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Athos Holy Mount

The History
of Mount
the Byzantine

The Original New Testament

Depopulated sometime late in antiquity, the Athonite peninsula remained uninhabited throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, devoid apparently even of the transient presence of shepherds, doubtless because of its considerable length and its distance from any settled region. The nearest walled town was Ierissos, itself apparently similarly afflicted, since it was repopulated by foreign colonists in the tenth century.

The first anchorites settled in the peninsula in about AD 800. Local traditions referring to monasteries said to have been established there as early as the fourth century have no basis in historical fact. They appear in the sixteenth century and they have been created by monks who, in an age when the decline in the general cultural level made verification of such stories difficult, thought they were glorifying the foundations in which they served. The number of hermits seems to have grown fairly rapidly. According to the historian Genesios, writing in the tenth century, monks from Mount Athos and other monastic centres across the Empire went to Constantinople in 843 to celebrate the restoration of the veneration of the icons. This means that there must already have been a monastic centre of sufficient size and repute to be included in an official delegation to an important church manifestation. The earliest Athonite saints known lived in the ninth century: these included St Euthymios the New and the austere anchorite known as Peter the Hermit. Euthymios came from a monastic community on Mount Olympus in Bithynia (Asia Minor), and the fact that he moved to Mount Athos indicates that it had already acquired considerable renown, even in other older monastic centres in the Empire.

Mount Athos was mainly a place of reclusion for hermits and anchorites from neighbouring regions (from Thessaloniki to Kavala) who dwelt alone or in small groups. The asceticism they practised – the severe fasting, the constant prayer, the exposure to heat and cold – gave them the strength to resist the temptations of the flesh. Some monks saw visions, occasionally prophetic. They lived in total tranquillity, close to nature, with minimal needs and minimal contact with the outside world. And of course they won the whole-hearted admiration of the population of Chalkidiki.

They also resisted the introduction of organized monastic life. The first cenobite foundations were established (sometimes by former Athonites) outside the Holy Mountain, in Chalkidiki, near some settled locality. The antipathy of the early Athonites towards organised community monasticism is apparent in the Life of Peter the Hermit, where pro-cenobite propaganda is ascribed to the Devil himself. The attempt by St Blasios of Amorion in about AD 900 to introduce the Studite Rule to Mount Athos also failed.

The earliest known privilege enjoyed by the Athonites dates back to AD 833 and the benevolent interest of the Emperor Basil I. It was designed to protect them (and the Colobos Monastery at Ierissos) against the incursions of state officials and the local population – including shepherds, who were forbidden to graze their flocks on the peninsula. The Emperor wanted to safeguard the tranquillity of the monks, who maintained close contacts among themselves and with those who dwelt beyond the confines of the peninsula. In 908, however, the Athonites were obliged to seek the protection of Emperor Leon VI, because the monks of the Colobos foundation were claiming the peninsula for themselves. In 941-2, Romanos I Lecapenos granted an annual subsidy of one gold piece for each Athonite monk, as was the custom in other major monastic centres in the Empire, such as Olympus in Bithynia, Mount Cymina and Mount Latros. The monks thus became salaried public servants, praying for the monarch and his army, especially when on campaign.

In the meanwhile Mount Athos had acquired both its principal local institutions and its own internal rules. We know that there was a Protos (Primate), who served as governor of the monastic state and as its representative in the outside world, as early as 908; until 1312, this officer was appointed directly by the Emperor. Other administrative officials also began to appear at the Protaton in Karyes, including the oikonomos, the ecclesiarchis (972) and the epitiritis (1049). Regular assemblies, known as synaxes, were held three times a year (at Christmas and Easter and on August 15th, the Feast of the Koimesis of the Virgin) at Karyes, the administrative capital of the peninsula; at these meetings representatives of all the foundations, down to the very smallest, conferred together and decided on matters of common concern. It was at this time that the first somewhat larger institutions began to appear, including the Monastery of Clementos, later taken over by Iverian monks, and the Monastery of Xeropotamou.

Soon after this a major change was initiated by St Athanasios the Athonite. A native of Trebizond who became a teacher in Constantinople, Athanasios went to Mount Athos as a hermit, probably in 957. He accompanied his friend Nikephoros Phocas on the Cretan campaign of 960/61, and after the capture of Candia used some of the spoils to found a new lavra, or small community of anchorites. When Nikephoros Phocas became Emperor, however, this lavra was transformed into a lavishly endowed royal foundation for approximately 80 monks, with annual revenues in cash and kind and with lands and property exempt from taxation. This Great Lavra, as it was known from the outset, was quite unlike the other Athonite foundations, and at first provoked hostile reactions from the traditional eremitic communities. A large, populous and wealthy monastery, with its own workshops and its own ship, not only disturbed the serenity of the Holy Mountain but was diametrically opposed to the way of life and the customs of the anchorites, since from their point of view it turned the Holy Mount into a temporal world. Led by St Paul the Xeropotamite they protested to the Emperor, but in vain. After the assassination of Phocas, they approached his successor and opponent John Tsimiskis; he, however, referred the matter to a venerable Studite monk named Euthymios, who was a proponent of communal rule. In 972 the Emperor granted Athos its first Charter (Typikon): this was the famous Tragos, drawn up by Euthymios, recognising the special needs of the Great Lavra and legislating a regime prescribing the co-existence of both traditional eremitic monasticism and the new cenobite system. It also defined the responsibilities of the Protos, who among other things was required to oversee the punishments imposed by the hegumens and who had the final say on whether or not foreign monks should be admitted to the Holy Mountain. The responsibilities of the hegumens were also defined: they were to be the spiritual fathers of the monks in their communities. Solitary reclusion was permitted only to experienced monks, who were in addition required to observe a certain discipline: for example, peregrination was not permitted. The Rule further defined and circumscribed the economic and social relations between hermits and monks, and monks and lay folk. Compulsory unpaid labour was abolished, and discipline was imposed on relations between monks: any who were quarrelsome were liable to be expelled. The numbers of cattle owned by the foundations was severely restricted: only the Great Lavra, with its large community, was permitted to own a yoke of oxen (for the purpose of kneading the bread). The document also set out the duties of the Steward of the Athonite state.

As we have seen, in 972 the Great Lavra was the only large monastery on the Mountain. From its original brotherhood of approximately 80, it grew so rapidly that by the eleventh century it was a community of seven hundred.

The second substantial establishment was the Monastery of Iviron, also founded and endowed by the Emperor. It owed its origins to a group of Iberian (Georgian) nobles who became monks in Athanasios' lavra in about 963. In 978-9 one of their number, Ioannis Tornikios, afforded Basil II such vigorous and such successful support in putting down the revolt led by Bardas Scleros that he returned to Athos laden with the spoils of war: his grateful Emperor also showered him with lands and privileges, granted him subsidies and exemption from taxes, and permitted him to found the Monastery of Iviron, a large establishment, also with its own ship. The protests of the traditional Athonites again went unheard.

The third large monastery, that of Vatopedi, was formed by internal evolution rather than imperial fiat. A small community of that name is first mentioned in 985, which would seem to have been founded not long before by its hegumen, Nicholas, an aristocrat from Adrianople. It was another nobleman from the same city, Hegumen Athanasios (1020-48), who effected the great change: during his administration the population of the Monastery of Vatopedi grew to several hundreds, becoming the third largest foundation on the peninsula – and that before attracting its first imperial endowment.

After this, the cenobite system became widespread throughout the Holy Mount. Many of the older hermitages, as they attracted more monks, adopted the model of organised monasticism. The solitary hermits and anchorites remained, of course, but their influence waned. The new regime was confirmed in 1045, when the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos published the second typikon for Mount Athos – for the first time officially using the appellation of 'The Holy Mount' that had been used unofficially since 985 and which was to remain in use across the centuries to come. By this time the influence and the authority of the Athonites, extending from one end of the Empire to the other and resting on the economic might of the monastic foundations, was tremendous.

The new Rule, however, sought to circumscribe, or rather to regulate, the economic activities of the monasteries: it prohibited their ships from trading in Constantinople, permitting no more than the sale of agricultural surpluses within a radius extending from Thessaloniki to Ainos. The issue of the number of domestic animals on the peninsula was re-examined, but while the Great Lavra was permitted four yoke of oxen for the kneading of the bread required to feed its seven hundred monks, the Monastery of Vatopedi, apparently of similar size, was permitted only one. New regulations were established for the administration of the estates belonging to the Protaton and for the participation of the hegumens and their clerks at the assemblies in Karyes. The Synaxis, presided over by the Protos, was recognized as the supreme judicial authority within the Athonite territory.

The rapid and spectacular growth of the communities of Athonite monks, which was to become even more spectacular over the next few centuries, was not merely the result of imperial favour, for such favour was displayed towards other monastic communities as well, but was also the product of a number of objective factors.

The Athonite peninsula had one great advantage in comparison with the other 'Holy Mountains' of this middle Byzantine period: its inhabitants had direct access to the sea, and thus to the whole world, but in a manner easily and effectively controlled by the conventual authorities. The Athonite monasteries, during the very period when they were beginning to expand, were able to profit from the general explosion of maritime communications which heralded the beginning of the end of the Middle Ages. This also explains imperial efforts to limit the commercial activities of the monasterial ships.

From this point of view, the fact that the development of Mount Athos coincided with the retaking of Crete from the Arabs, once again making the seas relatively safe, was particularly significant, for it meant that monasteries could be built right on the water. The safety of the seas was troubled again in the fourteenth century, but for a shorter period and with less real impact.

In addition, the fact that Mount Athos was surrounded by territory inhabited by devout Orthodox Christians who entertained the profoundest respect for the monastic community, meant that it never really faced peril from its landward side, unlike the other 'Holy Mountains' in Asia Minor which in the years after 1071 lay exposed to Turkish aggression and were repeatedly sacked.

Moreover, by its very nature a monastic peninsula of such size offered considerable scope for growth and development. Naturally cut off from the inhabited world, its inviolability was easy to enforce. Only semi-nomadic shepherds could stray onto its territory, and even that was a rare occurrence. Its interior 'desert' had room for many monasteries and innumerable hermitages, which could expand without ever approaching secular communities like those that surrounded and circumscribed the other 'Holy Mountains'.

Protected to landward and open to the sea, Mount Athos rapidly attracted more and more monks of many different nationalities and origins. By the tenth century records spoke of monastic communities of Iberians (Georgians) and Amalfians (from Amalfi, in Italy), and of foundations known by the origin of their founders: the Chaldean (from Eastern Pontus), the Paphlagonian, the Sicilian. In 1016 there is mention of a small community founded by a Russian, and in 1033 of another founded by one Zelianos, who must certainly have been a Slav. But the large foundations which officially housed non-Byzantine monks did not appear until later. The Russian monastery seems to have been established before 1142; the Monastery of Chelandari was made over to the Serbs in 1198, and that of Zographou to the Bulgars in the thirteenth century, after the founding of the second Bulgar state.

While the monastic communities in Asia Minor were disappearing one after the other, Mount Athos continued to acquire an ever greater trans-Orthodox character and unbounded dominance over Eastern Christendom. The monasteries flourished, their landed estates grew steadily in both extent and influence, while the tradition of eremitic asceticism remained as vigorous as ever and continued to inspire the admiration of the Orthodox world.

With the Fourth Crusade, Mount Athos was briefly occupied by the Latins; they quickly withdrew, however, leaving behind them – as they did throughout the Byzantine world – a legacy of bitterness and indignation. Thenceforth relations between Athos and the Roman Church were hostile, especially when the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos attempted, for reasons of foreign policy, to impose upon the East the reunification of the churches effected by the ecumenical council of Lyon (1274). The image of the Latins was further blackened when the Catalan Company (1307-9) settled in Eastern Macedonia and pillaged the monasteries and their estates. But the crisis passed and, thanks to the gifts which the weak central administration and pious private citizens were unable to refuse them, the monasteries quickly recovered their wealth and continued to grow and prosper. This development coincided with the period of substantial demographic and economic growth in Macedonia which marked the first half of the fourteenth century.

After that, however, things began to deteriorate. First came the raids launched by the pirates of Aydin and Menteshe in Western Asia Minor, which caused much destruction and drove many of the monks towards the west in search of safety. Next came the civil wars of 1341-7, during which Macedonia and Thrace were laid waste by the (mainly) Turkish allies of John Cantacuzenos. After that came the Serbs, led by Stefan Dusan, who seized Serres in 1345 and had himself crowned Emperor. The central administration passed into the hands of the Serbs, who distributed the lands of the Protaton with lavish generosity. This stirred the Byzantine authorities – and particularly the Patriarchate in Constantinople – to action, but the Serbian occupation of Mount Athos lasted, with only a single brief interruption, until 1371.

The restoration of Byzantine sovereignty over Eastern Macedonia, however, proved short-lived, and was accompanied by an attempt to requisition some of the monasterial revenues to raise an army to fight against the Turks. But these measures could not halt the unremitting advance of the Ottoman forces: they took Serres in 1383, and immediately afterwards Mount Athos itself. The Athonites acted with prudence and foresight in the face of the Ottoman advance into Europe. Made wiser by the experience of the monastic communities in Asia Minor, which had virtually disappeared during the course of the fourteenth century, and by their own sufferings at the hands of the marauding pirates from the Turkish emirates, they approached the Ottoman Sultan before he crossed into Europe and won his protection for their monasteries and their property, thus ensuring that they would not be injured by the Ottoman occupation.

Quite the contrary: they managed to increase their wealth. Since the monasteries were institutions under the protection of the Turks, they were used as treasuries by the wealthy, who deposited their riches there for safe-keeping. They also received numerous endowments. Finally, it was during this period that the institution of 'brotherhood' was established: a monastery would accept a gift of one hundred gold coins or a piece of land, in exchange guaranteeing the donor a life annuity in kind (the quantities of wheat, oil, wine, cheese and legumes corresponding to a monk's ration), even if he remained a layman and never set foot in the monastery. In this manner the monasteries turned their probity to good account and found a profitable way of disposing of their surplus produce.

The brotherhood system demonstrates just how much ground idiorrhythmic monasticism had gained in Mount Athos. Even within the communal life of the monasteries certain monks were able to own and hold private property, and to eat in the privacy of their own quarters. This system, of course, was based on the model of the lives of the hermits who lived in dependencies of the large foundations and took their meals apart, and was a survival of pre-cenobite forms of monasticism originating in the earliest history and traditions of Mount Athos. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the cenobite model having become the rule, idiorrhythmic monasticism within the conventual foundations was a great innovation.

By the fourteenth century substantial changes were taking place on Mount Athos. In 1312 it was legislated – for the first time – that the Protos must receive the 'seal' of the Patriarch, that is, that his election must be confirmed. In other words, the spiritual authority of the Patriarch, which even in earlier times had been sought by the Athonites when faced with difficult problems, was now officially recognised. This of course did not mean that the other privileges enjoyed by Mount Athos, and particularly its direct dependence on the Emperor, were abolished. Far from it: it merely meant that the Patriarch acquired a new authority which in the days to come, when Mount Athos fell under foreign domination – and particularly during the Serbian occupation –, enabled him to exercise his influence with the monastic authorities.

At the same time, many new monasteries were being founded, and the peninsula acquired a marked pan-Orthodox and cosmopolitan character. The Monasteries of Pantokrator, Konstamonitou, Gregoriou, Simonopetra, Dionysiou, St Paul and Koutloumousiou were all founded or re-established during the second half of the fourteenth or the early fifteenth century, this time not with endowments from the Byzantine Emperor but with gifts from local notables or foreign rulers. The position of Mount Athos within the international orthodox community was a highly enviable. It was made crystal clear that each national leader had a moral obligation to subsidise an Athonite monastery, both for the sake of his own soul and to accommodate nationals of his country. Mount Athos had become a pan-Orthodox centre, while at the same time enjoying political recognition. Furthermore, at least some of the new dwellers on the Mountain found it difficult to adapt to the traditional way of life, and proceeded to a revision of the severe rules dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries. Naturally, the number of non-Greek-speaking monks increased dramatically, especially after the Ottoman occupation.

This occurred in two stages. The first Turkish conquest, which began in 1383, ended in 1402 when Sultan Bayezid I was defeated at Ankara by Timur the Lame. The following year, his son and successor Suleyman the Magnificent signed treaties with the Byzantine authorities, restoring to the Empire the district of Thessaloniki – including Mount Athos. The imperial authorities in turn sought to strengthen the monasteries and, while maintaining the Ottoman system of taxation, accorded them certain new, but minor, grants of land and revenues.

In the meanwhile, however, problems had arisen in the relations of the Athonites among themselves. The older Rules were no longer applicable in current conditions, and this created contestation. An internal attempt to sort things out having failed, the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos eventually intervened with a Chrysoboullon Typikon, promulgated in June 1406, based on the traditional practice of the Great Lavra. This document dealt chiefly with the internal organisation of the monasteries, and attempted to curb excessive violations of the rules of monastic life, particularly the retention of private property by individual monks.

The restored Byzantine regime, however, soon collapsed under increasing Ottoman pressure. Mount Athos was cut off from Thessaloniki, and finally, in 1424, a delegation of monks, with the approval of the Despot Andronicos Palaeologos, paid homage to Sultan Murad in Adrianople, thus ushering in the second period of Ottoman rule over the Holy Mount. The Mount continued, in spite of the change of regime, to maintain an active relationship with Constantinople, for as long as that city remained Christian. During the preparations for the Synod of Florence, the Emperor sent to Mount Athos for books which could no longer be found in Constantinople, and a group of Athonite monks were in fact included in the Byzantine delegation that attended the Synod.

Throughout this difficult period Mount Athos, as a pan-Orthodox centre, was a testing-ground for new ideas and new ideologies. Defenders of the tradition of the East and at the same time exposed to a profusion of different currents, the Athonites eventually adopted Hesychasm, a theory which had split fourteenth century Byzantine society. This mystic system, which had resurfaced with Gregory of Sinai, aspired to direct contact with the divine through constant prayer and the exercise of certain practices, contact which was revealed by the apparition of a divine light similar to that witnessed by the disciples on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasm won fervent support, but aroused equally violent opposition, mainly because of the simplistic exaggerations practised by certain of its ardent enthusiasts. It marshalled its followers in the East, and set them against anything Western. It was supported by the Byzantine aristocracy and prevailed in three Synods (1341, 1347, 1351). Gregory Palamas, a former Athonite monk and Bishop of Thessaloniki, and a staunch defender of Hesychasm, was canonised, as were numerous other Hesychast leaders, including Germanos the Athonite, Sabbas, and Makarios Makris. In these circumstances, Mount Athos developed into an aggressive defender of the Orthodox faith, acquiring an authority and a sphere of influence that were inestimable.

Despite being under Ottoman rule, Mount Athos remained the greatest spiritual centre of the Orthodox world, much of which of course was itself under the Ottoman yoke.

Nicholaos Economidis

Bibliography: The only academic work on the early history of Mount Athos is the book by Dionisia Papachryssanthou, Athonite Monasticism. Origins and Organisation, Athens 1992 (a revised and expanded version of the introduction to Actes du Protaton, D. Papachryssanthou, Paris 1975). For serious studies of subsequent periods one must turn to the introductions to editions of Athonite documents in the series Archives de l' Athos, and particularly to the introduction by P. Lemerle in Actes de Lavra IV, Paris 1982. These books are listed at the end of the introductory chapter on the Archives of Mount Athos.

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