Mount Athos - History and Cultural Relations



As early as the seventh century the Athonite Peninsula, depopulated since the classical age, was settled by hermits, many of them refugees from the Arab conquests of that time or victims of the iconoclasts, who sought to end the veneration of icons, a custom deeply rooted in Byzantine monasticism. The Byzantine emperor Basil I recognized Athos as a territory for male hermit monks in 885, banishing from the territory all resident laymen and shepherds as well as women and female domestic animals. The first monastery, the Megisti Lavra ("the Great Lavra"), was founded by the Emperor, Nicephoros Phocas, in 963 as an independent monastery. Its charter was a landmark in the reform of abuses associated with the economic control of monasteries and their lands by secular overseers and local bishops. From the perspective of the abbots, the charter's importance was the reestablishment of their authority, without which the traditional discipline based on submission would break down. During the Latin occupation of Byzantium (1204-1261), when the Holy Mountain was under the jurisdiction of the Latin Kingdom of Salonica, and immediately thereafter, the Athonite monasteries resisted pressure to support union of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. During the Turkish occupation of Greece, 1453-1822 (the Turkocrateia), the monasteries were impoverished by heavy taxation and loss of outlying endowment properties. In the sixteenth century, the monasteries resisted the Turkish regime's intensified "Islamization" by collecting and copying theological, hagiographical, and liturgical books on a large scale and by training and ordaining priests for outlawed missionary work. This resistance produced hundreds of "neomartyrs," Hagiorites and others, who continue to be commemorated. The Greek revolution brought depopulation, disrupting the continuity of monastic life and oral tradition as monks left to join the "holy war" against the "infidel" Turks. During World War II and the subsequent Greek civil war, the monasteries served as places of refuge for the injured and displaced, including women and children. The monastic republic has been a protectorate of Greece since 1912, when the first Balkan War ended Turkish hegemony there, and is under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate.

All of the Athonite monasteries, Greek and other, maintain close ties with traditional geographical areas where they have possessed monastic properties, from which they have received patronage, and which are the homelands of many of their present monks. These ties are reflected in architectural styles, styles of hymnody, commemoration of founders and patrons, patterns of pilgrimage, and of course, language. As with the Greek monasteries under the Turkocrateia, the rious ethnically defined monasteries have tended to be symbols of nationalism, exploited to promote or preserve cultural identity.


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