Simonos Petra from the Northwest
Built into a fortress-like enclosure, the cells of the monks hover dramatically over a 750-foot cliff that rises from the Aegean Sea on the southwest side of the peninsula. Saint Simon erected the monastery at the beginning of the 14th century on top of a mammoth rock, from which the name derives. Simonos Petra literally translates as “Simon’s Rock.” The story behind Simon’s decision to build the fortress comes from a dream; he was sleeping in a cave and dreamt that the Theotokos – the Greek term for “Mother of God” – came to him and instructed him to construct it, promising to protect and provide both for him and the monastery.1
Though the complex looks like a fortress and is certainly resistant to raids due to its location on a steep cliff that is nearly impossible to climb, it was plagued by an unstoppable force of nature: fire. The seven-story building has been burned down and reconstructed three times. The first – and worst – fire happened only a couple decades after construction was complete in 1580. The disaster devastated the monastery not only destroying almost the entire complex, but killing over half the monks who in habited it as well.2 The community rebuilt only to be scorched once again in the 17th century. Again, the monks forged a new monastery from the ruins of the previous, but were defeated one more time in 1891. Between these two fires, Mount Athos came under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and we see the influence of Ottoman culture in the architecture of the cantilevered wooden balconies. (The balconies visible here are actually an updated version from the 17th century that were built in 1990 after the original ones were dismantled by yet another fire.) Because the monastery had been rebuilt multiple times, it was already very impoverished. The Russian Czars lent enough money to repair it one more time; the current construction depicted in this photo is a direct result of their contributions.
The monastery has certainly faced its fair share of adversity, but it has prevailed. It is the thirteenth in the chain of twenty monasteries on the peninsula and one of the smallest due to the limited amount of workable space the steep incline offers. They farm the land, forming narrow terraces to the south that are some of the most productive out of any of the monasteries.3 The gardens are so prosperous, in fact, that the monks share their crops with neighboring communities, transporting them via the port that sits at the bottom of the cliffs. The restrictions of this particular location also forced the monks to change the architectural plan of the church.4 The narthex of the catholicon is actually incorporated into the west enclosure wall, which is not its usual placement.
Axiotis, Nektarios-Charles G. “Pilgrimage. The Native Architecture of Mount Athos” Theologia epistemonikon periodikon ekdidomenon kata trimenon 66, no. 3 (1995): 511-36.
Papadopoulos, Setlios A, ed. Simonopetra: Mount Athos Athens, 1991.
Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 2nd ed. Limini, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2014.
Vlasidis, Vlasis. “The Monastery of Simonos Petra,” Mount Athos: The Holy Mountain. Accessed December 4, 2016 at http://www.macedonian-heritage.gr/Athos/Monastery/Simonos%20Petras.html.
1Vlasidis, “The Monastery of Simonospetra.”
2Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 134.
3Vlasidis, “The Monastery of Simonospetra.”
4See Axiotis, “Pilgrimage: The Native Architecture of Mount Athos” 540, 545 on the adaptation of the plan to the site.