Monasticism appeared early in the history of the organised Christian church. The moral laxity of the churqh in the later Roman and early Byzantine period, the dibilitation of the spiritual life of the urban Christian communities, the turmoil in the life of the church brought about by heresies and schisms, and even the existence of various forms of eremitical life in other religions, all contributed to the evolution of the ascetic ideal among Christians as a means of attaining spiritual perfection. This ideal was put into practice in a variety of forms of communal and personal spirituality.
Although monasticism developed separately in various places, its spiritual homeland was Egypt, due to her famous ascetics and the legendary image of the “great desert” of Egypt as a place of absolute solitude and fierce asceticism.
The earliest form of monasticism was withdrawal into the desert, first practised by Saint Antony the Great (died 356), and about the same time Saint Pachomios (died 346) instituted the communal or cenobitic form of the monastic life. Both the Antonine anchoretical life and the Pachomian Rule stressed personal ascetic struggle and the autonomy of individual spirituality. However, monasticism flourished at the same time in Cappadocia in Asia Minor, profoundly influenced by the Rule of saint Basil. Here it seems that good works in society at large were encouraged along with the contemplative life.
Besides Egypt and Cappadocia, monasticism also flourished in Antioch, Koile in Syria (famous for its pillar hermits, or stylites), Mesopotamia and Palestine.
This Eastern monastic movement soon spread to the capital of the Byzantine empire. The first recorded monastery in Constantinople, the Monastery of Dalmatos, is mentioned in 382, and by the end of the 6th century there were 92.
In the following centuries monasticism flourished in the rich and powerful province of Asia Minor. Important communities rose at Olymbos in Bithynia and Latros in Miletus, and took an active part in the struggle against the iconoclasts.
The spiritual climate of Bithynia in particular nourished the great reformer of Byzantine monasticism, Theodore the Studite, between the 8th and 9th centuries.
The principles of monastic life, as laid down by Theodore in his Catechism and the Typikon or Charter of his monastery, aim to impose absolute order on both the worship and daily life of the monks. His measures were soon after to have a profound effect on the organisation of communal monasticism on Mount Athos.
In the 9th century the resurgent church under the Patriarch Photius took on a new leading role, and the monks were called upon to undertake work of wider scope.
Two brothers, the Thessalonikians Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, both monks, were chosen to Christianize Byzantium’s northern neighbours. Systematic missionary work by monks led to the conversion of the southern Balkan Slavs.
In Greece itself, where until the 9th century there is little evidence of organised monastic life (though archeological evidence hints at early Christian monasteries on the islands of Thasos, Delos and Crete), missionary work went hand in hand with the foundation of monasteries, especially in Thessaloniki, Larisa and Patras. In the Peloponnese the brothers Symeon and Theodore founded the Monastery of the Great Cave, and in Macedonia in the 9th century the Byzantine church established large monastic centres in Halkidiki (the monasteries of Saint Euthymius and John Kolovos).
The activities of the missionary and eremitical monks in Greece peaked in the 10th century, foremost among them being Saint Nikon the Repenter, Saint Lukas Steiriotes and Saint Athanasius the Athonite.
The monks’ systematic efforts were directly linked to the imperial drive for the secular and ecclesiastical reorganisation of the Balkans, in order to strengthen the defence of the empire, extend Byzantine influence to the neighbouring Christian peoples and neutralise Rome’s efforts to infiltrate areas of vital importance to Byzantium.
This spiritual endeavour included the foundation of the first monastery on Mount Athos, the Monastery of the Great Lavra in 963. Its founder was Saint Athanasius the Athonite, an unusually active and gifted monk, a member of the upper class of courtiers and officials in Constantinople and a personal friend of | the Byzantine emperor Nicephoros Phocas. The appearance of a large cenobitic monastery not only signalled the beginning of a new stage in the ascetic life on Mount Athos, but also established Greece as a very extencive centre of spiritual outreach in the Balkans and the Christian East.
The ideological and political orientation of the Byzantine empire at its peak, after the second half of the 10th century, created a favourable climate for the growth of Athonite monasticism. This climate was further improved by the feeling of security that followed after the Arabs were driven out of Crete in 961 and piracy in the Aegean came to an end. By contrast, the once famous monastic communities of Asia Minor had suffered from the invasion and settlement of the Seljuk Turks and the defeat at Manzikert (1071), and went into decline.
Saint Athanasius did not build his monastery in a complete wilderness. The area he chose already had an eremitical monastic tradition, accepted by the Byzantine emperors and with some kind of loose central administration.
It seems likely that already during the second iconoclastic period at the beginning of the 9th century iconodule monks from the neighbouring areas of Macedonia took temporary refuge on Athos to avoid the iconoclast persecution, which however seems to have been particularly mild in this province.
Hermits are first recorded on Mount Athos in the late 8th and early 9th century. These reports are rather vague, but do mention names of particular hermits. The best known of these was Peter the Athonite, who appears to have lived in the area of present-day Kafsokalyvia. Shortly after the middle of the 9th century Saint Euthymius, who later founded the great monastery at Vrastamou (the modern Vrasta) in Halkidiki, spent some time as a hermit on Athos.
Before the mid 9th century the monks of Mount Athos formed a sufficiently large and well-known eremitical community for them to be invited to Constantinople by the Empress Theodora. According to the historian Genesios, monks from Mount Athos were present at the celebrations for the restoration of the icons in 843.
In 833 the Athonite ascetics received their first imperial privileges. An edict of the Emperor Basil I exempted the monks from taxation and barred entry to the Holy Mountain by the inhabitants of nearby Erissos and their herds. In 908 his son, Emperor Leo VI the Wise, recognised the independence of Athos from the great monastery of John Kolovos near Erissos, and confirmed the prohibition on encroachment on the Mountain. In 941-942 the Emperor Romanos Lacapenos instituted the imperial grant to Mount Athos, known as the “roga”, of one gold coin annually. A year later, in 943, Katakalon, the general of Thessaloniki, was ordered by the emperor to demarcate the boundary of Mount Athos. This boundary has remained essentially unchanged to the present day.
By the early 10th century the monks, though scattered throughout the Mountain, had organised some forms of central administration. In 908 we first hear of the protos based in Karyes, the primate, arbitrator and representative of the community to the outside world, and three annual assemblies of all the monks to deal with matters of common concern, to be held at Christmas, Easter and on the fifteenth of August (Dormition of the Virgin). The same period saw the appearance of larger monastic establishments such as the monastery of Saint Paul of Xeropotamou, the monastery of Clement (later incorporated into Iviron) and the Vouleftiria near the present-day skete of Saint Anne.
Nevertheless, the hermits’ life of poverty and solitude continued to predominate, and as the sources of the time mention it was an extremely harsh one. The hermits lived in makeshift huts and survived mainly on fruits found in the forest. This state of affairs still existed in the middle of the following century, when Saint Athanasius arrived and travelled around the Mountain. The description of their way of life in the saint’s Life is typical: The hermits did not cultivate the land; they neither ploughed the land or dug ditches, nor did they possess oxen, asses or other beasts of burden or dogs, but lived in huts of sticks stuck in the ground with thatched roofs. Thus they endured the summer and winter and the howling wind […] Apart from spiritual food, their bodily sustenance was frugal, uncooked and from the mountain; […] they gathered wild fruits and put meals together from these […].
The arrival of Saint Athanasius and the construction of the Monastery of the Great Lavra disturbed the peace of the humble hermits. The internal organisation of the new monastery and its multitude of building and economic activities were completely new to the Mountain. It was the first time that a large cenobium with a centralised administration had been established on Mount Athos.
The Great Lavra was founded by the emperor himself, and after his death it remained free and sovereign, an independent legal entity in civil law under imperial protection. The monastery is ruled by an abbot, who before he dies appoints his successor, with the assistance of the council of elders.
It appears that large sums of money were spent on Lavra from the very beginning. For the initial work alone Nicephoros Phocas provided six pounds of gold, and Athanasius himself contributed a large part of his personal fortune.
Saint Athanasius’s policy of developing the monastery’s business activities and cultivating the land was of the greatest importance in defining the character of this new type of monastic foundation, the model for subsequent monasteries soon to be established on Athos. In addition to building the great monastic complex, the innovative monk brought rough land under the plough and made use of the property of abandoned cells. He developed new farming techniques, introduced pairs of oxen for ploughing and built irrigation systems. He used the latest technology in the monastery’s water mills and bakeries, built and bought ships, and built warehouses and quarters for the seamen.
Although the new model monastery rapidly became the centre of considerable agricultural and craft production, the principles of the monastic life were not compromised. Saint Athanasius’s intentions left no room for deviation. He remained a strict ascetic who laid down strict rules of living and at the same time demanded regular work of his monks.
Nevertheless, the gradual transformation of Athos from a retreat for solitaries and recluses into a centre of organised cenobitic monasticism produced friction and disputes. The solitaries do not seem to have been greatly disturbed by this new, for them, way of leading an ascetic life. Large organised cenobia had existed for centuries both in Constantinople and throughout the empire, and the communal life was the prevailing form of monasticism during that period. Their objections arose from the fear that their humble cells would be absorbed and suppressed by these dynamic new institutions.
To the Emperor John Tsimiskis, successor to Nicephoros Phocas, fell the task of solving these growing problems. Tsimiskis sent to Athos the monk Euthymios the Studite with instructions to look into the situation, and in cooperation with the cenobitic monks and the solitaries to draw up regulations governing the monastic community.
The outcome of this collaboration was the first Typikon, or Charter, of Mount Athos, signed by the then protos Athanasius, his namesake Saint Athanasius of Lavra and forty six leaders of Athonite cells and other small monastic establishments. The Charter was ratified by the emperor in 972. The original, later known as the Tragos, or Billy goat, because it was written on thick parchment, was personally signed by the Emperor John Tsimiskis. It is considered the first charter of Mount Athos and is still preserved in the Holy Community as the Mountain’s most priceless archival treasure.
The Typikon of 912 regulated the duties and powers of the central administration of Mount Athos, in other words the protos, the Protaton officials and the Assembly at Karyes, defined its relation to the monks and specified the relations between the various categories of monks. Although it protected the ancient eremitical way of life, it clearly recognised the ascendancy of the cenobitic system as a form of ascetic life on Mount Athos.
The Typikon of Tsimiskis was supplemented and modified by the Typikon of 1045, which was issued during the reign of Constantine Monomachos to deal with new developments. A third, almost completely new Typikon was issued in 1406, during the later Byzantine period. This was mostly concerned with the internal administration of the monasteries and the relations between monks and their leaders, and was issued by the Emperor Manuel VIII Paleologos.
The founding of Lavra and Saint Athanasius’s multifarious activities gave the impetus for the establishment of other cenobitic monasteries by famous men who were directly or indirectly associated with the saint. In 979/80 the Iberian (Georgian) nobles John Tornikos and his son Euthymios, armed with imperial privileges and grants, built the Monastery of Iviron. Shortly afterwards three wealthy nobles from Adrianople, Athanasius, Nicholas and Antony, founded the Monastery of Vatopaedi.
From the end of the 10th century monasteries were founded at a remarkably fast place. By about 1000 the Athos peninsula is recorded as having over forty one monasteries. While Saint Athanasius was still alive the first Italian monks arrived from Amalfi, and soon established the monastery of the Amalfines. The monasteries of Sikelou, Paphlagonos and Chaldou belong to the same period, while the Monastery of Rossou belongs to the early 1 lth century. Cells that would later grow into monasteries that survive to this day also sprang up at this time. The Monastery of Zographou was established before 980 by the Byzantine painter and iconographer George. Saint Paul of Xeropotamou, who before 956 established the Monastery of Saint Nicephoros (the present Monastery of Xeropotamou), founded the Monastery of Saint Paul sometime before 980. The monasteries of Xenophontos and Esphigmenou and the first monastery of Chelandari appeared before the end of the 10th century.
By the end of the 12th century the pan-Orthodox and ecumenical character of Athonite monasticism was well established. Before 1142 a monastery for Russian monks had been founded, in 1198 the Serbian monk-king Symeon Nemamja and his son Saint Sabbas were granted the ruined monastery of Chelandari, and later Zographou became the centre of Bulgarian monasticism on Athos.
With few exceptions, the imperial policy towards Mount Athos was extremely favourable throughout the Byzantine period. Nearly all of the monasteries at one time or another were named “imperial monasteries”, that is imperial institutions protected from interference by civil and church authorities. Privileges, tax exemptions and grants by both emperors and nobles gave them wealth that allowed them to carry out their spiritual work.
The historical course of the Athonite monasteries shared the fate of the Byzantine empire only up to a point. When the empire went into decline, the monasteries continued to flourish. The 14th century in particular was a time of renaissance. Hesychasm, or quietism, a spiritual movement that arose and developed on Athos, renewed the ascetic ideal and made the Holy Mountain a spiritual beacon for the Slav peoples of the Balkans and Russia.
Monasteries continued to be founded or restored on Athos despite the political and economic waning of the Paleologue empire, and the civil wars and disturbances that rent the Balkans. In the centre of the peninsula, near Karyes, Vlach rulers rebuilt the Monastery of Koutloumousiou, and on the coast two nobles, Alexios the Stratopedarch and John Primikerios founded the Monastery of Pantokratoros. On the west coast the Serb despot John Ugljesa was chiefly responsible for building the Monastery of Simonos Petra, and Saint Dionysios of Trebizond raised the Monastery of Dionysiou, with generous assistance from Alexios III Komninos, Emperor of Trebizond. To the south the Monastery of Saint Paul, after lying in ruins for centuries, was rebuilt by two Serb monks of noble lineage, Gerasimos Radonja and Antony Pagasi. Lastly, the Monastery of Gregoriou was built, probably at the beginning of the 15th century.
In 1423 Mount Athos was incorporated into Ottoman territory. The end of the Byzantine, Christian empire and the new state of affairs inevitably changed the political orientation of the Athonite monks and created painful financial problems, and gradually altered the fundamental institutions of Mount Athos. Nevertheless these changes were very slow, and the adaptation to the new political, social and economic conditions did not affect the spiritual principles of the monastic life.
Cooperation with the Ottoman authorities was essential to preserve the autonomy of the Athonite community and the landed property of the monasteries.
In comparison with their treatment of the conquered Christian peoples, the sultans dealt favourably with Mount Athos in the beginning. The community’s autonomy was respected, and taxes on monastic property in the peninsula itself were light. A lump-sum tax was levied on Mount Athos as a whole, the monastic authorities being left to decide how the burden was to be shared. The monks’ attempt to get the same treatment for their properties outside Mount Athos was only partly successful.
Although direct taxes were not, except for a few periods, particularly onerous, extraordinary taxes and duties and above all the arbitrary behaviour of the tax collectors placed an intolerable burden on the monasteries. The monastic archives are full of firmans, or edicts, issued at the behest of the monasteries, that show both the extent of the problem and the sultans’ attempts to deal with it.
The large and wealthy dependencies the monasteries possessed, mainly in central and eastern Macedonia (Halkidiki, round Thessaloniki and near the River Strymon) and also on the islands of the north Aegean, did not remain unscathed. Many monasteries declined and their income dried up as their lands were partly or wholly confiscated and given to Ottoman feudal lords or huge areas of fertile land were incorporated into the sultan’s estates. A heavy blow fell in 1568/1569, when the Sultan Selim II confiscated all the monasteries’ property as an extraordinary administrative measure and obliged the monks to buy it back. This repurchase cost Mount Athos fourteen thousand gold florins.
To these institutional and arbitrary actions of the Ottoman authorities were added other misfortunes. Natural disasters in the shape of fires and earthquakes, piracy, brigandage and military operations frequently nullified attempts to restore the monasteries, forcing the latter into heavy debt with all its consequences.
During the first centuries of Ottoman rule nearly all the Athonite monasteries were reduced to trying to survive financially while maintaining and exploiting such property as they had managed to keep.
The production of the Athos peninsula itself provided a basic living, since the tax on this was offset against the poll tax. Vegetable gardens and vineyards, logging, olives and fruit gathering were main products and activities that made survival possible.
This production, however, was not enough to meet all the monasteries’ needs. The bulk of their income during this period came from: a) the systematic exploitation of the dependencies, which gradually recovered and grew through donations and purchases, and provided a steady income; b) the dependencies along the Danube, which especially in the 17th century were dedicated to Athos in large numbers by the Orthodox rulers of Moldavia and Wallachia; c) large grants of money not only from the above princes and their nobles but also from the Russian Tsars and generous Greek senior clergy and gentry. These donations played a vital role in maintaining and extending the monastery’s building complexes and adorning them with works of art; d) money collections in the Greek East and farther afield among the Slavs and in Europe.
As long as the Ottomans did not interfere in the internal affairs of the Mountain, the central administration continued as it had in Byzantine times, for about a further century and a half. The protos retained his administrative, executive, juridical and spiritual powers, but the institution’s old prestige was gone. The annual imperial grant had been stopped and the Protaton found it hard to make ends meet. Its lands on the peninsula gradually passed into the hands of the monasteries, as did the cells under its jurisdiction. The juridical function was encroached upon by the Ottoman cadis, or judges, to whom the monasteries appealed when a decision by the Protaton went against them. The institution of the protos went into decline at the end of the 16th century, with the last holder of the office being mentioned in 1593.
The number of sovereign monasteries seems to have been finally fixed at twenty at the same time. Nineteen were already great monasteries in Byzantine times, while the twentieth was the sole post-Byzantine monastery of Stavronikita, founded in 1541 by the Patriarch Jeremiah I.
From the beginning of the 17th century Mount Athos was administered by a collective body, the Great Assembly. Although it consisted of representatives of all the monasteries, it was only natural that the larger monasteries (Lavra, Vatopaedi, Iviron), which shouldered the bulk of the common financial burden, should play the leading role. A Turkish governor had already been installed in Athos, officially to protect the area from brigandage and piracy, although in fact he took an active part in the Mountain’s internal affairs. In 1661 the Protaton’s ruinous debts forced the Great Assembly to sell to the monasteries all the cells that had remained in its jurisdiction. The only property left to the central authorities of Athos was the principle church in Karyes, the Protaton.
In 1744 the Patriarch Paisios, in collaboration with the Athonite monks, opened the way to a more representative form of administration, in which the smaller monasteries would take part. The Great Assembly was renamed the Holy Community. The representative system, however, was fixed by the Typikon of the Patriarch Gabriel IV in 1783. This charter laid down that the twenty monasteries were to be divided into four fixed groups of five monasteries each. The Mountain would be administered by four epistates, one chosen from each group. One of the epistates had to come from the five senior monasteries-Lavra, Vatopaedi, Iviron, Chelandariou and Dionysiou. The standing committee of twenty monastic representatives was established in 1810.
Changes were also made to the monasteries’ internal organisation. The cenobitic or communal system specified in the charters continued up to the end of the 14th century. Gradually, however, and especially after the Ottoman conquest, the idiorrhythmic system, which allowed the monks more private life and a more individual approach to their calling, gained ground. Although the office of abbot remained, it lacked real power, becoming an honorary position with ceremonial functions only. It was given to prominent persons who had rendered valuable service to the monastery, for example by successfully collecting large sums of money for the monastery or profitably running a dependency. The office was given for a short time and was often held several times by the same person. The idiorrhythmic monastery was administered by its officers, such as the sacristan, the verger and the steward.
The Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremiah II, assisted by the Patriarch of Alexandria Silvester, attempted to deal with the problems caused by the spread of the idiorrhythmic system not only among the Athonite monasteries but also to most of the monasteries in the Greek East. After Silvester’s visit to Athos in 1574, the senior houses of Lavra and Vatopaedi reverted to the cenobitic system, but this seems to have lasted for a very short time. The tide turned only at the end of the 18th century. From 1784 to 1839 eight monasteries reverted to the cenobitic way of life envisaged by the monastic Rule.
The centrifugal tendencies that marked the monastic life on Mount Athos throughout the Turkish period can be seen in the spread of other forms of monasticism, such as sketes, cells and hermitages. All these minor habitations were owned by the monasteries and granted for life to “elders” and their followers.
The sketes, which are reminiscent of the ancient lavras, are not single building complexes, but consist of cells or “huts” scattered around a central church called the kyriakon. In the sketes the monks live an idiorrhythmic life under the supervision of a prior whom they elect. The oldest organised skete is that of St. Anne, which was already in existence in the 16th century and belongs to the Great Lavra. By the beginning of the 15th century the same monastery also owned a group of cells that formed a sort of embryo skete in the area of Kerasia. The skete of Kafsokalyvia, which also belongs to Lavra, seems to have been established at the end of the 17th century. The remaining sketes that survive to this day, Saint Demetrios of Vatopaedi, Prophet Elias of Pantokratoros, New Skete and Saint Demetrios Lakkos of Saint Paul, Prodromou of Iviron, Saint Panteleimon of Koutloumousiou and Evangelismos of Xenophontos, were all established in the 18th century.
The only cenobitic sketes, Saint Andrew of Vatopaedi, inhabited by Russian monks until the present century, and Prodromou of Lavra with its Rumanian monks, appeared after the middle of the 19th century.
Cells are a simpler form of monastic life. They are small, compact complexes of buildings, which since 1661 have been subject to a monastery, and which are occupied by an “elder” and his spiritual followers. In not a few cases the cells are a continuation of or have been built on the ruins of ancient cells, often keeping their old Byzantine names.
The population of Mount Athos during the Byzantine period is not known. In the 11th century seven hundred monks are recorded as living in the Great Lavra alone. The population of the Mountain would certainly not have remained steady, as from the 10th to the 15th centuries new monasteries were founded and smaller establishments disappeared or merged with larger ones. Occasional general crises and problems arising in individual monasteries must have led to fluctuations in the total population.
For the Turkish period we have more information. Travellers from the late 15th century onwards, Ottoman tax rolls and, from 1764, censuses of the monks help us to gain a clearer picture of at least the order of magnitude of the Athonite population. The figures vary widely: tax rolls of 1525/1530 mention 1440 persons, while Orthodox travellers and monks of the 16th century speak of 2246 to 2860 souls. The 1764 census records 2908 monks, and that of 1808, 2390. In general one could say that, with the exception of the time of the Greek Revolution when the number of monks fell sharply, and the turn of the century when Athos was systematically swamped by thousands of Slav monks, the population of Mount Athos did not exceed three thousand souls.
Despite five hundred years of financial hardship and historical misfortunes, Mount Athos developed into the most important spiritual centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The tradition that created the hesychast movement in the 14th century, with its many scholar monks living and writing on Athos, was not completely lost. The first signs of a renaissance were already apparent by the first half of the 16th century. The libraries were enriched with large numbers of manuscripts copied in the scriptoria that existed in nearly all the monasteries. Research has so far found very few of these (e.g. in the monasteries of Iviron, Koutloumousiou, Dionysiou, Philotheou and Xeropotamou), but all the evidence suggests that the scriptoria were in constant use until the 17th century, when printed books replaced manuscripts.
Large collections of books, manuscripts and documents as well as the personal libraries of scholars such as the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki Makarios, Maximos Margounios, the Patriarch Dionysios IV and the Metropolitan of Arta and Nafpaktos Neophytos were added to the already extensive Athonite collections.
As was the case with all the monastic libraries in the East, those on Mount Athos may well have been infrequently used, but they can certainly not be written off as storehouses for relics. Contrary to popular opinion, the Athonite libraries were the source of the books of many clerical and lay scholars during the centuries of Turkish occupation.
Many scholars, mostly monks and clergy, worked and wrote in a monastery at some crucial time in their lives. A typical case is that of the famous scholar and enlightener of the Russians Maximos the Greek, who at the beginning of the 16th century, after his return from the West, chose the Monastery of Vatopaedi as a retreat. Shortly afterwards the monk Pachomios Rousanos left his mark on the library of Iviron.
Other learned monks owe their fame as writers to their intellectual activity on Athos. The earlier Dionysios of Iviron, his namesake Dionysios the rhetorian of Studium, Agapios Landos, writer of popular improving literature, and the prolific monk of Xeropotamou Kessarios Dapontes are typical examples of this class of scholar.
Even more numerous were the educated clergymen, chiefly of higher rank, who chose to end their days in the quiet of an Athonite monastery. Although they wrote no books, their presence decisively raised the spiritual level of Mount Athos.
The 18th century, a period of widespread spiritual, social and economic recovery throughout the East, was marked on Mount Athos by two important events: the founding of the Athonias School and the KoUyvades spiritual movement.
In 1748 a school was established on the initiative of and with funding from Vatopaedi, on the monastery’s boundary. It had an ambitious programme of studies including Greek, philosophy and theology. The school, which became known as the first Academy of Hellenism, was housed in an imposing building on a hill near the monastery, and many of its students went on to become well-known men of letters. The first headmaster was the famous Evgenios Voulgaris, who ran the school for many years.
The “kollyva controversy”, as it later came to be known after the boiled wheat offered in memorial services, broke out in 1754. The ostensible cause was a disagreement over whether memorial services should be held on Sunday, and not only on Saturday as had been the tradition up to that time. The real reason went much deeper, leading the monks to split into two warring factions: the defenders of tradition, the “Kollyvades”, who insisted not only on a strict adherence to tradition but also a return to the roots of the patristic and ascetic theology of the great Fathers of the East, and the supporters of a more secular approach to the monastic life. The chief proponents of the Kollyvades were distinguished Athonite scholars such as the prolific Nikodemos the Athonite, the combative Athanasius Parios and the former Metropolitan of Corinth Makarios Notaras.
The Kollyvades movement was condemned and persecuted at first, but was subsequently vindicated. It spread beyond Mount Athos, particularly to the islands and the Peloponnese, and led to the Philokalian revival that had such a profound effect on the Orthodox Slav world.
The monks of Mount Athos could not remain indifferent to the Greek Revolution of 1821 when fighting broke out in Macedonia and Halkidiki. Indeed many of them, like the energetic Nicephoros, secretary of Iviron, had long since been initiated into the Philiki Etairia (Friendly Society) that sparked off the War of Independence. In May 1821 Mount Athos declared its support for the Greek revolutionary movement led by Emmanuel Papas, amidst much rejoicing in Karyes. The Turkish governor was arrested and held in the Monastery of Koutloumousiou, and armed monks were deployed on the borders of Athos.
The rebellion was soon crushed in Northern Greece, and the monks had to pay the price for having participated. Turkish soldiers were quartered on the monasteries, which were forced to provide for their keep. A heavy special tax of 3,300 purses (1,750,000 piastres) was imposed on the Mountain as a whole, and the regular taxes were doubled. The Halkidiki dependencies were badly damaged and the income from the profitable Moldo-Wallachian dependencies was stopped for at least five years. Debts mounted, large numbers of monks left Mount Athos, and many monasteries were reduced to penury and forced to sell many of their relics, although the most precious had been removed to safety on the islands of revolutionary Greece.
These sanctions were lifted only in 1830. A new disaster struck in 1863, when the Romanian government appropriated all the Athonite lands and dependencies in Moldo-Wallachia. this was followed by a further blow in 1873, when the Russian government decided to expel the monks from their lands in Bessarabia and the Caucasus and paid the monasteries only two fifths of their income from these properties. After the October revolution in 1917 this source of income dried up completely.
In the second half of the 19th century Mount Athos was caught up in the Balkan nationalist conflicts and suffered from the Russian government’s attempts to change the ethnological character of the monastic state by swamping it with huge numbers of Slav, mostly Russian, monks, infiltrating poor monasteries and dependencies and building enormous monastic establishments. By the beginning of the 20th century Mount Athos had about 3,500 Russian monks. The liberation of Athos by the Greek fleet in November 1912 put an end to this dangerous situation, and the monastic state became a self-administering part of Greece. Its legal status was enshrined in the Greek constitution and was defined by its Charter, which was drawn up in 1926. This Athonite “Constitution” confirmed, with many modifications, the traditional administrative institutions of the monastic state.
Today on Mount Athos there are 20 sovereign cenobitic monasteries, the same as the number fixed in the 16th century. Administratively and spiritually dependent on these are 12 sketes and about 250 cells. Each monastery is self-governing, and regulates the lives of its monks in accordance with the monastic rules and internal ordinances approved by all the monks. Every year each monastery chooses one of its monks to represent it in the Holy Community. This body deals with matters concerning the Mountain as a whole, and also oversees the smooth operation of the monasteries’ internal regulations. The executive body of the Holy Community is the Holy Epistasia.
Mount Athos is under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Greek state is represented on the Mountain by the Civil Governor.
The decline of the early decades of the 20th century, brought on by the failings of the idiorrhythmic system, the dramatic loss of income following the appropriation of the monastic lands in Macedonia and the evils of the Second World War, was halted in the late sixties.
Today Mount Athos is once again flourishing. Large numbers of educated young men have flocked to the monasteries, now all cenobitic, and to the sketes and the cells of the Holy Mountain.
Research Professor of National Hellenic Research Foundation