The Holy Mount Athos is an autonomous and self-governed territory of Greece. It occupies the whole of the third peninsula of Halkidiki, about 50 km in length and having a breadth of 8-12 km covering an area of 330 square kilometers. In the centre of the peninsula of Mount Athos rise a long range of hills and mountains, culminating in Mount Athos itself,2,033m above sea level. The boarder of this monastic state, where it meets the rest of Greece, is marked by an imaginary line drawn from Francocastro on the western coast across to Cape Arapis on the opposite coast, passing close it the foothills of the mountain “Megali Vigla” (Megas Zigos). Until the 3rd Century BC, many small Greek towns existed on the peninsula of Athos, principally colonies originating from Chalkida and Eretria. The most important of which were Sani, Ouranoupolis, Thisson, Kleones, Dion, Akrathos and Olofixos. Later, these towns declined or were destroyed.
Today on Mount Athos there are 20 monasteries, 17 of them are Greek: Megistis Lavras, Vatopediou ( Greek Cyprian ), Iviron, Koutloumousiou, Agiou Pavlou, Dionissiou, Xenofontos , Stavronikita, Gregoriou, Konstamonitou, Esfigmenou, Doheariou, Karakalou, Xiropotamou, Pantokratoros, Simonos Petras, Filotheou. One monastery is Russian (Agiou Panteleiminos), one is Serbian (Hilandariou) and one is Bulgarian (Zografou).There are also 14 skites and many kellia, kalives and kathismata.
Mount Athos is governed by the “Holy Community” a council of representatives from the 20 monasteries with the participation of the Greek State through its representative in Karyes, the capitol city. The executive organ of the “Holy Community” is the four-member “Holy Epistasia” headed by the “Protepistate”. Responsibility for spiritual matters comes under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, while matters of public order and safety come under the representative governor of the Greek state
The Garden of Virgin Mary
According to the tradition, Virgin Mary was sailing accompanied by St John the Evangelist from Joppa to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown to Athos peninsula, it was forced to anchor close to the present monastery of Iviron. The Virgin walked ashore and overwhelmed by the wonderful and wild natural beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice was heard saying “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved”. From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Virgin Mary or Mother of God (Perivoli tis Panagias) and was out of bounds to all other women.
Historical documents on ancient Mount Athos history are very few. We are sure that monks were already there since the 4th century. That period both Christians and pagans were living there. After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, many monks from the Egyptian desert tried to find another place and some of them came to the Athos peninsula. . In 866, John Kolovos built the first monastic center, the Great Vigla. This monastery was consolidated by royal golden bulls (decrees).Since then, Mount Athos became the land of monastic life.
In 958 AD, the monk Athanasios the Athonite arrived on Mount Athos from the Monastery of Xerolimne in Asia Minor. In 962, the big central church of the “Protaton” in Karies is built. In the next year, with the support of the Emperor Nicephoros Focas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries existing today.
The first organization of the monastic way of life becomes true with the charter (Typikon) of St Athanasios, which resulted to the interference of the state through John Tsimiskis who gave the Charter (Typikon) that is still in force today. Initially there where only individual monasteries but later on they were organized into a monastic state.
From Byzantium the Orthodox faith spread to the Balkans and monks from these lands arrived on Mount Athos to establish monasteries. Georgian monks founded the monastery of Iviron (976), Serbs the monastery of Chilandari (1197) and Bulgarians the monastery of Zografou (1270).
The first two centuries of this period, more than 180 monasteries were founded with over 20.000 monks. Later on, most of them were destroyed by the Crusades and the Pirates.
Even the emperors themselves built monasteries. The Balkan Christian Kings also took notice of Mount Athos .The Russians founded and supported monasteries. Russia, under the governance of the Tsar, provided great economic aid to the St Panteleimonos monastery.
The Athoniada college was founded in 1748, a philosophic and theological school for the whole of Greece, initially run by Neofytos Kafsokalivitis and then by Evgenios Voulgaris (1753).
Mount Athos was autonomous. This right was initially granted to it by Nikiforos Fokas and John Tsimiskis and was preserved down to the era of the Turkish domination. The inhabitants of Mount Athos submitted to the Turkish rule and they were therefore treated favorably.
In 1821 it was taken by the Turks and the revolution of Chalkidiki was drowned in blood. Then the Turks left a guard that the monasteries had to support. The occupation of Mount Athos by the Turks lasted until 1830.
In 1926, Mount Athos became a self-governing part of the Greek State in accordance with the constitutional decree of Lozanne (1924).According to it, depends on the Patriarchate of Constantinople and is supervised by Greece.