ATHOS , the most eastern of the three peninsular promontories which extend, like the prongs of a trident, southwards from the coast of Macedonia (European Turkey) into the Aegean Sea. Before the 19th century the name Athos was usually confined to the terminal peak of the promontory, which was itself known by its ancient name, Acte. The peak rises like a pyramid, with a steep summit of white marble, to a height of 6350 ft., and can be seen at sunset from the plain of Troy on the east, and the slopes of Olympus on the west. On the isthmus are distinct traces of the canal cut by Xerxes before his invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. The peninsula is remarkable for the beauty of its scenery, and derives a peculiar interest from its unique group of monastic communities with their medieval customs and institutions, their treasures of Byzantine art and rich collections of documents. It is about 40 m. in length, with a breadth varying from 4 to 7 m.; its whole area belongs to the various monasteries. It was inhabited in the earliest times by a mixed Greek and Thracian population; of its five cities mentioned by Herodotus few traces remain; some inscriptions discovered on the sites were published by W.M. Leake (Travels in N. Greece, 1835, iii. 140) and Kinch. The legends of the monks attribute the first religious settlements to the age of Constantine (274-337), but the hermitages are first mentioned in historical documents of the 9th century. It is conjectured that the mountain was at an earlier period the abode of anchorites, whose numbers were increased by fugitives from the iconoclastic persecutions (726-842). The "coenobian" rule to which many of the monasteries still adhere was established by St Athanasius, the founder of the great monastery of Laura, in 969. Under a constitution approved by the emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1045, women and female animals were excluded from the holy mountain. In 1060 the community was withdrawn from the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople, and a monastic republic was practically constituted. The taking of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 brought persecution and pillage on the monks; this reminded them of earlier Saracenic invasions, and led them to appeal for protection to Pope Innocent III., who gave them a favourable reply. Under the Palaeologi (1260-1453) they recovered their prosperity, and were enriched by gifts from various sources. In the 14th century the peninsula became the chosen retreat of several of the emperors, and the monasteries were thrown into commotion by the famous dispute over the mystical Hesychasts.
Owing to the timely submission of the monks to the Turks after the capture of Salonica (1430), their privileges were respected by successive sultans: a tribute is paid to the Turkish government, which is represented by a resident kaimakam, and the community is allowed to maintain a small police force. Under the present constitution, which dates from 1783, the general affairs of the commonwealth are entrusted to an assembly of twenty members, one from each monastery; a committee of four members, chosen in turn, styled epistatae , forms the executive. The president of the committee is also the president of the assembly, which holds its sittings in the village of Karyes, the seat of government since the 10th century. The twenty monasteries, which all belong to the order of St Basil, are: Laura , founded in 963; Vatopédi , said to have been founded by the emperor Theodosius; Rossikon , the Russian monastery of St Panteleïmon; Chiliándari (: supposed to be derived from or ), founded by the Servian prince Stephen Nemanya (1159-1195); Iveron , founded by Iberians, or Georgians; Esphigmenu (: the name is derived from the confined situation of the monastery); Kutlumush ; Pandocratoros ; Philotheu ; Caracallu ; St Paul ; St Denis ; St Gregory ; Simópetra ; Xeropotámu ; St Xenophon ; Dochiar'u ; Constamon'tu ; Zográphu ; and Stavronik'tu (Gr., the last built, founded in 1545). The "coenobian" monasteries , each under the rule of an abbot , are subjected to severe discipline; the brethren are clothed alike, take their meals (usually limited to bread and vegetables) in the refectory, and possess no private property. In the "idiorrhythmic" monasteries , which are governed by two or three annually elected wardens , a less stringent rule prevails, and the monks are allowed to supplement the fare of the monastery from their private incomes. Dependent on the several monasteries are twelve sketae or monastic settlements, some of considerable size, in which a still more ascetic mode of life prevails: there are, in addition, several farms , and many hundred sanctuaries with adjoining habitations and hermitages . The monasteries, with the exception of Rossikón (St Panteleïmon) and the Serbo-Bulgarian Chiliándari and Zográphu, are occupied exclusively by Greek monks. The large skete of St Andrew and some others belong to the Russians; there are also Rumanian and Georgian sketae. The great monastery of Rossikón, which is said to number about 3000 inmates, has been under a Russian abbot since 1875; it is regarded as one of the principal centres of the Russian politico-religious propaganda in the Levant. The tasteless style of its modern buildings is out of harmony with the quaint beauty of the other monasteries. Furnished with ample means, the Russian monks neglect no opportunity of adding to their possessions on the holy mountain; their encroachments are resisted by the Greek monks, whose wealth, however, was much diminished by the secularization of their estates in Rumania (1864). The population of the holy mountain numbers from 6000 to 7000; about 3000 are monks , the remainder being lay brothers . The monasteries, which are all fortified, generally consist of large quadrangles enclosing churches; standing amid rich foliage, they present a wonderfully picturesque appearance, especially when viewed from the sea. Their inmates, when not engaged in religious services, occupy themselves with husbandry, fishing and various handicrafts; the standard of intellectual culture is not high. A large academy, founded by the monks of Vatopedi in 1749, for a time attracted students from all parts of the East, but eventually proved a failure, and is now in ruins. The muniment rooms of the monasteries contain a marvellous series of documents, including chrysobulls of various emperors and princes, sigilla of the patriarchs, typica, iradés and other documents, the study of which will throw an important light on the political and ecclesiastical history and social life of the East from the middle of the 10th century. Up to comparatively recent times a priceless collection of classical manuscripts was preserved in the libraries; many of them were destroyed during the War of Greek Independence (1821-1829) by the Turks, who employed the parchments for the manufacture of cartridges; others fell a prey to the neglect or vandalism of the monks, who, it is said, used the material as bait in fishing; others have been sold to visitors, and a considerable number have been removed to Moscow and Paris. The library of Simopetra was destroyed by fire in 1891, and that of St Paul in 1905. There is now little hope of any important discovery of classical manuscripts. The codices remaining in the libraries are for the most part theological and ecclesiastical works. Of the Greek manuscripts, numbering about 11,000, 6618 have been catalogued by Professor Spyridion Lambros of Athens; his work, however, does not include the MSS. in some of the sketae, or those in the libraries of Laura and Vatopedi, of which catalogues (hitherto unpublished) have been prepared by resident monks. The canonic MSS. only of Vatopedi and Laura have been catalogued by Benessevich in the supplement to vol. ix. of the Bizantiyskiy Vremennik (St Petersburg, 1904). The Slavonic and Georgian MSS. have not been catalogued. Apart from the illuminated MSS., the mural paintings, the mosaics, and the goldsmith's work of Mount Athos are of infinite interest to the student of Byzantine art. The frescoes in general date from the 15th or 16th century: some are attributed by the monks to Panselinos, "the Raphael of Byzantine painting," who apparently flourished in the time of the Palaeologi. Most of them have been indifferently restored by local artists, who follow mechanically a kind of hieratic tradition, the principles of which are embodied in a work of iconography by the monk Dionysius, said to have been a pupil of Panselinos. The same spirit of conservatism is manifest in the architecture of the churches, which are all of the medieval Byzantine type. Some of the monasteries were seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1905.
Authorities. - R.N.C. Curzon, Visits to Monasteries in the Levant (London, 1849); J.P. Fallmerayer, Fragmenta aus dem Orient (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1845); V. Langlois, Le Mont Athos et ses monastères, with a complete bibliography (Paris, 1867); Duchesne and Bayet, Mémoirs sur une mission en Macédoine et au Mont Athos (Paris, 1876); Texier and Pullan, Byzantine Architecture (London, 1864); H. Brockhaus, Die Kunst in den Athosklöstern (Leipzig, 1891); A. Riley, Athos, or the Mountain of the Monks (London, 1887); S. Lambros, Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts on Mount Athos (2 vols., Cambridge, 1895 and 1900); M.I. Gedeon, (Constantinople, 1885); P. Meyer, "Beiträge zur Kenntniss der neueren Geschichte und des gegenwärtigen Zustandes der Athosklöster," in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, 1890; Die Haupturkunden für die Geschichte der Athosklöster (Leipzig, 1894); G. Millet, J. Pargoire and L. Petit, Recueil des inscriptions chrétiennes de l'Athos (Paris, 1904); H. Gelzer, Vom Heiligen Berge und aus Makedonien (Leipzig, 1904); K. Vlachu (Blachos), (Athens, 1903); G. Smurnakes, , (Athens, 1904).
(J. D. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)