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The Mt. Athos Academy that Preserved Greek Identity Under the Ottomans

Athos Academy Vatopedi
The relics of the Athonite or Athonias Academy with the Vatopedi monastery in the background. Credit: Vatopedi

The historic Athonite or Athonias Academy at Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain of Orthodoxy, was instrumental in promoting Christianity and the Greek identity during the dark times of Ottoman rule.

The educational institution founded in 1749 as a dependency of the Vatopedi monastery offered high-level education. Ancient philosophy and modern physical science were taught.

With the establishment of the Athonite Academy by Vatopedi the Athos monastic community took a leading role in the modern Greek Enlightenment during the 18th century.

In a recent interview with Greek Reporter, Abbot Efraim of Vatopedi explained how his predecessors launched the daring initiative more than two-and-a-half centuries ago.

Athos Academy Vatopedi
The remnants of the Academy. Credit: Vatopedi Monastery

He said that the Vatopedi Monastery, which was founded in the second half of the 10th century by three monks, Athanasius, Nicholas, and Antonius, from Adrianople, who were disciples of Athanasius the Athonite, always had one foot in monasticism and the other in meaningful action.

“The Vatopedi fathers wanted to create personalities of learned men who would awaken the Greek conscience with education and spread the deep spirituality that Orthodoxy hides within it,” he said.

They established the Athonite Academy because they could not “remain indifferent to the policy pursued by the Turks for the assimilation of the enslaved peoples.”

Through the efforts of the fathers of Vatopedi Monastery led by the former abbot Meletius and the issuance by Patriarch Cyril V of Constantinople of a decree for the establishment of a school near the Monastery of Vatopedi, the Academy opened in 1749.

Abbot Efraim of Vatopedi
Abbot Efraim of Vatopedi officiates a liturgy at the small chapel at the perimeter of the Academy. Credit: Vatopedi Monastery

Athos Academy nurtured great spiritual leaders for Greece

Early in 1753, the Hierodeacon Eugenios Voulgaris, later archbishop, was appointed dean of the school that he named the Athonias Ecclesiastical Academy, the title that the school has retained to this day. Under his leadership, the academy drew many students and gained fame not only in the Orthodox world but in much of Europe.

“Voulgaris used all his strength and knowledge to elevate the Academy. His vision was to make it a ‘center of wisdom’ and Greek education. Under his guidance, the Academy reached great fame. Voulgaris was a great scholar and a prolific writer. He wrote hundreds of books,” Abbot Efraim told Greek Reporter.

Efraim hails the contribution of Voulgaris and the Academy for the Greek nation. “Our nation was resurrected when it was about to perish. Great spiritual leaders, pupils of the Academy contributed to this.”

He said that the Academy offered the opportunity for students and teachers to stay together for some years on Mount Athos. “They were educated and learned the ascetic way of life which prepared them for their mission to become the true pillars of the nation.”

Athonite or Athonias Academy Vatopedi
A rare photo from 1936 with the students and teachers of the Academy. Credit: Vatopedi Monastery

He added that several martyrs, missionaries, and revolutionaries attended the Acadamy as teachers and pupils.

He mentions Cyril of Paros, Cosmas of Aetolia, and last but not least Rigas Feraios. The Greek writer, political thinker, and revolutionary, active in the Modern Greek Enlightenment. A victim of the Balkan uprising against the Ottoman Empire and a pioneer of the Greek War of Independence, Rigas Feraios is today remembered as a national hero in Greece.

“Just the name of Rigas Feraios would be enough to demonstrate the importance of the Athonite Academy, and the success of its purpose,” Abbot Efraim told Greek Reporter.

Abbot Efraim noted that throughout the years many students of the Academy became benefactors for Greece and Greek educational institutions offering generous funds to the University of Athens, the Theological School of Halki, the Ecclesiastical School of Nicosia, the Agricultural School of Drama, and elsewhere.

In 1799, the academy closed and remained so through the decades of the Greek war for independence. In 1832, a school at Mount Athos began operation as a kind of seminary. The Academy’s function was also suspended in 1916–1930 and 1940–1953 due to the World Wars.

Athos Academy Vatopedi
The Academy now occupies a wing of the Skete of St. Andrew in Karyes. Credit: Vatopedi Monastery

Vatopedi plans to restore historic Athonite Academy

The academy now occupies a wing of the Skete of St. Andrew in Karyes. It follows the Greek secondary school curriculum which is combined with an ecclesiastical education. The staff consists of six teachers with a student body of about 100 students.

The Academy is under the responsibility of the Holy Community of Mount Athos, but it is financially supported by the Vatopedi Monastery, and the honorary permanent president of the school is always a Vatopedi monk.

“Our goal is to contribute to the upgrading of the School as required by modern social, and spiritual needs,” Efraim said, who also has plans for the historic place next to the Vatopedi monastery where the original Academy was located.

Athos Academy Vatopedi
Digging continues in the area around the original Academy building near Vatopedi Monastery. Credit: Vatopedi Monastery

“Our wish is that this space, which played such an important role in the rebirth of the nation, is not forgotten. We consider it our duty to the nation and to history to prevent it from collapsing and then to restore it.

“Our goal is certainly not to reopen it as an educational institution, but rather as a place that serves history and culture. A place that will display our national heritage. A place that will also preserve works of art and relics,” Abbot Efraim told Greek Reporter.

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