Mount Athos, formally known as Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, is located on the Greek peninsula of Halkidiki. The monastic traditions of the mountain date back to 800 A.D. and the Byzantine era. Today, it is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, and 2,000 monks from Greece and other eastern orthodox countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia. These monks live an ascetic life, isolated from the rest of the world.
Although technically part of the European Union, the Holy Mountain is largely self-governed. This prohibits the free movement of people and goods in its territory, unless formal permission has been granted. As a result, a number of traditions at Mount Athos might seem odd to people outside. The keeping of Byzantine time, for instance, means that their day begins at sunset. But perhaps their most bizarre practice is the centuries-old ban on women entering the sacred peninsula.
For over 1,000 years, women have been forbidden from setting foot on the mountain. In fact, females of other species such as cows, dogs and goats aren’t permitted either. Only birds and insects are exempted from the rule – scanning the skies and grounds for female body parts would surely be too absurd, even by Mount Athos standards.
Only men, particularly those of a calm and pious demeanour, are permitted to visit Mount Athos, attend church services, dine with the monks and perhaps even stay overnight at one of the monasteries. The only way female visitors can view the hills and ancient monasteries is from a distance, while on a boat tour.
Given that the sole purpose of the monks of Mount Athos is to become closer to God, they practice a life of strict celibacy. Dressed in long, black robes that signify their death from the outside world, they spend every minute of their day praying or reflecting in silence. After the mandatory eight hours of church service are complete, they spend their remaining time outside the church praying individually, their lips moving silently under their long beards.
According to the monks, the complete absence of women from the mountain makes their chosen lifestyle easier to practice. They seem to strongly believe that women could drastically alter the dynamics of their society, which is delicately designed to take them towards spiritual enlightenment.
Interestingly, the only female influence accepted and even revered by the monks of Athos is the Virgin Mary. Local legend tells us that the Mother of Christ was sailing along one day, when a storm blew her ship towards Mount Athos. Once ashore, she began to impart the teachings of Christianity, and had soon converted every person on the peninsula.
Years later, the monks started having visions of Mary, so they devoted their lives to her cause. It is speculated that they did not want other women to ‘outshine’ the Lady of Angels, so they simply banned all females from the region. Indeed, the picture of the Virgin Mary is the only female presence in all of Athos, and the only woman the monks choose to lay their eyes upon.
Although the practice has been accepted without question for several centuries, it has attracted a good amount of controversy in recent times. This is inevitable, given that social conditions have changed quite a bit since 1046, when Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos issued a ‘Chrysobull’, prohibiting females from entering the peninsula.
As a part of the growing movement for the equality of sexes in Christianity, a number of orthodox women now insist that it is their theological and political right to share in the mystical fruit of the holy mountain. Many such women have come together on social media and are engaging in political lobbying as well. In 2003, a European Parliament Resolution condemned the ban as a violation of sexual equality and citizens’ freedom of movement.
Anna Karamanou, member of the Facebook group ‘Allow Women to visit Mount Athos’, said: “Catholic and Orthodox churches still refuse to recognize that men and women are of equal value and deserve equal respect and equal rights.”
Nausicaa M. Jackson, another group member, agreed: “Mount Athos is a special place for every believer, and women have a very special and privileged place by God through the virgin Mary, so what Mount Athos is today, is an anti-Christian place.”
“I pay taxes for these monasteries and their restorations, and I am equally human being as you (men) and I do not see reason of not being allowed to get in Mount Athos,” said Professor Eleni Chontodolou, who is also a Greek feminist.
The monks, however, insist that they do not view the ban as an issue of sexual inequality. Instead, they call it an issue of faith. Dositej Hilandarac, a monk from the Athonian monastery Hilandar explained that they do not have a problem with women in particular. The ban stems more from the fact that the monasteries in Athos follow the Avaton rule, which literally means ‘entry prohibited’. The rule, he says, strictly forbids females from entering the holy mountain.
But, in spite of these strict rules, there have been times when Mount Athos has made exceptions. Women and children have always been welcomed during wars and epidemics. In 1347, Serbian Queen Jelena Kantakuzin sought refuge at the holy mountain from the great plague. And Serbian princess Mara Brankovic did get permission to visit a few monasteries in gratitude for her donations.
More recently, French philosopher Maryse Choisy actually underwent a double mastectomy, disguised herself as a boy, and spent some time wandering around Mount Athos before she was found and kicked out.
But there is still a long way to go before the rule is overturned. For now, the monks say that there is only one condition under which this may happen – when creation is restored to the paradise of the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve famously defied God. According to Anthonian Father Christos Mitsios, the prohibition “could be abolished if human beings could be as simple as they were before the original sin.”
“If this was the case, not even God could enforce an Avaton,” he explained.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons