Holy Mountain of Athos is a place out of time, a slice of history that might have never existed. Here, even the calendar is different from one used by the rest of the Greece.
For most of its existence this tiny peninsula was an island of tranquility in the turbulent sea of everyday life. It is a spiritual sanctuary and one of the holiest places within Orthodox Christianity.
Holy mountain of Athos, is a monk republic, autonomous within the borders of Greece and administered directly by the Universal patriarch of Constantinople.
The oldest monastic settlements on Mount Athos date back to early 900s. However, the region itself rose to prominence during the last years of Byzantine empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule, when the conquering Ottoman armies and bands of freelance marauders ravaged the Balkan peninsula.
Christian monks seeking refuge found shelter in the steep cliffs and dense forests of Mount Athos. The community grew quickly, becoming in the process one of most important centers of Orthodoxy in Europe. It served as a beacon for seekers of spiritual enlightenment from as far a way as Russia and Georgia. While over the years the monk population was slowly declining, the population underwent a recent upswing after the fall of communism, with an influx of new arrivals from Eastern Europe.
Today there are twenty monasteries scattered over a 60km long peninsula and the current population is around 2200. Some of the monasteries belong to distinct national churches, i.e. Hilandar to Serbian, Zograf to Bulgarian and Ivrion Georgian. Some of the monks have opted to live in even greater isolation, living in sketes, small communities which consist of a common prayer area, a chapel or a church and a number of individual huts. There are currently twelve sketes on Mount Athos.
The town of Karyes serves locally as an administrative center of the region. It is also a home to about 2000 additional lay workers hired by the monasteries. Mount Athos is a closed community. Visits by tourists are tightly controlled, as not to disturb the peace and piety of the residents. There is an age old ban on visitation by women, which according to the monks, is a prohibition imposed not out of feeling of male superiority, but one born out of weakness of human spirit.
Although technically part of Greece and the EU, Mount Athos is said to be exempt from most of the EU treaties.
Know Before You Go
Entry to the mountain is usually by ferry boat either from the port of Ouranoupoli (for west coast monasteries) or from Ierrisos for those on the east coast. Before embarking on the boat all visitors must have been issued a diamonitirion, a form of Byzantine visa that is written in Greek, dated using the Julian calendar, and signed by four of the secretaries of leading monasteries. There are generally two kinds of diamonitirion: the general diamonitirion that enables the visitor to stay overnight at any one of the monasteries but only to stay in the mountain for three days, and the special diamonitirion which allows a visitor to visit only one monastery or skete but to stay as many days as he has agreed with the monks. The general diamonitirion is available upon application to the Pilgrims' Bureau in Thessaloniki. Once this has been granted it will be issued at the port of departure, on the day of departure. Once granted, the pilgrim can contact the monastery where they would like to stay in order to reserve a bed (one night only per monastery). The ferries require reservations, both ways.
Most visitors arrive at the small port of Dafni from where they can take the only paved road in the mountain to the capital Karyes or continue via another smaller boat to other monasteries down the coast. There is a public bus between Dafni and Karyes. Expensive taxis operated by monks are available for hire at Dafni and Karyes. They are all-wheel drive vehicles since most roads in the mountain are unpaved. Visitors to monasteries on the mountain's western side prefer to stay on the ferry and disembark at the monastery they wish to visit.