In northern Greece, lying off the larger Chalkidiki peninsula is a place that is unique on planet Earth.
It only has a population of about 2,400 people scattered across 20 settlements and some random people living by themselves.
What makes this area unique is that all 2,400 of its citizens are monks and all are men….and women are not allowed to even enter.
Learn more about the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
As you might expect for most places in Greece, there is a lot of history around Mount Athos.
The name Athos itself comes from Greek Mythology. Athos was the name of one of the giants which challenged the Greek gods on Mount Olympus.
The peninsula has a mention in the Illiad by Homer.
Herodotus mentions that an entire Persian fleet was destroyed off its cost in 492 BC, sinking 300 ships and killing 20,000 men.
The Persian King Xerxes I tried to cut a canal across the peninsula to let his ships through to avoid the rough seas off the peninsula’s tip.
After the death of Alexander the Great, the great Greek architect Dinocrates had toyed with the idea of carving the entire mountain into a statue of Alexander in a reclined position.
But none of these things from the ancient world are what Mount Athos is best known for.
Mount Athos is known for being home to Orthodox Christian Monasteries.
The legend surrounding Mount Athos is that Virgin Mary was traveling from what is today Jaffa, Israel to Cyprus with St. John. They were blown off course and landed on the shore of Mount Athos. She thought it so beautiful that she asked God to make it her garden. From that moment, the peninsula was dedicated to Mary, and as such, it was out of bounds to all other women.
When Christians actually arrived on the peninsula is unknown, but it was probably around the third or fourth century when there still pagans living in the area.
The Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century closed many of the Orthodox Monasteries, and monks from those monasteries found a new home on Mount Athos.
The number of monasteries on the peninsula grew over time and in the 9th century, a decree by the Byzantine Emperor Basil I declared that it was a place of monks and that no laypeople were allowed. Emperor Leo VI referred to Athos as “the ancient seat of the council of elders”.
The political rulers changed over the centuries, but the peninsula remained monastic. When it was controlled by Catholic rulers in the 13th century after the fourth crusade, there was a brief period where there was a Catholic Benedictine monastery, but that period didn’t last long.
The one event during the middle ages which is of note is an event called the Catalan Vengence. The area was raided by mercenaries from Catalonia in the 14th century. As such, anyone from Catalonia was banned from stepping foot on Mount Athos until 2005, a period of almost 700 years.
With the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Ottoman Empire took control of the region.
For the most part, the monasteries were left alone, and some Sultans even financially supported some of them. The monks recognized Ottoman rule in return.
However, by the 17th and 18th centuries, relations soured with the Ottomans. Taxes were raised on the monks and property was seized.
This caused a shift in the way the monasteries operated.
They shifted from cenobitic monasticism, which is communal ownership of everything, to Idiorrhythmic monasticism, which is basically living like a hermit. This was an economic measure to ensure the survival of the monastic way of life in Athos.
The peninsula saw a resurgence in the 19th century with support from the Russian Royal Family. The number of monks grew to almost 7,000.
In 1912, the Ottomans were pushed out by the Greek Navy and Mount Athos became part of Greece.
Mount Athos has mostly avoided the turmoil of the 20th century. Hitler gave a personal guarantee of protection in WWII. During the Greek civil war which came after, the communists also left the peninsula alone.
The Greek constitution gives special mention to Mount Athos. In Greek is it known as Agion Oros, which simply means ‘Holy Mountain’. The official name is the Autonomous Monastic Republic of the Holy Mountain.
Mount Athos is mostly exempt control from the Greek Government. They live by the monastic law which has ruled the region for centuries. The Greek Parliament ratified the self-rule decree which was originally established by Byzantine Emperors.
There are currently 20 monasteries on the peninsula. 17 are Greek, 1 is Bulgarian, 1 is Serbian, and 1 is Russian. Greek is the working language between the monasteries, but Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian are spoken inside those monasteries.
The entire peninsula is run by what is known as the “Sacred Community”. It has representatives from each of the 20 monasteries.
Each of the 20 monasteries is currently run under the cenobitic system, where all the property is communal, and each monastery is run by an abbot who is elected by the monks for life.
All non-Greek monks are granted Greek citizenship when entering their respective monasteries.
The titular head of Mount Athos is the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Mount Athos is one of the few places in the world which still uses the Julian Calendar. They used a revised Julian Calendar which is, as of now, on the same date as the Gregorian Calendar, and here I’ll refer you to my episode on that subject.
Of course, the thing which gets the most attention about Mount Athos is its prohibition on women.
The prohibition is extremely wide-ranging. They don’t just prohibit women, but the females of any domesticated animal species as well, save for cats and chickens.
This has been the rule on Mouth Athos for over a millennia.
There have been occasions when women have been on Mount Athos. In the 14th century, Serbian King Stefan Uroš IV Dušan sent his wife, Helen of Bulgaria to avoid the plague. She was admitted but she was not allowed to touch the ground. She spent three months on Mount Athos moving around carried by her staff.
In the 1930s Greek beauty contest winner Aliki Diplarakou dressed as a man and sunk into Mount Athos, and later wrote about it in Time Magazine.
In the 1920s, French writer Maryse Choisy snuck in and also wrote about her experience.
In 2008, a boat with Moldovan migrants unknowingly arrived on the shore of Mount Athos, and there were four women in the boat. They were notified of the rules and forgiven.
As Greece is part of the European Union, and the EU has laws regarding gender equality, in 2003 they passed a resolution asking that the ban on women be overturned.
The Greek government was prepared to give full independence to Mount Athos and allow it to have a similar diplomatic status as Vatican City.
It is possible to visit Mount Athos. You have to arrange your visit and get the equivalent of a visa to enter. There are only a limited number of visitors allowed, and of course, no women.