The History of Mount Athos
Introduction: This is Part I of a four-part history of Mt Athos.
The Holy Mountain of Athos has a long and elaborate history. It seems that from the first, human culture had marked out this spot to be one of wonder, amazement, and religious dedication.
The penninsula known today as Athos did not always bear this name. Ancients called the whole protrusion Akte, and so it was known for centuries. The name Athos (a word of prehellenic origin) is the that of a Thracian giant whose legend is intimitely interwoven with that of the history of the penninsula itself. One account records that the giant Athos hurled the entire rocky mass (now the peak of Mount Athos) at Poseidon in a gigantomachic clash of god and man. In another account, it was Poseidon who came out the victor, burying the defeated Athos under the penninsula's peak.
Another legend brings Athos' early history into a more human realm. This account, recorded by Strabo and Plutarch, tells of the lofty ambitions of Deinocrates, chief architect to the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who purportedly wished to transform the whole of Mt Athos into an immense figure of the Macedonian king - rather along the lines of a classical Greek 'Mount Rushmore.' The intended sculpture was to be grandiose indeed: one of the king's hands would hold a city filled with his subjects, while the other offered a continual libation to the gods by pouring out a great stream of water into the adjoining Aegean. Alexander declined his architect's offer. It it likely that this rejection was based not so much on a sense of personal modesty (for which Alexander was not well known), as on a desire to avoid being remembered by history as a man quite so arrogant as Xerxes.
Xerxes, the famed Persian king, had carved a canal through the beginning of the Athonite penninsula in 481 BC, joining the Ierissos (on the north) and Singitic (on the south) gulfs and providing safer passage than the journey around Athos' southern point (Cape Akrothoos). Some historians doubt that this canal was ever finisihed, some that it was ever begun. Yet present-day visitors to the Holy Mountain can still see remnants of this canal, long since filled in with sediment, but still clearly evident as a long, narrow, and obviously artificial valley in precisely the location attributed to Xerxes' project.
Information on the following centuries is sparse at best. Historians of the age record small settlements on Athos, among which we know of Thissos, Kleonae, Sane, Olofixos, Akrothooi, Dion and Apollonia - though the precise locations of these are unknown. It is certain, however, that they had been abandoned by the time the first monks arrived, for they report an abandoned, solitary place of a most rugged character. The perfect 'desert' for an ascetic life.
But before the monks established themselves on Athos, the Holy Mountain was to be blessed by the Mother of God, to whom it would ever after be dedicated.
The Theotokos Visits Athos
We are told, through an apocryphal account, of the Virgin's visit to the Holy Mountain in 49 AD. The story varies slightly from tradition to tradition, but its heart is the same in each.
Upon the death and resurrection of Our Lord, the Apostles 'cast lots' to determine who would travel abroad to spread the Gospel throughout the known world. Some would remain in Palestine to further the Church there, but others would set off on the burgeoning missionary movement. It is reported that the Theotokos asked to join those who made their way through the world - her heart ever ready to share the news of her Son. The lots having been case, her was to Georgia and Athos.
Yet before she could set out on her journey, the Theotokos received a visitation from the archangel Gabriel. His instruction was that she remain in Jerusalem for a time, thus delaying her departure. She obeyed the call for delay, and remained in the city. A short time later she received word from Lazarus --earlier raised from the dead by Christ and now bishop of Cyprus-- who asked to receive her in his hospitality before dying once again. She agreed to his request, and he sent a ship to retrieve the Mother of God from the holy city.
Our Lady set sail with St John the Evangelist, to whom she had been entrusted by Christ upon the cross. The journey began uneventfully, but soon their ship was blown off course and instead of reaching Cyprus, they came upon the imposing summit of Athos. The words of the Theotokos upon first seing the Holy Mountain are fondly remembered there today: 'This mountain is holy ground. Let it now be my portion. Here let me remain.'
Her vessel shored in a bay at Clementos. There stood in that place (now the site of the Holy Monastery of Iviron) a temple and oracle of Apollo, revered deity of the Greeks. Tradition records that as the Virgin set foot upon Athonite soil the air resounded with the sound of loud crashing, as its pagan altars fell and the oracle of Apollo proclaimed its own false nature. All who lived on Athos were converted and baptized by the Mother of God, who then resumed her voyage to Cyprus.
This visit is understood to have been alluded to in the 12th chapter of Revelation, wherein a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon beneath her feet, after her son had been carried away up to the throne of God, fled to the desert where a place had been prepared for her. This desert is understood as Athos.
St Peter the Athonite and the Earliest Hermits
The first definite account of the beginnings of the eremitical life on Athos is the story of the 9th-century monk and saint, Peter the Athonite. Having broken a vow to become a monk by joining the Byzantine army, Peter found himself imprisoned by the Arabs in what he viewed as divine displeasure for his disobedience. Peter renewed his vow under the invocation of St Nicholas, at whose intercession he was released from captivity and sailed to Rome to be ordained by the Pope. Later he headed for the Levant by ship, and during the journey dreamed that he saw St Nicholas and the Theotokos conversing. The Mother of God told the saint of her reception of Athos as her own, and informed him that Peter would there spend the rest of his days in her protection.
Peter, now believing himself to be under the direct guidance of the Mother of God, abandoned the vessel at Athos, the crew sailing on without him. Thence he began his eremetical life on the rugged Athonite peaks. His hagiographer records that within two weeks of Peter's arrival, the Enemy appeared to attack him with his demons, but was repulsed. 50 days later he tried again, but once more was rebuked by Peter. The same was true after a year had passed. Finally, seven years later, Satan again ferociously attacked the saint, this time disguised as an angel of light; but by this time Peter had attained true humility and purity, and Satan was defeated. Peter had emerged triumphant.
St Peter the Athonite is commonly regarded as one of the first hermits of Athos, which had its beginning as a collection of eremitical monastics and later sprouted forth into cenobitic monasticism. Yet there may have been monks on the Holy Mountain far earlier than Peter. One tradition states that Constantine the Great, first Christian emperor and equal-to-the-Apostles, himself came to the mountain in the fourth century and built three churches there (though they were later destroyed by his anti-Christian successor, Julian the Apostate). More reliable evidence exists to show that there was a notable collection of iconophile monks on Athos in the 8th century, as ascetics from Athos are noted as having taken part in the Ecumenical Council of 843.