Ever since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve heard about Mt. Athos, it’s intriguing history, its spectacular setting, it’s magnificent architecture. But what I find most interesting are the myths, the contradictions, and the incongruities.
First, Mt. Athos is both a mountain and a peninsula. What Orthodoxy calls the Holy Mountain is in fact not the single mountain itself, but the entire peninsula.
Second, the Holy Mountain is often described as primitive and pristine. It is often said that the only way to get to Mt. Athos is by ferry, that the only way to get around is by walking, and that the sound of internal combustion engines is never heard on the Holy Mountain. This is not true. A search on Google Maps reveals quite a few roads on Mt. Athos. A great number of these roads connect the harbors to each other, and roads criss-cross the interior, leading up to and past the various sketes and monasteries. There are even pictures of cars driving these roads up to monasteries in the interior, with one showing what appears to be a vehicle fleet belonging to the ACS Courier service. It is clearly possible to drive to the Greek town of Ouranoupoli, from which roads radiate into the interior of the Holy Mountain. I don’t know if these roads are blocked or guarded in some way, but given the pictures of cars driving on Mt. Athos, the possibility exists. In addition, Mt. Athos has the Elikodromio heliport, and even concrete roads. With curbs, no less. <https://www.google.com/maps?q=mt+athos&sll=36.930821500000015,-76.2397205&sspn=0.42162902326964075,0.7033899703359611&t=h&dg=opt&z=18&iwloc=A> . And finally, Mt. Athos has a branch of the Agricultural Bank of Greece, complete with ATM. So, not as primitive and pristine as we’ve been led to believe.
Third, Mt. Athos was supposedly chosen by the Virgin Mary herself. She was traveling with John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus in Cyprus, and the ship was blown off course. After setting foot on the shore, she blessed it and asked her Son for the area to be her garden. A voice was heard from heaven, saying: “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.” From that moment on the site was consecrated to the Virgin Mary and off limits to women. The oddity that a site consecrated to the Virgin Mary would be off limits to those of her gender has been often noted. This presents a theological problem, in that it separates the Virgin Mary from other women in a manner that has more in common with Roman Catholicism than Eastern Orthodoxy.
Fourth, although the site was consecrated to the Virgin Mary in the first century, it was inhabited by both pagans and Christians during the reign of Emperor Constantine, and pagan temples and statues of Zeus existed in the fifth century. The area was deserted early in the ninth century, following raids by the Cretan Saracens. It was not until late in the ninth century that the Emperor Basil I declared via a Chrysobull (Golden Bull, or declaration) that Mt. Athos was declared to be a place of monks, and that no laymen, farmers, or cattle-breeders were allowed to live there. So the present condition of Mt. Athos did not exist for most of the first millennium. This suggests that the prohibition against women setting foot on Mt. Athos is representative of European Medieval thinking regarding the status of women, rather than a feature of Orthodox monasticism.
Fifth, the monks of Mt. Athos come under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bishop Bartholomew. And yet the monks regard themselves as “the non-negotiable guardian of the Holy Tradition.” In other words, while formally under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the monks of Mt. Athos consider themselves an independent authority and arbiter of Holy Tradition. It has been said that some of the monasteries, in protest against the ecumenical tendencies of Patriarch Bartholomew, have censured him. There are even accounts of their having stripped him from the Diptychs, which is tantamount to their breaking communion with their Patriarch. If so, this makes them schismatics.
To be honest, I don’t know what to make of Mt. Athos. On the one hand, there have been a great number of saints on the Holy Mountain, even in the 20th century. On the other hand, there does seem to be a certain arrogance that adheres to the monks of Mt. Athos (collectively, not individually). I don’t know what to make of the monks of Mt. Athos, and their status within the canonical Orthodox church. They seem to be setting themselves apart, setting the stage for some sort of showdown. I pray they come to their senses.