A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this peninsula of 390 km² houses some 1,400 monks in 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. 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 (cloisters), cells and hermitages. Those who are not members of the clergy include employees and workers, but also the numerous visitors 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 cafter having secured a written permission (diamonitirion) from a dedicated bureau in Thessaloniki. Scholars and genuine Orthodox novices can obtain longer permissions.
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. For boat schedules, check here.
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.
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.
"Souvenirs" are mostly of religious nature. Shops are available at Dafni, Karyes and some monasteries. The following is an incomplete list of items you may buy to take with you:
If you happen to buy prayer ropes or icons, don't miss the oportunity of having them blessed with a monastery's holy relics!
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.
Some of the larger monasteries sell wine and spirits. Beer, wine and spirits can also be purchased in Karyes or Dafni.
However, even though you may be able to purchase alcohol, it is considered inappropriate to drink in front of the monks. Practice moderation!
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 expect you too. 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: