Mount Athos is a mountain on the Holy Mountain peninsula in northern Greece. The peninsula political status in Greece is known as the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain. Mount Athos , World Heritage Site , is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, 12 skites, and about 700 houses, cells, or hermitages and forms an autonomous state under Greek sovereignty. Only monks are allowed to live on Athos and the current population numbers around 1,400. Spiritually, Mount Athos comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Mt Athos covers an area of about 390 km², with the actual Mount Athos and its steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to 2,033 m.
In the context of Greek mythology Athos was the name of one of the Gigantes that challenged the Greek gods during the Gigantomachia. Athos threw a massive rock against Poseidon which fell in the Aegean sea and became the Athonite Peninsula. According to another version of the story, Poseidon used the mountain to bury the defeated giant.
It is believed that Blessed Virgin Mary was sailing accompanied by St John the Evangelist from Joppa to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown off course to then pagan Athos it was forced to anchor near the port of Klement . Overwhelmed by the wonderful and wild natural beauty of the mountain Virgin Mary blessed it and asked her Son to be her garden.
Mt. Athos as a monastic community was formally founded in 963, when the monk Athanasios established the monastery of Great Lavra, which is still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries. An Orthodox spiritual centre since 1054, Mount Athos has enjoyed an autonomous statute since Byzantine times and the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries .
In the 13th century, the Fourth Crusade brought new Roman Catholic overlords which forced the monks to seek protection from Pope Innocent III until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. It was raided by Catalan mercenaries in the 14th century. The Byzantine Empire collapsed in the 15th century and the Muslim Ottoman Empire took over. The Turks taxed the monasteries heavily, but for the most part left them alone.
The population of monks and their wealth declined over the next centuries, but was revitalized around the 19th century by the donations and new arrivals from other Eastern Orthodox countries, such as Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.
In 1912, the Ottomans were forced out and after a brief conflict between Greece and Russia over sovereignty, the peninsula formally came under Greek sovereignty after World War I. In 1977, when Greece became a member of the European Common Market, the signatory states recognized the specificity of the self-governing region of Athos and its special status.
In modern times, Mount Athos monasteries have repeatedly been struck by wildfires, including in August 1990 and in March 2004
There is a prohibition on entry for women, called avaton in Greek, to make living in celibacy easier for those who have chosen to do so. Monks feel that the presence of women alters the social dynamics of the community and therefore slows their path towards spiritual enlightenment.
Visits to the peninsula are possible for men who aren’t monks or even Greek Orthodox. Cruises around the peninsula are available to all, providing both men and women a glimpse into the secluded life of the monks of Mt. Athos. Mount Athos is accessible only by boat. The daily number of visitors entering Mount Athos is restricted and all are required to obtain a special entrance permit valid for a limited period. Only males are allowed entrance into Mount Athos, which is called “Garden of the Virgin” by the monks .