Mount Athos—A “Holy Mountain”?
TO THE more than 220 million members of the Orthodox Church, Mount Athos, a rugged headland in northern Greece, is “the most holy mountain in the Orthodox Christian world.” For many of them, a pilgrimage to the “holy mountain” of Athos is a cherished dream. What is this “holy mountain”? How did it take on such importance? And is it the “mountain” to which God-fearing people must look for spiritual guidance and true worship?
The expression “holy mountain” does appear in the Bible. It is associated with the holy, pure, and elevated worship of the true God, Jehovah. Mount Zion in ancient Jerusalem became a “holy mountain” when King David brought the ark of the covenant there. (Psalm 15:1; 43:3; 2 Samuel 6:12, 17) After Solomon’s temple was built on Mount Moriah, “Zion” came to include the temple site; hence, Zion remained God’s “holy mountain.” (Psalm 2:6; Joel 3:17) Since God’s temple was in Jerusalem, at times that city was also called God’s “holy mountain.”—Isaiah 66:20; Daniel 9:16, 20.
What about today? Is Mount Athos—or any other summit—the “holy mountain” where people must stream to worship God acceptably?
A Monastic “Holy Mountain”
Mount Athos is located at the eastern end of the Chalcidice Peninsula on the tip of a narrow strip of land jutting into the Aegean Sea just east of modern-day Thessaloníki. It is an impressive marble peak that rises precipitously from the sea to a height of 6,667 feet [2,032 m].
Athos has long been considered a holy place. In Greek mythology it was the home of the gods before Mount Olympus became their home. Sometime after Constantine the Great (fourth century C.E.), Athos became a holy place to the Christian churches. According to one legend, the “virgin” Mary, accompanied by John the Evangelist en route to Cyprus to visit Lazarus, landed at Athos as the result of a sudden violent storm. Struck by the beauty of the mountain, she asked Jesus for it. Hence, Athos also came to be known as “the Garden of the Holy Virgin.” By the middle Byzantine period, the whole rocky outcrop came to be known as the Holy Mountain. This designation was officially adopted and confirmed in the mid-11th century by decree of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus.
Because of its rugged and isolated nature, Athos is the sort of place that lends itself to the practice of ascetic life. Through the centuries, it attracted religious men from all over the Orthodox world—Greeks, Serbians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, and others—who constructed numerous monasteries, with their churches and communities. Some 20 of these have survived.
Mount Athos Today
Today, Athos is an autonomous region, with a charter ratified in 1926. After years of decline, the number of resident monks has risen to more than 2,000.
Each of the monasteries has its own network of farms, chapels, and dwellings. The ultimate sanctuary of the hermits is to be found in the settlement of Karoúlia, perched high in the dizzying cliffs on the end of Mount Athos. Here a cluster of individual huts can be reached only by a maze of footpaths, stone steps, and chains. On Athos, the monks still live out their ancient liturgical daily routine, using the Byzantine clock (with the day beginning at sunset) and the Julian calendar (13 days behind the Gregorian).
Although this religious site is said to owe its “holiness” to a woman, for 1,000 years its monks and hermits have declared the whole peninsula off-limits to all female forms of life—human and animal—along with any eunuch or beardless man. Recently, the ruling regarding the beardless and some female animals has been relaxed, but women are still strictly banned within 550 yards [500 m] of the Athos shoreline.
A “Holy Mountain” for All
Is Athos the “holy mountain” to which God-fearing Christians should come to worship? Speaking to a Samaritan woman who believed that God should be worshiped on Mount Gerizim, Jesus made clear that no literal mountain would any longer be designated as a place for worshiping God. “The hour is coming when neither in [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you people worship the Father,” said Jesus. Why? “God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.”—John 4:21, 24.
Pointing toward our time, the prophet Isaiah foretold that a symbolic “mountain of the house of Jehovah” would “become firmly established above the top of the mountains” and be “lifted up above the hills,” and people of all the nations would figuratively stream to it.—Isaiah 2:2, 3.
Men and women who want to have an approved relationship with God are invited to worship Jehovah with “spirit and truth.” Millions around the world have found their way to the ‘mountain of Jehovah.’ They, among others, echo the feelings of a Greek lawyer who said regarding Athos: “I doubt if spirituality is enclosed in walls or in monasteries.”—Compare Acts 17:24.
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A Long-Hidden Treasure Trove
Over the centuries, the Athonite monks have accumulated a treasure trove that includes an estimated 15,000 manuscripts, some said to date from the fourth century, making it one of the world’s most precious collections. There are scrolls, complete volumes and leaves of the Gospels, psalms and hymns, besides very old paintings, icons, sculptures, and metalworks. It is estimated that Mount Athos holds one fourth of the world’s Greek manuscripts, although many still need to be properly cataloged. In 1997, for the first time, the monks allowed some of their treasures to be exhibited in Thessaloníki.
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Telis/Greek National Tourist Organization