Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Holy Mountain

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Holy Mountain

Article excerpt

Ten centuries of uninterrupted creative effort shaped the architecture and art treasures of Mount Athos, which was placed on the World Heritage List in 1988.

Mount Athos, a rocky headland soaring 2,000 metres out of the Aegean Sea, is the most easterly of the three promontories of the Greek peninsula of Chalkidiki. The peninsula's rugged terrain and inhospitable coastline make settlement and communications on it extremely difficult. There is evidence that five towns existed there in Antiquity, but later, after the destruction and ravages of the early Middle Ages, the site appears to have attracted only anchorites and monks.

The origins of monastic life on Athos are lost in legend. The earliest historical sources attesting to the presence of a solid religious structure date from the ninth century. At that time the monks lived ascetic lives in isolated huts or kellia that were in many cases interconnected to form small monastic communities or lavras. There also seems to have been a rudimentary form of central organization, perhaps not unlike the monastic republic that developed later. But cenobitic monasteries (where the monks have everything in common) were only found outside the peninsula in the nearby inhabited regions.

The first cenobitic monastery on Athos (the Great Lavra) was founded by Athanasius the Athonite in 963 and was soon followed by others. By the middle of the eleventh century there were no less than 200 "monasteries", but numbers fluctuated considerably during the Byzantine period, and it was only under the Ottoman occupation that the numbers and types of monasteries on Mount Athos stabilized into more or less their present state. When Stavronikita Monastery was founded in the mid-sixteenth century, the number of monasteries was fixed at twenty, the present number. During the same period, the kellia, some of which replaced defunct monastic communities, gradually came under the control of the twenty monasteries. At the end of the seventeenth century, sketes - large communities dependent on the monasteries - were founded. The first of these foundations were "idiorrhythmic" (each monk living at his own rhythm); later ones were cenobitic.

Throughout their history, both under the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the large monasteries wielded exceptional economic power and enjoyed a privileged position. Their main sources of wealth were the exploitation of large estates (metochia), donations received from sovereigns and other prominent people and, in later times, from zeteies (long-term fund-raising trips) made by monks to the Orthodox countries where Athos always exercised great spiritual influence.

These spiritual and material factors had important repercussions on building activity on Mount Athos. Athonite architecture reflects architectural ambition and a diversity of influences - the latter being particularly apparent in the later (eighteenth-twentieth century) buildings. This marriage of different cultural and architectural inputs and the use of craftsmen from different regions gave rise to organic building complexes which served as prototypes for other Orthodox countries. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Ottoman dissolution of the Byzantine empire, Mount Athos, which was directly subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople, became one of the most important centres of artistic activity in the Orthodox world and perhaps its leading architectural centre.

In the late fourteenth century, Mount Athos entered a period of economic depression which lasted until the end of the fifteenth century and, for some monasteries, until the early sixteenth. The population, which in its two great periods of expansion (the eleventh and fourteenth centuries) is reckoned to have numbered about 6,000 and 4,000 monks respectively, probably fell to around 1,500. But as the fifteenth century came to a close, a new period of activity began with the renovation of buildings, the construction of imposing fortifications and the extension of the enclosures in some monasteries. …

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