HOW TO GET TO MOUNT ATHOS Holy Community, Tel: +30 2377 0 23221, 23711 Holy Assembly, Tel: +30 2377 0 23712, 23713 Governor, Tel: +30
HOW TO GET TO MOUNT ATHOS Holy Community, Tel: +30 2377 0 23221, 23711 Holy Assembly, Tel: +30 2377 0 23712, 23713 Governor, Tel: +30
Megisti Lavra Megisti Lavra is the most ancient, first in order and biggest monastery of all. It was founded in 963 by the monk Athanasios
A visit to the Mt. Athos peninsula
Halkidiki was introduced to Christianity in 50AD, when the Apostle Paul passed through Apollonia on his way from Philippi to Thessaloniki. The monastic community of Mt. Athos was founded in the 9th century. In 855 the Emperor Basil I issued a chrysobull or imperial decree allowing the monks to live there unmolested. By the 10th century a whole host of small monastic settlements had grown up around Karyes, and in 963 the first monastery, Megali Lavra, was constructed – followed eventually by nineteen others.
The third, easternmost and most magical of the Halkidiki peninsulas is Mt. Athos, home to the unique Orthodox community of monasteries. It is a place dedicated solely to prayer and the worship of God, known informally as the Garden of the Virgin Mary. Mt. Athos enjoys the protection of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status.
The largest part of the third peninsula is occupied by the monastic community of Mt. Athos, comprising 20 individual monasteries with their official administration in the town of Karyes. The monastic community is off limits to women, while men have to secure a special permit to visit**.
Our exploration of the third peninsula will take us as far as Ouranoupolis, known as the gateway to Mt. Athos. From here the boats depart taking visitors to the monasteries.
Choice of itineraries around Athos
Far away from the rest of Macedonia and the whole world as well, there is a natural and spiritual paradise with a special glory and magnificence, namely the eastern peninsula of Halkidiki , Mount Athos (Agion Oros), the bay of ancient Greeks or as monks put it, the “ land of Virgin Mary ”. Mount Athos consists of twenty monasteries, several skites (hermitages) and places of absolute tranquility.
This is the religious community of Mount Athos , with historical monasteries, cells in caves or between the rocks, towers, domes, belfries, chants, etc. Mount Athos is a big temple under the sky; it is the main carrier of Orthodox Christianity.
Mount Athos covers an area of about 336 sq. kilometers, with 112 kilometers of coastline and 1.550 inhabitants; it is an imposing place in the northern Aegean, surrounded by trees and bluff cliffs. Its mountains are 2.033 meter high, extend to the sky and approach the clouds. When the atmosphere is clean you can see from the little church of Metamorphosi Sotiros (Transfiguration of Christ) nearly half the Aegean; the bays of Troy in the east and the mountain Olympos in the west. Some of the monks claim to be able to see the dome of Agia Sofia springing like a flower from the earth in the East.
Today in Mount Athos there are 20 monasteries and 12 skites.
The twenty monasteries in hierarchical order are as follows:
1) Megisti Lavra
13) Simonos Petra
14) Agiou Pavlou
19) Panteleimon (Russian monastery)
The 12 skites are:
1) Agia Anna
2) Agia Triada
4) Agios Dimitrios (Lakos)
5) Agios Dimitrios (Vatopedion)
6) Timios Prodromos (Layreotiki)
7) Timios Prodromos (Iviron)
8) Agios Andreas
9) Agios Panteleimon
10) Kimisis Theotokou (The Assumption)
Besides these, there are also cells, hovels, monks and the so-called “askitiria”, tranquil places where the “askites” (hermit monks) live in complete solitude. Famous “askitiria” are Karoulia, which are hanging caves in the southern bluff cliffs of Athos, close to the sea. There, live the most discipline hermit monks (askites) of the mountain.
Mount Athos is a living museum of history and art. The architecture of the monasteries is of the typical Byzantine monastery morphology. All of them have great walls to protect them from invasions either by pirates or other conquerors. The buildings have cells at the top part and are built in safe places with extra walls and towers. In the middle of the building complex there is a courtyard, which includes the “katholiko” (cardinal monastery), the “trapeza” (refectory), “phiale” (the basin for the blessing of the waters) and chapels. The way they were built is not known yet; as a matter of fact it is related to certain traditions and legends. The towers are high, powerful and imposing guards and sentinels protecting the other monasteries. Next to them the bell-towers, the domes and the cypresses pierce high in the sky.
“Katholika” are the cardinal churches of the monasteries and they are all built in the same athonite architectural morphology. In particular, they have four pillars, a big central dome and smaller around them and chapels. They are three-nave with double narthex, the inner narthex and the outer narthex. The Pantokrator (God) is pictured on their domes. The temples are made of wood or marble and they are of fine art. The pillars are made of marble too. They have nice capitals and unique paintings on the walls. Finally, the inner part of “kahtoliko” is decorated with marvelous icons, kneeling-desks, chandeliers, cressets, antechoirs, portable icons, marble inlays, etc.
Close to the entrance of “katholiko”, in the courtyard of the monastery, is the “phiale”. “Phiale” is made of marble and its shape is either circular or polygonal. It has nice pillars and a dome. In the middle of the “fiali” there is the “anavrytirio”, from which the holy water springs. Across the entrance of the monastery is the “trapeza” (refectory) and the restaurant of the monks. It is a spacious hall with many marble and wooden tables. The pulpit is always in the “trapeza”. During the lunch or dinner the reader reads holy scripts. In some of its walls the visitor can enjoy fine wall paintings.
Close to the “trapeza” are the kitchen, the oven and the storage rooms.
The courtyard is surrounded by tall buildings, which host the cells of the monks. Some of them are masterpieces of the Macedonian and Byzantine architecture. The “archontaki” (hostel) is a neat, typical place, found in every monastery.
Every monastery has an “arsanas”, a small port, to which the monks have access via a really picturesque, but tiresome path. The “Katholiko”, the “trapeza” of the monks, the numerous chapels of Mount Athos are treasures of the Byzantine hagiography. In their walls, many hagiographers, such as Manuel Panselinos, Theophanis the Cretan, Michael Astrapas, created masterpieces of art.
For almost one thousand years Mount Athos is the greatest, authentic Byzantine Greek cultural centre. It hosted hagiographers from all over the world, influencing profoundly the art of painting in all the Orthodox Christianity.
Besides the paintings there are also numerous portable icons in the cultural treasure of Mount Athos . Some of them are extremely old and it is believed that they are miraculous or that they were not made by humans. According to fascinating traditional legends, the icons of Mount Athos are supposed to have first appeared in Mount Athos . Some of these icons are the following: the notorious icon of Virgin Mary “Axion Esti” in Protostaton or the icon “Portaitissa” in the Monastery Iviron, the icon “Odigitra” in the Monastery Helandariou, the icon “Koukouzelissa” in Megisti Lavra, etc. Moreover, another invaluable treasure are the miniatures on the manuscripts, exceptional paintings of Saints and prophets.
There are also mosaics and sculptures. Some miniatures are unique, made of jewels, ivory, wood, gold, etc.
It is also worth-mentioning that the treasures of Mount Athos include other pieces of art, such as holy crosses, unique covers of the Evangel, golden and silver chalices, holy vessels, epitaphs weaved or quilted with gold, valuable vests, etc.
According to the old customs and the bill of rights, Mount Athos is a self-governed territory of the Greek state (regarding its religious aspect it is subject to the Ecumenical Patriarch). The executive authority is exercised by the four members of Holy Supervision, whereas the legislative authority is exercised by the twenty members of the Holy Assembly, to which all monasteries are subject. The Superior of the Holy Supervision represents the first monastery in hierarchical order and is called Protos (First) or Protoepistatis (Fist Supervisor). All members are elected by absolute democratic procedures by the monks. The political leader of Mount Athos is elected by the Greek State and is subject to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Karyes is the administrative of Mount Athos.
Karyes is a peculiar small picturesque area, located at an altitude of 370 meters. In fact, it is the capital of the monastic community of Mount Athos , home of Proton (First), Holy Supervision, Holy Assembly. Also, Karyes hosts a Police Station, a Local Clinic, a post office etc. In the middle of the peninsula and with a magnificent view over the eastern Aegean coasts, Karyes is a community of residences (konaki) with workshops, shops, hostels and restaurants.
The most impressive buildings in Karyes are the offices of Holy Community and Protaton.
PROTATON (10 th century) is the oldest temple of Mount Athos , dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary. It is actually a three-nave basilica with two narthexes. The iconostasis of the church is marble.
In the sanctuary lays the miraculous icon of Virgin “Axion Esti”, the Virgin Mary of Mount Athos.
The inner walls of the church are decorated by hagiographies made by Manuel Panselinos (late 13 th – early 14 th century). His hagiographies are masterpieces of the so-called Macedonian School. Theotokos (Virgin Mary), figures of prophets and saints of the church, scenes from the Evangel are splendid examples of the treasures of Protaton, some of the finest masterpieces of the Byzantine hagiography.
At the library there are 117 codes and lots of valuable printed books. Here is kept the first Typiko (religious script) of Mount Athos, written on goat leather and signed by the Emperor Ioannis Tsimiskis.
In 1821, in Protaton, the leader of the Macedonian War, Emanuel Papas officially declared the Revolution.
Only men with a special permit can visit Mount Athos . Women are not allowed on its territory.
All monasteries are communes. The monk’s life is strict, “ascetic”, with continual prayers and services, vigils, fasting, spiritual and manual activities. The chaplet is the monks’ closest companion; it helps them concentrate their minds to constant prayer and towards their moral uplift. Each bead is formed by nine crosses, which represent the nine orders of Angels.
The monks follow the old Julian calendar and the Byzantine time (O during the sunset, apart from the monks of Monastery Iviron, who count the hours based on the sunrise). At sunset all monasteries are closed. They open again at sunrise. Before sunrise, the bell-ringer of every monastery sounds the bell rhythmically, to call his brothers to the matins. How deep the belief in God becomes, when you wake up with the sound of bells, listen to the psalms and contribute with your own candle to the dim light of the other candles, which barely light the halos of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary on the iconostasis and the pale faces of the monks in the psaltery, and feel the smell of incense!
Each service is held with absolute zeal and devotion to God. Some people argue that they feel their soul flying away in the realm of Angels.
Each monastery has a special day of celebration, honouring in this way the name of the saint they are dedicated to (agios). However, the most important celebration is on August 15, which is dedicated to Virgin Mary (15th / 28th of August with the old calendar). During these two days all monasteries are neat and specially decorated. The bells ring calling the monks and other believers to celebrate all together. After the service, all monks are offered a great meal, with fresh bread, special fish and a wine of a unique, rich flavour, which is kept in the storage rooms for this special occasion.
A great variety of grapes are cultivated in the vineyards of Mount Athos : Roditis, Athiri, Asyrtiko, Limnio, Xinomavro, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenach Rouge. The local Athonite Wines are produced on this blessed piece of land with the mild climate, the plenty of sunshine, the mountain breeze and the sea humidity. They are pleasant, white wines, spirited and old. Fruity rose and young, fresh red wines, rich in flavour.
In order to get an idea of the life in Mount Athos you need to visit it more than once, walk its paths, listen to the bells, the psalms, go to the cardinal monasteries, as well as the “askitiria”, the hermitages and the caves, attend the matins and evening prayers, eat at the “trapeza”, spend time starring at the Aegean sea, talk with the wise, old and saint people, as well as with the young, educated monks, who decided to turn their backs to the life most people lead and devote themselves to God. Also, you need to visit the libraries and the sacristies, so that you can get informed of their treasuries, enjoy the outstanding natural beauty, the sunset and sunrise. Finally, you have to open your heart to the holy icons and experience Christianity in this living, eternal ark of Orthodoxy.
There are three possible routes for this trip. Starting from Thessaloniki you can take the road to Polygyros and the left-hand turning to Agios Prodromos, a village famous for its tavernas and souvlakia. If you want a faster route, avoiding Agios Prodromos, wait until you come to a second sign on the main road, to Arnaia, and follow that route.
The second route involves driving to Polygyros (60km) and then following the signs to Vrastamas and then on to Gomati. This will bring you to Ierissos, from where you can reach your final destination.
The third option is to take the Egnatia Motorway from Thessaloniki to Kavala, turning off at the Mt. Athos exit. The road will take you down to Ierissos, Ouranoupolis and Mt. Athos.
The distance you will drive is about the same on all three routes, i.e. 127km from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis. The difference is that while the first route is a winding road it does take you through picturesque Arnaia, Palaiohori, Stageira, birthplace of Aristotle, and then Stratoniki. The second road is easier, but with some winding sections, while the third route is definitely the easiest of the three.
If we take the first route, after 41.5km we come to the sign for Arnaia, Ierissos and Mt. Athos. 500m farther on we come to Agios Prodromos. We arrive in Arnaia** after a drive of 72km from our starting point. Drive through the town square, with its cafes and shops selling fabrics, honey and tsipouro, and carry on driving to Palaiohori (+5km). From here you can turn right to Megali Panayia, Pyrgadikia and Agios Nikolaos, or straight on through Neohori (+3km). 2km farther on there is a road to the left for Varvara**, Olympiada** and Stavros. Carry straight on for Stageira, birthplace of Aristotle, with the park containing the statue of the philosopher**. Just on from Stageira is Stratoniki, and then Stratoni, from where the road goes straight to Ierissos, site of the ancient Akanthos, one of the biggest country towns in the prefecture of Halkidiki**. As you come out of Ierissos you will pass the old boatyards** and after a drive of 6km you will arrive at Nea Roda**, a village built on the narrowest point of the peninsula. 2km farther on you come to Trypiti, where ferries leave for the little island of Ammouliani. For sailing times ring 23770 31376 (harbor office at Trypiti) or 2370 22666 (harbor office at Ierissos). Drive on another 7km and you come to Ouranoupolis**, built at the foot of Mt. Athos.