Visiting Mount Athos, the Land of Monasteries

Mount Athos, or Aghion Oros, is not a common place to visit for a vacation, especially for women since they are banned under a prohibition called the avaton in Greek – in order to make the life of celibacy easier for the monks and hermits living in the most eastern peninsula of Halkidiki. It is a quiet place dedicated to meditation, prayer, study and inner peace. Protected by the UNESCO World Heritage project, Mount Athos, with its 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, and numerous sketae (cloister,) cells and hermitages is a unique place to visit and offers a unique experience.

You can attend services running almost all day long, venerate the relics of the monasteries or cross the wild Athos Desert between the monastery Megisti Lavra and the Aghia Anna skete. The plain food of the monks, consisting basically of fresh fish and vegetables is another highlight of the monastic life praised throughout the world. You can visit the capital of Athos, Karyes, and even climb the mountain’s summit during the summer.

Visitors who receive the necessary written permission (diamonitirion) from the dedicated bureau in Thessaloniki can spend from one to four days maximum in one of the monasteries built 0n the peninsula. With some 1,400 monks residing permanently there, Mount Athos is an autonomous state under Greek sovereignty and entry into the area is strictly controlled. There is a daily quota of 120 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox pilgrims that can enter the Holy Mountain, so preparations must be to letter.

Politically under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and religiously under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinoples aspect, Mount Athos is dedicated to the Holy Mother of God and houses 17 Greek Orthodox monasteries, one Russian, one Bulgarian and one Serbian. There are also Romanian and Bulgarian sketae, which are financially supported by their own countries.

The monasteries possess holy relics, icons, frescoes and mosaics of great value that are worth seeing. Although many have been lost in fires or stolen during raids, a vast array of historical texts, rare documents and manuscripts – all historical heirlooms – are kept in large libraries. Dating back to the Byzantine times, Mount Athos is the oldest surviving monastic community in the world and has served as a refuge for those  in need (both male and female) in times of crisis over the years.

According to the legend, Panagia, the Virgin Mary and Mother of God, was accompanied by St. John the Evangelist on her way to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown off course to then-pagan Mt. Athos, it was forced to drop anchor near a port  by the present monastery of Iviron.

The Virgin Mary walked ashore and, overwhelmed by the wonders and wild natural beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked Jesus for it to be her garden. God granted Virgin Mary’s wish and the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and is off limits to any other women.

Though land-linked, Mount Athos is practically accessible only by boat. There are two large ferries, Aghios Panteleimon and Axion Estin, that travel daily between Ouranoupolis and Dafni, with stops at some monasteries on the western coast along the way, as well as a smaller speed boat, Agia Anna, which travels the same route, but with no intermediate stops. It is possible to travel by ferry to and from Ierissos for direct access to monasteries along the eastern coast.