In 1960, Greek shipping magnate Yannis Carras, aboard his three-mast 58-meter schooner yacht Carita (later renamed Argonaftis), decided to cruise north to the Mount Athos peninsula of the Halkidiki region of Greece to celebrate the 1,000 year anniversary of the establishment of monasteries around Mount Athos,
I am instinctively intrigued by any anniversary which is worthy of a shipping magnate’s attention, but a millennium anniversary has to be something special and, although I had not heard of Mount Athos before, in my Western ignorance of all things related to the Orthodox church, I decided that finding out more about Mount Athos might be worthwhile. Little did I know that I was in store for a real eye-opening voyage of discovery!
Named after the majestic mountain dominating its southern skyline, Mount Athos, the most easterly of the three finger-shaped peninsulas protruding south into the Aegean Sea, has been inhabited by christian monks as early as in the third century AD. Christians believed that the Virgin Mary had landed in Mount Athos with Apostle St John and that the land, referred to as the “Garden of the Virgin”, was sacred territory.
The Holy Mountain was formally set aside exclusively for monks and monasteries of the christian church by the Constantinople Emperor Basil I in 885 AD. During the ensuing one thousand years, monastic rule oversaw the establishment of as many as 180 monasteries on the peninsula, and amazingly survived the fall of the Roman Empire and Constantinople, the breakup of Christiandom into Catholic and Orthodox churches and even the conquest and five-hundred year rule of all of Greece by the Ottoman Empire.
To this day, Mount Athos is for most practical purposes a separate “country”, with special autonomy and powers guaranteed under the Greek constitution as well as the European Union treaties, ever since the Mount Athos monks agreed, in the early part of the twentieth century, to negotiate their entry into the unified Greece following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In a system largely unchanged since the eight century AD, the twenty Orthodox monasteries currently in Mount Athos by and large operate independently, under the umbrella of a “Holy Community” governing body.
The representative of the government of Greece on the peninsula, technically the governor of the special region, is understandably referred to by some locals as the ambassador of Greece to Mount Athos! He resides in the “capital” of Mount Athos, the administrative town of Karyes.The equivalent of a frontier, near the northern end of the peninsula, prevents entry to all those who have not applied for and received a special written invitation to visit one or another of the monasteries. Save for orthodox monks, the number of entries is restricted to about 120 and the duration of the “visas” is usually less than three days. And only men need apply; this is one “country” where no women are allowed!
The Mount Athos peninsula holds very special historical, cultural and religious significance to all members of the Orthodox Church, whether they be part of the Russian, Serbian, or Greek Orthodox churches. Its monasteries were and are the repositories of the treasures of the Constantinople church which escaped the Ottoman conquest and have become the most sacred of pilgrimage sites for members of the Orthodox churches.
With entry into the Mount Athos peninsula so severely restricted, most visitors to the area simply tour Mount Athos by way of a boat cruise out of Ouranoupoli, the northern “border” town for Mount Athos, equipped with all the hotel, restaurant and souvenir shops tourists and pilgrims alike have come to expect.
The daily half day morning or afternoon cruise offers visitors a fascinating and scenic three-hour ride along the deserted coast of the peninsula, with breath-taking views of several of the monasteries along the way, each clinging to the sharp cliffs of the peninsula in its own way.
Towards the southern end of the peninsula, the landscape will start rising until the majestic 2,000 meter high Mount Athos takes over the scenery and leaves you breathless and in awe.
I understand better now why a Greek shipping magnate would want to celebrate the millennium anniversary of such a holy land by sailing north to the Halkidiki region, and I am glad that, in my own way, I have sailed the waters of Mount Athos.
Read our next posting : “Villa Galini : Live the life of a Greek shipping magnate!”
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