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The "Holy Mountain"

Courtesy Reuters

MOUNT ATHOS, the easternmost of the three prongs of the peninsula of Chalkidiké, has been for centuries the "Holy Mountain" of the Orthodox Church. Pious, or at least penitent, Byzantine, Trapezuntine, Serbian and Russian Emperors and dignitaries founded twenty monasteries there in the dark centuries; more than one monarch sought refuge there from the intrigues of courts, and, to make the solitude safer, it has always been a rule that no female -- except the inevitable female flea, which invades most Eastern monasteries -- should set foot upon Mount Athos. One woman alone is known to have visited the "Holy Mountain" -- the wife of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, the "Great Elchi," at the time when that famous British diplomatist was omnipotent at Constantinople. When the Turks conquered the Balkan peninsula they allowed the monks of Mount Athos, which Xerxes had tried to sever by a canal from the mainland, to enjoy practical autonomy under the nominal sway of a Kaimakam, or Governor. The monasteries were represented in a federal council, which met at Karges, the monastic capital, and managed the common affairs of their community. Such was Mount Athos when scholarly travellers like Robert Curzon, Bowen, Tozer, Riley, Lampros and Hasluck visited it to study its institutions or catalogue its libraries.

The Balkan and European wars, by eliminating Turkey from Macedonia, surrounded Mount Athos with Greek territory. But the treaty of Bucharest in 1913 passed over its juridical position in prudent silence. An annex to the treaty of Sèvres of 1920 constituted the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos into a theocratic republic under the suzerainty of Greece, which undertook to respect the rights of all those ancient foundations, including the Serbian monastery of Chilindar, founded at the end of the twelfth century by the authors of the Nemanja dynasty, and the Bulgarian and Russian establishments. During the European conflict the monks of these monasteries, which were in convenient strategic positions, had been suspected of turning their refectories into arsenals for the

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