Monastery Megistis Lavras Mount Athos

Like a storybook castle, the oldest monastery of the Holy Mountain and the I first in hierarchical rank, rises, on the wide crest of a rock, 160 metres above a lonely and inaccessible shore to the south­east, where the massive stone cone of the Athos range eases down to form a charac­teristic hill.

The numerous buildings of various sizes at the foot of Mt. Athos compose a motley group resembling a mediaeval fortress, en­circled by protective walls and by the Tzimisces Tower.

The monastery owes its foundation to a per­sonality who had already acquired mythi­cal proportions during his lifetime: Athanasius the Athonite, from Trebizond - the friend, spiritual father and confessor of Byzantine emperors. It is mainly to Athanasius that the Holy Mountain owes the in­troduction of strict coenobitic rules, a spir­itual loan from the monastery of Saint John of Studium in Constantinople. The mater­ial resources for the foundation of the Monastery in 963 were provided by Athanasius' friend, the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas who, however, was not able or did not wish to fulfill his promise to retire to a monastery on Mount Athos together with Athanasius. Nevertheless, in his effort to atone for the violation of his vow, he showered his friend with large sums of money, rich gifts, icons, relics and parchments for the monastery. In the same year that Athanasius introduced the new type of monastic life into his monastery, he also laid the foundation for the first simple cells, the kitchens and the "hospital". He also plant­ed, as tradition has it, one of the two an­cient cypress trees which stand next to the monastery's phiale. (The "phialae" of the Hoh Mountain are basins in which the waters are blessed on the first day of each nth and on the day of Epiphany). When, in despair over the hostility shown him by supporters of unorganized monasticism over the problems they created, he contemplated stopping the building of the monastery, the Holy Virgin appeared to him in a vision and encouraged him to go on. There are many legends surrounding the figure of Athanasius, such as the story of struggle with the devil himself. To this day the iron staff with which, like Moses in desert, he struck the rock, causing to gush forth, is reverently preserved. He died around the year 1000, aged almost 80, when, in trying to place the last stone on the arch of the church apse he fell, to­gether with another six of his followers, and buried under the rubble. After the death of Nicephorus Phocas, the great patron of the newly-established monastery, financial resources ran out and Athanasius' project was in danger of falling through. At that critical moment, die emperor John Tzimisces offered the monastery immediate and gen­erous financial aid. Thus began a new pe­riod of development for the Great Lavra. Its history does not differ, substantially, from that of the other monasteries on Athos, although contrary to the others, Athana­sius' building was not ravaged by great fires. The monastery alternately flourished and declined, and suffered attacks, arson and pillage by pirates, robbers and the flotsam of mercenaries returning from the Cru­sades. In the 11th century there were al­most 700 monks living in the Great Lavra. Their number subsequently decreased dramatically until, in the mid-17th century, on­ly five monks were left.

In 1655 a great change took place: Patri­arch Dionysius III bequeathed his person­al fortune to the monastery, thus provid­ing a way out of the pressing crisis created by the monastery's accumulated debts. Thanks to the constant financial support of the patriarchs of Constantinople and of the rulers of the Danube states - particularly during the period of the Ottoman occupa­tion after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 - and thanks, later to the financial help of the Russian tsars, the monastery of the Great Lavra managed to regain its ascendancy among the other Athonite monasteries, an ascendancy which it retains, unconnectedly, to this day.

The Katholikon of the monastery, which was built during the period between 963 and 1003 and stands in the centre of the spacious courtyard, constitutes the prototype of Athonite churches. This type pro­vided the model for all the katholika of the Holy Mountain, with the possible excep­tion of the Stavronikita monastery. The cru­ciform basilica follows prototypes of the ear­ly Byzantine period. It is crowned by a large dome - symbolizing the heavens - support­ed by four columns. The central space is richly decorated with murals by the Cretan artist Theophanes, the earliest of which date from 1535. The walls and roof of the narthex and the exonarthex were paint­ed in 1854.

Opposite the katholikon stands the Re­fectory. Both the exterior and the interior of the Refectory are adorned with murals, the earliest of which dates from 1512. They are the work of the Cretan School of Theo­phanes, and depict scenes mainly from the Old Testament, such us the Second Com­ing, the Sacrifice of Abraham, the Ladder to Heaven, Paradise, and the Sufferings of the Damned. There is also a wall painting portraying the Tree of Jesse, the genealogical tree of Jesus, as well as a wonderful repre­sentation of the Last Supper in the apse, behind the hegumen's throne.

Quite unique, however, are the portraits of the ancient Greek philosophers. Here, the visitor finds Homer next to Solon, Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, and Plutarch next to Pythagoras.

Behind the katholikon, stands the monastery's library, the richest of the libraries on the Holly Mountain which has in its keeping the oldest manuscript in majuscules exist­ing on Mt. Athos. It contains extracts of Euthalianos' Greek code, which includes epistles written by the Apostle Paul. Apart from over 20.000 printed books filling the shelves, trunks and chests in the library - among which are found rare and precious in­cunabula dating from the very earliest pe­riod of printing - there are also 2,500 man­uscripts which, in their majority, are inscribed on vellum, as well as valuable documents signed by emperors, patriarchs and sultans. In the Great Lavra's treasury are preserved extremely valuable ecclesiastical vessels, and other treasures: gold-embroidered vest­ments, icons, chalices encrusted with pre­cious stones, and emblems of the emper­ors of Byzantium, such as scepters and imperial cloaks. Here are also kept the pec­toral cross and iron staff belonging to Saint Athanasius. Other important and precious relics are Nicephorus Phocas' crown and his sakkos, an imperial garment ornament­ed with precious stones.

There is a lovely story related to the main icon of the monastery, that of the Virgin Koukouzelissa. The emperor Alexius I had been so charmed by the talent of a singer by the name of Ioannes Koukouzelis that he expressed the desire that the young man marry a princess and remain at the court. The pious youth, however, fled to Mt. Athos with the intention of spending the rest of his life there, as a goatherd. But he could not remain hidden long, as his beautiful voice betrayed him, and the emperor de­manded that Ioannes be brought to him. The hegumen refused to comply, howev­er, and from that day on the singer chant­ed in the monastery only to the glory of the Virgin. One day, being tired, he fell asleep inside the church, and the Virgin came to him in a vision and promised to reward him in heaven for his hymns. When Ioannes awoke, he found to his wonder that he held in his hand a gold coin, which he rever ently offered to the miracle-working icon. The monks of the Great Lavra celebrate the day of the Virgin Koukouzelissa on the 1st of October, although the monastery is dedicated to saint Athanasius and celebrates his feast - day on July.

There are many chapels scattered both with-in the monastic compound and outside it. The most important one is dedicated to the Martyrs. Here is preserved the tomb of saint Athanasius, covered by a gold-em­broidered cloth adorned with his image. Next to it there are two portable icons, one of Jesus and one of the Virgin Economissa. There are 19 chapels outside the monastery, while on the mountain there are another 5 kathismata and 40 kellia. Three sketes, those of St. Anne, St. John the Baptist and Kafsokalyvia, belong to the Monastery, while under its jurisdiction are also the settle­ments of the "Desert".

PHOTOS OF MONASTERY

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