I have found by experience that it is right and beneficial… for all the brothers to live in common. All together they are to look to the same goal of salvation… They form one heart in their common life, one will, one desire, and one body, as the apostle prescribes.
the typikon of St Athanasios, 973–5
The promontory of Athos is the eastern branch of the Chalkidike peninsula, joined to mainland Greece by a narrow isthmus. It projects 45km into the northern Aegean, rising sharply from the sea, wooded and relatively inaccessible, culminating in the mountain cone over 2,000m high (plate 1). Long before the first monasteries were set up, this narrow strip of land was chosen by individual holy men seeking a remote, uninhabited refuge from the world. Like other inhospitable mountain areas, such as Bithynia in western Asia Minor, it was considered an equivalent to the barren deserts to which the earliest monks retired. Nourished by the writings and brief sayings (apophthegmata) of the original Desert Fathers, the hermits of Mount Athos adapted fourth- and fifth-century instructions to a new environment. In this process, the iconophile monks’ experience of exile may have created opportunities: after the resumption of iconoclasm in 815, when St Theodore of the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople was banished, he and several disciples spent some time in Thessalonike, near the Athonite peninsula.
Mount Athos became a famous holy mountain, inhabited by monks who refuse to admit anything female to their secluded existence. Their renown is based on inherited traditions of spiritual life dating back to the earliest days of Christianity. From the first monastic centres in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which generated writings about monastic life, guides to spiritual development, records of ascetic achievement, prayers and hymns, Byzantine monks gained a wealth of inspiration. Every generation added commentaries on this material and developed new texts on monastic discipline and new ways of organizing monasteries. Several types of monastic arrangement were represented by isolated holy men, hermits living in loose associations (lavra), as well as those groups who had chosen the life in common (koinos bios, whence koinobion, one of the names for monastery). This was the arrangement that became dominant on Mount Athos in the Middle Ages.
The communities of Mount Athos were inspired by the early Christian traditions of the Near East, but they gradually came to form a different type of holy mountain, with its own constitution. From its earliest beginnings, possibly during the iconoclast controversy, it sustained self-sufficient communities living according to rules laid down by their founders. Byzantine emperors patronized Mount Athos; some became monks there. Even after the fall of Byzantium in 1453, it continued to nourish monastic life under Ottoman occupation, assisted by orthodox states, including the Russian Empire. In 1924, the Holy Mountain’s independence within the modern state of Greece was recognized by the Mount Athos Charter.
While the earliest records of Christian monastic life contained many regulations, ranging from the rule attributed to Pachom, instructions in the Life of Antony, to the answers provided by St Basil to questions put to him (in the so-called Long and Short Rules), no single document dominated the monasteries of the eastern Mediterranean. In contrast to the Rule of St Benedict, which inspired a particular order of monks in the West, each eastern monastery established its own regulations, and individual holy men continued to pursue the eremitic life in their own way. The striking traditions of the fifth- and sixth-century stylites (column saints) inspired followers until the eleventh century at Mount Galesion in Asia Minor and in central Greece (though not on Mount Athos). Scattered groups of hermits might meet on Sundays to participate in the liturgy and then return to their isolated cells, extending the model of the Syrian and Palestinian lavra. Although the Islamic conquests of the seventh century forced many monks to flee from their original homes, they found more supportive environments in Byzantium, Italy (particularly Rome) and Asia Minor (the mountains of Cappadocia and Bithynia). Studying the same texts, which taught bodily self-discipline through spiritual exercises, they attracted new recruits by their example.
For those monks and nuns who cherished icons, the iconoclast persecution was not just another disruption: it encouraged the private veneration of icons which had to be hidden. For those who agreed with the spiritual reform of worship, support for iconoclasm brought rewards, including the use of buildings from which iconophiles had been removed. The period of active persecution thereby generated considerable mobility, which reinforced an ancient principle of wandering, when monks who had adopted a life of total poverty travelled from one centre to another, relying on Christian charity. This remained another feature of Byzantine monasticism and permitted monks to make pilgrimages to particularly holy monasteries and visit spiritual leaders. The western principle of remaining in one place was more often applied to nuns than monks in Byzantium.
Although monks from Athos are credited with playing a major role in the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, it is not clear who they were. Members of the Stoudios community, and other groups, took a more prominent part in Theodora’s reversal of iconoclasm. Monastic life on Athos developed slowly, from individual hermits dispersed over particular areas to settled communities living in specially built quarters. The coenobitic principle of life in common emerged only gradually and was promoted by founders such as Euthymios the Younger, who first visited Athos in about 859. Eleven years later the same saint transformed a ruined church at Peristerai near Thessalonike into a monastery dedicated to St Andrew. By 883, another community had been established at Kolobou, near the episcopal see of Hierissos, rather than on the peninsula itself. Although many legendary figures dot the early history of monasticism on the Holy Mountain, the monk Eustathios, named in a document dating from 894, certainly existed. He acted as the spiritual father of a widowed lady, Gregoria, who decided to sell her property to his monastic community. With her children’s approval, she retained only the land promised to her slave who was to be freed on her death. As a condition of this arrangement, the monks were to say prayers for her soul. The record of this sale thus reveals one of the most common ways in which monasteries on the Holy Mountain began to flourish.
To create a monastery, hermits had to start by building a church where they could perform the liturgy. Normally, the founder took a major role in this activity. Later he added cells for the monks, a refectory where they could eat together, outhouses for kitchen, laundry, medical supplies (largely produced from the herb garden) and storerooms. The founder regulated his new monastery by a charter (typikon), often based on existing documents, such as that written for the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople by St Theodore at the end of the eighth century, which was widely copied. It might also quote from early Christian texts, particularly the Long and Short Rules of St Basil, collections of ecclesiastical canons and the advice of holy men. These charters represent a systematization of the Christian theology of monasticism. Each one specifies the routine to be followed: at what hours the monks are to perform the liturgy, when they work in the grounds, when they are allowed to borrow books from the library, as well as what they eat and what they wear. Since the charters have many similar features, monastic routine is fairly common. Mention of an infirmary where sick and older monks could be looked after, a sort of prison where those guilty of serious sins might be detained on a bread and water diet, and outlying cells inhabited by those monks who wished to perform solitary devotions, reflect an individual founder’s emphasis. There could also be a charnel house for the relics of past monks, which were transferred from cemeteries with due reverence. This was introduced at St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, where visitors today are shown the skulls and bones of hundreds of past members of the community (plate 2). Whatever the variations between monasteries, all monks took the same fundamental vows of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience to their abbot. The formal ceremony of admission included a symbolic cutting of hair, but subsequently orthodox monks normally let their hair grow and did not cut it. Although they can always be identified by their black garments, there is no circular tonsure as in the West.
Because the peninsula of Athos is mountainous and not suitable for cereal cultivation, the monks there needed gifts of nearby land and property which could supply them with foodstuffs. Hence the close relationship with local lay people, who received spiritual guidance and assistance and in turn supported the monasteries with donations. The dynamics of recruitment developed from this local integration, which in turn spread the fame of new monasteries and attracted men from farther away. As the monasteries grew in resources, they created a way for large, wealthy families to invest in the spiritual life: one son would be dedicated to the monastic life, another to the military, the youngest might be made a eunuch and together with a daughter could be sent to the imperial court.
Secular patrons also wished to be commemorated by prayers for the salvation of their souls. From the earliest history of Mount Athos, emperors sought an association with the monks, for the same reason. In 883, Basil I issued an imperial decree protecting them from local shepherds who tried to pasture their flocks on the peninsula. Romanos I Lekapenos allotted the Athonite monks an annual pension and fixed the boundary at Hierissos in 941/2. About fourteen years later, the first named monastery, Xeropotamou (literally, dry river), was in existence. Its foundation is attributed to Paul Xeropotamites, to whom a layman named John made a donation in 956. As soon as he became emperor in 963, Nikephoros Phokas made major donations to the Lavra monastery; an annual grant of 244 gold coins and supplies of wheat ensured its rapid growth.
The history of this monastery, which became known as the Great Lavra, is recorded in two versions of the Life of St Athanasios. He was born in Trebizond on the Black Sea in about 925 and became a teacher in Constantinople before embracing monasticism. Like all novices, he sought advice from an experienced ascetic, Michael Maleinos, who directed a group of hermits on Mount Kyminas in Bithynia. One of his companions in this spiritual training was Nikephoros Phokas, later to become emperor. From Bithynia, Athanasios went to Athos seeking a retreat from the world. Long-distance travel on this scale, from Trebizond to Athos, is not uncommon in the stories of medieval monks, who often undertook pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome and Sinai. Despite Athanasios’ efforts to remain unknown, his fame attracted followers and imperial support made possible the foundation of the monastery in 963/4. As abbot, Athanasios wrote its charter and several other documents to guide the monks under his care. Over the next thirty years, the numbers increased so fast that substantial new buildings were necessary. A large-scale walled monastery came into existence. Athanasios died in about 1001 when he fell from a ladder which he had climbed to inspect the construction of a new church.
Monastic expansion was not limited to Athos: in all parts of the empire, including cities, dedicated Christians and lay patrons supported new foundations. In Cappadocia, startling discoveries in the tufa valleys of Göreme and Peristremon have revealed rock-cut structures, both civilian and ecclesiastical, some decorated with high-quality frescoes (plate 13). But no texts survive to document the builders, who may have been monks, of these tenth-and eleventh-century cave churches. At Steiris in central Greece, however, theLife of Holy Luke, composed by his disciples, describes how he made his garden into ‘a beautiful paradise’ but hid his cell ‘in a thicket so that it would not easily be noticed by most people. His purpose was always to prune back the impulses of vainglory… and to be more like a dead person than a living one’ (plate 31). Similarly, the monk John Xenos wrote an account of his efforts to build churches, plant trees and crops, set up beehives and train and install monks at numerous mountain sites in Crete, some of which are identified. For over thirty years, he moved from one to another, recruiting local people to help in the excavation and construction of buildings, and in 1082 he travelled to the capital to obtain patriarchal protection for them.
To some Byzantines, urban monasticism was a contradiction in terms, since it brought those who were committed to a lifetime of prayer, contemplation and silence into the bustling noise of the city. But as we have seen, monks had been allowed to settle in Constantinople in the fifth century, and numerous communities flourished there behind high walls. Some like the Stoudios, Chora, Evergetis and Dalmatou monasteries became famous and sustained an unbroken existence for centuries. Dalmatou, the first to be set up, just outside the walls of Constantinople in 382, continued in use until the twelfth century when it was converted for use as a nunnery. Many others, such as the Myrokeraton, Xylinites or Koukoubiou, are known from a single mention and remain unidentified. This is also a common feature of female houses, which are much less well documented than male.
From earliest times, women had shared the determination to dedicate their lives to Christ. Some Desert Fathers established sister houses for them. Female communities were set up in an urban environment, also under the protection of a bishop. In Constantinople, Patriarch John Chrysostomos (390–404) supported the nunnery founded by Olympias, a wealthy heiress, who also made generous donations to the Church from her inheritance. In his correspondence with her, John praised her dedication and appreciated her material support for monasticism. Her foundation remained in existence for over two centuries, perhaps longer. In the early seventh century, the abbess Sergia wrote an account of the miraculous recovery of its holy relics. But this is exceptional. From the Lives of female saints it is clear that their commitment to monastic life paralleled that of men, but their nunneries – whether in cities or the countryside – might not survive for more than a couple of generations after the founder. During iconoclast persecution, when the veneration of icons was privatized, women sustained their devotion in their own homes rather than in nunneries. This may have encouraged a later model of domestic sanctity, which permitted married laywomen, like St Maria the Younger in the tenth century, to attain sainthood.
While monasteries expanded throughout Byzantium, Athos developed its own system of government. Initially, all those registered as monks or hermits on the Holy Mountain elected a Protos (literally, first) to represent them in their relations with the outside world. Later, a council of monasteries emerged as the ruling institution, although Lavra, Vatopedi and Iviron, a community of Georgian monks, remained independent and their abbots took precedence over the Protos. Karyes became the administrative centre of the Holy Mountain, where biannual meetings of all the monks were held. While both emperors and patriarchs attempted to influence and regulate relations among the groups in the monastic federation of Athos, the leading abbots negotiated privileges for their communities. They successfully extended exemption from all imperial taxation and an increase in the number and size of boats in which they transported their produce to markets.
In 1045, Constantine IX Monomachos issued a new charter for the Holy Mountain, which noted and corrected several bad developments. Some monks complained about the admission of eunuchs and young boys, the size of monastic boats and their use for commercial purposes, the use of cattle, the cutting of firewood and export of lumber for building: all these were to be corrected. Clearly the emperor had been made aware of factional plotting as well as uncanonical acts, such as the ordination of under-age boys as deacons and priests. He urged ‘all the most devout elders’ to attend the general assembly and to ‘participate in the decision with the fear of God and with truth, free from all favoritism and bribe-taking, from party feeling, from partiality and from any other passion: from envy, strife and vengefulness’.
Some of these problems had arisen from the rapid expansion in numbers, which meant that there was not enough to eat. The Holy Mountain attracted recruits from all corners of the Christian universe, first as visitors or pilgrims, later as brothers committed to the monastic life. While Iviron was intended to serve as a community for Georgians, Benedictine monks from Amalfi in southern Italy established three houses on Mount Athos, and numerous Armenians, Slavs and Bulgars settled on the mountain. During the twelfth century, monks from Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia came to play a much larger role on Mount Athos in their houses at Panteleemon, Zographou and Hilandar, to which the Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanja and his son Sava retired. Mount Athos welcomed Orthodox from far and wide and maintained contacts with Sinai and other distant houses. Some monks who visited the Holy Mountain and gained spiritual training there went on to found their own monasteries elsewhere, and others were appointed to bishoprics and even to the patriarchate.
While the expansion of monasticism on Mount Athos was supported by imperial patronage, abbots tried to keep their large estates free from imperial taxation. Emperors were not always willing to grant charters of exemption, nor did they approve the foundation of new monasteries at the expense of older houses which often fell into disrepair. In a series of laws issued during the tenth century (see chapter 14), they aimed to concentrate religious devotion on already existing monasteries. Although he had supported Athanasios in his monastery of the Lavra, in 964 Nikephoros Phokas reinforced these laws, without success. Lay patrons often wanted to establish their own communities which would bear their name and commemorate their deaths, and the prestige of Athos continued to attract donations.
In the late Byzantine period, the monks of Athos were drawn into a vigorous theological debate over hesychasm (hesychia, literally, silence, quiet), which demonstrated the importance of the Holy Mountain in the religious life of the empire. In the early thirteenth century, Gregory Sinaites, who had been trained at Sinai, introduced hesychast practices to Athos. These were based on repetition of the simple prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, combined with breathing exercises designed to focus concentration and raise the monk’s spiritual awareness to a higher level. Hesychast theory naturally appealed to those Athonite hermits who lived in isolation and followed their own routine of prayer (called idiorhythmic). It was given much greater prominence and force by Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), then abbot of Esphigmenou, one of the oldest communities on the Holy Mountain. In his writings, Palamas developed hesychast principles, inspired by the moment when the disciples witnessed the uncreated light of the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor (Matt. 17:1–6). He believed that monks with a heightened awareness could experience the divine energy and uncreated light, and become like God:
Those who have pleased God and attained that for which they came into being, namely divinization (theosis), these then are in God since they are divinized by Him and He is in them since it is He who divinizes them. Therefore, these too participate in the divine energy.
This claim was hotly disputed by Barlaam of Calabria, an orthodox monk from southern Italy, and many others who ridiculed the hesychasts as ‘navel-gazers’. In 1339 Barlaam, abbot of the Akataleptos monastery in Constantinople, was sent by Andronikos III on various diplomatic missions to the West connected with the proposed reunion of the eastern and western Churches. With his bilingual culture, he was aware of the theology of St Thomas Aquinas (not yet translated into Greek), which strengthened his doubts about the spiritual mysticism embodied in hesychasm. In writings directed against Gregory Palamas, he expressed strong criticism of hesychast practices, which led to his condemnation at a local church council in 1341. One year later he converted to the Roman Catholic faith and was appointed bishop of Gerace in southern Italy. Although his opponents destroyed most of his writings, he seems to have drawn on the logical Aristotelianism of Aquinas, which he opposed to the Platonic and Neoplatonic theology of the hesychasts. In this respect, Byzantium developed a distinctive mystical spirituality which never had any parallel in the West, indeed it seems closer to many eastern religions. It set orthodox tradition apart from the intellectual theology of the West, where monks contributed directly to philosophical argument and logical reasoning.
During the civil war of 1341–7 (see chapter 26), Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos appointed Palamas as Archbishop of Thessalonike and supported his elaboration of hesychast theology. The monks of Athos thus became involved in the dispute between Palamas and Barlaam and participated in the councils of 1341, 1347 and 1351, which endorsed the former and condemned the latter (plate 39). The mystical elements of early Christian prayer, elaborated first by Gregory Sinaites and further developed by Gregory Palamas, were promoted to become a defining feature of orthodoxy. In this way, Byzantium embraced a spiritual practice that owed much to Neo-platonism, and rejected Aquinas’ Aristotelian application of logic to theology developed in the West. The opposition surfaced during the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438/9), when western scholars defeated the eastern theologians with arguments based on Aristotelian techniques. Yet at the same gathering, the exposition of ancient Platonic texts by the Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon entranced western philosophers who were unfamiliar with them.
Although western crusaders had respected the independence of Athos, its prosperity attracted hostile attention from the Catalan Company of mercenaries in the early fourteenth century and later from the Turks, who reduced its properties on the mainland and forced some monks to flee. Some settled at Meteora (literally, in mid-air) in central Greece where they could withstand military attack from the top of their rocks. But new communities continued to be founded on Athos in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; less-organized forms of monastic life also flourished. The advance of the Ottomans into the Balkans signalled a change, marked by periods of temporary occupation and, ultimately, control of the Holy Mountain in 1430. While the monasteries were permitted to continue as independent institutions in return for an annual tribute, their spiritual and material conditions declined.
The fate of Athos during the period of Turkish rule is a sad tale of selling manuscripts and increasing reliance on Russian benefactors. As the leader of the Greek Orthodox community (millet), the Patriarch of Constantinople gained greater control over the monasteries; this was recognized at the end of the First World War when the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres were confirmed at Lausanne in 1923. But recent developments have favoured Mount Athos. In particular, the breakup of the USSR and the lifting of restrictions on religious observance have led to an influx of orthodox recruits to the monasteries. Many now come from the diaspora Greek communities of America and Australia, as well as the orthodox in the Asian landmass and the Balkans. Against all the odds, the history of the Holy Mountain is being rewritten, with mobile phones, computers and speedboats. Buildings are being restored, new icons painted, medieval frescoes and manuscripts preserved. A venerable Byzantine institution is finding new feet in the twenty-first century.