To the Orthodox, the Holy Mountain is the heart of the Church. It is here that Orthodox monasticism has found its centre since the end of the first millennium, and here that it still lives on in its thousand-year-old traditions. To the monastic, student of monasticism, or general monastic enthusiast, there are few places more interesting and inviting than the Holy Mountain. 'Mount Athos' is the name of the peak which rises 2,033 metres out of the sea at the southernmost point of the northernmost peninsula of Halkidiki in Macedonia, Greece; yet often the entire peninsula is simply called 'Athos'. Officially, however, its Greek name is Aghion Oros: the Holy Mountain. And as anyone who has studied the Holy Mountain knows, this small piece of land has had a long and interesting history. At one point, Xerxes of Persia actually dug a canal accross the base of the peninsula to save his ships from the savage storms that frequent the Athonite coast. Though it has long filled in with sediment, the path of his canal is still visible to the visitor today. The same scenic piece of land that was so admired by the ancients, was adopted by monks before the close of the first millennium. The severity of the Athonite terrain, the solitude of its oceanic flanks on all but one side - and that barricaded by a natural mountain rise- all came together in a landscape that was an ideal match for the 'desert' longed for by ascetics of any age. Basil I issued an imperial charter to the monks of Athos in AD 883, preventing his military from interfering with the solitaries stationed therein, and thus was born the monastic community which has continued to practise the ascetic life without interruption from then until now. Today the 20 large monasteries that form the autonomous state of Aghion Oros are combined with the community's capital city of Karyes, innumerable Sketes (hamlets, or small communities dependent on a larger monastery) and solitary hermitages, serve as home to around 1,400 monks of all ages and backgrounds. Simonopetra, on the south side of Athos An Athonite elder The monks of Athos today live much the same life that has been lived on the Holy Mountain since its first solitary hermits established the place as an ascetic stronghold. An edict by Emperor Constantine, issued in AD 1060, continues to forbid all females from entering the peninsula - including females of all species of animals except cats, who seem to prove useful in controlling the rat population. Men entering Athos as monks take up residence in one of the monestaries or sketae, and engage in a life of prayer and work that follows the traditional Byzantine monastic lifestyle, yet with a style all its own (and so revered that Orthodox monasteries the whole world over strive to emulate 'Athonite Monasticism'). Though Orthodox monastics do not take a vow of stability similar to that professed by monks in the West, it is customary for Athonite monks the remain in residence on the Holy Mountain throughout the whole of their lives - perhaps changing monasteries or adopting the more solitary life of the skete as they mature, yet rarely leaving Athos for a monastery elsewhere in the world. It is possible to visit the Holy Mountain only if one is male, and only for a short period of time so as not to overly burden the hospitality of the monks. It is, indeed, a trip worth taking - especially if one is Orthodox and desires to know more about the inner core of his spirituality.