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July 31 Tsarist Troops storm Mount Athos

Today in 1913, Russian troops stormed the St Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos and deported about 80 Russian monks, Six months earlier during the first Balkan war which drove the Ottoman empire out of Europe, Mount Athos had been taken over by the army of Greece, which assumed that the peninsula would simply become Hellenic sovereign territory. Today we look at the unique history of Mount Athos and its standing in the Orthodox World


Mount Athos is a mountain and peninsula in northeastern Greece and has become an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. It is currently home to 20 monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Its historical monastic traditions, date back to at least 800 and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries, including Eastern Orthodox countries such as Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, live an ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. However, in 1913 St Panteleimon’s, was home to about 2,000 Russian Monks. The Athonite monasteries contained a rich collection of artifacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value, and Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1988.

On July 31, 1913, the tsarist navy made an extraordinary intervention in the affairs of the monastic peninsula, from St Panteleimon and elsewhere, as punishment for being on the losing side of a raging theological argument about the holiness of the words God and Jesus. The status of these words was important for the monks as it is a monastic orthodox tradition to repeat the name of Jesus which can become a mantra-like spiritual experience. So the distinction whether these names are holy in themselves, or only because of the divine realities they denote was important. This dispute was mainly confined to the vast Russian contingent on the holy mountain, but it had been growing in intensity for several years; and there were fears in St Petersburg that Greece might use the chaotic situation as an excuse to expel all Russians from the mountain. So this was pre-empted by tsar’s forces who wished to signal that if anybody was going to settle disputes on Athos, it would be Russia.

Greek worries about a Slavic takeover of Mount Athos subsided with the execution of the Tsar in the Russian Revolution of 1917. With Russia under atheist control, the flow of Russian novices to the ancient community came to an abrupt end and by the time communism fell in 1991, only a handful of elderly Slavs remained. But since the end of communism, the Greek authorities, both worldly and ecclesiastical, have remained extremely wary of letting too many non-Greeks settle on Mount Athos; and they insist that all residents of the community must accept Greek citizenship. There are now only about 70 Russian & Ukrainian monastics, doing their best to maintain the sprawling premises and its cultural treasures, including precious manuscripts and early printed books. However the intense geopolitical competition over the future of Mount Athos may grow again as Vladimir Putin has strong feelings about Russia’s religious heritage. Although it is not clear yet whether he will be restaffing St Panteleimon’s with his compatriots in order to regain its former glory.

Although Mount Athos is legally part of the European Union like the rest of Greece, the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain has a special jurisdiction which empowers the Monastic State's authorities to regulate the free movement of people and goods in its territory; in particular, only males are allowed to enter. According to the Athonite tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist were sailing from Joppa to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown off course to then-pagan Athos, it was forced to anchor there, Mary walked ashore and, overwhelmed by the wonderful and wild natural beauty of the mountain, she blessed it and asked her Son for it to be her garden. A voice was heard saying,: "Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved". From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and was out of bounds to all other women. The number of daily visitors to Mount Athos is restricted, and all are required to obtain a special entrance permit valid for a limited period. Only men are permitted to visit the territory, which is called the "Garden of Virgin Mary" by the monks, with Orthodox Christians taking precedence in permit issuance procedures. Residents on the peninsula must be men aged 18 and over who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church and also either monks or workers


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