The peninsula of Mt Athos (the Holy Mountain) in northern Greece is about 30 miles long and between 4-7.5 miles wide. Monks have been drawn to living lived there since the 4th century, attracted by its remoteness from civilisation, but it was only in the 8th century that the first formalised monastic communities were founded. Since the beginning, the Holy Mountain has been dedicated to the Virgin Mary and women have been forbidden to enter its territory.
It was a surprise then to discover that female bones have been found there. I only heard about this when staying for a week at the monastery of Pantokrator and happened to encounter Phaidon Hatziantoniou, an architect who has been working for about 40 years on restoring buildings on Mt Athos.
He spends half his time on this restoration work and when I met him he was still working on the chapel of St Athnasios at the monastery where he first uncovered the bones four years ago.
The discovery caused a stir and much speculation about the possibility of women having lived on Mt Athos in spite of the strict ban on them entering its confines. He told me that the bones had been buried under the floor of the chapel, but that analysis showed that this had not been their original place of burial. At some point the bones had been moved. His own theory is that the bones belonged to the wife of one of the benefactors of the restoration of the monastery in the 1540s. This benefactor was from Wallachia (part of modern day Roumania) and he had built a house (now ruined) on the rocks outside the monastery.
Phaidon’s theory is that the benefactor’s wife died and was buried in Wallachia and that at some later stage her husband had her bones transferred to the Holy Mountain to be buried in the chapel of the monastery that they had both supported.
This is not a unique occurrence. Apparently St Joseph the Hesychast, a 20th century elder canonised by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2020, kept his mother’s skull in his cell.
According to this report in Greek Reporter, there have been 12 recorded breaches on the ban on women since 382, half of those occurring since the beginning of the 20th century. The very first recorded woman to set foot on the Holy Mountain was Placentia, the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Wherever she went, carpets were laid before her so there was a barrier between her feet and the ground. During her visit she went to the monastery of Vatopaidi where, when walking alongside the katholikon, she encountered the Virgin Mary who spoke to her. The spot is now marked by a miracle working icon of the Virgin.
One woman missing from this list is the daughter of one of the Byzantine military commanders at the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 who escaped and managed to save an icon which she brought to the monastery of Agiou Pavlou. It is now one of their main treasures.