Traveling to Mount Athos is like taking a time machine back to the Byzantine Empire. A peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea, Mount Athos is home to 1,500–2,500 Orthodox monks, all sporting bushy beards and long black robes. These holy men have been worshiping here since the ninth century, and almost nothing has changed in over a millennium. There are a few cell phones here and there and couple of cars to boot, but other than a few modern-day conveniences, Mount Athos is a scene right out of the Middle Ages.
Hoping to grow closer to God, the monks spend their days in prayer, perhaps hidden away in hillside cells or attending service at one of the 20 fortress-like monasteries. In their devotion to the past, the monks of Mount Athos still rely on the Julian calendar and use the Byzantine time system, meaning a brand new day begins at sundown. But that isn’t the weirdest thing about this archaic island. If you drop by Mount Athos, you’ll notice something kind of odd: There aren’t any women.
The reason is simple. Women aren’t allowed on Mount Athos. It’s essentially the biggest “Boys Only” clubhouse in the world. And it’s partly the Virgin Mary’s fault. Legend goes that the Mother of Christ was sailing along one day when a storm blew her ship toward Mount Athos. Once ashore, she converted everyone she met to Christianity. Years later, the monks started seeing visions of the Virgin and devoted their lives to her cause. Only they didn’t want any other women to show up and “outshine” the Lady of Angels so they banned all females from the peninsula.
Also, it’s just easier to remain celibate when there aren’t any women around.
Strangely, the “No Girls” rule applies to animals, too. There aren’t any female livestock on Mount Athos, and the only exceptions are cats (needed to take care of pests) as well as birds and bugs because it just isn’t practical to try and round up the local wildlife. Of course, there have been a few women who made their way inside this sacred state. In 2008, smugglers accidentally dropped off four Moldovan women on the beach, and several women have scaled the fence on the landward side. Most dramatically, a French philosopher named Maryse Choisy actually underwent a double mastectomy, disguised herself as a boy, and spent some time wondering around before the monks kicked her out.
But other than refugees during the Greek Civil War, the monks have never actively welcomed women inside their borders. In fact, it’s the only state on the entire planet where women aren’t allowed. The closest a woman can legally get is floating on a tour boat off the coast. As you might expect, this has stirred up quite a bit of controversy, and in 2003, the European Union condemned the republic for violating “the universally recognized principles of gender equality.” But unless you’re big into ancient churches, there’s not a lot to do on Mount Athos other than meditate. So maybe women aren’t missing out on all that much anyway.