Historians and those who have a penchant for medieval art treasures will love visiting the monasteries based in Mt. Athos Peninsula. With a population of approximately 1,400 monks, Mount Athos, politically known as the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain in Greece, lies on the eponymous peninsula of Macedonia, Greece. It is famous among tourists all over the world for its eastern orthodox monasteries. There are twenty such monasteries over there. The name of its administrative centre and capital city is Karyes, which co-incidentally is also the home of a Greek governor.

Mount Athos, Monastery Esfigmenou
Mount Athos, Monastery Esfigmenou

Even though this peninsula is strictly out of bound for anybody else apart from the monks, it is possible for male tourists to visit the same, and for this, they require a special permission, well in advance. It is impossible to depict in words about the beauty of these monasteries and one must visit them to discover their beauties. Though connected via land, the only way to reach Mt. Athos is via boat.

The names of the monasteries are as follows: Great Lavra, Vatopedi, Iviron, Hilandar, Dionysiou, Koutloumousiou, Pantokrator, Xiropotamou, Zografou, Dochiariou, Karakalou, Filotheou, Simonos Petra, Saint Paul, Stavronikita, Xenophontos, Osiou Grigoriou, Esfigmenou, Saint Panteleimon, and Konstamonitou. The names of these monasteries are reproduced according to their places in the hierarchy with the first being the most important and so on.

Apart from the monasteries, there also are smaller communities of monks, known as sketes with the 12 main ones being as follows: Kafsokalyvia Skete, Lakkoskete Skete, New Skete, Prodromos Skete, Provata Skete, Saint Anne’s Skete, Saint Basil’s Skete, Iviron Skete, Koutloumousiou Skete, Pantokratoros Skete, Vatopedi Skete, Xenophontos Skete, and Saint Andrew’s Skete. There are certain restrictions set in place for tourists and they are well advised to follow them. This peninsula being an extremely holy place, women, eunuchs, and beardless boys are totally prohibited from visiting it, in order to reduce the chances of temptation.

Osiou Grigoriou monastery
Osiou Grigoriou monastery

Apart from this, even female domestic animals are not permitted over there with the sole exception of the cat and the hen. The former are allowed because they help control rodents and the latter are allowed because the yolk of their eggs provides yolk necessary for the paint used in iconography. It is a different fact altogether that Mt. Athos did provide shelter for refugees, inclusive of females, during the Greek civil war. Beardless tourists need not feel intimidated because the rule against bearded men is not so rigid.

Apart from the Greek language, some of the monks also speak in the Russian, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian languages. Be prepared to be awed by the great number of medieval art treasures that include liturgical vestments along with objects like chalices and crosses, holy relics, imperial chrysobulls, Christian texts.

Until a decade or so back, there had been no archiving or preservation of these treasures, but, thanks to the efforts of an EU funded movement, these artifacts are now being restored. Many people consider visiting Mount Athos and its monasteries as a pilgrimage. Considering this, it should not be tough to fathom why the monks call this place and the `Garden of the Virgin.’

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