Officially there are 20 monasteries on Mount Athos. In many books however, you can read that there have been much more monasteries on the Holy Mountain. Two attempts by the Russians to get their Skitis Agiou Andreou and Profitou Eliou promoted to real monasteries failed in the beginning of last century. And we can still visit the ruins of the monastery of St. Basil, that lies along the coast, not far from Chilandariou. A well known example of another monastery that once existed, is the Latin monastery of the Amalfians (from Italy), from which the tower is still to be seen.
Amalfi tower – 1986
Before 963, when Athanasius founded the Great Lavra monastery, there is scaresly any information about dwellings and settlements. There is no doubt that (long) before 963 individual monks have been living on the Holy Mountain as hermits, but evidence of their existence is hard to find. Just outside the official borders of nowadays Athos, Johannes Kolobos founded in 869-873 his monastery in Ierissos (Kolobou monastery). I did not find any records that traces of a ruin of this monastery is found. We also know for sure that on the spot where Iviron stands today once the monastery of Klementos existed and I found an account of a monastery (tou Pirgou?) that stood in 905 not far from Chilandariou. The legendary foundings of Xerapotamou in 924 and of Konstamonitou (by Emperor Constantine the Great) are not taken seriously.
And then there is the building, until recently known as Frankokastron, which looked like this in 1986, and which very recently gave up its secrets:
Frankokastron – 1986
Most books about Athos I did read, do not have much information about this ruin. In the book The Holy Mountain, Sydney Loch gives us this story about Frankokastro (page 15):
“A path left the village [Ouranopolis] between a vineyard and some veronica bushes and ran over a headland. It dipped to a pasture and led across a red hillside to a rivulets sandy mouth. From there it turned inland amoung cistus and erica, towards slopes of pine, and wound round the ruins of Frankokastron, about which no more seems known tan that Latins build a castle at the start of the 13th century, when Athos was taken into the occupation of Constantinople during the 4th crusade”.
And have a look what is to be seen nowadays ! An ancient monastery, with the name Zygou or Zygos, is excavated !
The excavation site of the monastery of Zygou – 2007
The entire hill is stripped free of trees and bushes and underneath the monastery of Zygou was found. It is said that this monastery already existed before the foundation of the first official monastery of Athos, Megistas Lavra. Athanasius started his enterprise from this place, so years before 963. The site is surrounded by a wall and you can see a little church (with a roof over it). In front of the church workmen were digging up a refectory and numerous other houses were found.
First some pictures:
Zygou entrance to the church and the wall – 2007
Zygou: a detail of the Stone iconostasis ? – 2007
Although the excavation was not ready and they were still digging in 2007, large information signs show you fine drawings and plans (in Greek). We could visit the place with a guard by walking over wooden shelves. In the remnants of the church you can find parts of frescos and mosaics.
Zygou: plan of the church with different building phases – 2007
Zygou: artist impression (without additional buildings) – 2007
Even after one year it is still difficult to find more about Zygou. Clearly it has been more than just a castle made by Franks and it must have played an imported role in the early days of Athos. The signs tell you that the monastery already was demolished in about 1200 and was never rebuild. Hopefully the lecture in February in Cambridge will gives more information about this interesting place !
Zygou: Plan of the monastery – 2007
NB On the map in the Loch-book, as on the Zwerger-map, the Mountains near the Athos-border are called “Megas Sygos”, a similar name to “Zygou”!
In 2008 I found this picture of a mosaic floor in Zygou on the internet: