Spiritual Focus for the Eastern Orthodox World
The Byzantine Empire may have ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but tell that to the monks of Mount Athos. Women (even female domestic animals) have not been allowed to set foot in this 140-square-mile semiautonomous monastic state since the 11th century, but male visitors with the appropriate permit can step back 500 years to the time of this theocracy’s heyday, when more than forty monasteries housing 40,000 monks flourished.
Today there are twenty monasteries. Most of them resemble fortified castles from the outside, reminders that the monks once had to fend off pirates, Christian crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks.
Today’s population of about 2,000 brothers carries on an unbroken 1,000-year tradition of study and liturgy. Priceless artwork and manuscripts have been amassed over the years, and the sacred clutter of relics and icons may be seen by visitors participating in morning and afternoon prayers.
Visitors are also welcome to dine in the refectory with the monks (meals are vegetarian). Some monks are gregarious and welcoming, others oblivious to the limited but almost constant stream of guests during summer months, when it is most difficult to procure a permit.
There is no land access to Athos, a heavily wooded area where wildlife abounds. Unrestricted numbers of Greek men may visit Mount Athos, but only ten foreign adult males per day may enter, spending no more than one night at any given monastery.