Religion is a significant and highly celebrated aspect of culture and society in Greece, but nowhere is this more apparent than Halkidiki and Mount Athos.
Holy Mountain or Mount Athos
The “Garden of Virgin Mary” as it’s commonly referred to, is a remote mountainous peninsula, with some 20 main monasteries, built on awe inspiring cliffs, encircling lush pine forests, many displaying fortifications resembling medieval castles and small states. The countless ascetic communities safeguarded Christian and Christian Orthodox religious traditions since it’s establishment of the first Monasteries around 800 AD.
As a result, Mount Athos became the spiritual home of Orthodox Christianity surviving the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Seljuk Turks in the 15th century AD and retained this role after the establishment of the Patriarchy of Moscow in 1589. Due to its cultural significance, it has been granted protection by the countless conquerors and rulers of the region.
Today, the Holy Mountain enjoys a special status of autonomy within the Greek and European Union borders. Being an Unesco World Heritage site is protected by international treaties
In order to preserve its 1000 year old character, visiting is highly regulated. Access is restricted to adult males, as a sign of respect to centuries old traditions suggesting that the road to spiritual enlightenment goes through absolute celibacy. Residents must be Christian Orthodox, regardless of nationality, monks or workers. Temporary residence is also granted to those who wish to experience the ascetic life for a reasonably limited amount of time.
Though connected to the rest of Halkidiki by land, Mount Athos is accessible only by ferry connecting Ouranoupolis to Dafni. The road network reaches as far as Ouranoupolis that features the Christian Museum with a splendid collection of byzantine era paintings, jewels, books and other religious artifacts. The Christian Collection of Ouranoupolis is housed in a small stone building close to the port and in the Tower of Ouranoupolis.
Religious life outside Mount Athos
Religious life is still strong outside Mount Athos, with the region of Halkidiki holding plenty of festivals on Christian holidays. The Evangelism of Virgin Mary is celebrated on the 25th of March with a special festival held in Ormylia. The Tuesday after Easter Sunday in the Greek Orthodox Calendar is revered with the local “Mavronios” dance, whereas the people of Arnea play a special game with eggs.
On St. George’s day (23rd of April) people take part in local festivals in Arnea, Olynthos , Paliouri, Kalamdra. The Pentecost is honored accordingly with festivals in Neos Marmaras, Sykia and Kalandra and on St. John’s day, the 24th of June, people light fires in Polygyros and dances local dances in Potidea.
“Ta kazania tou Ai-Ilia” on the 20th of July stand out because people actually cook food in open air caldrons and offer it to the visitors for free in Vavdos. A folklore art exhibition is held on the 26-27th of July (St. Paraskevi) by the residents of Arnea.
Last but not least, the 15th of August, is celebrated with great honors all over Greece and Halkidiki is no exception with traditional festivals held in Megali Panagia, Polygyros, Sarti, Portaria, Athytos, Kaladra, Nea Triglia, Lakoma, Krini, Kryopigi last Paliouri.
Sunday mass is a religious tradition revered literally everywhere in Greece. Churches are open to the public throughout the week but it’s on Sundays that most Greeks attend pray. And, can you think of a better way to experience Greek Orthodox mass, than a Sunday pray in one of Halkidikis churches? Polygyros, the capital of the region, features some of the most spectacular pieces of religious architecture, the most significant being Agios Nikolaos, a true marvel of engineering in the central square.
Religious or not though you shouldn’t fail to visit historical churches. Afytos features the church of Agios Dimitrios, Nea Potidea the church of Taxiarches which is related on the Mouth Athos Dochiarion Monastery, while you can visit the 16th century church of the Assumption of the Virgin and the 5th century Christian basilica of St George, in the village of Nikiti.
This is why Greeks say religion is a highly revered and celebrated aspect of life in Halkidiki