of the Greek state (regarding its religious aspect it is subject to the Ecumenical Patriarch). The executive authority is exercised by the four members of Holy Supervision, whereas the legislative authority is exercised by the twenty members of the Holy Assembly, to which all monasteries are subject. The Superior of the Holy Supervision represents the first monastery in hierarchical order and is called Protos (First) or Protoepistatis (Fist Supervisor). All members are elected by absolute democratic procedures by the monks. The political leader of Mount Athos is elected by the Greek State and is subject to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Karyes is the administrative of Mount Athos.

Monasteries

Today in Mount Athos there are 20 monasteries and 12 skites. The twenty monasteries in hierarchical order are as follows:

1) Megisti Lavra
2) Vatopediou
3) Iviron
4) Helandariou (Serbian monastery)
5) Dionysiou
6) Koutloumousiou
7) Pantokrator
8) Xiropotamou
9) Zographou (Bulgarian monastery)
10) Dohiariou
11) Karakalou
12) Philotheou
13) Simonos Petra
14) Agiou Pavlou
15) Stavronikita
16) Xenophontos
17) Gregoriou
8) Esphigmenou
19) Panteleimon (Russian monastery)
20) Konstamonitou

The 12 skites are:

1) Agias Annas
2) Agias Triados
3) Theotokos<
4) Agios Dimitrios (Lakos)
5) Agios Dimitrios (Vatopedion)
6) Timios Prodromos (Layreotiki)
7) Τιμίου Προδρόμου (Ιβήρων)
8) Agios Andreas
9) Agios Panteleimon
10) Kimisis Theotokou (The Assumption)
11) New Skiti - Agios Spyridon
12) Prophiti Ilia

Besides these, there are also cells, hovels and the so-called “askitiria”, tranquil places where the “askites” (hermit monks) live in complete solitude. Famous “askitiria” are Karoulia, which are hanging caves in the southern cliffs of Athos, close to the sea. There, live the most discipline hermit monks (askites) of the mountain.

Mount Athos is a living museum of history and art. The architecture of the monasteries is of the typical Byzantine monastery morphology. All of them have great walls to protect them from invasions either by pirates or other conquerors. The buildings have cells at the top part and are built in safe places with extra walls and towers. In the middle of the building complex there is a courtyard, which includes the “katholiko” (cardinal monastery), the “trapeza” (refectory), “phiale” (the basin for the blessing of the waters) and chapels. The way they were built is not known yet; as a matter of fact it is related to certain traditions and legends. The towers are high, powerful and imposing guards and sentinels protecting the other monasteries. Next to them the bell-towers, the domes and the cypresses pierce high in the sky.
Except from the paintings there are also numerous portable icons in the cultural treasure of Mount Athos. Some of them are extremely old and it is believed that they are miraculous or that they were not made by humans. According to fascinating traditional legends, the icons of Mount Athos are supposed to have first appeared in Mount Athos. Some of these icons are the following: the notorious icon of Virgin Mary “Axion Esti” in Protostaton or the icon “Portaitissa” in the Monastery Iviron, the icon “Odigitra” in the Monastery Helandariou, the icon “Koukouzelissa” in Megisti Lavra, etc. Moreover, some other invaluable treasures are the miniatures on the manuscripts, exceptional paintings of Saints and prophets.
There are also mosaics and sculptures. Some miniatures are unique, made of jewels, ivory, wood, gold, etc.
It is also worth-mentioning that the treasures of Mount Athos include also unique covers of the Evangel, golden and silver chalices, holy vessels, epitaphs weaved or quilted with gold, valuable vests, etc.
Only men with a special permit can visit Mount Athos. Women are not allowed on its territory.
All monasteries are communes. The monk's life is strict, “ascetic”, with continual prayers and services, vigils, fasting, spiritual and manual activities. The chaplet is the monks' closest companion; it helps them concentrate their minds to constant prayer and towards their moral uplift. Each bead is formed by nine crosses, which represent the nine orders of Angels.
The monks follow the old Julian calendar and the Byzantine time (O during the sunset, apart from the monks of Monastery Iviron, who count the hours based on the sunrise). At sunset all monasteries are closed. They open again at sunrise. Before sunrise, the bell-ringer of every monastery sounds the bell rhythmically, to call his brothers to the matins. How deep the belief in God becomes, when you wake up with the sound of bells, listen to the psalms and contribute with your own candle to the dim light of the other candles, which barely light the halos of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary on the iconostasis and the pale faces of the monks in the psaltery, and feel the smell of incense!
A great variety of grapes are cultivated in the vineyards of Mount Athos: Roditis, Athiri, Asyrtiko, Limnio, Xinomavro, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenach Rouge. The local Athonite Wines are produced on this blessed piece of land with the mild climate, the plenty of sunshine, the mountain breeze and the sea humidity. They are pleasant, white wines, spirited and old. Fruity rose and young, fresh red wines, rich in flavour.
In order to get an idea of the life in Mount Athos you need to visit it more than once, walk its paths, listen to the bells, the psalms, go to the cardinal monasteries, as well as the “askitiria”, the hermitages and the caves, attend the matins and evening prayers, eat at the “trapeza”, spend time starring at the Aegean sea, talk with the wise, old and saint people, as well as with the young, educated monks, who decided to turn their backs to the life most people lead and devote themselves to God. Also, you need to visit the libraries and the sacristies, so that you can get informed of their treasuries, enjoy the outstanding natural beauty, the sunset and sunrise. Finally, you have to open your heart to the holy icons and experience Christianity in this living ark of Orthodoxy.

Pilgrims’ Office Agion Oros

Thessaloniki, tel. +30 2310 252575

Ouranoupoli, tel. +30 23770 71421

Every detail has been thought of..

A fabulous location, utmost cleanliness, friendly and helpful staff. Every detail has been thought of from comfortable beds, cedar wood in cupboards, music system to clothes pegs! Would highly recommend!!!

St. Antoniou (London, England)
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