Mount Athos is the easternmost peninsula of the three that make up Chalkidiki, in northern Greece, and is a true autonomous state within Greek sovereignty. The “third leg” of the Chalkidiki peninsula has an area of 335 square kilometers and plunges into the Aegean Sea for a length of 50 kilometers and a width that varies between 7 and 12 kilometers.
This strip of land is considered sacred and is mountainous, the highest peak reaches 2 thousand 39 meters above sea level, and of great natural beauty: here there are 20 Orthodox monasteries, including 17 Greek, one Russian, one Serbian and one Bulgarian, artifacts and religious monuments of immense artistic value often built on top of small hills. Only the monastic community, which today counts little more than a thousand religious, can settle in the peninsula.
The history of Mount Athos began in 963 when St. Athanasius established the monastery of Grande Lavra, still the most important one today. In addition to the monasteries there are 12 small communities of monks and various hermitages.
For laymen it is possible to visit Mount Athos once a special permission has been obtained, for women, however, there is an absolute prohibition of access. The procedure to obtain permission is complicated and long, especially for non-Orthodox visitors who must specify in a letter the reason for the request which can be only for pilgrimage or study. There is a daily quota of 120 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox pilgrims. The request to visit can take months to be granted.
The peninsula, reachable only by boat although it is connected to the mainland, has steep slopes, green valleys and lush vegetation interrupted here and there by the imposing architecture of monasteries, fortified Byzantine castles with monumental walls all around and a courtyard. The monastery of St. Panteleimon was built by monks who came from Russia, the style clearly reflects their influence, and is one of the largest and richest on Mount Athos.
Inside the monasteries and the numerous churches there is an unimaginable wealth so much so that Mount Athos keeps the largest collection of Christian art in the world: these unique treasures are religious frescoes that decorate every wall, mosaics, libraries full of ancient publications, ancient icons adorned in gold.