Byzantium’s Last Outpost

text by Bruno Pavan
photos by Robert Semeniuk
photos by BlackStar

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With these words the Orthodox community of Mount Athos addresses the pilgrim who crosses its borders from eastern Greece.

Stretching like a pointed finger into the deep blue of the Aegean Sea, Mount Athos is a fragment of the life that reigned, for a time, throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

Mount Athos is the last outpost of the beauty of Byzantium. It is a miracle that this living fossil has survived more than 1,200 years of turmoil, leaving very little trace of the passage of time.

The origins of the monastic establishments on the Holy Mountain are obscure. According to an ancient Byzantine legend, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle were sailing to Cyprus to visit the resurrected Lazarus when their vessel was blown off course. As their ship approached the shore, statues honoring the gods in the mount’s temples collapsed. The Virgin asked her son to bless the mountain and a voice was heard: “Henceforth this place shall be your lot, your garden, your paradise.”

In the ninth century, Sts. Peter the Athonite and Eutemios the Youth founded a number of small communities. In 881, the Byzantine emperor formally recognized the right of the monastics to inhabit and govern the mount. The first formal monastery, the Great Lavra, which still functions, was founded by St. Athanasius the Athonite in 963 – more than 100 years after the emperor’s recognition of the Holy Mountain’s autonomy.

In 1045 the emperor enacted a law barring females of all species from the mount: “Our Lady shall have no rival.” To this day this law is enforced by the monks with all the vigor and strength of their predecessors.

Today 20 monasteries and a number of sketes, or clusters of ascetics who live together, make up this autonomous state under the Greek republic.

Mount Athos has known periods of great wealth and poverty, power and weakness: the golden age of Byzantium, the hostile Latin crusaders, the Ottoman conquest and the Greek reconquest. But through it all, the mount retained its autonomy. The European community recognized this unique status when the Treaty of Berlin was signed in 1878.

The village of Karyes, which is situated more or less in the middle of this strip of rocky coast and green hills, is the center of the holy Koinotis, the central governing body. This governing body is composed of 20 representatives chosen from the 20 monasteries. A committee of four is selected to form the executive branch, and from this committee a president is elected to a one-year term.

A special pass issued by the Koinotis is needed to enter the Holy Mountain. These procedures exist so the steady number of pilgrims and visitors does not interrupt the daily regime of the monks who live there.

The order of the day varies, depending on what rule the community follows. Nine of the 20 monasteries are cenobitic – the monks are obedient to an abbot, who is elected for life; the community celebrates the liturgies of the church in common; and the community submits to a strict discipline of prayer and fasting.

The remaining 11 monasteries are idiorrhythmic; each monk follows his own pace, his own rhythm.

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