The Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou stands on the eastern shore of the Athos peninsula, near the Monastery of Chilandari, its foundations washed by the waters of the Strymonic Gulf. Round about, ruins and remains from other periods of history, from Roman times to those of the first hermits who lived on Athos, are evidence of the historical importance of the site.
The Monastery was founded in the 10th or 11th century, a time when freedom from foreign invaders made it safe to build a monastery so close to the sea. It is first mentioned under the name of Esphigmenou in the Second Typikon of 1045. Esphigmenou has at various times suffered its share of pirate raids and destructive fires. We are told in a manuscript in the Monastery that it was laid waste three times: in 873, 1047, and 1534. The last occasion was apparently the worst, and had been preceded by a fire in 1491.
However, there have been good moments as well as bad in Esphigmenou's history. The Byzantine Emperors seem to have shown it special favour: imperial chrysobulls confirm the Monastery's acquisitions in Provlakas, Skoutaras, Krosouvo, Vrasta, Thessaloniki, and Constantinople. Esphigmenou was also the home of figures of great spiritual stature such as St Athanasius, Patriarch of Constantinople (1310) and St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1335).
In the general conditions of decline of the 17th century, the Monastery fell into severe financial difficulties. In the century which followed it began to re-establish itself with the help of the Metropolitan of Meleniko, Grigorios, who made the payment of the Monastery's debts his principal aim. Ups and downs on a smaller scale continued in the life of the Monastery, until in the early 19th century Theodoritos of the Lavra laid the foundations for the proper functioning of Esphigmenou as a coenobium, at the same time starting the building of the new katholikon (1808) and other new buildings. The Monastery's refectory was also built when Theodoritos was Abbot.
Between 1821 and 1832, Esphigmenou was taken over by the Turkish army and used as a barracks. Its re-establishment was undertaken by Agathangelos Ayiannanitis, whose efforts extended from 1832 to 1871. It was at that time that all the Monastery's magnificent buildings were constructed, including the belltower, chapels, the exonarthex of the katholikon, and the southern gateway. In the years which followed the Monastery ran up a debt which amounted to 4,000 Turkish pounds in the early 20th century, but it managed to pay this off without succumbing to tempting proposals from the Russians.
The Monastery's main church is dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord, and it has eight chapels and seven exterior chapels. Its most treasured icon is of Our Lady Eleousa. Among Esphigmenou's treasures are relics of saints, the so-called cross of Pulcheria, and a large part of Napoleon's tent, which is used as a curtain for the sanctuary door of the katholikon on its feast day. Its library contains 372 manuscripts and more than 8,000 printed books. Esphigmenou holds eighteenth place in the hierarchy of the monasteries, but withdrew its representative from the Holy Community in 1974 and does not take part in its Assemblies. At present it has about 60 monks.