It was two years in the making for a television crew to get access inside one of the holiest sites of the Greek Orthodox world, the monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece. The cluster of 20 monasteries has remained perched on the cliffs high above the Aegean Sea for centuries.
In the monasteries, also known collectively as the Holy Mountain or The Garden of the Mother of God, the monks spend most of their time in prayer and are purposefully isolated from the outside world.
“A woman hasn’t been allowed on the mountain for over a thousand years,” said Bob Simon, correspondent for CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”
That prohibition against women even extends to animals, with the exception of cats who pull double duty as rodent control. The only food the monks import is cheese – because it comes from cows. Otherwise they all grow their own food on the island.
“The whole purpose of [the monks] being there is to be away from the outside world to a remarkable extent. Monks have spent decades there without spending a day off the island,” he said.
“Technically it’s a peninsula, but they don’t have newspapers or television or radio or women, and the whole idea is to just devote themselves entirely to prayer, so they’re really not interested with what goes on in the outside world and they don’t want to get involved in it.”
Simon thinks the only reason he and his crew were granted access to the monks, many of whom had never done interviews, was a story they did on the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the global community of 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians.
Simon said the interview was received well, especially in the United States.
“I think [the Patriarch] sort of leaned on the monks to say, ‘Hey, we’re OK, let them in,’ but he has no executive authority the way the pope does, he can just make recommendations,” Simon said. But even with that recommendation from on high, it still took several years to work out the shoot.
Just getting to the monasteries is chore. First you have to get to Thessaloniki in Greece.
“From Thessaloniki you take a long drive, about three hours on roads that are not great. Then you wind up in this place that is, I think I called it scruffy in the script, then you take a ferry. The only trouble is the waters between this town and Mount Athos are really rough,” Simon said.
He said his producers got stuck in the town for three days while they waited for a day where the waters were calm enough to travel to the peninsula.
“There may be a forest or mountain somewhere that hasn’t changed in the last 1,500 years, but in terms of an inhabited place, I don’t think there’s any place that has changed so little as Mount Athos,” he said.
During World War II, Mount Athos came under the personal protection of Hitler when the Nazis invaded Greece. At the advice of German officers, the monks wrote Hitler and asked for the protection, which he provided. The monks told Simon that Hitler was planning to pillage the monasteries for their art treasures, even going so far as to send officers to photograph more than 1,000 works of art. But they said Hitler got bogged down in Russia and never removed any of the art.
Simon said in the course of their centuries-old tradition on the mountain, the monks viewed it as just a speed bump.
“They have no connection with our world. Their only consideration is to survive to keep the mountain going, because it is the most sacred spot on the world as far as they are concerned. It is a place [where] a life of prayer is more effective than anywhere else. So sure the Nazis threatened them, but over the centuries they been threatened by everybody.”