Mount Athos: a male-only peninsula
Early Christianity and Byzantine Empire
There have probably been monasteries on the island since the fourth century, and possibly the third century although the early christian history of the peninsula are riddled with lacunae in extant evidence. It is certain that there were monasteries on Mount Athos by the eighth century since the chronicler, Theophanes the Confessor recorded that the 726 eruption of the Thera volcano was visible from Mount Athos. The historian Genesios recorded that monks from Athos participated at the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite and fours years later, the big central church of the "Protaton" in Karies is built. IIn 963 with the support of his friend, Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries existing today. It enjoyed the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries and its wealth and possessions grew considerably. The Fourth Crusade in the 13th century brought new Roman Catholic overlords which forced the monks to complain and ask for the intervention of Pope Innocent III, until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire came.
During the Ottoman empire, the monasteries prospered and even received donations from the sultans.However, due to heavy taxation, an economic crisis occured in the 17th century, precipitating the adoption of the so called "idiorrhythmic" lifestyle (a semi-eremitic variant of Christian monasticism) by a few monasteries at first and later, during the first half of the 18th century, by all. Contrary to the cenobitic system, monks in idiorrhythmic communities have private property, work for themselves, they are solely responsible for acquiring food and other necessities and they dine separately in their cells, only meeting with other monks at church. At the same time, the monasteries' abbots were replaced by committees and at Karyes the Protos was replaced by a four member committee.
Relationship with Russia
Russian tsars, and princes from Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbia (until the end of the 15th century) helped the monasteries to survive, offering large donations. The population of monks and their wealth declined over the next centuries, but were revitalized during the 19th century, particularly by the patronage of the Russian government. In 1912, during the First Balkan War, the Ottomans were forced out by the Greek Navy, which claimed the peninsula as part of the peace treaty in 1913. In June 1913 a small Russian fleet, consisting of the gunboat Donets and the transport ships Tsar and Kherson, delivered the archbishop of Vologda, and a number of troops to Mount Athos to intervene in the theological controversy over imiaslavie (a Russian Orthodox movement). The archbishop held talks with the imiaslavtsy and tried to make them change their beliefs voluntarily, but was unsuccessful. On July 31 the troops stormed the St. Panteleimon Monastery. The military transport Kherson was converted into a prison ship and several imiaslavtsy monks were sent to Russia.
After a brief diplomatic conflict between Greece and Russia over sovereignty, the peninsula formally came under Greek sovereignty after World War I.
Mount Athos is recognised in the Greek constitution, the EU and UNESCO as politically self-governed. For the European Union, Mount Athos is deemed a part of a member state, only outside VAT territory.
Prohibition on Women
Women are forbidden to visit Mount Athos since monks feel that they disrupt their path towards spiritual enlightment. The prohibition extends to domestic animals, except for cats which are used to rid the peninsula of rodents, and chickens, used for eggs. The punishment is one to two years imprisonment.
There have been a number of (in)famous incidents when women have entered the peninsula:
- in 1770 during the Orlov Revolt and during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, when they gave refuge to women and girl refugees.
- In the 14th century, Tsar Stefan Uroš IV Dušan brought his wife, Helena of Bulgaria, to Mount Athos to protect her from the plague.
- There was an incident in the 1930s regarding Aliki Diplarakou, the first Greek beauty pageant contestant to win the Miss Europe title, who shocked the world when she dressed up as a man and sneaked into Mount Athos. Her escapade was discussed in the July 13, 1953, Time magazine article entitled "The Climax of Sin".
- On May 26, 2008, five Moldovans illegally entered Greece by way of Turkey, ending up on Athos; four of the migrants were women. The monks forgave them for trespassing and informed them that the area was forbidden to females
A 2003 resolution of the European Parliament requested lifting the ban for violating "the universally recognised principle of gender equality".