The Real and Imagined Mount Athos

Over Thanksgiving I had a chance to do some more fun reading and tucked into Veronica Della Dora’s Imagining Mount Athos (University of Virginia Press 2011). The book examines how outsiders have imagined the Holy Mountain from antiquity until modern times. The Mt. Athos peninsula, as many readers of this blog will know, has been a self governing monastic preserve since the 9th century A.D., and today continues this tradition as the home to 20 monastic houses and assorted hermitages. Women are banned from the peninsula as are most modern technologies and visitors who might distract the monks for their life of work, worship and pious contemplation.

Della Dora, as a woman writing on Athos, embraces perhaps the essential characteristics of how the Mt. Athos peninsula has appeared through the ages by emphasizing the tendency to see it as a place of exclusion and seclusion. She is careful to note that this is not the only Athos, but the one that she has chosen to write about. She is able, then, to analyze a powerfully imagined Athos that stood outside of an Athos familiar to its monastic residents. 

The book begins with a treatment of ancient Athos and explores how ancient views of the mountainous peninsula shaped its appearance throughout the Renaissance. She explores the influence of Dinocrates legendary proposal to turn Mt. Athos into a massive statue of Alexander the Great providing for newly founded communities at its base. This Dinocratic Athos formed an important backdrop to numerous Renaissance sculpture who saw in it both the power of man to shape nature and, like Xerxes famed canal, a testimony to human arrogance.

This Mythic Athos may have extended to an Athonite influence in Thomas More’s 18th century Utopia as well as earlier views of the peninsula as an edenic paradise. The prominence and wealth of the monastic communities that come to dot this peninsula become points of reference and meaning with the mountain itself retreating to become a dramatic backdrop. Of particular note is the significance of Athos in Russian pious imagination and iconography.  

The second half of the book ventures onto the peninsula itself with discussions of how the outside world discovered and coveted the architecture, libraries, and even landscapes of this secluded monastic preserve. The brief appearance of Athos at the margins of the Grand Tour and the arrival of travelers and scholars like David Talbot Rice and Robert Byron opened the treasures of Athos to the world at a moment when Byzantium was seeping back into academic and popular consciousness. The place of Athos as a cultural preserve influenced views of it as a scientific preserve and attracted scientists as well as Byzantinists to study the indigenous plant life and geology. 

The scholarly and popular veneration of Athos ensured that it stood as an island in the stream of global geopolitics from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan Wars, and the German invasion in World War II. The arrival of the Nazi’s in Greece in 1941 and the well-known Dölger expedition to Athos demonstrates the intersection of geopolitics and scholarship. The willingness of Athonite monks to both recognize the German authority in Greece and to work to shepherd allied soldiers to Turkey and Egypt reveals the delicate balance and vulnerable position that Athos occupied in the modern world. This is a theme engaged again in the epilogue where Della Dora discusses the world of Athos as part of the European Union. The role of Athonite monasteries in the economic crisis in Greece is well-known.

Books like this are remarkable in our age of academic specialization. Della Dora has followed the imagine Mt. Athos from the ancient texts to Renaissance sculpture, Early Modern science, Russian icon painting, and beyond. As someone who struggles to master my little section of the academic universe, books like this are really humbling.

At the same time, I’d be remiss not to note that the absence of the monks of Athos left me a bit disappointed. In Della Dora’s work, Athos is largely imagined by the West with very little influence from its closest neighbors in Thessaloniki or among the monks themselves. While, on the one hand, even such sweeping studies as these need some boundaries, on the other hand, the book feel strangely Orientalizing in its perspective. Its as if Athos as a space of exclusion and seclusion prevented the monks themselves from shaping how others perceived it. This is surely not the case as Athonite monks exerted a profound influence on the ecclesiastical and monastic world across both the Eastern Mediterranean and the world. It would be valuable to understand how their imagining of Athos compares.  

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