The Holy Mountain of Athos, in the northerly Chalkidiki peninsula of Greece, jutting out into the Aegean Sea, is home to innumerable treasures. Housing thousands of medieval manuscripts, world-famous icons, precious liturgical vessels, and archival material of all kinds, the monastic republic is not only a haven for ascetics, but a kind of living museum.
Home to about 25% of all Greek manuscripts in the world
When, in 1973, Stylianos Pelekanides published the first volume of his Treasures of Mt. Athos: Illuminated Manuscripts, he noted that there were "ca. 12,000 Greek manuscripts on Athos." Two decades later, that number had risen to 15,000* and is not likely to change significantly. As such, Mt. Athos is home to ca. 1/4 of all extant Greek manuscripts, surpassing the holdings of its two closest rivals, the Vatican Library in Rome and the National Library of Paris, which together have around 10,000 Greek manuscripts. Of these manuscripts on Mt Athos, about 7,500 belong to the Byzantine era.**
Yet the solitude and relative isolation that protects the monks of Mt Athos from the secular world has also, historically, made its treasures largely inaccessible to scholars and historians. This is especially true for women, who cannot visit the Holy Mountain at all. But it extends to almost all scholars, who have not always been able to explore the rich repositories of documentary material and artifacts that exist all over the peninsula, scattered across the mountain's twenty monasteries, tucked away in a remote corner of the former Ottoman Empire.
In addition to codices, rare books, and incunabula, the storehouses of Mt Athos contain a wealth of metalwork, sculpture, embroidery, ceramics, coins, stamps, architectural plans, and photographs. Yet not only are these riches difficult to access, but the monasteries that contain them are also vastly different from research institutions whose primary goal is to support scholarship and academic work. For this reason, the manuscripts and artifacts of Mt Athos have often been among the most elusive materials for scholars to observe firsthand, whether in situ or through images and reproductions. To this day, for example, there exist critical editions of patristic and Byzantine works which have been forced to omit the witness of certain Athonite manuscripts in the production of their texts. And while the nation of Greece and the monastic republic of Mt Athos have certainly become more accessible over the past century, it is nevertheless the case that the vast material treasures of the Athonite peninsula remain largely hidden from view, not least for female scholars.
In order to remedy this situation, and to share the splendors of the Holy Mountain with both the scholarly world and the general public, the Holy Community of Mt Athos, with the support and technological ingenuity of the OTE group (a Greek telecommunications firm), has launched the Mt Athos Repository (repository.mountathos.org), also known as the Athoniki Kivotos, or the 'Athonite Ark.' This online database makes available to the global community more than 300,000 searchable digital images of materials hitherto viewable only on the Holy Mountain. This new online collection supplements the microfilm archive of the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies at the Monastery of the Vlatadon in Thessaloniki (which contains more than 9,000 Athonite manuscripts in microfilm)*** and the Library of Congress microfilm collection, digitized and available online here (which contains 209 Greek and Georgian manuscripts of the Bible and related material).
The documents, art, and historical artifacts in this collection serve a wide range of functions, enabling firsthand research into the writings and material culture of Mt Athos and providing educational material for a variety of academic disciplines and subjects related to ecclesiastical life. Every image comes with a Fair Use License; and a note tells you that a request form is under construction to obtain higher-definition files.
The Repository is itself part of a larger project, the Mount Athos Digital Heritage. In addition to the database of images, the Digital Heritage site features an E-learning section, with an Introduction to the Divine Liturgy and an Introduction to Byzantine manuscripts. There are also Exhibits on the history of Mt Athos, including one on the Holy Mountain in Times of Pandemic. One can also find here audio and visual material from contemporary Athonite elders, articles on iconography, homilies, and drone footage of the monasteries and peninsula. Elaborate educational exhibits, including one on St. Maximos the Greek (1470-1556), make up the ‘Digital Pilgrimage’ portion of the site. While interesting, and often visually stunning, navigating to these sections from the Repository can be difficult, since one has to know that the 'Digital Heritage' logo takes one to a different section of the site, and menus are not consistent across the Repository and the wider 'Digital Heritage' site.
Among the criticisms that could be made of the Repository itself, it must be said that the search function has not been optimized, and search results will not always produce a comprehensive list of items whose metadata might contain relevant search terms. A search for "Isidore," for example, turns up only an 18th c. manuscript, with no mention of the Epitaphios pictured above. For the latter, one must search "Isidoros." At other times, the same name or word is transliterated or listed in different forms. Naturally, this means that users must be especially diligent when searching, which can be difficult if one simply wants to explore the database and encounter new images.
Unfortunately, when viewing manuscripts, the images are shown in a narrow window that does not contain the entire folio. Certain manuscript images also remain blurry when increased to their largest magnification.
These shortcomings, however, do not take away from the overall value of the site. The digitization of manuscripts, in particular, is a work to be congratulated with exuberance and gratitude. Parchments that long lay outside the reach of scholars are now being made available on the internet, opening the treasures of Mt Athos and making them accessible to a worldwide community of researchers.
One could easily spend one’s entire life tracking down the sacred artifacts and related materials found on the Holy Maintain. Yet hundreds of thousands of these objects, in millions of digital files, are now available to every scholar and would-be pilgrim, both men and women, in a single repository online. Just as one could wander for weeks between the monasteries of the Athonite peninsula, visiting holy places, venerating the relics of the saints, and exploring the history of the Orthodox Church there, so one can now spend hours on end exploring the riches of Athos in this wonderful online ‘Repository,’ the Athoniki Kivotos.
*Cf. Basil Atsalos, "Greek Manuscripts on Mount Athos," in The Treasures of Mt. Athos (Thessaloniki, 1997), 583.
**Atsalos notes that the Athonite figure is arrived at without any limits in terms of "date, quaility, or content," and is simply a matter of "quantity and not quality." The majority of Athonite codices are post-Byzantine, indeed modern, works, many of them post-dating the advent of printing. Atsalos puts the number of Byzantine MSS at "40-50%" (i.e., of the total 15,000) and calls "modern" anything produced after the 17th century. As a result, the total number of Byzantine-era parchments is around 7,500, and thus on par with the holdings of Rome and Paris. The historical date of a particular manuscript, however, is only one of several other important criteria that can be brought to bear upon it. When judged in terms of their content, the Athonite codices are nearly all liturgical and theological (and this means that we are dealing with relatively few works, such as a text of the four Gospels, or a collection of sermons by St. John Chrysostom, extant in hundreds of hand-written copies); secular works having long since gone to the West, along with the most expensive and lavishly illustrated religious works (such as the great illuminated Psalters and other works now found in places like Paris and Rome). Finally, if the current number of MSS is not expected to rise, it seems clear that it has fallen far short of what it was in the past. Curzon, for example, estimated in 1837 that there were approximately 3,500 parchment and 14,000 paper manuscripts on Athos, for a total figure of 17,500.
A large number of Athonite codices left or were removed from the Mt. during the renaissance. Ianos Laskaris (1445-1534), was among the earliest collectors of this period, and, in a mission dated to 1491-92, carried off about 200 Greek MSS, of which 80 contained works hitherto unknown in the west. 50 of the total number came from Lavra. In the middle of the 17th century, Athanasios the Orator removed 108 mss. to France, of which 74 came from Lavra. They are currently in the National Library of Paris. In the mid 19th century, Minos Minoidis also carried away MSS to France (he also took some from the Monastery of the Forerunner in Serres). Athonite MSS were also carried away to Russia, by figures such as Maxim the Greek (d. 1556), Arsenii Suchanov (d. 1668), who managed to take 498 mss., mostly of classical authors, and, of course, Porfirii Uspenski (d. 1885), archimandrite and later archbishop of Kiev, who took whatever he could from Sinai, Meteora, and Athos.
***We are grateful to Professor Christos Simelidis for drawing our attention to this fact. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies has ensured that hundreds of scholars since the 1960's have been able to consult and obtain images of Athonite manuscripts.