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Graham Speake

Mount Athos

Renewal in Paradise

In this second edition of his acclaimed study of Mount Athos (for which he was awarded the 2002 Criticos Prize) the author takes the opportunity to revise and update his text and also to add a completely new chapter documenting the changes that have occurred in the twelve years since its first publication. The renewal that took place in the last quarter of the twentieth century can now be seen in its historical context and has been succeeded by a period of spiritual and cultural maturity. Not for the first time, in a world beset by political upheaval and economic turmoil, the Mountain stands as a symbol of continuity and stability, a spiritual powerhouse offering refreshment to all who turn to it.

This is a history of Mount Athos from pagan antiquity to the present day. It tells the story of the first monks who were hermits, living in caves and simple huts, often in the most inaccessible parts of the peninsula. The first monasteries were founded in the tenth century with support from the Byzantine emperors. Both traditions survive on Athos today, the anchorites in their desert cells and the monks in the twenty ruling monasteries, coexisting more or less happily as they have always done.

The book describes the effects on the Mountain of political events in the outside world—the Latin conquest, Ottoman rule, the Greek War of Independence, two world wars, and the incorporation of Greece into the European Union—and how little the monks’ way of life was changed by them. Far more important for them were the religious movements and controversies that often divided the Mountain and demonstrated its spiritual influence over the Orthodox world.

What emerges at the end is a portrait of the Holy Mountain today that despite all the storms created by political change, economic crisis, and religious controversy (not least in the last twelve years) is still recognizable as fundamentally the same monastic preserve that welcomed the first monks and hermits more than a thousand years ago.

From Reviews of the First Edition

‘. . . the most comprehensive survey to date of the history, culture, theology and spirituality of Mount Athos . . . As a survey of Athos in all its dimensions, it could hardly be bettered . . . an excellent, sumptuously illustrated, survey which can be unhesitatingly recommended.’ Marcus Plested, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

‘Speake’s book is a triumph . . . And the pictures are wonderful . . . It is a judicious and careful work, a delight to read and look through, fully worthy of the acclaim with which it has been received.’ Andrew Louth, Journal of Hellenic Studies

‘Speake covers everything: the history, the daily life of the monks and hermits, the miracles, the persecutions, the icons, the saints. I’ve never read a more sympathetic study of the world’s oldest continuous democracy.’ The Independent on Sunday

‘Graham Speake’s Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise . . . is as close to an exhaustive survey as any writer has come in English . . . travellers and pilgrims alike, as well as those who prefer to stay at home with their well-stocked larders, will relish this tour of Athos’s history, its relics and treasures, and, in part, its consciousness.’ Matthew Spencer, Literary Review

From a Review of this Second Edition

‘ There are many books on Mount Athos — pilgrims' guides, photo albums, theological and historical treatises, narratives, etc. Each one has its own value. Each one tries to describe the Holy Mountain, to depict the monastic life, the relationship of its picturesque nature with its inestimable cultural heritage, to promote its spiritual profundity, and to discover its hidden mystery. Many of these books are written in English, and quite a few of them are translations from the original Greek. In all of them one can detect the difficulty of Western thought and language in trying to describe the spiritual wealth of the Holy Mountain, as if the Holy Mountain cannot be translated. The present book seems to transcend this obstacle. It is one of the very few English publications whose content quenches the thirst of every Greek Orthodox reader, even of an Athonite monk. Without wishing to exaggerate, the way book is written reminds me of the way Sir Steven Runciman talked about the Holy Mountain. Perhaps their common secret is their love and humble attitude before its mystery.’ Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia & Lavreotiki, Annual Report of the Friends of Mount Athos


  • 302 pages, 23.3 x 15.5 cm, 78 colour and black and white photographs, 2014
Extracts from this book for viewing

The first edition of Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise was published by Yale University Press in 2002.

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