On a mist-shrouded peninsula east of Thessaloniki is a place where time has stalled and the rules of the modern world do not apply. Mount Athos, known to Greeks as the "holy mountain," is the home of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Self-governed, and running on Byzantine time—in which the day begins at sunset—Mount Athos accommodates 1,500 monks within its monasteries, most of which were built during the 10th century. Their sole purpose in life is to become closer to God.
The monks of Mount Athos spend every waking hour praying or reflecting in silence.* The monks, who wear long, black robes to signify their death from the surrounding world, live in one of 20 monasteries, or, for those who prefer greater solitude, in cloisters or cells. There are a minimum of eight hours of church services every day, beginning at 3 a.m. When not at church, monks pray individually, their lips moving silently under their long beards.
Women are forbidden from visiting or living on Mount Athos in accordance with the belief that a female presence would alter the social dynamics of the monks' society and slow their journey toward spiritual enlightenment. The absence of women, according to the monks, also makes it easier to live a life of celibacy. Then there's the Virgin Mary—according to mythology, Mary was blown off course during her journey to Cyprus and landed on Mount Athos, where she converted its pagan tribes to Christianity. Banning women from the peninsula means the Virgin is revered as the only female influence.
As long as you're male and capable of maintaining a calm, pious demeanor, you may visit Mount Athos to attend church services, dine with the monks, and stay overnight in one of the monasteries. Female travelers are allowed to view the verdant hills and ancient monasteries from a distance on a boat tour.
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*Correction, Oct. 7, 2013: This post originally misstated monks' beliefs about achieving oneness with Jesus Christ. The passage has been removed.
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