The mysterious mt. Athos

Scattered heritage

THE MYSTERIOUS MT. ATHOS

Caption: According to prof. G. Ilinski, an expert on the Mt. Athos literary heritage "collection era" and its last witness (he was there in 1908), the best and the oldest transcripts done by St. Clement's followers are being kept in the Mt. Athos monasteries. The Ohrid Charters were concealed from the Russian scholar V. Grigorovič. There is no information on their location today or whether they are in the Zographiou monastery, which still stores Macedonian manuscripts and books.

Of Macedonian heritage written in the Glagolitic Alphabet there are only eight manuscripts and four fragments preserved. These are not kept in Macedonia, but in foreign libraries and museums. There is evidence that there are still some Glagolitic (as well as Cyrillic) manuscripts preserved, hidden and unavailable for Macedonian scholars, within the monasteries of Serbia and Monte Negro. The evidence also shows that there are such manuscripts in the monasteries of the mysterious Mt. Athos, due to its specific history and limited access. The history of Mt. Athos, which is located in the ethno-geographical territory of Macedonia, encompasses Macedonian spiritual, enlightenment and cultural tradition, and therefore it bears consideration when discussing the issue of Macedonian handwritten heritage.

What is, actually, Mt. Athos?

Mt. Athos is a significant spiritual, cultural, historical, and literary centre of the Eastern Christian-Orthodox Church. It's on the easternmost end of Halkidiki, in the Aegean part of Macedonia (on the Athon Peninsula, 60 km long, where no tourist access is allowed). It is a type of Monks' Republic, which consists of monks' brotherhoods, with self-governing administration independent from the ecclesiastical hierarchies within the Orthodoxy, and the administrative head office—the Protate of the Mt. Athos monasteries—is in the so-called "town" Karaya. Some historic resources reveal that this monk's community existed as early as in the 4th century, but it became the true spiritual centre of the Orthodox Christianity in the 8th or the 9th century, when the monks completely took over the Peninsula.

According to some researchers of Mt. Athos history, there were around 180 monasteries on the Peninsula in the 11th century. In the 12th century, there were over 200 monasteries and many more additional residences for ascetic monks as well as monks' cells. Viktor Grigorovič, after his stay there in 1844, wrote that there were 30 large temples, 30 residences for ascetic monks, 20 cemetery churches, 200 Paracletes' objects, and 400 small churches (660 objects in total). Today at Mt. Athos there are 20 monasteries, 12 residences for ascetic monks, around 800 cells and several thousand monks. (As many as 10,200 monks resided there in 1812).

Mt. Athos has always been and still is the world's largest site for prayer, fasting, repentance and preservation of the original dogma and Orthodox Canon, but at the same time it's also a historical and cultural monument. It is a type of a museum of antiques, a treasury of precious items, a custodian of the Orthodoxy as well as of the Balkan Slavs' heritage.

Over the centuries, fruitful literary activities were taking place in this spiritual centre. As a consequence, the monasteries created abundant libraries, which stored old manuscripts of great significance for the cultural history of the Balkan nations.

In the past, the Mt. Athos monasteries were attacked many times, even plundered (they were the target of the Crusaders' expeditions, and in 1205 they fell under Roman rule). During frequent fires the libraries' archives were demolished, especially the Slavic (Macedonian) archives, which were destroyed deliberately or by negligence. Nonetheless, most of the manuscripts, i.e. thousands of them, were carried away from Mt. Athos in the 19th century.

In spite of that, there are over 10 thousand manuscripts and old books (of which more than a thousand Slavic ones) preserved in these monasteries today. Most of the Slavic manuscripts are preserved in the Monasteries of Chilandar and Zographou. In the former, which is in the possession of the Serb monks, there are more than 800 manuscripts, and in the latter, which used to be in the possession of Macedonian monks and afterwards was taken over by Bulgarian monks, there are more than 300 manuscripts. Old Church Slavic manuscripts can be located in other Mt. Athos monasteries as well, such as: the Monastery of Iveron, of St. Panteleimon, of St. Pavle, the Great St. Anastasia Monastery and many others.

Although it is the biggest spiritual centre of the Eastern Christian Church, Mt. Athos has always been closed off from the external world (the exceptionally strict access regime was in force until the end of the 20th century). In spite of the seclusion and the usurpation of manuscripts and other valuable objects from Macedonia, there are substantiated findings that numerous valuable Macedonian manuscripts and antiques exist hidden within the Mt. Athos monasteries. This assertion is based on the fact that the history of Mt. Athos encompasses the Macedonian spiritual and cultural tradition.

What is hidden under the mysterious veil of Mt. Athos?

Mt. Athos is much older than the Glagolitic Alphabet and many other milestones of civilisation, but the presence of the Glagolitic Alphabet there was recorded during the lifetime of St. Clement (and Cyrillic literary monuments were recorded after the fall of Samoil's Empire, when the ecclesiastical enlightenment activities were confined to the monasteries, especially the monasteries of Mt. Athos, due to its autonomy). Nonetheless, Mt. Athos was not a distant world, but it was on Macedonian territory, especially several of the former 200 monasteries in which Macedonian monks resided. 

To be continued...

Nove Cvetanoski

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