Monastery Karakallou Mount Athos

The monastery of Karakallou is built on a fairly gentle slope at a height of 200 metres. Rising above the wild hazels and the olive trees, which present a pleasant contrast to the impressive dark green forests of Athos, the Monastery looks out over the rocky eastern coast of the promontory. Sit­uated at half an hour’s distance from its port and three hours from Karyes, it stands guard over the footpath which follows the coastline and links the monasteries of Iviron and the Great Lavra.

The monastery’s claim to fame as having been built by the Roman emperor, Caracalla (211-21V) has certainly only a legendary basis. It is much more likely that its name origi­nates from the Turkish expression “kara kale” which means black fortress, or “kara koule” which means black tower. According to another story, a monk, a nobleman named Nicholas Karakallos, founded the monastery during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (1068-1071), on the site where there was initially a small monastic settlement. The document ratifying the monastery’s foundation has been lost in the upheavals caused by the various raids it suffered, and only the lead bull of the document, showing on the obverse Christ with the emperor Romanos and his wife, and on the reverse the sons of the emperor, has survived. The monastery is also mentioned in a document of the Protepistatis Nicephorus, dating from 1018. It is very probable that the monastic settlement was at that time much smaller and for that reason was not recognized as a monastery, which may also account for the fact that it is not mentioned in the second Typikon of Athos. An abbot Michael, frothe Monastery of Karakallou, is first mentioned in 1087 in a document of the Protepistatis of the time.

During the first two centuries after its foundation, Karakallou suffered the same fate as the other monasteries. It was raided and plun­dered by pirates and Catalan mercenaries and in the 14th century was almost completely deserted. The monastery complex, which had been totally destroyed by the Crusaders, was rebuilt thanks to the generosity of the Palaeologi, Michael IV (1259-1282), An­dronicus II (1282-1328), and later John V, as well as of Patriarch Athanasius and the Protepistates Isaac (circa 1334). Concomi­tantly with this financial assistance, new im­petus was given to Karakallou by the influx of many young monks. However, in the years that followed, the monastery was repeated­ly ravaged by fires, and sacked and pillaged by pirates and the Turkish conquerors.

The monastery had to liquidate a large part of its estates, as it found itself once again on the brink of financial disaster. It was able to recover thanks to huge donations by the voivode of Moldavia and Wallachia, John Peter IV Raresh, who later lived in Karakal­lou as a simple monk and is honoured as a second founder. In 1570, his daughter Roxandra and her husband John Alexan­der IV Lapuscheanu afforded the monastery the financial possibility of regaining much of its lost land, thus re-establishing it on a firm economic base. Its benefactors also commis­sioned the very elaborate decoration of the restored buildings and financed the erection of new buildings such as the Katholikon (1548-1563). A firman of sultan Suleiman the Great, dating from 1535, granted Alexander per­mission to rebuild the monastery, but … on­ly on the old foundations, without adding any new edifices”.

Another benefactress presented herself in the person of the daughter of Suleiman, who bought the land which the monastery had sold, and then returned it to Karakallou. Al­so dating from this period is the great de­fensive tower which was erected by the ab­bot Germanos.

In the 17th century, around 1674, the rulers of Iberia, Arthil and his brother Baktag, con­tributed to the prosperity of the monastery by making very important donations. The two brothers later retreated to Karakallou, where they lived as monks until their death. In the 18th century, the hieromonk Dionysius played a leading part in the extension of the building complex which, however, was largely destroyed by a fire that broke out in 1879. After this fire, the Refectory was once again rebuilt, as were the guest rooms and several wings of monks’ cells, and the monastery took on the appearance it has today. How­ever, the marks of the fire which broke out recently and destroyed a large part of the north wing, are still visible.

The Katholikon was completed in 1563 but was painted much later, in 1716, while the decoration of the esonarthex dates from 1750. The noteworthy frescoes of the exonarthex, representing scenes from the Apocalypse, were painted in 1763. Among the 279 manuscripts in the library there are only a few dating from Byzantine times. Of the 42 manuscripts on vellum preserved by the Monastery of Karakallou, particularly valuable is codex no. 11. The manuscript, measuring 26×20cm. and written in minuscule script, has been assigned by art historians to different peri­ods (10th-13th centuries). A total of 2,500 printed books are included in the collection of the library, which in the past centuries was repeatedly destroyed by fire.

In the sacristy are kept fragments of the True Cross, holy relics, gold-embroidered vestments, and liturgical vessels. There are, of course, a great number of portable icons, of which the most important is the icon of the Apostles Peter and Paul, to whom the monastery is dedicated and whose feast-day it celebrates on 29 July. The icon was painted by the artist Constantine Paleokapas in 1540.

The carved wooden iconostasis of the Katholikon holds the icon of the Twelve Apostles a work of the author of the Painter’s Manual, Dionysius of Fourna, painted in 1722.

Besides the five chapels situated within the monastery precinct, there are another two outside its walls. The monastery also has four Kellia in Karyes and another 14 to the north. The defensive tower with its battlements, which was constructed with funds provided by the voivode John Peter and built by the abbot Germanos in the early 16th century, dominates the small harbour. The erection of the tower, which has its own Refectory chapel, was completed in 1534, as is testified by the inscription on its walls.