The Holy Monastery of Megiste Lavra is on the south-eastern side of the Athos peninsula at a place called Melana, an area where fragments of monuments which take us back to the pre-Christian era are to be found.
The Lavra occupies first place in the history and hierarchy of the monasteries of Athos, and its founder was the most honoured figure among the monks of the Holy Mountain - St Athanasius the Athonite. It was St Athanasius who introduced into what up till then had been a monasticism of cave-dwelling hermits the coenobitic system, which was afterwards to become the monastic way of life par excellence.
With the permission of the Emperor Romanus II, Athanasius began building works. Soon afterwards, his friend Nicephorus Phocas became Emperor and supported him in a variety of ways. The katholikon was built first; very soon large numbers of many nations and languages, some distinguished and others totally undistinguished, flocked to lead the monastic life under the direction of the Saint. The policy of support of Phocas was continued by his successors Tsimiskes and Basil II (nicknamed) the Bulgar-slayer, in spite of opposition to St Athanasius in some quarters.
After the death of St Athanasius, the rule over the Lavra was taken over, at the command of the Saint, by the founder of the Iveron Monastery, St John, and the patrician Nicephorus Uranus. The Monastery had long been flourishing and gradually acquired many donations. Apart from the solemnion (an annual grant of gold pieces) established by Phocas and Tsimiskes, Basil II gave the Monastery an island (near Skiathos). By degrees, the Monasteries of Gomatou, Monoxylitou, and of the Amalfitans came into its possession, together with Kalykas, Xerokastron, and the Platys Gulf. These acquisitions were confirmed by imperial chrysobulls of Andronicus II and the Despot Demetrius Palaeologus (1429).
The Kral (prince) of the Serbs Stefan Dushan, like other later Slav princes, showed himself generous towards the Lavra. The Monastery remained a coenobium until the 14th century, but pirate raids led to a breakdown of its organisation and it was dealt severe blows by a number of earthquakes, such as that of 1585. The burden of taxation on the monasteries during the years of Turkish rule, borne almost entirely by the Lavra and the Vatopedi and Iveron Monasteries, also contributed to its gradual decline.
The conversion of the Lavra into an idiorrhythmic monastery in the 14th century led to it to follow a typikon (observance) all of its own, similar to those of the monasteries of Palestine. In 1574, the Patriarch of Alexandria Silvestros intervened and the Monastery returned to the coenobitic way of life, only to become idiorrhythmic again in 1670.
Although the central church was originally dedicated to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, on the death of St Athanasius, he became its patron saint. The original building dated from 963, but the history of its construction passes through a number of subsequent phases, as is the case with most Athonite katholika. The wall-paintings of the katholikon are by Theophanis of Crete and those of the refectory are probably the work of one of his pupils. Outside the katholikon is the phiale for holy water, the largest on Mount Athos. The Monastery has 17 chapels and 19 outlying chapels.
Among the many priceless treasures of the Monastery is the icon of Our Lady Koukouzelissa, patriarchal and imperial dalmatics, and sacred relics. The library of the Lavra has some 2,116 manuscripts, 20,000 printed books, and about 100 manuscripts in foreign languages. The three famous Sketes of St John the Baptist, St Anne (Aghia Anna), and Kafsakalyvia, the groups of kalyves of Mikra Aghia Anna, Katounakia, Karoulia, Kerasia, and others, the famous kellia of Mylopotamos, St Nilus, and the ascetics' retreats of Sts Peter the Athonite, Athanasius, and Nilus are all possessions of the Lavra. The historic Kellia of Provata and Karyes also belong to it. In 1963, the Megiste Lavra, together with the whole of the Holy Mountain, celebrated its thousandth anniversary. In 1980, the Monastery returned to the coenobitic system, and today it has some 50 monks living in the Monastery and around 300 in its dependencies.