The epicenter of the Eastern Orthodox monarchy and the only autonomous Orthodox state with 20 monasteries, Athos, known as the Mount Athos (Holy Mountain), is located in the Halkidiki Peninsula of the same name. This sacred area still carries a certain dose of mystery not only for foreigners but also for many Greeks, so today we will bring you a little closer to Athos and explain how it is possible to visit this place. It also houses the Hilandar Monastery, the most significant place in Serbian culture and spirituality, which houses a rich treasure trove of medieval Serbian culture, and among other places the 8th Century Virgin Mary.
According to mythology, Athos was a Thracian giant who threw a huge rock at the sea god, Poseidon, during the battle with the Olympic gods. The rock that slid off his fingers and fell into the sea created a piece of land known today as the Mount Athos. However, there is another mythological account that explains the origin of Athos: the god Apollo fell in love with Daphne, daughter of the King of Arcadia and in an attempt to resist the temptation and preserve his innocence, the young woman fled to the main port of Mount Athos and found refuge here, giving her name area – the main port of Athos is called Daphne.
In the 4th century, the Christianization of the peninsula took place, and around the 5th century the monks began to inhabit the Holy Mountain because they realized that this abandoned place was ideal for worshiping their God in peace. Early Christian tradition tells us that on their way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist took refuge in the peninsula after being caught by a storm at sea. Delighted by the beauty of this place, Mary asked her son Jesus to turn the place into her garden. Because of this, the area is also known as the Virgin Mary’s Garden, which is not allowed access to other women.
By the end of the 9th century, communities of hermits and monks had formed, living harmoniously throughout Athos. Historians believe that the founder of organized monastic life was Athanasius of Athos, who in 963 founded the monastery of the Great Lavra, today the largest and most important monastery. Athanasius lived all his life in Trapazunt, Asia Minor before settling in Mount Athos. Due to the spiritual, deep and ascetic life he led, other ordinary people arrived in Athos who wanted to become monks under his leadership and many new monasteries were built. However, not all monks supported these newly created monastic communities, so some complained to Emperor John I Cimiski, who responded with a chrysostom to fully support the work of Athanasius.
Later, in the 11th and 12th centuries, Holy Mountain became an important monastic center in the Byzantine Empire with even more monasteries built, so its wealth grew and the estate expanded. When Byzantium collapsed in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire seized power and soon imposed taxes and levies on monks. As the economic burden grew, the monks left the monasteries; yet, several monks remained, and for centuries the Holy Mountain was merely a shadow of its former splendor. But the greatest tragedy was yet to come – in 1822, after thousands of women and children came to seek refuge in the area, the Turkish army killed monks, women and children, looted all the treasure they had found here and burned valuable manuscripts.
However, at the end of the war for independence, peace returned to Athos, and with it the monks, though many came from neighboring countries of Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, and among them only a few Greeks. When the Ottoman rule finally ended in 1912, Athos had about 10,000 monks and was finally in Greek rule again; however, the area was abandoned again and revived in the 1970s, attracting younger generations, so today this area is home to around 2,000 monks. It is interesting that all persons who choose to live here as monks become Greek citizens without any formalities.
Certainly, we must mention that here is the Serbian Monastery of Hilandar, by the hierarchy of the 4th monastery in importance, built on the initiative of Saint Sava who became a monk in Athos in 1191. More recently, the monastery was extensively damaged in a fire in 2004 where, due to the isolation of the site itself, it is often inaccessible for fire departments to pass and intervene.
Today, Holy Mountain is a self-governing area where visits are restricted – a separate entry permit is required – and only men who choose to live in celibacy can live here. Women were forbidden to enter completely (even females of individual animals, with the exception of cats and chickens), but during the Civil War of 1946, Athos provided refuge to refugees. What is even more interesting is that the Athos has a specific time calculation and a completely different time zone (even the one in Greece) applies, so that the mornings start as early as 3am. Likewise, there is no land route that can enter the Holy Mountain, but here visitors come exclusively from the sea.
How to visit Hilandar Monastery?
If you are interested in visiting Mount Athos, it is best to inform yourself about the possibility of a visit through the website of the Hilandar Monastery. What you need to know is that it is not only possible to make a day visit, but you must spend the night in the peninsula. Also, since this is a sacred place with its own rules where the aim is to maintain a centuries-old monastic order, do not expect a visit to Athos to be a tourist arrangement. In addition to the fact that no woman’s foot can walk, no one who has not been announced can walk in men’s monasteries and those who are not of the Orthodox faith need special permission.
In order to come to Mount Athos, you need to get a blessing for your stay beforehand and then on the day of your arrival you will receive a residence permit, so called diamontirion issued by the executive body of Holy Mountain. The price of the residence permit is 25 EUR for adults, ie. 10 EUR for priests, students and pupils. The announcement is necessary due to the limited monastery capacity and camping is strictly forbidden. In this way, you get admission to one monastery (eg. Hilandar) and count that if you want to visit another monastery, you must again seek permission: for each entry into the monastery, it is mandatory that you first receive a blessing to visit and make an appointment. It is also advisable to book in advance a boat ticket that will take you from Jerissos or Ouranopolis to the port on Athos. So the ship to Atos can only be accessed with a diamontirion, boat ticket and passport. An overnight stay at Athos is free of charge as is food, and you can participate in all worship services.
It is recommended to send a request for a visit to the Hilandar monastery fraternity. In addition to the first and last name, it is necessary to write down the exact number of passports, the period of the planned visit and the telephone number for contact. Usually, it will take several months for the permit to be issued, especially if it is a group visit or a person who is not of Orthodox religion. Since there is an Endowment of the Holy Monastery of Hilandar in Belgrade, anyone can contact it at: https://www.hilandar.org/kontakt/
For the female gender, there is currently nothing left to do but get the Athos tour from the sea, and there are many trips and cruises available from various agencies. Although several women tried to enter the peninsula, and a 2003 European Parliament resolution called for the lifting of this ban on women, the nicer gender is still unable to visit the Virgin Mary’s Garden. Hopefully this rule will change in the near future.