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Esphigmenou Monastery

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Esphigmenou monastery 2006

View of Esphigmenou monastery façade from the nearby quay.

Esphigmenou monastery (Greek: Μονή Εσφιγμένου) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery at the monastic state of Mount Athos in Greece, dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. It is built next to the sea at the northern part of the Athonite peninsula. Located near the Hilandar monastery, it is the northernmost of all Athonite monasteries. The current monastery dates back to the 10th century AD, while tradition holds that the site had been used as a monastery since as early as the 5th century. Esphigmenou ranks eighteenth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries and has since the 1970s been a source of controversy due to conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It currently holds a brotherhood of approximately 115 monks, which makes Esphigmenou the most populous monastery in Athos.


The monastery's name translates to Greek literally as tightened. There exist conflicting traditions regarding the naming of the monastery. One attributes the name to the fact that the monastery is built on a stretch of land, tightened by three surrounding hills and the sea. Byzantine emperor John Komnenos in his book Proskynetarion tou Agiou Orous tou Athonos (Greek: Προσκυνητάριον του Αγίου Όρους του Άθωνος) describes the monastery thus:

It is called "Esphigmenou" because it is restricted by three small mountains, close to the sea.
Another tradition attributes the name to the monk that either founded or renovated the monastery. It recounts that he used to wear a tight rope around his waist, therefore the monastery got the name "of the tightened".


Athonite tradition attributes the foundation of the monastery to the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria during the 5th century AD. According to the same tradition this early monastery was destroyed by a huge rock that fell from the nearby hills. According to the same tradition its remains can still be found 500 metres from the existing monastery. Historical and archaeological evidence cannot safely confirm this tradition and therefore the precise time of the monastery's foundation, as well as its founders cannot be positively identified.

The evidence can however confirm that as early as the late 10th or early 11th century the monastery existed. It is mentioned in at least three manuscripts. The monastery is referred in a letter by Paul of Xiropotamou dating from 1016. The will of the monk Demetrius of Chalki, dating from 1030, is signed by a monk who calls himself "Theoktistos monk and abbot of Esphigmenou monastery". Finally, the monastery is mentioned at the second Typicon of Mount Athos in 1046.

The monastery greatly prospered until the Ottoman conquest. Many Byzantine emperors, such as John V Palaiologos, contributed to this, as well as leaders of other orthodox states such as Stefan Uroš IV Dušan of Serbia and George, Prince of Rascia. This prosperity was however shrouded by constant disputes over land issues with the neighboring Vatopediou monastery, as well as many pirate raids and two great fires that damaged the monastery during the 14th century. According to manuscripts held in the monastery's collection, the pirates posed a serious threat to the monastery because the sea near it is usually calm compared to the seas around the rest of the Athonite peninsula. Due to the above reasons the monastery was eventually ruined and practically deserted which allowed the nearby monasteries of Hilandar and Zograf to grab various portions of land from it, which lead to further legal disputes.

However, the monastery managed to recover eventually, as evidenced by a manuscript dated from 1569 that tells of 51 monks working for its reestablishment. In 1655, Czar Alexis I of Russia gave the monks permission to travel throughout his lands every five years to raise funds for the monastery. During the same period the rulers of the Danubian Principalities also made significant contributions to the monastery. During the early 18th century Bishop Gregory of Melenikon made donations to the monastery and eventually become one of its monks, undertaking a renovation of the monastery. Also, Bishop Daniel of Thessaloniki took care of the monastery's finances and, with the consent of the Athonite community and Patriarch Gerasimus III of Constantinople, made the monastery a cenobium. The relevant patriarchical edict was published in 1797 by Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople, who also rebuilt the southern part of the monastery that had been ruined.

A series of competent abbots (Acacius, Euthymius, Theodoritus and Agathangellus) greatly renovated and expanded the monastery, to the point that the current structures date almost exclusively from their time. The successor of Agathangellus, Lucas, founded an iconographic school, that greatly served the monastery for an extended period of time.

During the Greek War of Independence, the monastery, being the northernmost monastery of the peninsula, suffered gravely from the Ottoman armies that ravaged Mount Athos. However, during this period, it did experience some degree of prosperity.


Esphigmenou has been involved in a decades long dispute with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the 19 other Athonite monasteries, as well as the Church of Greece and other mainstream Orthodox churches and institutions.

The monastic community of Mount Athos is under the direct spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch and all Athonite monks are canonically required to commemorate (Greek: να μνημονεύουν) the Patriarch. However, since the 1970s, Esphigmenou has become the stronghold for the staunchly conservative Greek Old Calendarists who accuse the Patriarchate of being ecumenist and refuse to commemorate the Patriarch. These accusations stem from the conciliatory approach that has been adopted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate towards the Roman Catholic Church, as manifested by meetings of the Ecumenical Patriarch with the Pope, such as the lifting of the anathemas in the 1960s and the 2006 papal visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

The monks of the monastery have broken all spiritual ties with the rest of the monastic community and do not participate in the common meetings at Karyes, the administrative center of Athos. The Esphigmenites are generally regarded as zealots by the rest of the Athonite community, while they regard themselves as "Genuine Orthodox Christians" or "Orthodox Christians in Resistance", seeing other Athonites as ecumenist heretics, while using as their motto the phrase Orthodoxy or Death.

The relationship between the Esphigmenites and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have greatly deteriorated since 2002, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople declared them as being in schism from the Orthodox Church.[1] Since the Constitution of Greece prohibits schismatics from dwelling in Athos, the Esphigmenites were ordered by a Thessaloniki court to leave the monastery. However they refused to comply, even when the Greek Supreme Court ordered their eviction.[2]

The Ecumenical Patriarch and the rest of the Athonite community reacted by declaring the Esphigmenites illegal, and sanctioned the formation of a new brotherhood, that recognizes the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate. Esphigmenou again gained global attention in December 2006 when members of the new brotherhood tried to force their way into the monastery's offices in Karyes. The Esphigmenou monks in the building attempted to defend themselves from the sledge-hammer wielding attackers who had smashed the front door of the building,[3] repelling the intruders with the only things they had to defend themselves with - crowbars and fire extinguishers.[4] In the ensuing clashes seven monks were severely injured.[5]

In January 2007, the district attorney of Thessaloniki pressed charges against the Esphigmenou monks for embezzlement of over 150.000 euros and the estate belonging to the monastery.[6]

The BBC interviewed the Greek governor of Mt Athos, George Dalacouras, during which the charges against the monks were brought into question as being politically motivated and another pressure tactic to force the monks out. [7]


The monastery is home to various important structures. Although the monastery dates back as early as the 5th century, the current structures were built mainly during the first half of the 19th century. The general outline of the monastery is a rectangular wall which forms a spacious inner courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard lies the catholicon surrounded by the wings that house the monks' cells, the guest-house and the refectory.

Its catholicon, which is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ, was built by the abbot Theodoritos, between 1806 and 1810. It is built at the site of an earlier catholicon and in the manner of Athonite churches. It was inaugurated by Patriarch Gregory V in 1811. The construction of the catholicon was greatly aided by personal donations from Bishop Ignatius of Kassandreia. The temple itself is spacious and majestic and bears eight domes on its lead-covered roof, the central dome being the largest. The marble used for its construction was transported to Athos from Tinos, the place of origin of the church's architect, Paul.

The nave of the catholicon was decorated with iconography in 1811 and the sanctuary in 1818 by the iconographers Veniamin, Zacharias and Makarios. The decoration was completed in 1841 with iconography of the narthex by the iconographers Ioasaf, Nikiforos, Gerasimos and Anthimos. The altar, the iconostasis, as well as other features of the temple, date back to this era. The iconostasis in particular, which depicts scenes from the Old and the New Testaments, is carved wood, covered with golden plating and is considered one of the most important post-Byzantine iconostases in Athos. The catholicon also has two chapels, a vestibule and a porch, added in 1845 by Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimus VI of Constantinople, a previous Esphigmenite monk.

Outside the southeastern corner of the catholicon there is a font (Greek: Φιάλη), that is used to keep holy water. It was built in 1815 by the abbot Euthymios, at the site of an older similar structure that dated from the time of John V Palaiologos. The structure is roofed by a dome that is held up by eight marble columns, connected by sculpted marble metopes.

The refectory is the oldest building in the monastery. It is a semi-detached building in the west wing, across from the catholicon. It is a rectangular building, renovated in 1810 by Abbot Euthymios. Its iconography, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries still survives, albeit greatly damaged by the fires that the Ottoman soldiers lit to accommodate themselves during their stay in the monastery during the Greek revolutionary war.

The monastery also has 13 chapels, eight inside the main complex and five outside. Among the inner chapels, the most important are the chapel of the Presentation of Mary and the chapel of the Archangels at the sides of the catholicon. The other inner chapels are distributed at various sites inside the monastery and contain no frescoes but house important icons. Of the outer chapels, the most notable is the chapel of Saint Anthony of Kiev, the founder of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, that lies just across from the monastery.

Cultural treasures

The monastery's treasury houses many important relics. The treasury, along with the monastery's library are temporarily housed over the catholicon's narthex. Among important cultural treasures, such as crosses, books, garments, etc., Esphigmenou has in its possession a large (3.05×2.80 m2) part of Napoleon Bonaparte's tent, which was donated to the monastery by Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople. The monks use this once a year, at the celebration of the Ascension of Christ, as a tent over the entrance of the catholicon.

The so called Cross of Pulcheria lies at the catholicon's altar, which also houses cases of holy relics and a very important Byzantine mosaic icon. The icon is barely 0.15×0.07 m2 and depicts Christ in a standing position in great detail. The icon is surrounded by a silver frame that depicts the apostles, while holy relics are embedded on its lower side.

The monastery also has a large collection of manuscripts. Its library houses 372 manuscripts, of which 75 are parchment, some bearinig iconographic decoration. Famous among these is the renowned Minologion, coded #14, that bears 80 miniatures. The library also holds a collection of roughly 2000 printed books, while 6000 more are housed in another part of the monastery, on the second floor of the northern wing.


  1. The Patriarchical decision
  2. Greece's rebel monks in mountain stand-off, BBC, Tuesday, 28 January 2003
  3. video of attack against Esphigmenou monks
  4. Monks injured in clashes at sanctuary, Scotsman, 21-Dec-06
  5. Greek monks clash over monastery, BBC, Wednesday, 20 December 2006
  6. "Embezzlement charges against the monks of Esphigmenou" (in Greek). 2007-01-28. Retrieved 2007-02-07. 
  7. BBC interveriew with George Dalacouras, BBC, January 27, 2007


  • Kadas, Sotiris (in Greek). The Holy Mountain. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon. ISBN 960-213-199-3. 

External links

Coordinates: 40°21′09.68″N 24°08′16.99″E / 40.3526889°N 24.1380528°E / 40.3526889; 24.1380528ka:ესთიგმენის მონასტერიro:Mănăstirea Esfigmenu ru:Эсфигмен

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