This peninsula of 390 km² houses over 1,700 monks in 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and their associated sketae (cloisters) and cells. An autonomous state under Greek sovereignty, entry into the area is strictly controlled and only male residents are allowed to live there and only male visitors allowed.
Agio Oros (Holy Mountain) is a self-governed part of the Greek state, politically subject to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as regards its religious aspect. The mountain is dedicated to the Holy Mother of God, and by an imperial document (typicon) the avaton was established and no female may set foot on the peninsula. Most of its inhabitants are Orthodox monks living in monasteries, sketae, cells and hermitages. Those who are not members of the clergy include employees and workers. There are also numerous male pilgrims (up to 110 can enter per day) to Agio Oros, who come for the purposes of meditation, prayer and study.
Of the twenty monasteries, one is Russian, one is Bulgarian, one is Serbian and the rest are Greek. There are also Romanian and Bulgarian sketae. Foreign monasteries and sketae are supported by their respective countries.
These monasteries possess holy relics, icons, frescoes and mosaics of great value. Although many have been lost in fires or stolen during raids, a vast array of historical texts, rare documents and manuscripts - all historical heirlooms - are kept in their libraries.
The first to settle here were iconodules, members of the clergy fleeing from the persecution of the iconoclasts. They came and lived as anchorites, unknown, and literally alone inside caves. Later, monasteries were built and were organised in a monastic state. Agio Oros became a refuge for those seeking to save their souls through fasting and praying, and its prestige grew to a point that even Byzantine emperors came and lived as monks here.
The right of autonomy of Agio Oros was granted gradually, initially by the Byzantine emperors Nikiforos Fokas and Ioannis Tsimiskis. This autonomy was maintained and even enhanced throughout the Ottoman rule up to this day. After WWI, a series of international treaties recognized the special status of the mountain. Although nominally part of Greece, special stipulations and exemptions apply in regard to Greece's accession to the European Community (now European Union).
Average visitors can stay for free at each monastery for one day, for a maximum of three nights/four days, pending acceptation of request and only after having secured a written permission (diamonitirion) from a dedicated bureau in Thessaloniki. Scholars and genuine Orthodox novices can obtain longer permissions.
Out of sync
Mount Athos follows the Julian calendar, so all local dates, including those on diamonitiria, are 13 days behind the rest of the Gregorian world.
A fair bit of advance preparation and battling with bureaucracy is necessary to visit Mount Athos, since only 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors per day are permitted.
A permit (diamonitirion) is required for both individuals and groups. This is issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Churches (at No 2, Zalokosta Street, in Athens, tel: 210 3626 894) or by the Ministry of Northern Greece, Directorate of Civil Affairs at Diikitiriou Square in Thessaloniki, tel. 2310 270.092.
Women are not admitted into the territory.
Overnight stay is forbidden to those under 18.
Diamonitiria (permits to stay as a pilgrim) are issued by the offices of Mount Athos, at Ouranoupolis (on the right side of the port). In order to get their diamonitirion visitors must show their identity cards and pay the sum of €18 (Orthodox visitors), €30 (non-Orthodox) or €10 (non-Orthodox but student). Foreign visitors also need a passport; if you are Orthodox but not Greek, you will need to prove this (a letter from a priest or a baptismal certificate will do).
First contact the Pilgrims' Bureau (address below). They may need plenty of notice of your proposed visit - up to six months if you plan to visit during the summer months of June, July, and August when the monasteries are full to over-flowing with Greek and Orthodox pilgrims, but as little as a few days outside the peak season.
The Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau
109 EGNATIA STR.
546 22, Thessaloniki, Greece
Tel. +30 2310 252578, Fax +30 2310 222424
Once you have gained permission from the Pilgrims' Bureau you must contact each monastery where you plan to stay. Without their consent you will be turned away. A good site for further details of monasteries and how to contact each one by phone or fax is here.
The "general diamonitirion" usually granted to visitors allows you to stay a maximum of three days, visiting monasteries at will. The more rare "special diamonitirion" allows an unlimited stay at only one monastery.
The monasteries on Mount Athos can be reached only by ferry, either from Ouranoupoli (for west coast monasteries) or from Ierissos for those on the east coast. Many visitors arrive at the port of Dafni (Daphne), from where they continue by bus to the "capital" Karyes. Smaller boats, people carriers and taxis ferry pilgrims from monastery to monastery. boat schedules.
There are also sightseeing boats that do tours around the peninsula without landing; these require no permits, and are the only option for women who want to get a glimpse of Mount Athos.
It is possible to walk from monastery to monastery. The longest walk is from Agia Anna to Great Lavra (six to seven hours). Many of the ancient footpaths are still clear but from time to time it will be necessary to walk on the roads.
The capital, Karyes: Highlights include the old church of Protaton, which has exceptional murals and a famous icon of the Virgin Mary, called Axion Estin, which is the household icon of the patron saint of the Holy Mountain.
The monasteries, which in Mount Athos amount to twenty:
Great Lavra (Μεγίστη Λαύρα Megísti Lávra): the oldest monastery in the Holy Mountain.
Vatopédi (Βατοπέδι): the second oldest monastery.
Iviron (Ιβήρων): an ancient Georgian monastery, now populated by Greek monks.
Chilandariou (Χιλανδαρίου, or Хиландар Hilandar in Serbian): a Serbian monastery, populated by Serbian monks.
Zographou (Ζωγράφου, ЗографZograf in Bulgarian): a Bulgarian monastery, populated by Bulgarian monks.
Simonos Petra (Σίμωνος Πέτρα or Σιμωνόπετρα): a Greek monastery, very cosmopolitan in its composition, including monks from many places over the world.
Agiou Pavlou (Αγίου Παύλου)
Xenofondos (Ξενοφώντος): a Greek monastery which has one of the biggest katholikon (church) in the Holy Mountain.
Osiou Grigoriou (Οσίου Γρηγορίου)
Agiou Panteleimonos (Αγίου Παντελεήμονος, or Ρωσικό Rossikon): the Russian monastery, populated by Russian monks.
The eighteenth monastery in rank -Esphigmenou (Εσφιγμένου)- is currently populated by monks under a schism dispute with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and may not be open or suitable for visitors.
Upon arrival at a monastery, the visitor may ask the guest-master if and when they may see and venerate the relics and miraculous icons and may receive a kind of guided tour and information about the history of the monastery.
The sketae, or cloisters, which in Mount Athos amount to at least a dozen:
Saint John the Baptist (Romanian): a Romanian skete, more commonly known as Prodromos or Timiou Prodromou, which seems more like a monastery, and belongs to the Megísti Lavra monastery.
Kafsokalivia: a Greek skete which belongs to the Megísti Lavra monastery.
Agia Anna: the most important Greek skete in Mount Athos, quite a monastic village, which belongs to Megísti Lavra monastery.
Mikra Agia Anna: a Greek skete which belongs to the Megísti Lavra monastery.
Agiou Demetrios (Greek): a Greek skete which belongs to the Vatopedi monastery.
Agiou Andreos: a Russian-built skete, now populated by Greek monks, which seems more like a monastery and belongs to the Vatopedi monastery. It has one of the biggest katholikon (church) in the Holy Mountain.
Saint John the Baptist (Greek): a Greek skete which belongs to the Iviron monastery.
Agiou Panteleimonos: a Greek skete which belongs to the Koutloumousiou monastery.
Profiti Ilias: a Russian-built skete, now populated by Greek monks, which belongs to the Pantokratoros monastery, and can be seen at eyesight of it.
Agiou Demetrios (Romanian): a Romanian skete, also known as Lacou Skiti or Lakkoskiti, which belongs to the Agiou Pavlou monastery, but is so far away from the main roads that monks there are extremely friendly to their few visitors.
Nea Skiti: a Greek skete which belongs to the Agiou Pavlou monastery.
Annunciation of the Theotokos: a Greek skete which belongs to the Xenophondos monastery.
Bogoroditsa: a Bulgarian skete which belongs to the Agiou Panteleimonos monastery.
The Morphonou Tower: a white marble tower which is the only remains of the Amalfion monastery, the only Latin monastery to exist in the Holy Mountain.
Saint Athanasius' cave: being only fifteen-minutes walk away from Prodromos skete, it is the cave of the original monk from Mount Athos who founded the first monastery (Megísti Lavra) and originated the current monastic status quo of the Holy Mountain.
Sunset at Athos: only properly seen from the monasteries of the southern coast (Agios Pavlou, Agiou Dionysiou, Osiou Grigoriou, Simonos Petras, Xiropotamou, Agiou Panteleimonos, Xenophondos, Diochariou), the Chalkidikian sunset is of a quality which can easily challenge all other Greek sunsets, either in the mainland or the islands.
Attend the church services: they are the center of the life in the Mount Athos monasteries and sketae. For proper attendance to church services, please consult the Respect section. These services normally take place in the following fashion:
An afternoon service, known as "Vespers" to Orthodox, which in most monasteries takes place from 5 PM to 6 PM, but in some monasteries and sketae this time may vary.
A morning service, known as "Matins" or Orthros, which begins at 4 AM, and blends into the Divine Liturgy until it ends at about 7 AM.
An All-Night Vigil, only available on nights of major Orthodox feasts or the feast of the saint to which the concerning monastery is dedicated. For a list of monasteries' feast dates, check here (note that dates are in the Julian calendar, so you have to add 13 days to get the dates right).
Venerate the relics: each monastery and skete has precious relics available for veneration, which normally are available during or immediately after church services. In order to properly venerate the relics, please consult the Respect section.
Cross the Athos Desert: it is the terrain between Megisti Lavra (and/or Prodromos skete) and Agia Anna skete. This terrain is very wild, completely devoid of roads, populated by hermits and/or hesychasts, but of immense spiritual beauty for believers. The crossing -by foot- normally takes about 6 hours.
Climb Mount Athos' summit: this can only be reasonably achieved departing from Agia Anna skete during summer. Climbing from the skete to the summit and coming back takes about 8 hours.
Provided you stay at the monasteries, or you are just passing by at the right time, you will eat meals and dinners with the monks in the monastery's refectory (trapeza). The food is normally extremely good, usually vegetarian but with cheese and bread. Mostly you will be looking at bread, olives and vegetables, although occasionally fish or cheese may be served.
For drink, on fasting days (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) only water will be served. On non-fasting days, Greek wine and/or Greek retsina will be available. If you happen to be on the monastery's saint feast day, a piece of sweet cake will surely be available as a dessert.
In order to eat at the monasteries, you must be attentive to eating schedules. These normally take place after their services, that is, after Vespers in the afternoon (at around 6 PM) or after Divine Liturgy in the morning (at around 7 AM). Still, these times are not exact, so you should ask at each monastery for the timetable, and if you arrive after eating times, you may ask the archontaris (guestmaster) for food.
It is a good idea to take additional supplies with you. They can be bought at Dafni or Karyes, but do not rely on having great variety available. No meat is allowed on Mount Athos as the monks don't eat meat. As a visitor, you will be expected to respect this and not bring any meat products to the peninsula.
You will surely enjoy the food because the monks here are trained specialists at cooking, and the food is all freshly grown and healthy. Furthermore, eating takes place with a monk reading aloud lives of the saints or extracts from the Bible, so even if you don't understand the language, it will be an enjoyable experience.
The only places to sleep in Mount Athos are the monasteries and sketae, which offer spartan dormitory-style accommodation in guesthouses (archontariki). Most, but not all, require reservations in advance. For a directory of the phone and fax numbers of the monasteries and sketae, check here.
Be sure to check in before 4:00 p.m. or risk being shut out! Simple meals are included at specific times. Most monasteries offer no bathing facilities; even those that do will not have more than a cold water shower.
No payment is expected for stays of one night, but donations are usually accepted, especially if you request and receive permission to stay longer.
Mount Athos is where monks go to escape the modern world, and as you're visiting as a guest, you have to respect their rules and behave as they would expect you to do. In general terms, monks expect pilgrims to visit them, and not tourists. When possible, try to keep a pious attitude, even if you are not Orthodox, and avoid inquiring the monks with questions that may seem too "worldly" for their concerns. The monks consider themselves to be living in a place without time, so when inquiring about chronological dates (e.g. the foundation date of the monastery) do so in a tactful way which avoids making you look touristy.
Conventions of behaviour vary somewhat from monastery to monastery, so when in doubt, ask the master of the guesthouse, the archontaris. In general:
Do not hold your hands behind your back as if on a sight-seeing tour, hold them in front of you in a sign of reverence.
Avoid engaging in activities which may be disrupting for the monks, like bathing in the sea or listening to loud music.
Photography of monasteries is allowed, but photography of monks or inside churches is generally prohibited without explicit permission. In some monasteries (e.g. Agiou Panteleimonos) photography is banned in the whole monastery territory. On feast days, the presence of huge crowds result in many people taking photographs even inside the church, and in these cases the ban is not enforced. However, avoid taking photographs with flash or in a manner which may be annoying to the monks.
Video filming is prohibited in all Mount Athos, however this is rarely enforced for low-quality video being made by point-and-shoot cameras. However, if you are filming with professional equipment, you will raise many suspicions that you are producing a sneak documentary about the Mountain!
Dress respectfully: no shorts. Shirts and T-shirts with short sleeves are often allowed, although not in all monasteries. Dressing in white shoes may also be considered disrespectful.
While visitors are usually welcome at services, there may be space constraints in the summer high season, and non-Orthodox may be restricted to certain outer parts of the church (e.g. the exonarthex) or expected not to attend at all. Even if allowed in the services, non-Orthodox should abstain from partaking from the Holy Mysteries (Communion) or taking the antidoron (unconsecrated bread) at the end of the service, and should inquire before venerating relics if they are allowed to do so.
Dangerous animals, including snakes, wild dogs, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
If walking through monopati (pilgrim paths) from monastery to monastery, take a walking stick with you - paths may be slippery!
The whole region of Mount Athos is regarded as remote country, so help may be hard to get if things go wrong... although against the monastic spirit, a cell phone (with an appropriate listing of Greek emergency numbers) may come in handy in such emergency cases.
The closest destinations to Mount Athos are the ones the ferries depart from: Ouranoupoli and Ierissos. Ferries (especially those in the northern coast) may easily get cancelled due to rough sea weather; take into account the possibility of such occurrences when planning your trip.
The closest big city -and well worth a visit- is Thessaloniki.
From Thessaloniki, Istanbul (Constantinople) in Turkey is reachable by night train.