The peninsula of the Holy Mountain (HM), the north-eastern ‘finger’ of the gigantic ‘palm’ of myth of Chalcidice, which juts out more than 60 km. into the Aegean Sea, occupies an area of 332.5 sq. km. Its terrain can be described as irregular, consisting of rows of hills which start out from Megali Vigla side by side in the direction of Athos to culminate at the end of the peninsula in the legendary stone giant of Athos, of a height of 2,035 m. The land is well-planted, without being particularly rich soil. It has become rich, however, in the gardens of the settlements, where centuries of the toil of monks have produced a soil which is fruitful because of a natural fertiliser - leaf mould - brought from the woods. Before its monastic community was established, the peninsula was the home of tribes "speaking two languages", "a few Chalcidic, for the most part Pelasgic". Their communities were no more than "small towns", with few inhabitants and of little historical significance (Thucydides IV, 109 - Strabo VII, 35). The names of some of the towns within the boundaries of the peninsula are known to us: "Dion, Olophyxos, Acrothoon, Thyssos, Cleonae" (Herodotus VII, 22). Beyond the peninsula were the towns of Panormos, Stratonice, Acanthos, Singos, Apollonia, Stagira, Amphipolis, Galepsos, Olynthos, Assa, Pylorus, Sarte, Torone, Potidaea, Ouranoupolis, etc. (Claudius Ptolemaeus, Geogr., 13, 11 - Herodotus VII, 122 - Strabo VII, 35 - Stephen of Byzantine, ed. Meineke, 6.65, 135, 229, 523, 557, 685).
The history of Athos is associated with the sinking of two fleets. The first took place in 492 BC, when the Persian general Mardonius mounted a campaign against Athens and Eretria. His 300 ships, with 20,000 foot soldiers, sank on the rocks of Nymphaeum. In 411 BC, 50 Spartan ships, under their admiral Epicleus, also sank (Diodorus Siculus, XIII 41, 1-3). The colonisation of Athos began in very ancient times and is lost in the mists of prehistory. The first settlers we hear of were the Pelasgians from Lemnos (Strabo VII 35). After the end of the Trojan War, around 1150 BC, large areas extending from Troy as far as Chalcidice were deserted and uninhabited. It was at that time that two dynamic cities of Euboea, Eretria and Chalcis, together with Andros, colonised Chalcidice, naturally including Athos (Thucydides IV 109 - Strabo X 8, VIII 31 - Stephen of Byzantium, ed. Meineke, p. 685). One great achievement in antiquity which certainly should be mentioned is the completion in 481 of the digging of a canal across the peninsula by Xerxes. The work had taken three years (Herodotus VII 22 - Strabo VII 35 - Aelius Aristides, Panathenaeicus, 120-122 and 126-128).