The Holy Mount Athos is an autonomous and self-governed territory of Greece. It occupies the whole of the third peninsula of Halkidiki, about 50 km in length and having a breadth of 8-12 km covering an area of 330 square kilometers. In the centre of the peninsula of Mount Athos rise a long range of hills and mountains, culminating in Mount Athos itself,2,033m above sea level.
The boarder of this monastic state, where it meets the rest of Greece, is marked by an imaginary line drawn from Francocastro on the western coast across to Cape Arapis on the opposite coast, passing close it the foothills of the mountain “Megali Vigla” (Megas Zigos).
Until the 3rd Century BC, many small Greek towns existed on the peninsula of Athos, principally colonies originating from Chalkida and Eretria. The most important of which were Sani, Ouranoupolis, Thisson, Kleones, Dion, Akrathos and Olofixos. Later, these towns declined or were destroyed.
Today on Mount Athos there are 20 monasteries, 17 of them are Greek: Megistis Lavras, Vatopediou ( Greek Cyprian ), Iviron, Koutloumousiou, Agiou Pavlou, Dionissiou, Xenofontos , Stavronikita, Gregoriou, Konstamonitou, Esfigmenou, Doheariou, Karakalou, Xiropotamou, Pantokratoros, Simonos Petras, Filotheou. One monastery is Russian (Agiou Panteleiminos), one is Serbian (Hilandariou) and one is Bulgarian (Zografou).There are also 14 skites and many kellia, kalives and kathismata.
Mount Athos is governed by the “Holy Community” a council of representatives from the 20 monasteries with the participation of the Greek State through its representative in Karyes, the capitol city. The executive organ of the “Holy Community” is the four-member “Holy Epistasia” headed by the “Protepistate”. Responsibility for spiritual matters comes under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, while matters of public order and safety come under the representative governor of the Greek state.
All visitors to Mount Athos are by definition pilgrims. Whatever reason you have for visiting them, the monks will welcome you as a pilgrim. It may be helpful to bear this in mind when planning, making, and recalling your visit. It will help you to decide such things as what clothes to wear, what books to read, what subjects to discuss with the monks, what to do and where to go on the Holy Mountain, how to approach fellow visitors, how to describe your experience when you return.
Pilgrimage means different things to different people. In English the word means a journey undertaken for religious purposes and implies a degree of hardship or discomfort. But the Greek word for pilgrimage, proskynesis , means prostration or veneration: in other words it lays stress on what you do when you arrive rather than on how you got there. Pilgrims therefore hold quite different views on how to travel between monasteries, and the recent proliferation of roads and vehicles means that often there is a choice.
One belief that is shared by the vast majority of pilgrims and certainly by all the inhabitants of Mount Athos is that the Mountain is actually holy ground. The tradition that Athos was visited by the Virgin Mary is very much alive and accounts for the dedication of the Mountain to the glory of the Mother of God and for the exclusion from it of all other women.
The Mountain is unique for many other reasons too: for its history, its architecture, its art, its place in the history of scholarship, its music, its ecology, its flora, its fauna, its incomparable natural beauty, its seclusion, its silence, its worship. For all these reasons -- and it is accepted that any one of them is a perfectly valid motive for visiting Athos -- the Mountain expects and merits our respect.