Mount Athos is commonly referred to in Greek as the Agion Oros (‘Holy Mountain’), and the entity as the “Athonite State” (Athonikí Politía). Other languages of Orthodox tradition also use names translating to ‘Holy Mountain’. This includes Bulgarian and Serbian, Russian, and Georgian. In the classical era, while the mountain was called Athos, the peninsula was known as Acté or Akté.
Mount Athos has been inhabited since ancient times and is known for its nearly long continuous Christian presence and its long historical monastic traditions, which date back to at least AD 800 and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries, including Eastern Orthodox countries such as Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, live an ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. The Athonite monasteries feature a rich collection of well-preserved artifacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value, and Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1988.
The peninsula, the easternmost “leg” of the larger Chalkidiki peninsula in central Macedonia, protrudes 50 km (31 mi) into the Aegean Sea at a width of between 7 and 12 km (4.3 and 7.5 mi) and covers an area of 335.6 km 2 (130 sq mi). The actual Mount Athos has steep, densely forested slopes reaching up to 2,033 m (6,670 ft).
The surrounding seas, especially at the end of the peninsula, can be dangerous. In ancient Greek history two fleet disasters in the area are recorded: In 492 BC Darius, the king of Persia, lost 300 ships under general Mardonius. In 411 BC the Spartans lost a fleet of 50 ships under admiral Epicleas.
Though land-linked, Mount Athos is practically accessible only by boat. The Agios Panteleimon and Axion Estin ferries travel daily (weather permitting) between Ouranoupolis and Dafni, with stops at some monasteries on the western coast. There is also a smaller speed boat, the Agia Anna, which travels the same route, but with no intermediate stops. It is possible to travel by ferry to and from Ierissos for direct access to monasteries along the eastern coast.