The peninsula of Athos during the pre-Christian period was named Akti or Athos. Its name derives from the mountain peak that exists on the peninsula, reaching a height of 2033 m., which is called Athos. During the first campaign of the Persians against the Greeks (491-490 B.C.), three hundred ships of Mardonius, the son-in-law of Xerxes, were shipwrecked at the cape of Athos on account of high and rough seas, and thus the expedition was lost.
Ten years later (481-480 B.C.) there came the second campaign of the Persians against Greece and Europe. Xerxes, fearful that he not suffer the same fate as Mardonius, lead this second expedition himself, and in order to avoid the circumnavigation of Athos, he dug a canal at the peninsula’s most narrow point and passed his ships onto southern Greece. Quite a bit of information is provided by the historians Herodotus, Thoukidides, Skylax and others, concerning the cities and the inhabitants of the Akti peninsula. From them we are informed of the towns of Athos: Sani, Dion, Olophyxos, Akroathos or Akrothoi, Thyssos, Chalandria, Ourania Polis (Ouranoupoli), and Korasia. These cities were administratively autonomous with a special parliament and treasury. In exceptional cases the decisions of the Parliament were subjected to the judgment of the township and the people had the final say.
Athos as a Monastic Center
From the first years of the spread of Christianity the preaching of the Gospel was brought to the inhabitants of the Athonite peninsula. Tradition relates that Constantine the Great built three Churches on the peninsula in honor of the Most Holy Mother of God. One of these churches he built in the center of the peninsula, where today sits the Temple of the Protaton, in Karyes. Already, from this time period it appears that slowly monks came to the peninsula’s entrance, settled, built monasteries and were organized into a monastic community. From the seventh to ninth centuries we have well organized monasticism on Athos.
Saint Peter the Athonite is considered to be one of the oldest known monks to have struggled ascetically on Athos. He lived as an ascetic in an inaccessible area of Athos for over fifty-three years. The Most Holy Virgin revealed to Saint Peter in a vision the place of asceticism as well as the special protection She would show toward the monks of Mount Athos.
The Megisti (Great) Lavra was built by Saint Athanasios the Athonite in 963 at the tip of the peninsula of Athos, upon the ruins of the ancient city of Akroathos. The monastery was assisted at the outset by the Emperor Nicephore Phoka and John Tsimiski. The sacristy of the monastery is abundant in holy treasures. The sakkos (imperial dress), crown and Gospel book of Nicephore Phoka is counted among the treasures. In the library of the Monastery there are about 2,050 manuscripts and more than 30,000 printed books.
It was in the Holy Monastery of the Great Lavra that the so-called «Athonite» architectural design was created. In this style the «Katholicon,» or main church, of the Holy Monastery was designed and built. The ancient sketes of Agia Anna (Saint Anne) and Kafsokalivia, the more recent skete of the Honorable Forerunner, and the monastic settlements of Katounakia, Karoulia, Agios Basilios, Kerasia, Vigla, and Probata, belong to the Great Lavra.
The Holy Monastery of Vatopedi was founded upon the ruins of an ancient monastery by the disciples of Saint Athanasios, Athanasios, Nicholas and Anthony, between 972 and 980. The name is connected to the rescue of Arkadius, the son of the emperor Theodosius. The ship, which he boarded traveling from Constantinople to Rome, when he was a child (pedi), sank as it was approaching the coast of Athos. Arkadius, by a miracle of the Most Holy Virgin, was saved and found under a briar bush (vatos) in the place where today stands the H.M. of Vatopedi.
The monastery is dedicated to the Most Holy Mother of God and celebrates its feast on the 25th of March, the Annunciation of the Most Holy Virgin. Mosaics, icons, frescos and portable icons adorn its Katholicon, Refectory, and chapels. Rare books, codices, two thousands manuscripts and more than 40,000 printed books are treasured in the monastery’s magnificent library. Among the manuscripts there exists the oldest, most unique copy of the Geography of Ptolemy. The Holy Monastery of Vatopedi founded schools, such as the Athonias Academy on Mount Athos, the Vatopedi school in Larnaca, and supported the establishment of schools, such as the Great School of the Nation in Constantinople, in addition to helping many others. The Skete of Saint Demetrios, located one-half hour from the Monastery, as well as the Skete of Saint Andreas, also known as the «Seray» (Palace), which is located in Karyes, both belong to Vatopedi.
The Holy Monastery of Iviron was founded by monks from Iberia (present day Georgia), disciples of Saint Athanasios; namely, John, his son Euthymios, and his nephew George. The Monastery was built on the ruins of the Holy Monastery of Saint Clement, where in ancient times there existed a temple dedicated to Poseidon. The Holy Monastery celebrates its feast on the 15th of August, the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God.
In a chapel within the Monastery courtyard there is treasured the wonder-working icon of the Most Holy Mother of God «Portaïtissa». This icon appeared miraculously on the waves of the sea, having traveled on its own from Nicea of Bithynia in 1004. A gold-plated silver candelabrum, in the shape of a lemon tree, burns in front of the icon of the Portaïtissa. A silver oil lamp hangs in front of the Altar Gate of the Katholicon, which moves on its own miraculously at different times, calling the world to repentance. The library of the monastery is rich with manuscripts, numbering more than two thousand. In the sacristy the sakkos of the emperor John Tsimiski is preserved. The Skete of the Honorable Forerunner, which is located close by, belongs to the Holy Monastery.
The Holy Monastery of Chilandar honors the Feast of the Entrance of the Most Holy Virgin, which is celebrated on the 21st of November. The Monastery was founded by the successor to the Serbian throne, Sabbas, who came and lived the ascetic life on Mount Athos. Saint Sabbas later became the archbishop of Serbia. His father, Stephan, the king of Serbia, having resigned the throne, came and also took up the ascetic life with his son, receiving the name Symeon. With the passing of time Chilandar became the spiritual font of the Serbian people.
Some of the most valuable treasures of the Holy Monastery are: a fragment of the crown of thorns, the reed and shroud of Christ and the icon of the Most Holy Virgin which worked a miracle to Saint John of Damascus. This icon is called «Triherousa» (of the three hands). In the library of the monastery there exist 181 Greek and Slavonic manuscripts and more than 20,000 books.
The Holy Monastery of Dionysiou was built in 1366 by Saint Dionysios upon an enormous rock on the southwestern side of the Athonite peninsula, close to the coast, and is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The emperor of Trebizond, Alexios Komninos III, economically assisted the reconstruction of the monastery, thus explaining why the monastery was also called «Monastery of the Great Komninos.». Exquisite frescos adorn the Katholikon and the Refectory of the monastery. The frescos in the temple were painted by Tzortzis between 1546 and 1547, while the monks Daniel and Merkourios painted the Refectory. The frescos which are found just outside of the Refectory contain depictions which interpret the book of Revelation. The explosion of an atomic bomb, firing of missiles, attack of warplanes and tank warfare were painted almost five centuries ago prophetically.
The right hand of Saint John the Baptist is treasured within the monastery, together with the icon of the Holy Virgin «of the Akathist.» It was with this icon in his hands that the Patriarch Sergios supported the struggling soldiers during the siege of Constantinople by the Avares in 624. The library of the monastery is quite extensive, containing more than 1,100 manuscripts, many of which are adorned with miniatures.
The Holy Monastery of Koutloumousiou, located just outside of Karyes, was built in the 11th century and celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord (August 6th). During the 14th century, Chariton, the Abbot of the monastery, assisted in the spiritual regeneration of Romania. The wood carved iconostasis of the Katholicon is one of the most beautiful on the Holy Mountain. During the Revolution of 1821 the H.M. of Koutloumousiou served as the meeting place and staging center for the revolutionaries and it was in Koutloumousiou that the Turkish administrator of the Holy Mountain was confined. In 1842, at the Cell of Saint John the Baptist of Sakarellos in Karyes, which belonged to Koutloumousiou, the Central Athonias School was inaugurated, where it remained until 1930. The Skete of Saint Panteleimon belongs to the H.M. of Koutloumousiou.
It is located on the coast of the northeast side of the peninsula, at a distance of one and a half hours from Karyes. The monastery celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (August 6th). It was founded in the 14th century by the great military commander Alexios and his brother John the great «Primikirios.». In the Katholicon of the monastery the wonder-working icon of the Most Holy Mother of God, the «Gerontissa» (Eldress), is treasured. The frescos that adorn the Katholicon are of the Macedonian school. The Holy Skete of Prophet Elias, which was built in 1892, belongs to the Holy Monastery of Pantocrator.
The Holy Monastery of Xeropotamou is one of the oldest monasteries on the Holy Mountain. It was founded by the son of the emperor Michael Rangabe (811-813), Paul. Saint Paul also founded the Monastery of Saint George at the base of Athos, which was later named Saint Paul’s. Xeropotamou honors the memory of the Holy Forty Martyrs, which is celebrated on the 9th of March. The monastery was founded upon the ruins of an older monastery, that of Saint Nicephore. The monastery treasures a fragment of the True Cross, the largest in Athos.
It was founded in the 10th century by three brothers who were from Ochrid, Moses, Aaron, and John. The monastery honors the memory of Saint George the Trophy-bearer and celebrates its feast on the 23rd of April. The not-made-by-hands icon of Saint George is treasured within the Katholicon. The Unionists and the Catalans have destroyed the monastery. Twenty-six fathers were martyred by fire in 1282 by the Unionists. The majority of the monks, from 1845 onward, are of Bulgarian origin.
In the library of the monastery there are many Greek and Slavonic manuscripts, among which is the «History of the Bulgarian Nation,» the first written text of modern Bulgarian literature, written by Paisios in 1762.
The Holy Monastery of Dochiariou was built originally in near Dafni by Euthymios Dochiaris, a close disciple of Saint Athanasios, and it was dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Soon thereafter, however, pirates destroyed the monastery, after which it was rebuilt in the location where it exists today. After a miracle by the Holy Archangels in which a young boy was saved, the Monastery of Dochiariou began to honor the memory of the Holy Archangels on the 8th of November.
The icon of the Most Holy Mother of God «Gorgoypikoos» (She Who is Quick to Hear), is treasured in the Holy Monastery of Dochiariou. It is a wall-painting and is found outside of the Refectory in a special chapel. Daily an appointed hieromonk chants the service of supplication to the Mother of God for the help of Christians. The Katholicon of the monastery is quite high and was painted by Tzortzis in 1568. The frescos are magnificent. The iconostasis and the covering above the holy altar, both woodcarvings, rich in design and decoration, are considered the most beautiful on Athos.
It was founded in the 10th century and honors the memory of the Holy Chiefs of the Apostles, Peter and Paul (June 29th). In the library of the monastery there are 42 parchment codices from the 9th to 14th centuries. Of exceptional value is a parchment scroll which contains the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.
The Holy Monastery was founded by Saint Philotheos, contemporary of Saint Athanasios the Athonite, and honors the memory of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Virgin (March 25th). During the 16th century the Abbot, Saint Dionysios of Olympus, after many attempts, repopulated the monastery with many fathers. The wonder-working icon of the Most Holy Mother of God «Glykofiloussa» (Sweet-kissing) is treasured in the Katholicon of the monastery. This icon had its origins in Constantinople and came to Philotheou via the waves of the sea. In the library of the monastery there are preserved two scrolls containing the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. The Saint equal-to-the-Apostles Kosmas Aitolos became a monk at Philotheou.
The Holy Monastery of Simonopetra was founded in the 13th century upon a rock by Saint Simon and celebrates the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. The rock upon which Simonopetra is built has a height of 300 meters above sea level. Simonopetra appears from the sea as a combination of three seven-story apartment buildings. It has been destroyed by fire many times. The miracle-working left hand of Saint Mary Magdalene is treasured in the monastery. The library, scientifically sorted and organized, totals today about 32,000 volumes of printed books.
The Monastery was founded at the base of Athos by Saint Paul of Xeropotamou. At the outset it was a simple monastic cell, but later it developed into a monastery in honor of Saint George. Today it honors the memory of the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (February 2nd). The Queen Maro, wife of Sultan Mourat II and mother of Muhammad II, the Conqueror of Constaninople, brought here the precious gifts offered by the Magi to the new-born Christ. The library of the monastery contains more than 495 manuscripts and about 18,000 printed books. New Skete (or the Skete of Pyrgos) and the Skete of Saint Demetios (or Lakkoskete), belong to the Monastery of Saint Paul.
It is dedicated to Saint Nicholas and rests on the coast, north of Karyes. The Abbot Gregory Giromeritis and Jeremiah I, Patriarch of Constantinople, due to the benefit they brought to the monastery, are considered its new founders. Theophan the Cretan, a most significant iconographer and a representative of the so-called Cretan School of iconography in the 16th century, painted the frescos of the Katholicon. The mosaic icon of Saint Nicholas «Streidas», which was found in the midst of the sea with a barnacle (streidi) stuck on the forehead of the Saint, is treasured within the Katholicon. When the barnacle was removed from the forehead of the Saint, blood began to flow. The library contains 169 Greek codices. The fifty-eight oldest are parchment dated to the time period between the 10th and 15th centuries.
The Holy Monastery of Xenophontos has existed from the time of Saint Athanasios the Athonite, or the 10th century. The monastery honors the memory of Saint George the Trophy-bearer. Two mosaic icons, of St. George and St. Demetrios, dating from the 14th century, are treasured in the monastery together with the wonder-working icon of the Most Holy Virgin «Odigitria» (Directress). Within the monastery there exist two main churches, or Katholicons, one of which is older and was painted in 1544 by Anthony of the Cretan School, and the other of which is newer and was painted in 1809. Both churches honor the memory of Saint George the Trophy-bearer. The Holy Skete of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Virgin belongs to the H.M. of Xenophontos.
This was built in the 14th century toward the glory and honor of Saint Nicholas by Gregory, disciple of Saint Gregory the Sinaite. Within the enclosure of the monastery there exists a chapel dedicated to Saint Anastasia the Roman. The monastery was destroyed by fire in 1761. Joachim Makrigenis (lit. long-bearded; he was named such because, although his beard was sparse, by a miracle of Saint Nicholas it grew long, even to the floor), after much effort and many trips to Constantinople and Moldavia, collected enough money to rebuild the H.M. of Grigoriou. Its library has 297 manuscripts.
The Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou was founded before the 11th century and rest on the northwestern coast of the peninsula of the Holy Mountain. The monastery celebrates the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Emmanuel Pappas, in 1821, during the Greek Revolution, landed at the H.M. of Esphigmenou. It was Esphigmenou that bore the greatest burden of the Revolution of 1821. In the treasury of the monastery there is a segment, embroidered with gold, of the cloth from the tent of Napoleon. In the library of the monastery there exists a palimpsest Gospel, which is dated to the 6th century due to the ancient script. The ancient Skete of Samaria belonged to the Monastery of Esphigmenou.
The contemporary Holy Monastery of Saint Panteleimon was built in 1760 on the coast between Dafni and the H.M. of Xenophontos. Funds for the monastery’s construction were provided by the Phanariote ruler of Moldavia, Skarlatos Kallimachi. The monastery was named the «Authentic Coenobium of the Kallimachis.». The monastery was repopulated by monks from the Monastery of Saint Panteleimon «tou Thessalonikeos,» who subsequently moved into new dwellings. The Monastery of Saint Panteleimon «tou Thessalonikeos,» also called «Palaiomonastiro» (the ancient monastery), was founded by a monk from Thessaloniki in the 10th century. It is found at a distance of about one hour by foot, north of the new monastery.
The first Russian monks arrived in 1840. In 1875, under questionable canonical circumstances, the Russian hieromonk Makarios assumed the Abbacy of the monastery. During this period many Russian monks came and dwelt in the monastery and the Divine Services of the Church were said in both Greek and Russian. The monastery assumed the name «Russikon.». In the bell tower there exists the largest bell on Mount Athos, weighing in at 13 tons, with a diameter of 2.70 m. The monastery has a rich library of Greek and Slavonic manuscripts and printed books. The Sketes Bogoroditsa, Palaiomonastiro, Chromitsa and New Thebaide belong to the H.M. of Saint Panteleimon.
The Holy Monastery of Konstamonitou, according to tradition, was built by Constantine the Great, although historical data exists only from the 11th century. The monastery honors the memory of the First-martyr, Saint Stephan. The Monastery treasures the 12th century icon of the Most Holy Virgin «Odigitria» (Directress), a gift from Anna Philanthropene, the icon of the Most Holy Virgin «Antiphonitria,» and the icon of Saint Stephan, dating from the 8th century. In the library there are preserved 110 manuscripts dating from between the 12th and 18th centuries. In the sacristy of the monastery there is treasured a segment of the mantle of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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