In 1938, a newspaper ran a story about an 82-year-old monk named Mihailo Tolotos who supposedly died without ever seeing a woman other than his own mother. Mihailo Tolotos spent his days in a Greek Eastern Orthodox monastic community known as Mount Athos. Since the 9th century, no human woman and most female animals have been banned from setting foot in Mount Athos.
The Eastern Orthodox Church states that no women are allowed in Mount Athos out of respect for the Virgin Mary. According to church doctrine, the Virgin Mary is the only female influence necessary at Mount Athos. In recent years, several groups of women have flouted authority and visited the Mount Athos monastic community. Despite a call for gender equality, the Eastern Orthodox Church still abides by ancient doctrine which states that monks must live in seclusion.
Often referred to as the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos is home to nearly 2,000 monks. The monks of Mount Athos spend their days praying, making wine, and performing necessary renovations on 20 separate monasteries that appear to hang precariously from the side of a cliff. The monks live in varying degrees of isolation—with some monks living a communal life, while others live in isolated cells which contain the bones of previous generations of monks.
The monks of Mount Athos accept very few visitors. On rare occasions, respectful male pilgrims who work alongside the monks and pray with them are allowed to enter the Holy Mountain community. Many Mount Athos monks frown upon visitors because they view any outsider as a distraction that disrupts their austere, focused routine.
Visitors who are curious about the monks of Mount Athos can take a cruise around the edge of the scenic Halkidiki Peninsula. A towering mountain rising from the sea dotted with stone steps and ancient dwellings offers onlookers a fleeting glimpse of monastic life.
Important Information for Visitors to Mount Athos
Visiting Mount Athos is restricted to men only, as the over 1000-year old ban on women entering the “Abaton” still stands today. To reach the mountain, men can take a ferry boat from either the port of Ouranoupoli (for western coast monasteries) or Ierrisos (for eastern coast monasteries). Before boarding the ferry, all visitors must have a “diamonitirion,” a form of Byzantine visa, written in Greek and dated using the Julian calendar, signed by four of the leading monasteries’ secretaries. There are two types of diamonitirion: a general one, allowing the visitor to stay at any of the monasteries for three days, and a special one, allowing the visitor to visit only one monastery or skete for a duration agreed upon with the monks. The general diamonitirion can be obtained from the Pilgrims’ Bureau in Thessaloniki and will be issued on the day of departure at the port. After receiving the diamonitirion, the visitor can contact their desired monastery to reserve a bed for one night. Both ferry trips require reservations.
Visitors typically arrive at the small port of Dafni, where they can take the only paved road to the capital Karyes or continue to other monasteries via a smaller boat. There is a public bus between Dafni and Karyes, or one can hire an expensive taxi operated by monks. These taxis are all-wheel drive as most roads in the mountain are unpaved. Visitors to monasteries on the western side often choose to disembark directly at their desired monastery instead of going to Karyes.