Foundation of the Mount Athos Monasteries Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Mount Athos monasteries provided a cultural and intellectual center for the Eastern Orthodox religion, particularly during the prolonged period of Ottoman Turkish domination of the Balkan Peninsula.

Summary of Event

Although the legend of Mount Athos as a Christian religious sanctuary goes back to a purported visit to the Holy Mount by the Virgin Mary in 49 c.e., this area has a religious tradition that predates Christianity. Named after Athos, son of Poseidon, according to tradition, it was the home of the Greek gods before Olympus. [kw]Foundation of the Mount Athos Monasteries (963) [kw]Mount Athos Monasteries, Foundation of the (963) Athos, Mount Monasticism;Greece Greece;963: Foundation of the Mount Athos Monasteries[1260] Organizations and institutions;963: Foundation of the Mount Athos Monasteries[1260] Religion;963: Foundation of the Mount Athos Monasteries[1260] Leo VI Nicephorus II Phocas Athanasios of Athos John I Tzimisces Gregory of Sinai

Throughout the early Middle Ages, Athos held a reputation as a holy place. In the ninth century, it was the home of Saint Peter the Athonite, a semilegendary hermit who lived there in a cave for thirty-five years. By the end of the ninth century, there were several small lavras (monasteries) there. A chrysobul (imperial document) from the Byzantine emperor Leo VI Leo VI (Byzantine emperor) was issued around 900 c.e., confirming the possession of the entire peninsula by certain hermits already there.

Around 961, the Byzantine general Nicephorus II Phocas Nicephorus II Phocas and his adviser, the monk Athanasios Athanasios of Athos , decided to build a great monastery on Athos to which they might retire from public life. However, Nicephorus became the emperor instead, leaving Athanasios to complete the monastery. This monastic establishment, the Great Lavra Great Lavra , still stands as the oldest and largest monastery on Athos, although Athanasios was killed supervising its construction.

The hermits living on Athos at that time were not pleased by the rise of the Great Lavra, and they complained to Nicephorus’s successor John I Tzimisces John I Tzimisces about its size and worldliness. The latter reconfirmed the monastery, however, and increased the number of monks allowed to live there. He established a common council of hermit-monks who would meet regularly in Karyes, a small town in the center of the peninsula.

By the end of the tenth century, several more monasteries, including Iveron, Vatopedi, Chilandar, Esphigmenou, Pantaleimon, Xenophontos, and Zographou, had been built. At about this time, monks from other nations, including Georgia, Italy, and Armenia, began to come to Athos, and the following two centuries saw the addition of Slavic monks from Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia. New monasteries were founded during the next hundred years with a steadily increasing population of monks and hermits. This continued until the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, which slowed the building impetus. Many of these larger monasteries became wealthy from royal subsidies, as well as the sale of agricultural products produced by the monks and of trees from the forests.

The later Middle Ages represent the most active era in the establishment of the monasteries of Mount Athos. All of the Ruling Monasteries had been established by 1540, less than a century after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The largest monasteries had extensive libraries and treasure houses, as well as archives relating to the founding of each of the monastic houses. The purpose of the monastic establishments was to provide a place for prayer and contemplation away from the tribulations of everyday life. These monasteries were usually supported by gifts from various rulers or by donations solicited from the faithful. The monks themselves took responsibility for the daily tasks involved in the upkeep of their own monastic communities.

Among issues of importance to the monasteries on Athos was the question as to whether the Byzantine emperor or the Orthodox patriarch had supreme authority over the Mount. Another matter of importance was the proscription of eunuchs, beardless youths, women, and in fact all female creatures from the area. Although traditionally at the behest of the Virgin Mary, this proscription was instituted in 1045 under the constitution approved by Constantine Monomachus, the Byzantine emperor.

In 1204, when the Byzantine Empire was invaded and pillaged by the legions of the Fourth Crusade Crusades;Fourth[04] , there was great danger that the treasures on Mount Athos, which included a great jeweled Bible, a reliquary of the True Cross, and many priceless manuscripts, might be seized by the crusaders. Pope Innocent III, however, guaranteed the autonomy of the mount, which prevented this disaster from occurring. After the restoration of the Byzantine emperors to the throne, however, and the consequent attempt to end the schism between the Eastern and Western Catholic Church by recognizing the supremacy of the pope of Rome, many of the monks on Athos were executed by inquisitors.

Another disaster that befell the inhabitants of Mount Athos occurred in 1307, when the Grand Company of Catalans, mercenaries who had been hired by Andronicus II Palaeologus to defend the Byzantine Empire against the Turks, turned to devastation against their host and pillaged the monasteries on Athos, despoiling their treasures and slaughtering many of the monks.

Up to that point, the monastic organization of Mount Athos had been cenobitic, with all of the monks living in a communal environment. After the Catalans departed, for the first time arose the alternative idiorrhythmic style of monasticism. Based on the Christian ideal of brotherly love, the cenobitic example of monastic living, as developed by Saints Pachomius and Basil in the fourth century, stressed the desirability of living together in a rule of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with all meals, worship, and living space in common. The idiorrhythmic principle, on the other hand, allowed the possession of personal property, the solitary taking of food, and worship in private if desired. It also allowed for a much more rigorous eremetic existence and thus appealed to those monks who wished to become more fervent practitioners of the monastic ideal.

Of the twenty Ruling Monasteries on Athos, nine eventually adopted the idiorrhythmic way of life. It was forbidden for any more monasteries to choose the idiorrhythmic organization, although the formerly idiorrhythmic monasteries were allowed to opt for the cenobitic style.

In monastic governance, the idiorrhythmic monasteries are governed by a committee of three elected representatives and a permanent council of elders, while the cenobitic houses are governed by an abbot, who is elected for life and may assume almost dictatorial power.

The Hesychast regimen Hesychast regimen , based on a movement introduced to Athos by Gregory of Sinai Gregory of Sinai in the early fourteenth century, was adopted by some of the Athonite monks. Basically, the Hesychasts believed in perpetual prayer and self-illumination from within, and joy through meditation. This mystical approach to spiritual communion with God later became associated with social and political movements that led to a civil war within the Byzantine state. This issue was not resolved until John VI Cantacuzenus presided over a council that upheld the Hesychasts.


Of the twenty Ruling Monasteries on Athos, one is Serbian (Chilandar), one is Russian (Pantaleimon), one is Bulgarian (Zographou), and the remainder are Greek. They are each represented by one member at the Holy Synod at Karyes, the parliament of Athos. For those desiring it, however, there are other options besides the Ruling Monasteries. There are a dozen or so sketes, both cenobitic and idiorrhythmic, where a more austere lifestyle and an interest in trade or handicraft obtains. Smaller than the sketes are the kellia, usually occupied by two to four monks, and usually following agricultural pursuits. Then there are the true hermits. They are in the tradition of the earliest eremitic inhabitants of Athos, leading an ascetic existence in caves and single huts, spending their days in prayer, self-mortification, and solitude.

During the almost half-millennium of Turkish occupation of the Balkans, the cultural legacy of the past survived almost entirely because of the influence of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Church;Byzantine Empire Athos because of its independence was a great center of Byzantine and Hellenistic thought, and because of its isolated location was as well a refuge for those seeking to escape from Ottoman disfavor. Because the Ottomans were tolerant of other religions and because the monks did not politically display their lack of sympathy for the Turkish authorities, they were largely left alone to pursue their intellectual and religious endeavors.

The monasteries on Mount Athos continued to exist into the twenty-first century, although the number of monks was much smaller than during its flourishing in the Middle Ages.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fine, John V. A. The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Covers the development of Mount Athos in the context of the events of the Balkans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fine, John V. A. The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Discusses the later development of Mount Athos in the context of general developments in the Balkans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hussey, J. M. The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986. An exhaustive work on the history, principles, and organization of the Eastern Orthodox religion as it developed under the Byzantines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwich, John Julian, and Reresby Sitwell. Mount Athos. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. An account of the monasteries and their history arising from visits to Mount Athos by Norwich and Sitwell.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453. 1971. Reprint. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982. Chapter 10 discusses monasticism under the Byzantines, particularly as practiced by the Slavs at Athos and elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pavlikianov, Cyril. The Medieval Aristocracy on Mount Athos: The Philological and Documentary Evidence for the Activity of Byzantine, Georgian, and Slav Aristocrats and Eminent Churchmen in the Monasteries of Mount Athos from the Tenth to the Fifteeenth Century. Sofia, Bulgaria: Center for Slavo-Byzantine Studies, 2001. A look at the ruling elite on Mount Athos in the Middle Ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimbardo, Xavier. Monks of Dust: The Holy Men of Mount Athos. New York: Rizzoli, 2001. An examination of the monasteries at Mount Athos.

Categories: History