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HOLY MOUNTAIN AND BULGARIAN ZOGRAF MONASTERY

Author: Georgi Gulabov-Roshavski

 

Antiquity

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.

Herodotus tells us that Pelasgians from the island of Lemnos populated the peninsula, then called Acte or Akte. (Herodotus, VII:22) Strabo reports of five cities on the peninsula: Dion (Dium), Cleonae (Kleonai), Thyssos (Thyssus), Olophyxos (Olophyxis), Acrothoï (Akrothoön), of which the last was nearest the crest. (Strabo, Geography, VII:33:1) Eretria also established colonies on Acte. Two other cities were established in the Classical period: Acanthus and Sane. Some of these cities minted their own coins.

The peninsula was on the invasion route of Xerxes I, who spent three years excavating a channel across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet in 483 BC. After the death of Alexander the Great, the architect Dinocrates (Deinokrates) proposed to carve an entire mountain on Athos into a statue of Alexander.

The history of the peninsula during latter ages is shrouded by the lack of historical accounts. Archaeologists have not been able to determine the exact location of the cities reported by Strabo. It is believed that they must have been deserted when Athos' new inhabitants, the monks, started arriving at some time before the 7th century AD.

 

Early Christianity

According to the Athonite tradition, the 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, close to the present monastery of Iviron. The Virgin walked ashore and, overwhelmed by the wonderful and wild natural beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice was heard from heaven saying, "Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved". From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and was out of bounds to all other women.

Historical documents on ancient Mount Athos history are very few. It is certain that monks have been there since the 4th century, and possibly since the 3rd. During Constantine I reign (324-337) both Christians and pagans were living there. During the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363), the churches of Mount Athos were destroyed, and Christians hid in the woods and inaccessible places. Later, during Theodosius I reign (383-395), the pagan temples were destroyed. The lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria states that in the 5th century there was still a temple and a statue of "Zeus Athonite". After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, many orthodox monks from the Egyptian desert tried to find another calm place; some of them came to the Athos peninsula. An ancient document states that monks "built huts of wood with roofs of straw, and by collecting fruit from the wild trees were providing themselves improvised meals".

 

Byzantine era

The chroniclers Theophanes the Confessor (8th century) and Georgios Kedrenos (11th century) wrote that the 726 eruption of the Thera volcano was visible from Mount Athos, proving that it was inhabited at the time. The historian Genesios recorded that monks from Athos participated at the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. Around 860, the famous monk Efthymios the Younger came to Athos and a number of monk-huts ("skete" of Saint Basil) were created around his habitation, possibly near Karyes. During the reign of emperor Basil the Macedonian, the former Archbishop of Crete (and later of Thessaloniki) Basil the Confessor built a small monastery at the place of the modern harbour of Hilandariou Monastery. Soon after this, a document of 883 states that a certain Ioannis Kolovos built a monastery at Megali Vigla.

On a chrysobull of emperor Basil I, dated 885, the Holy Mountain is proclaimed a place of monks, and no laymen or farmers or cattle-breeders are allowed to be settled there. The next year, in an imperial edict of emperor Leo VI we read about the "so-called ancient seat of the council of gerondes (council of elders)", meaning that there was already a kind of monks' administration and that it was already "ancient". In 887, some monks expostulate to the emperor Leo the Wise as the monastery of Kolovos is growing more and more and they lose their peace.

In 908, the existence of a Protos ("First monk") is documented, who is the "head" of the monastic community. In 943, the borders of the monastic state was precisely mapped while we know that Karyes is already the capital town and seat of the administration and has the name "Megali Mesi Lavra" (Big Central Assembly). In 956, a decree offered land of about 940,000 m2 to the Xiropotamou monastery, which means that this monastery was already quite big.

In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite arrived on Mount Athos. In 962, he builds the big central church of the "Protaton" in Karies. In the next year, with the support of his friend, Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries existing today. It enjoyed the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries and its wealth and possessions grew considerably. The Fourth Crusade in the 13th century brought new Roman Catholic overlords which forced the monks to complain and ask for the intervention of Pope Innocent III, until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire came. The peninsula was raided by Catalan mercenaries in the 14th century, a century that also saw the theological conflict over the Hesychasm practiced on Mount Athos and defended by Gregory Palamas.

 

Ottoman era

The Byzantine Empire was conquered in the 15th century and the newly established Islamic Ottoman Empire took its place. The Athonite monks tried to maintain good relations with the Ottoman Sultans and therefore when Murad II conquered Thessaloniki in 1430 they immediately pledged allegiance to him. In return, Murad recognized the monasteries' properties, something which Mehmed II formally ratified after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In this way the Athonite independence was somewhat guaranteed.

The 15th and 16th centuries were particularly peaceful for the Athonite community. This led to relative prosperity for the monasteries. An example of this is the foundation of Stavronikita monastery which completed the current number of Athonite monasteries. Following the conquest of the Serbian Despotate by the Ottomans many Serbian monks came to Athos. The extensive presence of Serbian monks is depicted in the numerous elections of Serbian monks to the office of the Protos during the era.

Stavronikita monastery was the last monastery to be founded. Sultan Selim I was a substantial benefactor of the Xiropotamou monastery. In 1517, he issued a fatwa and a Hatt-i Sharif ("noble edict") that "the place, where the Holy Gospel is preached, whenever it is burned or even damaged, shall be erected again." He also endowed privileges to the Abbey and financed the construction of the dining area and underground of the Abbey as well as the renovation of the wall paintings in the central church that were completed between the years 1533-1541.

Despite the fact that most time the monasteries were left on their own, the Ottomans heavily taxed them and sometimes they seized important land parcels from them. This eventually culminated in an economic crisis in Athos during the 17th century and led to adoption of the so called "idiorrhythmic" lifestyle (a semi-eremitic variant of Christian monasticism) by a few monasteries at first and later, during the first half of the 18th century, by all.

This new way of monastic organization was an emergency measure taken by the monastic communities to counter their harsh economic environment. Contrary to the cenobitic system, monks in idiorrhythmic communities have private property, work for themselves, they are solely responsible for acquiring food and other necessities and they dine separately in their cells, only meeting with other monks at church. At the same time, the monasteries' abbots were replaced by committees and at Karyes the Protos was replaced by a four member committee.

In 1749 with the establishment of the Athonite Academy near Vatopedi monastery, the local monastic community took a leading role in the modern Greek Enlightenment movement of the 18th century. This institution offered high level education, especially under Eugenios Voulgaris, where ancient philosophy and modern physical science were taught.

Russian tsars, and princes from Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbia (until the end of the 15th century) helped the monasteries survive with large donations. The population of monks and their wealth declined over the next centuries, but were revitalized during the 19th century, particularly by the patronage of the Russian government. As a result, the monastic population grew steadily throughout the century, reaching a high point of over 7,000 monks in 1902.

In 1912, during the First Balkan War, the Ottomans were forced out by the Greek Navy. Greece claimed the peninsula as part of the peace treaty of London signed on 30 May 1913. As a result of the shortcomings of the Treaty of London, the Second Balkan War broke out between the combatants in June 1913. A final peace was agreed at the Treaty of Bucharest on 10 August 1913. After a brief diplomatic conflict between Greece and Russia over sovereignty, the peninsula formally came under Greek sovereignty after World War I.

 

Modern times

The self-governed region of the Holy Mountain, according to the Decree passed by the Holy Community on 3 October 1913 and according to the international treaties of London (1913), Bucharest (1913), Neuilly (1919), Sevres (1920) and Lausanne (1923), is considered part of the Greek state. The Decree, "made in the presence of the Holy Icon of Axion Estin", stated that the Holy Community recognized the Kings of Greece as the lawful sovereigns and successors on the "Mountain of the Emperors" who built the monasteries and declared its territory as belonging to the then Kingdom of Greece.

Political instability in Greece during the mid-20th century that affected Mount Athos included Nazi occupation from the Easter season of 1941 through late 1944, followed immediately by the Greek Civil War in a struggle where Communist efforts failed. The Battle of Greece was reported in Time Magazine, "Stukas swooped across the Aegean skies like dark, dreadful birds, but they dropped no bombs on the monks of Mount Athos." After the Nazi takeover of Greece, the Epistassia, Athos’s four-member executive committee, formally asked Hitler to place the Autonomous Monastic State under his personal protection, and Hitler agreed. Mount Athos survived World War II nearly untouched.

After the war according to the constitution of Greece, Mount Athos (the "Monastic State of Hagion Oros") is, "following ancient privilege", "a self-governed part of the Greek State, whose sovereignty thereon shall remain intact", and consists of 20 main monasteries which constitute the Holy Community, and the capital town and administrative centre, Karyes, also home to a governor as the representative of the Greek state. The governor is an executive appointee. The status of the Holy Mountain and the jurisdiction of the Hagiorite institutions were expressly described and ratified upon admission of Greece to the European Union.

 

Administration and Organization

The Holy Mountain is governed by the "Holy Community" which consists of representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries, having as executive committee the four-member "Holy Administration" with the Protos being its head.

Civil authorities are represented by the Civil Governor, appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose main duty is to supervise the function of the institutions and the public order. Spiritually, Mount Athos comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

In each of the 20 monasteries - which today all follow again the coenobitic system - the administration is in the hands of the Abbot who is elected by the brotherhood for life. He is the lord and spiritual father of the monastery. The Convention of the brotherhood is the legislative body. All other establishments (sketes, cells, huts, retreats, hermitages) are dependencies of some of the 20 monasteries and are assigned to the monks by a document called "homologon".

All persons leading a monastic life thereon acquire Greek citizenship without further formalities, upon admission as novices or monks. Visits to the peninsula are possible for laymen, but they need a special permission, a kind of "visa".

Of the 20 monasteries located on the Holy Mountain, the brethren of 17 are predominantly ethnically Greek. Of the other 3, brethren are drawn from monks of primarily other origins, who become Greek subjects. These are the Helandariou Monastery (Serbian), the Zografou Monastery (Bulgarian) and the Agiou Panteleimonos Monastery (Russian).

Among the sketes, most are predominantly Greek. However, two are Romanian, the coenobitic "Skete Timiou Prodromou" (which belongs to the Megistis Lavras Monastery and the idiorrythmic "Skete Agiou Demetriou", also called "Lakkoskete" (which belongs to the Agiou Pavlou Monastery). Another one is Bulgarian, "Skete Bogoroditsa" (which belongs to the Agiou Panteleimonos Monastery).

After reaching a low point of just 1,145 mainly elderly monks in 1971, the monasteries have been undergoing a steady and sustained renewal. By the year 2000, the monastic population had reached 1,610, with all 20 monasteries and their associated sketes receiving an infusion of mainly young well-educated monks. In 2009, the population stood at nearly 2000. Many younger monks possess university education and advanced skills that allow them to work on the cataloging and restoration of the Holy Mountain's vast repository of manuscripts, vestments, icons, liturgical objects and other works of art, most of which remain unknown to the public because of their sheer volume. Projected to take several decades to complete, this restorative and archival work is well under way, funded by UNESCO and the EU, and aided by many academic institutions.

The sovereign monasteries, in the order of their place in the Athonite hierarchy, are following:

1. Great Lavra monastery.

2. Vatopedi monastery.

3. Iviron monastery - built by Georgians.

4. Helandariou monastery - Serbian Orthodox.

5. Dionysiou monastery.

6. Koutloumousiou monastery.

7. Pantokratoros monastery.

8. Xiropotamou monastery.

9. Zografou monastery - Bulgarian Orthodox.

10. Dochiariou monastery.

11. Karakalou monastery.

12. Filotheou monastery.

13. Simonos Petras monastery.

14. Agiou Pavlou monastery.

15. Stavronikita monastery.

16. Xenophontos monastery.

17. Osiou Grigoriou monastery.

18. Esphigmenou monastery.

19. Agiou Panteleimonos monastery - Russian Orthodox.

20. Konstamonitou monastery.

 

Pictures 1, 2 & 3: Sample illustration on the text above (N.B., The three non-Greek monasteries at Mount Athos are in deplorable state. The oldest Helandariou monastery /Serbian Orthodox/ was set on fire and has been rebuilt recently. Agiou Panteleimonos monastery /Russian Orthodox/ has been greatly indebted financially with some church properties put on-sale in the bay. Zografou monastery /Bulgarian Orthodox/ seems to be most stable, at least on the outward, but the typical Bulgarianness of this Holy place has long time been lost. Dostoino Est! Photographs below were taken in the 1930s, ditto.

(i). Helandariou monastery - Serbian Orthodox.

 

(ii). Zografou monastery - Bulgarian Orthodox.

 

(iii). Agiou Panteleimonos monastery - Russian Orthodox.

 

 

Copyright © 2011 by the author.