A unique Community Conservation Area: Mount Athos (Greece)

Thymio Papayannis

Mount Athos World Heritage site provides a unique example a self-administered system with the management exercised by representatives of Holy Monasteries, who comprise the Holy Community.

Location and World Heritage designation

In 1988 the Athonite Peninsula in Northern Greece was inscribed on the World Heritage List both for its cultural and natural values. Jutting into the North Aegean, this mountainous peninsula of 33,400 ha – dominated by the conical peak of Mt Athos at 2300 m – hosts a variety of ecosystems with rich biodiversity and has been recently proclaimed a Natura 2000 area in its entirety. The peninsula also hosts 20 historic monasteries, some of them dating from the tenth century, and many smaller sacred facilities.

Main ecosystem services provided by the site

The sacred mountain of Athos has been a spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity since the 10th century (UNESCO, 2014j). The harmonious coexistence of nature and man has been a constituent element and aim of monasticism from its origins. In addition to its cultural and spiritual values, the site also provides other important ecosystem services. The forests in the area have remained largely untouched because of their inaccessibility, and play an important role in nutrient cycling and water storage (Bhagwat, 2009). Mount Athos also offers significant nature conservation benefits by protecting rich flora and fauna, including endemic, rare and endangered species. Traditional agriculture and forest management practices testify to the harmonious century-long interaction of man and nature in Mt Athos could potentially serve as examples for sustainable agro-forestry management at a wider scale.

Governance and management system

The management of the Athonite Peninsula depends on its special privileged status of self-governance, as provided by Article 105 of the Hellenic Constitution, by the Constitutional Charter of Mount Athos[1], as well as by the European Communities Greek Accession Act of 1979 and the respective texts attached to it. More specifically, Article 105 of the Constitution and the Constitutional Charter of Mt Athos determine the institutional framework of organisation and operation of the site, protect its regime and prohibit any modification of the administrative system, of the number of monasteries and of their hierarchical order. Thus, the administration of Mt Athos is exercised by the 20 Holy Monasteries through their representatives, who constitute the Holy Community. The territory of Mount Athos may not be expropriated and belongs exclusively to its Monasteries, which also have total rights of ownership, possession and occupation of their monuments and heirlooms. All other institutions, clusters (sketes) and retreats (hesychasteria) are dependencies of the 20 Monasteries.

In 2010 a positive step was taken towards the preparation of a ‘strategic framework for the conservation and management of the cultural and natural heritage of Mt Athos'. A team of experts and a general coordinator were appointed by the Holy Community and a comprehensive preliminary report was prepared.

According to this report, the integrated management of the site should be regarded as a participatory process of cooperation between the monastic fraternities, the government services and UNESCO. The report reviewed the present situation and proposed ten principles on which the management process should be based. It was reviewed extensively by the Athonite institutions and was discussed in detail in two expert meetings organised in Thessaloniki, in January and in late August 2013 by the Ministry of Culture and the cooperation of the Holy Community, the second one with the contribution of UNESCO experts, and was broadly endorsed by the participants. As there were certain reservations among the 20 Holy Monasteries on the best way to proceed, the issue was debated by the Holy Community in late December 2013 and by the Double Session in May 2014. The decisions taken were to advance prudently, establishing a Working Group among representatives of the Athonite institutions and the State services to finalise the management study specifications and to raise funds for its commissioning and completion.

The unique status of self-governance of Mount Athos, combined with the traditional way of life of the resident monastic community, has largely protected the site from significant anthropic threats. The monastic community of Mt Athos, of approximately 2000 monks, is the zealous steward of a millenary, uninterrupted spiritual tradition, which it nurtures since Byzantine times with a considerable degree of autonomy within the State of Greece. The rich flora and fauna the Athonite Peninsula have been well conserved by careful management of the forests and traditional agricultural practices.

[1]           Ratified by Legislative Decree 10/16.9.1926.