June 01, 2017

Amateur Radio in the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain

Last edited: 06.06.2017

Latest news 02.06.2017 - Apparently George Vlachopoulos SV1RP during the WPX Contest was not active from Mount Athos but from his "alternative shack" in Giannitsa in northern Greece. Read more in my blog entry of June 2nd, 2017.

Last weekend during the CQ World Wide WPX CW contest, I finally managed to make my first ever contact with Mount Athos! Ok, "sort of", as you will read later on.

Mount Athos forms a separate DXCC entity, and let me tell you, it won't be easy to find one that's more mysterious, mystical, magical, obscure, and controversial! Mount Athos is a mountainous peninsula in northeastern Greece stretching out for about 50 km into the Aegean Sea, its width varying between 7 and 12 km, and its highest point reaching about 2,000 m. Although land-linked, the isolated, rugged region is practically only accessible by boat. Spread out over the peninsula are 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Alhough considered part of Greece, Mount Athos is a self-governed, autonomous region, known officially as the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain. It's commonly referred to simply as the "Holy Mountain", or "Agion Oros" in Greek. Mount Athos is governed by the "Holy Community" which consists of the representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries.

Map of Mount Athos showing the locations of the 20 monasteries. Click to enlarge. (source)
Part of Mount Athos peninsula seen from the air (source)
Travelling to Mount Athos is like travelling back in time; for over 1,000 years, practically nothing has changed in the "Garden of Virgin Mary" as the Monks call the territory. The monasteries of Mount Athos were founded many centuries ago, some of them have a history going back even more than a 1,000 years, and many of them are fortified with thick walls and towers that had to keep pirates at bay. Mount Athos still is on the Julian calender, which means their date runs thirteen days behind to that of the rest of the world. The number of daily visitors is restricted, and a special limited-period access permit has to be obtained before entering the Monastic State. Visitors have to abide by a dress code and rules including not smoking. Women and children are not allowed to enter the territory at all, and even female animals are banned from the mountain (except for female insects, female songbirds, and female cats)!

One of the 20 monasteries of Mount Athos. About 2,000 monks call Mount Athos their home. (source)
Another Mount Athos monastry. A list of all monasteries and photos of them can be found on Wikipedia. (source)
Of course a contact with such a unique DXCC entity has always been much sought after by ham radio operators around the world. Luckily, since a couple of decades, Mount Athos has had its own resident amateur radio operator, the famous Monk Apollo SV2ASP/A, operating from the Docheiariou monastery. This is quite a unique situation for such a small and special DXCC entity!
Monk Apollo first came in contact with amateur radio in the middle of the 1980s when his monastery had remained without telephone for over five months and during which a medical emergency occured. When a doctor heard the story, being a radio amateur himself, he suggested somebody at the monastery would become a radio amateur operator, in order to guarantee continued communications during an emergency.
By the end of the 1980s Monk Apollo had obtained his amateur radio licence. But the working days at the monasteries of Mount Athos are long and hard, Monk Apollo's free time is scarce, and his time spent on amateur radio is little. The chances of catching and working Monk Apollo on one of the ham bands are quite slim.
So, not surprising, for many years radio hams have been trying to set up DXpeditions to the Holy Mountain to activate the much sought after entity on the ham bands. In the past, a group of Greek radio amateurs with the help of Monk Apollo were granted permission, but all applications thereafter by other radio amateurs were denied. There have been some hams operating from Mount Athos however, but their operations were "secret" and declared illegal by Monk Apollo and the Holy Community, as there might have been permission from one of the monasteries, but not from the Holy Community! According to Greek law, to operate a ham station from Mount Athos, a written permission is needed from the Mount Athos Holy Community.

Monk Apollo, SV2ASP/A (source)
Of the various hams that were operating from Mount Athos "illegally", the most notorious probably is DXpeditioner Baldur Drobnica DJ6SI. Just Google for DJ6SI and Mount Athos and you'll find plenty more on this particular episode of the Mount Athos ham radio history. Although the operation of DJ6SI from Mount Athos in 1991 was declared illegal by Monk Apollo, it did get DXCC validated!
In May of 2015 a group of Latvian hams were on their way to Mount Athos to get on the air from the Monastic State as SV2/YL7A. They claimed to have received oral permission for their ham radio activities from one of the monasteries. The group had permits to enter the Monastic State as pilgrims, but as soon as Monk Apollo and the Holy Community found out about their real intentions, access to Mount Athos was denied, the group had to return home, and the DXpedition was cancelled.

QSL card from the controversial SY/DJ6SI DXpedition of Baldur Drobnica (source)
The latest episode in the history of "illegal" ham radio operation on Mount Athos is the one of Greek radio amateur George Vlachopoulos SV1RP which back in June 2015 operated from the Koutloumousiou monestary using the callsign SV2/SV1RP/A (1) and SV2/SV1RP/T. The /A is usually added when an amateur station is operated from an alternative location, but here is added as it traditionally has been for operations from Mount Athos. The /T stands for "Training". According to Greek law, under supervision of a licenced ham operator, and with the /T added to his callsign, people without a ham licence are allowed to use his ham radio station for training purposes. Vlachopoulos claimed to have been legally operating from Mount Athos training several of the resident monks in amateur radio practice, most noticeably Monk Iakovos who as a result in 2015 obtained his amateur radio licence and has been operating from Mount Athos since with the callsign SV2RSG (No /A added, read the story on his qrz.com page). Monk Iakovos is a permanent resident of the Koutloumousiou Monestary. Vlachopoulos claimed he was in the possession of official documents which should give the operation DXCC approval, but as far as I know, both him and Monk Iakovis so far seem to have failed in getting DXCC validation.

Monk Iakovis is presented his radio amateur licence in the presence of the Koutloumousiou Monastery abbot and George Vlachopoulous, SV1RP (first from the right) (source)
My contact this weekend was with SV2/SV1RP/A on 20m CW. So it seems George Vlachopoulos again has travelled to Mount Athos. At this time I don't have all the details on the operation, but it's reported on the DX World site that Vlachopoulos again was active from the Koutloumousiou Monestary, from which he also got permission for the operation again. I'm curious how the story will unfold this time, but I bet this is another "secret" operation without the authorization of the Holy Council. At the moment I made the contact, I was unaware of the "troubled" ham radio history of Mount Athos, which I first learned about when doing research for this blog entry. Also I was under the impression I was working a 100% legal Mount Athos activation. The contact most likely will not give me DXCC credit for Mount Athos, but my signals were there, in that magical place (just look at the photos!), I made contact with one of Mount Athos' monasteries, and I'm thrilled about it!

Olive trees at Koutloumousiou Monastery, the QTH of SV2/SV1RP/A (source)
After the "illegal" operation on Mount Athos of DJ6SI, now more than two decades ago, and other ham operators which, in the words of Monk Apollo, "tried to fool the Monks", the Holy Council and Monk Apollo still seem to hold a grudge, and all applications for amateur radio activities from Mount Athos are structurally denied. Some accuse Monk Apollo of swinging a big hammer in the Holy Community Council and at the DXCC desk, and say he has built for himself on Mount Athos an amateur radio monopoly which he tries to protect.
But Mount Athos is more than just a much coveted, exotic DXCC entity alone. It's also a sanctuary of peace, a sacred place, a different world where time stood still, a home where Monks lead a simple life, away from the hectic, modern, and complicated lifes most of us live today. And such a place is fragile, and maybe that's the only thing Monk Apollo is trying to protect.
What puzzles me though is that resident Monk Iakovos still hasn't managed to obtain the required documents for DXCC approval, but I don't know the whole story here, and thus for now I'll have to refrain on any further comments on it.

The attitude of the Holy Community and Monk Apollo towards guest ham operators, with which they've practically closed the DXCC entity to non-resident ham operations, and the resulting voices raised by some in the ham community to therefore better delete Mount Athos as a DXCC entity, lead to some controversy of which good examples can be found in the discussion threads on eHam as linked to below. There's also much info on the activations of DJ6SI and SV1RP in there.

I for sure hope Mount Athos will never be deleted from the DXCC list, and hopefully with some luck and a lot of DX Cluster watching, I'll someday get the chance to work the elusive Monk Apollo himself. And to be honest, I wouldn't like to see it any other way; some places should remain shrouded in mystery, some places on the ham bands should remain shrouded in elusiveness.

You can listen to a recording of my contact with SV2/SV1RP/A below.

Addendum 06.06.2017
(1) I'm not sure but I believe the SV2/SV1RP/A callsign in 2015 never was used on the air, only the SV2/SV1RP/T callsign. Vlachopoulos' 2015 QSL card does mention the /A though.

QSL card SV2/SV1RP/A/T (source)

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  1. Interessant verhaal Michael. Ik heb Mounth Athos nog nooit gewerkt of ook maar gehoord. Het verhaal had ik ergens anders al een beetje gevolgd. Maar hier staat het heel mooi op een rijtje inclusief foto's. 73, Bas

    1. Dankjewel, Bas. Helaas blijkt uit het laatste nieuws dat SV2/SV1RP/A op 27 mei niet actief was vanuit Mount Athos maar vanuit Giannitsa, noord Griekenland. Dus helaas geen Mount Athos in het log voor mij. Het blijft echter een vreemd verhaal. Meer info vind je in mijn blog van 2 juni. In ieder geval heb ik hierdoor mijn kennis over Mount Athos en zijn roerige en fascinerende amateur radio historie vergroot. Bedankt voor je reactie en voor het lezen van mijn blog! 73 de PA7MDJ