Sacred Landscape and Monastic Enclosure
Surrounded by steep, rocky coasts and a heavily wooded northern border, and accessible primarily by sea, the peninsula of Mount Athos has preserved its distinctive, isolated landscape during over a millennium of monastic habitation. It ranges from extremely fertile land in the north to the rugged terrain in the south, including the barren, ‘desert’ in the southernmost tip, an ideal retreat for hermits seeking complete solitude. The majestic summit of Mount Athos, much like the biblical mountains of Sinai, Tabor and Moriah (Temple Mount), is understood as the most sacred ground, a place of theophanies (visions of God) and transfiguration.
The monks of Mount Athos believe that the Virgin Mary, caught in a sea storm, found refuge on the peninsula and loved the land so much that she asked Christ to dedicate it as her Garden. The entire Athonite peninsula is thus devoted to maintaining the landscape as the “Garden of Panagia (All Holy Mother of God).” The monks have cultivated the landscape for their own production, planting fruits, vegetables, and herbs for their daily meals. The physical labor of toiling in these fields is part of daily monastic routines outlined in the rule of St. Athanasios (c. 920–1003), founder of the peninsula’s first communal monastery.
The monasteries comprise a communal church or Catholicon, set within an open courtyard, a refectory, individual cells for the monks, a kitchen, workshops and guest house, all enclosed within thick stone walls guarded by fortified towers. The walls offer both physical protection from intruders and symbolic isolation for the monks, separating the sacred interior of the monastery from the wilderness beyond. Despite this separation of natural and man-made, nature creeps into the monasteries, just as much as the monks venture into the solitude of the wilderness of the thick forests and rocky paths just beyond the cultivated fields.
Traveling across the peninsula between monasteries can be difficult and pilgrims must hike long distances. To meet the rising demand of visitors, Mount Athos has incorporated some modern additions, with new roads paved and taxies provided for guests. In the midst of modernization and despite the Paradise-like surroundings, the monks populating the mountain always remember that they inhabit in a spiritual battleground, an arena to fight the devil and sin.