Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise

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Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece, is the centre of monasticism for all the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Known as the Holy Mountain, it has been a monastic preserve since the ninth century and remains closed to women. This book, written by a regular visitor to the Mountain, is a history of Mount Athos from pagan antiquity to the present day. Drawing on a variety of sources, including the recently published archives of the monasteries and monastic tradition, it focuses on the people who have illumined the story of Athos from its dedication to the Virgin Mary to the renewal that is taking place there today. The first monks were anchorites, living in caves and simple huts often in the most inaccessible parts of the peninsula. In the tenth century the first monasteries were founded with imperial support from Constantinople and other parts of the Byzantine world. Both traditions survive on Athos today, the eremitical and the cenobitic, coexisting more or less happily as they have always done.

Political events in the outside world inevitably had some impact on the monastic economy over the centuries and the book describes the effects felt as a result of the Latin conquest of Byzantium in 1204, the long centuries of Ottoman rule, the Greek War of Independence, the two world wars, and the incorporation of Greece into the European Union. But the monks' way of life was not greatly changed by any of these happenings. Far more important for them were the spiritual movements and religious controversies that often split the Mountain and demonstrated its spiritual influence over the Orthodox world. Thus the book focuses on such themes as the various attempts to reunite the churches, the hesychast controversy, the Kollyvades movement, and the near domination of Athos by the Slavs. What emerges at the end is a portrait of the Holy Mountain today that despite all the storms created by political change and religious controversy is still recognizable as fundamentally the same monastic preserve that welcomed the first monks and hermits more than a thousand years ago. The renewal currently in progress is shown to be nothing less than a strengthening of the traditional Athonite way of life, for which there has never been a greater need in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Ancient and isolated, the twenty Orthodox monasteries on the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos do not make the headlines often, but the current standoff between the conservative monks of Esphigmenou (motto: "Orthodoxy or Death") and other orders shines a light on this enclave, famous for its total exclusion of females (including livestock) and its extreme notion of solitude: some hermits still live for decades in caves with only the skulls of their predecessors for company. Graham Speake's history Mount Athos suggests that the monks have always been a querulous bunch. As early as 972 A.D., the number of monks allowed to attend annual meetings was limited to "avoid the disorders and disputes which have occurred very frequently at these gatherings."

Few people nowadays are attracted to the cloistered life, but in some periods of history joining sacred orders was almost the norm. In Renaissance Europe, the high cost of marriage in aristocratic families sometimes sent the majority of a family's daughters to convents. In A Convent Tale, P. Renée Baernstein focusses on the life of the sixteenth-century Milanese noblewoman Agata Sfondrati. Such was the dearth of marriage opportunities that Agata's sister Anna was the only woman in three generations of the Sfondrati to get married. Unsurprisingly, many women felt trapped by this life. Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice looks at the many ways in which this frustration was vented -- amateur dramatics, hospitality to outside women, and love affairs. A nun who, in 1614, knocked a hole in a wall to admit her lover pointed out that she had been at the convent since she was six or seven and that, when she took her vows, "I spoke with my mouth, and not with my heart."

(Leo Carey)
From the Publisher
"This beautifully produced book contains everything the layman could wish to know about Athos. It is more, much more, than a mere travel book, though it would be a useful addition to the Orthodox pilgrim's knapsack."—The Tablet

"Superb photographs, fascinating. Travelers and pilgrims alike, as well as those who prefer to stay at home, will relish this tour of Athos's history, its relics and treasures, and, in part, its consciousness.”—Literary Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300093537
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Speake is by training a classicist and by profession an academic publisher. He is founder and honorary secretary of the Friends of Mount Athos and a frequent visitor to the Mountain.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Athos BC 9
2 The Garden of the Mother of God 17
3 Byzantine Athos 37
4 Palaiologan Athos 71
5 Ottoman Athos 113
6 Twentieth-Century Athos 157
7 Athos Today: For the Monk 195
8 Athos Today: For the Pilgrim 233
Epilogue 265
Notes 268
Select Bibliography 279
Glossary 283
Index 285
Photographic Acknowledgements 295
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