This section is from the book "A Library Of Wonders And Curiosities Found In Nature And Art, Science And Literature", by I. Platt. Also available from Amazon: A library of wonders and curiosities.
The next object that rises in our view is Mount Athos,- a mountain of Chalcidia in Macedonia, equally celebrated in ancient and modern times. The ancients entertained extravagant notions concerning its height. Mela affirmed it to be so high as to reach above the clouds, which at that time might have been considered a bold assertion; and Martianus Capellinus says, that its elevation was six miles. It was a received opinion, that mount Athos was above the middle region of the air, and that it never rained upon or near its summit, because the ashes left on the altars there, were always found as they had been left, dry and unscattered.
The modern Greeks, struck with its singular situation, and the venerable appearance of its towering ascent, erected so many churches, monasteries, hermitages, etc. upon it, that it became in a manner inhabited by a company of religious devotees; and from thence received the name of Monte Santo, or the Holy Mountain; which appellation it still retains, though many of those consecrated buildings are now fallen into ruin and decay.
According to the accounts of modern travellers, this mountain advances into the Archipelago, on the south of the gulf of Contessa, and is joined to the continent by an isthmus about half a league in breadth. It is estimated to be thirty miles in circumference, and two in perpendicular height. It may be travelled over in about three days, and is to be seen at the great distance of ninety miles. There is a fine prospect from the top; but, like all other high mountains, the cold on its summit is excessive. It abounds with many different kinds of plants and trees, particularly the pine and fir. In the valleys grows a plant called elegia, whose branches serve to make pens for writing. In short, this mountain is said to be adorned with a variety of herbage and evergreens, a multitude of springs and streams, with woods extending almost to the sea shore, which happy combination of circumstances renders it one of the most agreeable places in the world. There are twenty-four large old monasteries upon it, surrounded with high walls, and inhabited by Camoyers, a certain description of Greek monks.
Through this mountain, or rather through the isthmus behind it, Xerxes king of Persia is said to have cut a passage for his fleet, when about to invade Greece. In this arduous task he spent three whole years, and employed in it all the forces on board his fleet. He is also said, before the work begun, to have written the following ridiculous letter to the mountain: "Athos, thou proud and aspiring mountain, that liftest up thy head to the very skies, I advise thee not to be so audacious, as to put rocks and stones, that cannot be cut, in the way of my workmen. If thou makest that opposition, I will cut thee entirely down, and throw thee headlong into the sea!" The directors of this enterprise are said to have been Bubaris, the son of Megabysus, and Artacheus, the son of Arbeus, both Persians ; but as no traces of such a great work remains, the truth of the whole relation has justly been questioned. This venerable mountain constitutes one entire chain, extending seven miles in length, and three in breadth, and is situated about seventy miles east of Salonichi, the ancient Thessalonica.