Great Lavra is the oldest and largest monastery of Mount Athos and, as such, it occupies first place in the hierarchy of monasteries. The monastery was founded in 963 by Saint Athanasius the Athonite, a monk from Trabzon, in present-day Turkey. St Athanasius laid the foundations of the cenobitic monasticism practised by the Mount Athos community, characterised by a communal life governed by strict rhythms and discipline. The monastery holds a priceless collection of sacerdotal vestments and relics from several saints. Lavra has also one of the richest libraries on the peninsula, which holds 2,046 manuscripts, 165 codices and 30,000 printed books.
Since the foundation of Great Lavra in 963, Mount Athos became the epicentre of the Orthodox faith. For centuries, the "Holy Mountain" has been home to the oldest monastic community in the world, consisting of 20 monasteries, which still operate under a self-governing regime despite being on Greek territory. Of these, 17 are Greek, 1 Serbian and 1 Russian. Here are some of the most notable monasteries on Mount Athos.
Vatopedi was founded by three disciples of St Athanasius the Athonite: Athanasios, Nicolaos and Anthonios. It is ranked 2nd in the hierarchy of monasteries in Mount Athos. The monastery is enclosed by fortress-like walls. In the centre stands the katholikon or main church, built in the 10th century and dedicated to the Annunciation of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary). The church preserves frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries, some of them by renowned Byzantine painter Manuel Panselinos.
Iviron was founded as a Georgian monastery in 980 by monks John the Iberian and Tornike Eristavi. It is ranked third in the hierarchy of monasteries in Mount Athos. Its name derives from "Iberia", the kingdom that occupied the territory of present-day Georgia. Because of its origin, the monastery preserves many Georgian manuscripts among the 337 Byzantine manuscripts that can be found in its library. But the monastery’s greatest treasure is the icon of Mother of God Portaitissa, which is the oldest icon of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos. According to Orthodox tradition, the icon was painted by Luke the Evangelist himself.
Saint Panteleimonos was built in a small haven by a community of Greek and Russian monks. Today it is the only monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church on Mount Athos. The silhouette of its lighthouse and green roofs make up the beautiful scene that welcomes those arriving by sea. Inside stands an eight-domed Katholikon dedicated to St Panteleimon, which has the largest bell on the Mount Athos peninsula.
Hilandar is the only Serbian Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos. Contrary to the majority of monasteries, Hilandar is located a few kilometres away from the sea, not far from the Esphigomenou monastery. It was founded in the 12th century by Saint Sava, the Prince of Serbia and the first archbishop of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, the most important figure in the history of the monastery is the Serbian King Milutin, who rebuilt it in the 14th century. The complex is an excellent example of Moravian architecture on the Athos peninsula. Hilandar was the founding place of what can be considered the first Serbian university and its library preserves one of the most important collections of Slavic Cyrillic manuscripts.
Stavronikita is perhaps the most castle-alike monastery as its walls have remained almost intact throughout the centuries. The 25 m high tower was already standing before the monastery was built, as part of a fortress with the aim of watching over the coast and preventing invaders from entering the village of Karyes, which was the administrative centre of Mount Athos. Stavronikita was the last monastery to be officially consecrated as an Athonite monastery, in 1536, and is also the smallest of the 20. The monastery treasures many holy relics and two collections of liturgical vessels and crosses.
The monastery of Simonos Petra proudly defies gravity, perched on a 300-metre-high cliff above the sea. It was founded around 1257 by St Simon the Myrrh Exuding who gave it the name of Petra due to its location on the rocks. The monastery has been destroyed many times during its 7 centuries of history. The last reconstruction took place after the fire of 1891 thanks to the economic support of Russian Tsars. The current complex consists of three seven-storey buildings surrounded by the flora and vegetation of Mount Athos. Its choir enjoys a high reputation among enthusiasts and connoisseurs of Byzantine music.
Another monastery on the west coast of Mount Athos is the Gregoriou Monastery, founded in the 14th century on a small rocky outcrop that juts into the sea. Like many other monasteries standing on the shores of Mount Athos, St Greforiou suffered the raids of pirates, crusaders and the Turks. In 1761, a great fire devastated the monastery, nearly leading to its disappearance. Fortunately, the monks were able to rebuild it thanks to the generous donations of the princes from Moldova and Wallachia.
Karakalou is a fortress-like monastery nestled in the forest on Mount Athos’ west coast. The origin of Karkalou Monastery is unclear. Some sources attribute its foundation to monk Nikolaos Karakallos. Its name may also derive from the Turkish "kara kale", meaning "black tower". The katholikon was built between 1548 and 1563 and is dedicated to apostles Peter and Paul. Among its treasure is noteworthy a fragment of the Holy Cross.
The monastery of Esphigmenou stands harmoniously by the sea, on the north-eastern coast of Mount Athos, offering an idyllic view of its buildings. The 18th century represented a difficult chapter in the history of Esphigmenou, as many monks were executed during the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.