Mt. Athos, Greece - Holy Monastery of Simonos Petra (Simonopetra)
The Holy Monastery of Simonos Petra, or more simply Simonopetra, is without doubt the most daring construction on the Holy Mountain. It stands proudly at a height of 330 metres on the end of a rocky mountain range.
The Monastery was founded by the Blessed Simon the Myrrhobletes around 1257, as a result of a vision. The whole of the building work, the Life of the Saint assures us, was accomplished as the result of divine intervention. In 1363 the Monastery was renovated with generous donations from a Serb despot, John Uglesha, who is regarded as the Monastery's second founder. In the Third Typikon, Simonopetra occupies 23rd place among the then monasteries of Athos; today it holds thirteenth place in the hierarchy.
Unfortunately, among the dates which are milestones in the history of the Monastery are those inauspicious days when it was afflicted with the scourge of fire. In 1570 the Monastery, together with its valuable archive, was destroyed by a great conflagration. This resulted in the loss of documents of inestimable historical value. It also explains why we know so little about the Monastery in the Byzantine period.
The good relations which developed between Simonopetra and the Princes of Wallachia in the period of Turkish rule made possible its recovery. However, there was another fire in 1622, causing further damage. Simonopetra, which had been a coenobium, became idiorrythmic in the 17th century. Although never looted by pirates, the intolerable taxes of the Turks drove the Monastery to decline and abandonment. By the heroic efforts of the priest-monk Ioasaph of Mytilene, Asimopetra (as Simonopetra was called in the period of Turkish occupation) began to function again in the late 18th century. The 19th century saw the building of the multi-storeyed building on the south side. At the end of the same century, in 1891, yet another disastrous fire swept away, yet again, the older buildings and the Monastery's treasures.
In the present century, Simonopetra has experienced a period of recovery and of increasing prestige in the Orthodox world - particularly after the liberation of the Holy Mountain from the Turks and under the enlightened ladership of the Abbots Neophytos, Ioannikios, and Ieronymos. In the 1950s, however, a period of decline set in and in 1963, when Athos celebrated a millennium of life, the prospects for the future were gloomy. But the 1970s were a time when there was a gradual revival of Athonite monasticism. In 1973 a new 20-member brotherhood from the Meteora established itself at the Monastery. The Monastery of Simonos Petra once had a large number of metochia with fertile farm land. The oldest of these would appear to be Petriotiko in Sithonia. Today, best known are St Charalampus in Thessaloniki, the Ascension in Athens, the Nunnery of the Annunciation at Ormylia in Chalcidice, and three others in France. It is also worth mentioning the metochi of Michael Voda in Bucharest, dedicated to the Monastery in 1566 and confiscated by the Romanian Government in 1863.
Simonopetra, because of the restricted space of its site, is not one of those monasteries where we can see autonomous, clearly distinguished buildings. The katholikon is dedicated to the Nativity of Christ and in its original form was built around 1600, while the form it takes today took shape after the fire of 1891. The Monastery has four chapels within its precinct and eight outside.
The Monastery's archive contains a host of documents in Greek, Turkish, and Romanian, together with inscriptions, and musical and other manuscripts, to which must be added its printed books. However, it must be pointed out that almost the whole of the archival material is post-Byzantine.
The sacristy contains a treasury of works of art, consisting of icons, vestments, silverware, antimensia, seals, and engravings. However, the most important treasure of Simonopetra is the left hand of St Mary Magdalene - she is regarded as 'co-founder' of the Monastery - which has remained whole for two thousand years. The Monastery today has a community of 50 well-educated and active monks.