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Athos Holy Mount

Mount Athos
During the
Years of
Ottoman Rule

The Original New Testament

The renewed Ottoman onslaught unleashed during the reign of Sultan Murad II (1421-51), and the evident impotence of the Byzantine authorities in the face of it, left no margin for optimism. Foreseeing the fate that awaited them, the Athonite monks decided to come to terms with the reality of their position: in 1424 they declared their submission to the Sultan, thus both acknowledging a de facto situation – since most of their estates in Macedonia were already in Ottoman hands – and at the same time averting a violent occupation of Mount Athos, which would surely have resulted in pillage, destruction, loss of property, and death or enslavement for the monks themselves.

Although historical information about Mount Athos and its general situation during the latter half of the fifteenth century is somewhat scanty and unreliable, it appears to have been part of the kaza of Sidirokausia. It was subsequently granted as a timar (fief) to the bostangi-basi (or 'head gardener' as the commander of the Palace Guard was called) who, in order to keep a close eye on his fief, appointed an agent to represent him. By 1575 this officer, known as the Aga (or zambitis) of Mount Athos, had taken up residence in Karyes, together with a small garrison, the seοmenides.

Apart from this fairly relaxed administrative dependence on the secular authorities, Mount Athos continued to be subject to the spiritual guidance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In fact, after the Fall of Constantinople (1453) its relations with this institution were strengthened, not only because the jurisdiction of the Patriarch was broadened but also because, as we shall see, the weakening of the territory's own administrative authorities left a gap which the Patriarch stepped in to fill. It is significant that its Vth (1574) and VIth (1783) Typika were signed by Patriarchs Jeremias II and Gabriel IV respectively. What (if any) pastoral authority the Bishop of Ierissos held over Mount Athos is unclear.

Over and above the preservation of its administrative autonomy, the Athonite monks were equally concerned to safeguard their lands and estates, both on the peninsula itself and elsewhere. Despite official imperial guarantees, the Turks twice violated their explicit rights. The first occasion came very early, in 1432/33, when (according to contemporary historian Joannis Anagnostis) Sultan Murad ordered 'all monasteries and ships to be confiscated and all their revenues and property seized'. The Athonites apparently managed to recover their property on that occasion, or if not full ownership, at least the enjoyment of it.

Much more serious were the consequences of the 1568 attempt by Selim II to sequestrate all ecclesiastical and monasterial property throughout the imperial domains. With the help of generous subsidies from the rulers of Wallachia and Moldavia, however, supplemented by loans, on extremely heavy terms, from money-lenders in Thessaloniki, the Athonite monks once again succeeded in repurchasing their lands, at a cost of nearly one million aspers. The only gain from this affair was that thenceforth the monasterial lands were considered vakif, and thus fiscally privileged, being, in theory at least, inalienable.

This disposition did not of course mark the end of all financial disputes and crises between the Holy Mount and the Ottoman state, crises fostered by the rapacity of the Turkish authorities and favoured by the geographic dispersion of the monasterial estates and the variety of their produce and related transactions. The Athonite monasteries drew revenues from their herds and crops not only on the peninsula itself but also – and far more importantly – from their numerous estates in Chalkidiki, in the islands of the North Aegean and particularly in Wallachia and Moldavia. Other substantial sources of revenue lay in the generosity of the rulers of the Danubian principalities who endowed the monasteries with gifts of cash and lands, in the bequests of devout citizens, and in the offerings of the ordinary people, which were collected in zeteia (Alms-begging) held at fairly frequent intervals throughout Anatolia, Russia and the Venetian Republic.

These revenues were used for the subsistence of the monks, the maintenance and repair of the monastery buildings, especially after earthquake or fire, for gifts to those in power as insurance against perils and dangers, to pay off debts and recover pledges, to purchase new property during the rare periods of prosperity and – first and foremost – to pay a whole range of taxes: poll tax (haratsi) for each monk, taxes on produce and animals, the share due to the timariot (that is, the bostanci-basi) and the shares payable for the upkeep of the Aga and his guard. And these were only the regular taxes: far more onerous were the extra taxes and fines (tzeremedes) imposed, often for the most trifling of reasons. The result was that the Holy Community as an entity, as well as the foundations individually, were more or less permanently indebted both to the Ottoman state and to the private money-lenders, who would 'frequently descend like ravening wolves, seeking their money' and, if not satisfied, 'throw the monks into prison and beat them', or seize precious vessels and vestments.

This permanent financial crisis, together with the fiscal reforms of 1568/69 and the establishment of a Turkish Aga in Karyes in 1575, had a serious impact on the administrative institutions of the community and on the internal organisation of the various foundations. For example, the position of the Protos was weakened, and his role assumed by the Holy Synaxis (or Megali Mesi), which however, in 1661, found itself so overwhelmed by the 'tremendous burden of debt' that it was obliged to sell its lands and thus in fact put an end to its own existence. The central authority was thereafter exercised by the Holy Community, that is, by a delegation representing the twenty independent monasteries, which elected a four-member executive committee, the Epistasia. The details of this administrative system, whose chief duties were to arbiter disputes between monks and settle the community's debts to the Ottoman State, were regulated by the Typika of 1744 and 1783.

Even more significant developments took place in the internal organisation of the individual monasteries. The reduction of the hegumen's term of office to a single year (formerly hegumens had been elected for life) tended to weaken the traditional cenobite system. The idiorrhythmic system which had resurfaced early in the fifteenth century was by the beginning of the seventeenth century virtually universal. Monasteries were administered by a pair of trustees, usually elder monks, elected by the assembled brotherhood for a term of a single year. The idiorrhythmic system brought significant changes to the lives of the individual monks, as well, for they could now own personal property, organise their own meals, and receive remuneration for the work they performed for the monastery. This relaxation of the austerity of an earlier age was considered a degeneration of traditional monasticism. By the latter part of the sixteenth century Patriarch Jeremias II was trying to re-establish the cenobite system, but he achieved only fleeting success. It was to take another two centuries for the movement for the restoration of the cenobite system to take hold, but by 1813 seven monasteries had indeed re-adopted the traditional rule.

The centrifugence of Athonite monasticism during the years of Ottoman occupation was reflected in the numerous variants of monastic organisation which appeared, such as sketae, kellia, hesychasteria, etc. However, all these secondary communities belonged, and continue to belong, to some mother foundation. The skete was composed of kalyvae, and had its own elected prior, known as the dikaios. The oldest of these dependencies was that of St Anne, which belonged to the Great Lavra. The Skete of Kausokalyvae, also belonging to the Great Lavra, came to prominence in the eighteenth century. The cells in the kellia (which usually included a small chapel and a little garden) were allotted for life, in return for a specified rent, to elderly monks and their synodeia, usually one or two novices. The severest form of monasticism was practised by the hermits, or anchorites, who lived in solitude in hesychasteria, generally on the almost inaccessible south-western slope of the Mountain.

According to Ottoman tax records and Athonite archives, the total population of Mount Athos was 1442 in 1525/30, 2966 (2908 monks + 58 laymen) in 1764, and 2705 (2390 monks + 315 laymen) in 1808. With regard to the monks, however, the figures should be augmented by at least thirty per cent, for there is considerable evidence that approximately a third of their number would be away from the Mount at any given time, either for Alms-begging or serving on one of the monastic estates.

The ethnic composition of this monastic population had always been mixed, although in the early years the number of foreign monks was fairly limited. Their numbers began to grow and their presence to have a much greater impact during the period 1480-1530, for reasons that are not fully explained. By the end of the fifteenth century a number of the foundations were largely occupied by foreign monks: these included the Monasteries of Iviron (Georgians), Panteleimon (Russians), Chelandari, Gregoriou, St Paul (Serbs), and Zographou, Philotheou and Simonopetra (Bulgarians). But their numbers gradually began to wane, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the only Slav monasteries remaining were those of Chelandari, Zographou, St Paul and Xenophontos.

It should be noted that, despite the presence of so many monks from so many different nations, Mount Athos never gave the impression of a multi-national community, but rather remained part of the ecclesiastical, cultural and geographical territory of the 'Roman nation'. Foreigners were welcome, but were always considered as being 'from foreign parts', in the words of Patriarch Joachim I (1501).

The general rise in the standard of living and level of education of the Greek people fostered increasing literacy on the Mountain as well, including an intellectual movement of sorts. It should be noted, however, that the comments frequently made in books written by, for the most part, foreign visitors to the peninsula and critical of the general ignorance of the Athonite monks are at least partially exaggerated and in many instances quite unfounded, for they take as their standard the truly impressive scholarship, in both letters and sciences, of the Western monastic orders. But while eastern monasticism held education to be a good thing in general terms, it was never considered indispensable: one could be a perfectly good monk without it. Further, such criticisms disregard the hundreds of regular monks and transient residents who loved books and who compiled codices.

Mount Athos also produced many creative and original writers. While necessarily limiting our review to some of the most important, we must certainly mention such names as the Cretan Agapios Landos (d. 1657), writer (or compiler) of a dozen books, edifying discourses and lives of saints, which went through numerous editions. The most popular of these was undoubtedly the Salvation of the Wicked (1st edition Venice, 1641).

The Xeropotamite monk Kaisarios Dapontes (d. 1784) wrote verse with extraordinary facility and was also a talented writer of popular narrative. His works include A Mirror of Womankind (1766), Garden of the Graces, Historical Catalogue, and many more. His conventional Phanariote language and his easy rhymes are counter-balanced in his prose works by a bubbling humour and an awareness of secular life unexpected in a monk. Cyril the Lavriote (d. 1809), teacher, traveller and author of a Book of Prayers for the Great Lavra, a Description of Russia and an Ecclesiastical and Political History, wrote in a similar vein, although without Dapontes's zest. He was also the first to catalogue the Great Lavra's archives and to put them in order.

A broad circle of Athonite monks and other scholars were implicated in what was known as the Quarrel of the Kolyvadhes, which developed into the most important spiritual movement in the Ottoman history of Mount Athos, not only for the intensity which it acquired but also for the extent of its repercussions. The ostensible cause of the dispute was dissension over the regularity of conducting requiem services on certain days – not only Saturdays, as the Kolyvadhes argued, but even on Sundays. The Patriarchate initially endeavoured to reconcile the opponents, but without success. In the end (1776) the Patriarch pronounced against the Kolyvadhes, and their leaders dispersed to the islands of the Aegean, where they continued to spread their ideas and their liturgical practices for, regardless of the original cause of the dispute, the most eminent exponents of the movement (Athanasios Parios, Makarios Notaras, Nicodemos the Hagiorite) gave it a more general religious dimension and endowed it with a special mysticism. The works they published, jointly, such as the Philocalia (1782), the Euergetinos (1783) and the Collected Works of Symeon the New Theologian, aligned the Kolyvadist movement with the Byzantine mystics and the Hesychasts of the fourteenth century. On the other hand, and paradoxically, Nicodemos the Hagiorite, on the recommendation of Makarios Notaras, supervised the Greek translations of books of Western mysticism, such as the Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli (1796) and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (1800). Independently of the Kolyvadhes, the Russian monk Paοsios Velitskovski (d. 1794), who spent much of his life on the Mountain, translated into Old Slavonic many literary works of the Byzantine ascetic tradition, which subsequently became the spiritual delight of the Slavophile Russians. The Slavo-Bulgarian History by the Bulgarian monk Paοsios the Chelandarite (1762) was similarly influential, and is considered the earliest philological document associated with Bulgarian nationalism.

At the time of the Kolyvadist dispute, the Monastery of Vatopedi was engaged in an entirely different sort of activity. On the initiative of its hegumen, Meletios, it decided to establish a School of Greek Studies, which was to become known as the Athonite School. With the moral and financial support of Patriarch Cyril V, the Vatopedian monks erected an imposing school building and appointed as the school's Director Neophytos the Kausokalyvitis. He was succeeded in 1753 by the 'illustrious' Evgenios Voulgaris, who in his five and a half years as Director taught 'modern' (i.e. ideologically oriented towards the Europe of the Enlightenment) subjects to a student body of nearly two hundred. Among the young men he taught were Iosepos Moisiodax, Athanasios Parios and Kosmas Aetolos. But a certain mistrust of Voulgaris, coupled with in-fighting and interference in his work, eventually obliged him to resign. Without him the school virtually collapsed, managing – despite the intrepid intervention of the Patriarch in the early years of the nineteenth century – to stagger on for only a few more decades.

But perhaps the most critical moment in the history of Mount Athos came with the 1821 Greek War of Independence. The initial enthusiasm aroused by the declaration of independence pronounced by Emmanuel Papas (the representative of the Filiki Etairia) in Karyes in May 1821 was soon succeeded by confusion and panic, when the impromptu revolutionaries, a band of monks and laymen, were routed by the Turks in Chalkidiki and had to flee for safety to Mount Athos, taking with them some 5,000 women and children from the surrounding villages. The Athonite superiors hastened to forestall the imminent invasion of the peninsula by going to the Pasha and denouncing the fomenters of the insurrection. They petitioned for amnesty, and agreed to pay double taxes and heavy fines. But the Pasha failed to keep his word. He seized dozens of hostages and sent sizable detachments to occupy the monasteries; these garrisons were not lifted until 1830, by which time they had caused both massive expenditures of cash and irremediable damage to the buildings, art treasures and libraries. The terrified monks abandoned the monasteries in such numbers that in the five-year period between 1821 and 1826 their numbers dropped from 2,980 to a mere 590. Fortunately some of the fugitives had carried away with them as many of the treasures as they could save. Once things had calmed down somewhat, the Athonite monasteries began, with the support of Capodistrias, the first Governor of the new Greek State, to build themselves up again. They also managed to recover some of the estates that had hastily been sold in order to defray the expenses of the Turkish garrison.

A new blow fell upon the monastic community in 1863, when the newly established Kingdom of Romania expropriated all the monasterial estates in the Danubian Principalities. The compensation offered was negligible, and the case was brought before the courts; but it was never settled. In similar fashion, the Russians seized the monasteries of the Caucasus and Bessarabia in 1873.

Relations between Mount Athos and the Patriarchate were frequently troubled during the course of the nineteenth century. The cause was the growing tendency of the Patriarch to interfere in Athonite affairs, and particularly to demand contributions to philanthropic causes that had nothing to do with the monastic community. During the primacy of Joachim II (1860-78) the tension almost reached the point of causing relations to be broken off entirely, and normalcy was not restored until the final years of Patriarch Joachim III (d. 1912).

The issue which bought Mount Athos to the forefront of the international stage, however, was the attempt by the Russians to use it as a launching-pad for the pursuit of their pan-Slavist aspirations. By the purchase of debt-ridden monasteries and sketae, by erecting splendid churches and magnificent buildings and filling them with thousands of Russian monks, they transformed Mount Athos into what was virtually a Russian colony. Their success received diplomatic ratification with the signature of the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, which however, was radically modified (including this point) by the Congress of Berlin a few months later. The ethnic rivalries being played out in the Balkans were being repeated on a miniature scale on Mount Athos.

In the end, this and all other issues took a whole new turn on November 2, 1912, when troops from the Greek battleship 'Averoff' overthrew the Turkish authorities and liberated the Holy Mountain.

The International Status and the Legal Framework of Mount Athos

The new reality that emerged from the Balkan Wars made it necessary to redraw the political map of Macedonia. The international position of Mount Athos, however, was seen as a problem sui generis, and the territory constituted an apple of discord, particularly between Greece and Russia – which, it must be remembered, had never abandoned its aspirations to the role of protector of the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans. During the negotiations preliminary to the signing of the Treaty of London in 1913, as well as at the Ambassadors' Conference held there that same year, Russia produced a whole string of alternate proposals for the future status of Mount Athos: internationalisation, neutrality, joint sovereignty or joint protectorate under Russia and the other Orthodox Balkan states. While the reaction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek government, which needed Russian support in other areas, was half-hearted, the Athonite Community (with the exception of the Russians) declared by official resolution that it would employ every means to resist the adulteration of the traditional autonomy of the Holy Mountain and 'Greek sovereignty over it'. While the issue was left unresolved at that time, there was a tacit acceptance of the existing de facto Greek sovereignty over the Athonite peninsula.

When the issue was raised again after the end of the First World War, conditions had become more favourable for the Greek side: on the one hand there were far fewer Russian monks on the Mountain, and on the other the new Bolshevik regime in Russia displayed little interest in the matter. With the Treaties of Neuilly (1919), Sevres (1920) and Lausanne (1923), Greek sovereignty over Mount Athos was officially recognised.

All that remained was to settle the legal dispositions of Greece's relations with the Holy Mountain and to draw up an internal rule for the governance of the monastic community. In 1924 a five-member committee of eminent Athonites prepared a 'Charter for the Holy Mountain of Athos', which codified regulations and administrative dispositions stemming not only from written sources (Typika, chrysoboulla, sigillia, regulations, etc.) but also from tradition and customary usage. This Charter was approved that same year by the Athonite Assembly known as the 'double Synaxis'. On the basis of this official text the Greek state drafted a Legislative Decree, which the Greek Parliament passed into law in 1926. At the same time, the 1927 Greek Constitution contained special articles (included in each subsequent constitution) on the general principles governing the status of Mount Athos.

These were the official documents defining the Athonite Peninsula's relations with Greece and with the Church, as well as the competence of its administrative institutions, the Holy Synaxis and the Holy Epistasia. They also regulated relations between monks, between monk and monastery, between monastery and dependency, etc., in order to prevent friction and disputes.

The Greek State is represented by the Governor of Mount Athos, who answers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and who, together with the deputy governor, resides in Karyes. He ensures that the Charter is respected, attends the sessions of the Holy Community in an advisory capacity, and presides over local public services (police, customs, etc.).

Finally, with regard to the administration of justice, it should be noted that disciplinary matters and minor disputes between monks or monasteries are adjudicated initially by the individual monastic authorities, in the second instance by the Holy Community and in the third by the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Misdemeanours and minor infractions are settled by the local police authorities, while criminal offences and land disputes between monasteries are in the jurisdiction of the competent courts in Thessaloniki.

Ch. G. Patrinellis

Bibliography: Metaxakis 1913. Kondogiannis 1926, pp. 144-52. Antonopoulos 1958. Papadatos 1961. Angelou 1963, pp. 84-105. Alexandros 1963 (1), pp. 113-261. Tachiaos 1964. Gabriel D. 1966, pp. 56-74. Tzogas 1969. Zachariadou 1971, pp. 1-35. Stathi 1973, pp. 223-31. Tsamis 1986. Nasturel 1986.

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