Mount Athos is a mountain and peninsula in Macedonia, Greece. A World Heritage Site and self-governed state in the Hellenic Republic, Athos is home to 20 stavropegial Eastern Orthodox monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople. Today Greeks commonly refer to Mount Athos as the "Holy Mountain". In Classical times, while the mountain was called Athos, the peninsula was called Akté (sometimes Acte or Akte).
Athos in Greek mythology is 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 Mount Athos. According to another version of the story, Poseidon used the mountain to bury the defeated giant.
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 the entire mountain 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 9th century AD.
Culture and life in the Agion Oros
Art and literary treasures
The Athonite monasteries possess huge deposits of invaluable medieval art treasures, including icons, liturgical vestments and objects (crosses, chalices), codices and other Christian texts, imperial chrysobulls, holy relics etc. Until recently no organized study and archiving had been carried out, but an EU-funded effort to catalogue, protect and restore them is under way since the late 1980s.
Their sheer number is such, it is estimated that several decades will pass before the work is completed. Among the most ancient and priceless codices at Mount Athos are the Codex Athous Lavrensis and the Codex Athous Dionysiou.
Greek is commonly used in all the Greek monasteries, but in some monasteries there are other languages in use: in Agiou Panteleimonos and Skiti Bogoroditsa, Russian (50 monks in 2006); in Helandariou Monastery, Serbian (46); in Zographou Monastery, Bulgarian (32); and in the sketes of Timiou Prodromou and Lakkoskiti, Romanian (64). Today, many of the Greek monks also speak foreign languages. Since there are monks from many nations in Athos, they naturally also speak their own native languages.
Monastic life: monasteries, sketae, and cells
As described above, today the 20 monasteries of Mount Athos are the dominant holy institutions for both spiritual and administrative purposes, consolidated by the Constitutional Chart of the Holy Mountain. Although, since the beginning of Mount Athos' history, monks were living in lodgings of different size and construction quality.
Some information is already given above, in the section "Administration and organization". A pilgrim/visitor to a monastery, who is accommodated in the guest-house (αρχονταρίκι) can have a taste of the monastic life in it by following its daily schedule: praying (services in church or in private), common dining, working (according to the duties of each monk) and rest. During religious celebrations usually long vigils are held and the entire daily program is radically reshaped. The gate of the monastery closes by sunset and opens again by sunrise.
A cell is a house with a small church, where 1–3 monks live under the spiritual and administrative supervision of a monastery. Monastic life in the cells is totally different from that in a monastery. Some of the cells resemble tidy farmhouses, others are poor huts, others have the gentility of Byzantine tradition or of Russian architecture of the past century. Usually, each cell possesses a piece of land for agricultural or other use.
Small communities of neighbouring cells were developed since the beginning of monastic life on Mount Athos and some of them were using the word "skete" meaning "monastic settlement" or "lavra" meaning "monastic congregation". The word "skete" is of Arabic origin and in its original form is a placename of a location in the Egyptian desert. It is in the Egyptian desert where monasticism made its first steps.