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Mount Athos Ban on Women Steeped in History, Mystery

Mount Athos
The grainy, black and white image taken in 1903 by a Mount Athos monk named Gabriel appears to show a woman to the left. Public domain

A group of Greek scientists announced in December of 2019 in Thessaloniki that they had discovered bones that “most certainly” belonged to a woman who was buried centuries ago in the cemetery of Pantokratoros Monastery on Mount Athos.

But this was not the only clue that the ban on females on the “Holy Mountain,” with its nearly 1,800-year continuous Christian presence, had been broken by a woman.

The peninsula of Mount Athos is home to twenty monasteries where only monks are allowed to live and only males are allowed to visit. More than 700 monks still live on Mount Athos, devoting their lives to prayer, fasting, study, and the preservation of the many icons that are among its treasures.

Mt. Athos seascape
One of the many monastery buildings on Mt. Athos as seen from the sea. Credit: Sreten Vukovic Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

The female bones were discovered during restoration work being done on the floor of the chapel of St. Athanasios of Athonitis, where all the burials of laymen connected with the monastery have taken place.

Restorer Phedon Hatziantoniou, who led the team of experts, speculated that the bones might possibly belong to a woman called Stasha, the wife of a 16th-century landlord called Barboul or Barbouli who lived at the monastery with his sons.

The remains have been sent to specialized laboratories in Athens for further examination.
“As far as I know this is the first case that bones belonging to a woman have been discovered on Mt. Athos,” Hatziantoniou said in an interview with Greek daily newspaper To Ethnos.

“It is well known that in the past, when there were invasions or revolutions, the monks opened their border and their monasteries to protect the local population,” he explained.

Mt. Athos
One of the peaks on Mount Athos, the “Holy Mountain” of Orthodoxy. Credit: Dave ProfferMt. Athos/ Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The scientists also discovered fragments of bones belonging to men in their research. They stated, however, that these were probably workers and support staff, since monks have their own ossuary inside the monastery’s main building.

Reports of sightings of women on Mount Athos, which has been closed to females for the most part since the year 382, when it was founded as a colony of monasteries, have been quite rare over the centuries.

Was the photo of the Virgin Mary, the Panagia, herself?

However, the grainy, black and white photograph of a woman which was published in a Greek newspaper in 1903 still remains a mystery to this day with some monks claiming that they believe the unknown female on the left was the Virgin Mary herself.

The stooping figure also closely resembles a black-robed Orthodox nun.

Some monks claim that they believe the unknown female, all clad in black, was the Virgin Mary herself.

It is universally known that 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 adhered to since the fourth century, when the first monastery was constructed on the craggy peninsula.

As the monks say, the only woman allowed on Mount Athos is Our Lady; hence the appearance of what appears to be a woman in the photograph.

The photo was taken on August 21, 1903 by the old calendar, which Mount Athos follows, after the monks had been summoned to meet together by bells which had been rung at the St. Panteleimon Monastery.

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 entire 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 offerings from the other monks. However, this would be the last time the 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 in that way to receive the alms.

Mount Athos lore says Mary appeared to show support for almsgiving

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, which was a laborious process at that time with long exposure times.

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 photo to the rest of his fellow monks, it didn’t take long for them to understand what had really happened. 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 undeniable photographic confirmation of a great miracle at the monastery. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople also viewed and admired the photograph on one of his visits to Mount Athos.

mt athos fire
The monastery of Saint Dionysios at Mount Athos. Credit: Fingalo, CC BY-SA 2.0 de/Wikipedia commons

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, which is for all intents and purposes one enormous monastery.

However, the male sanctuary of Mount Athos has been violated twelve times (officially at least) since the year 382. The following are the known incidents of this occurrence.

– In 382, by Plakentia, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I
– In 1081 and 1108, by shepherd families (numbering more than 300)
– In 1345, by 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” while 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.

Despite these several instances of actual “invasions” of Mount Athos by females – whatever their reasons for this were – the 1903 photograph of a female on Mount Athos still remains an intriguing mystery.

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