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The Mystery Woman Who Broke the Female Ban on Greece’s Mount Athos

 Mystery woman Mount Athos
Assembly of the monks of Mount Athos in 1903, where a female figure can be observed (presumed to be the Virgin Mary). Credit: Archives of the Monastery of St. Panteleimon/Public domain.

This grainy 1903 photo of a mystery woman on Mount Athos, which was published in a Greek newspaper at that time, still causes controversy, with some monks claiming that they believe the unknown female on the left was the Virgin Mary herself.

Women are not allowed in any of the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos (Agion Oros) or indeed anywhere on the mountain itself, a rule which has been strictly applied since the fourth century, when the first monastery was built in the area.

As the monks say, the only woman allowed on Mount Athos is the Virgin Mary; hence the appearance of what appears to be a woman in the grainy, black and white photograph.
It was August 21, 1903 by the old calendar, which Mount Athos follows. The monks had been summoned to meet together by bells which had been rung at the St. Panteleimo Monastery.

The mystery woman on Mount Athos

It was the eve of the annual “nine days” of the Virgin Mary, and according to the custom in the monastery, it was time to give the poorest monks, the so-called “cellists,” or ones who spent their lives in small rooms, a little bit of charity, something to make their difficult lives a bit easier.

The usually reclusive monks had gathered together and were standing in line to receive the much-needed handouts from the other monks. However, this would be the last time reclusive monks were to receive the annual charity because the meager monastery finances did not allow the almsgiving to continue for another year.

One of the monks, with the religious name of “Gabriel,” owned a camera and wanted to immortalize the last time the monks were to gather together to receive the alms.

According to monastery lore, Gabriel soon saw a miraculous sight before him. Amidst all the assembled monks, there suddenly appeared a mysterious woman, all in black. He did not hesitate, but immediately began taking photographs, a laborious process at that time.

The monks were convinced that the woman in the grainy photograph was Our Lady, who had appeared to express her sadness and show the monks that they should not stop their good works of giving alms to the poorest monks. That was the sole reason why she had allowed the monk Gabriel to photograph her.

When the amateur photographer showed the photograph to the rest of his fellow monks, it didn’t take long for them to understand what had really happened. And they decided to continue their annual good works of charity to glorify God and His Beatitude.

The photograph was hidden for many years in the archives of the Monastery of St. Panteleimon, being released to the public only in 1997.

Religious pilgrims view the picture as an undeniable photographic confirmation of a great miracle in the monastery. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople also viewed and admired the photograph on one of his visits to Mount Athos.

When women set foot on Mount Athos

Mount Athos is of course part of the European Union, just like the rest of Greece. However, the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain and the Athonite institutions have a special jurisdiction, which was reaffirmed during the admission of Greece to the European Community (the precursor to the EU).

This empowers the Monastic State’s authorities to regulate the free movement of people and goods within its territory. Thus, it is still the case that only males are allowed to enter the territory of the Holy Mountain.

However, the sanctuary of Mount Athos has been infringed twelve times (officially at least) since the year 382. The following are the incidents in which this is known to have happened.

– In 382 by the Plakentia, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I.
– In 1081 and 1108 by shepherd families (numbering more than 300).
– In 1345 by the Eleni, the wife of Serbian Emperor Stefan Dusan.
– In 1404 by the wife of Ioannis Palaiologos.
– In 1854 by a group of young girls who sought protection after the Halkidiki uprising.
– In 1905 by the young Russian princess Tatiana Nikita.
– In 1929 by Aliki Diplarakou, the Greek “Miss Europe” — dressed as a man!
– In 1931 by French journalist Maryse Choisy, who disguised herself as a sailor and wrote about her experience in a book entitled “One Month With Men.”
– In 1948 by a group of women from the Democratic Army of Greece who broke the guard and entered as they were being chased by the Greek Army during the Civil War.
– In 1953 by American teacher Cora Miller.
– In 1971 by French philologist Jacqueline Michele and Italians Luisa Barbarito and Maria Pastterla.

Greek journalist Malvina Karali was the most recent woman to break the ban and enter onto the territory of Mount Athos, when, as she claims, she entered the sanctuary dressed as a man in the 1990s.

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