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How the Mount Athos monasteries prospered for centuries

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

Mount Athos—the peninsula in Greece that is home to one of the oldest Eastern Christian monastic communities—has received support from an array of patrons over the course of its long history. This patronage of Athos ensured the autonomous continuity and prosperity of the monasteries and accorded with the royal aspirations of those rulers who extended the gifts and donations.

From the Middle Ages to the present, monastic life on Mount Athos has unfolded in 20 main monasteries, some with a history that dates to the tenth century. The Protaton, the oldest church on Athos, was built during the first half of the tenth century and served as the major church in Karyes—the seat of clerical and secular administration on Athos that regularly gathers delegates from each of the monasteries. The Great Lavra Monastery was founded in 963. The plan of its main church (or katholikon) was adopted in the other nineteenth Athonite monasteries. In their general layouts, the katholikon is the central feature of the monastic compound, and it is surrounded on four sides with a series of ancillary buildings. This rectilinear layout is based on early Byzantine-Orthodox prototypes, such as the sixth-century monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai built by Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–65).

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Map of Mount Athos and its monasteries – Wikimedia Commons

The twenty monasteries on Mount Athos (or the Holy Mount) fall under the direct spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarch in Constantinople, and have drawn support from an array of Christian patrons over the centuries. The Byzantine emperors had been notable donors, especially during the Palaiologan dynasty (1260–1453), as were rulers from neighboring regions, including Georgia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, among others. As Averil Cameron aptly noted, however:

the status of Mount Athos as a kind of symbol of Byzantium and of Orthodoxy in the minds of Byzantium’s satellite and neighboring powers was at its height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the Byzantine state itself was fragmented and weak.

The Palaiologans were especially active in their support of the monasteries of Saint Paul, Dochiariou, Xeropotamou, and Iviron, before the middle of the fifteenth century. Georgian princes were the original patrons of Iviron Monastery; the emperor of Trebizond favored Dionysiou; the Albanians directed their support to Philotheou and Karakalou; while the Russians favored Saint Panteleimon at least from the eleventh century onward.

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View of Hilandar Monastery, Mount Athos – photo by Саша Шљукић / Wikimedia Commons

The completed restoration and then later consecration of Hilandar Monastery in 1198 marked the official beginning of Serbian patronage on Athos. The Serbs also favored Iviron, beginning in the thirteenth century, and then the monasteries of Saint Paul, Simonopetra, Saint Panteleimon, Hilandar, and Docheiariou, among others, beginning in the second half of the fourteenth century. The Bulgarians made significant contributions mainly to Zographou Monastery from as early as the foundation of the site in 972. Some of the royal patrons even made pilgrimages to Athos, although access to the mountain has always been restricted to men only.

However, the Greco-Serbian princess Mara Branković (c. 1418–87)—the third child of the Serbian despot George Branković (r. 1427–56)—was one of the few women who ever stepped foot on the Holy Mount. She served as protector, donor, and diplomat for Athos and bequeathed all her assets to the monasteries of Hilandar and Saint Paul. She also passed the patronage responsibilities of her Athonite monasteries to the Wallachians so that their support may continue as the Branković dynasty was declining (the last Balkan capital to fall to the Ottoman Empire was Smederevo, Serbia, in 1459). Following her marriage to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–44; 1446–51) in 1435, Mara continued to support Athos and ensured the protection of the Holy Mount within the Ottoman Empire.

Mount Athos first came under Ottoman suzerainty between 1383 and 1387 during the siege of Thessaloniki—one of the major cities in the area and only about 120 km (approx. 75 mi) from Athos. In an effort to avoid further pillage and the destruction of property on the mountain itself, Athos submitted to the Ottomans sometime between September 1423 and August 1424 in exchange for a considerable degree of freedom in political, religious, and economic matters.

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View of Saint Paul Monastery, Mount Athos – photo by Guru2017a / Wikimedia Commons

The rulers of the Romanian-speaking lands around the Carpathian Mountains and north of the Danube River—Wallachia and Moldavia—likewise directed support to the Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos and played an especially significant role in their patronage. In his three-volume publication on the history of Mount Athos that appeared between 1871 and 1877, the Russian theologian Porphyrii Uspenskii states that “no Orthodox people have supported the Holy Mount more than the Romanians.” This seems to have been the case at least from the fourteenth century onward.

The Romanian patronage of the monasteries on Mount Athos began sometime in the middle of the fourteenth century during the reign of Wallachia’s prince Nicholas Alexander (r. c. 1344–52 with Basarab I; 1352–64 alone), who made an initial donation to Koutloumousiou Monastery. From Moldavia, the earliest Athonite donation dates to the reign of Alexander I (r. 1400–32), who initiated an annual payment to Zographou Monastery. A document kept in the archive of Zographou, dated August 22, 1416, details the arrival of hieromonk kyr Dometianus and Jupan Mudrăcica to Zographou. They were sent there by Alexander I and his son Iliaş—referred to in the document as “our ktetor and benefactor.”

The Moldavian and Wallachian rulers, however, did not direct their support to any single Athonite monastery. Rather, they provided financial assistance, initiated restoration projects, and gifted precious objects to many different monasteries on the Holy Mount. In this capacity, the Romanian princes continued the legacy of the Byzantine emperors before them who first took on the role of prime protectors of Athos.

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Edward Lear, Mount Athos and the Monastery of Stavronikétes, 1857

Christian leaders had long acknowledged the spiritual value of the monastic communities on Mount Athos, and their gifts and donations had multilayered meanings and functions. Among the many reasons for donating to a particular monastic site on Athos, it appears that at the intersection of lay piety and monastic life stood this desire on the part of the royal patron to be commemorated and remembered through the monks’ salvific prayer. The typikon of Dionysiou Monastery, supported by Emperor Alexios III of Trebizond (r. 1349–90) in 1374, explicitly states, “All emperors, kings, or rulers of some fame have built monasteries on Mount Athos for their eternal memory.” The donors would appear in the pomenik—the list of persons, living or deceased, who sponsored the monastery—and thus prayers would be regularly offered on their behalf.

Patronage of Mount Athos also aligned with a long tradition of royal deeds among Eastern Christian leaders for whom the Byzantine emperors served as prime examples. For regions of Eastern Europe—in the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north—extensive gifts and donations to the Athonite communities helped shape local ruling ideologies for much of the later Middle Ages. Finally, this patronage of Athos had collateral effects of contributing to the promotion of significant forms of Byzantine spirituality and artistic practices through the direct transfer of cultural and artistic ideas. The exchange of objects, such as manuscripts and liturgical embroideries produced in local workshops and scriptoria, as well as the movements of people, such as monks and artists, facilitated cultural contact and transfer between Athos and distant lands.

Future posts will detail how patronage of Mount Athos from among Eastern European rulers intensified and shifted in curious ways after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. In the meantime, check out this recent documentary on Mount Athos.

Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

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Click here to read more from Alice Isabella Sullivan

Further Reading:

P. Ș. Năsturel, Le Mont Athos et les Roumains: Recherches sur leurs relations du milieu du XIVe siècle à 1654 (Rome, 1986).

G. Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven, 2002).

G. Speake and Metropolitan Kallistos, eds., Mount Athos: Microcosm of the Christian East (Oxford, 2012).

Top Image: View of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos. Photo by World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations / Flickr

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