Mount Athos, a sheer formation of marble and limestone, drops dramatically down from a summit of 6,660 feet and juts 35 miles into the Aegean Sea. A semiautonomous state, it is governed by an assembly of monks who work with a civil governor responsible to the Greek government, and consists of 20 monasteries, a dozen smaller dependencies called sketes, and a few hermetic caves and solitary huts.
To view Mount Athos as a quaint anachronism on the periphery of modern civilization is to miss the point, suggests author Nicholas Basbanes. Centuries of riches are sheltered on the Holy Mountain, where artistic expression and constant prayer have come together for more than 1,000 years. The Athonite monasteries have the greatest concentration of Byzantine material anywhere in the world. The churches and refectories are architectural triumphs in their own right. Inside, frescoes cover more than 300,000 square feet, mosaics adorn altars and interior walls, and other precious objects, including wood carvings, jewel-encrusted reliquaries, medallions, illuminated manuscripts and more, are safely locked in sacristies, treasure rooms and libraries.
Male visitors are welcome, but they come as pilgrims, not tourists. To the displeasure of feminists, women are not allowed in the community at all; they were formally banned in 1045 when Mount Athos was set aside for the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Some concessions have been made to the 20th century Land Rovers and Mercedes SUVs have replaced most mules, construction is going on nearly everywhere, electricity and running water are available, and telephones, fax machines and computers outfit most offices now. Yet, as one monk explained as he showed a visitor some of the thousands of manuscripts, many brilliantly illuminated on parchment with gold and lapis lazuli, "by preserving the knowledge, and especially the faith, we keep our identity; we know who we are."