Mt. Athos: A visit to the Holy Mountain

"60 Minutes" gets extremely rare access to the monasteries at Mt. Athos, perhaps one of the most sacred places in Christianity

On this Easter Sunday, we're going to take you to a place outside our world. It's not Mars or Venus but it might as well be. It's a remote peninsula in northern Greece that millions believe to be the most sacred spot on Earth.

It's called Mount Athos and prayers have been offered there every day, with no interruption, for more than a thousand years. It was set aside by ancient emperors to be the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity and has probably changed less over the centuries than any other inhabited place on the planet. The monks come to Mount Athos from all over and do everything they can to keep what they call "the world" far away.

Traveling to holy Mt. Athos
Producer Michael Karzis takes you on a high-stakes adventure: shooting a "60 Minutes" story in one of the holiest places on Earth.

Not surprisingly, journalists are not exactly welcome. For more than two years, we've been corresponding, negotiating and, frankly, pleading, for an invitation, but ran into one monastic wall after another. Then, much to our surprise, and delight, a few months ago, the monks invited us to visit.

A Byzantine cross by the sea marks the border between Mount Athos and the 21st century. The monks come there, as they always have, for the beauty, the tranquility and the isolation. But mostly they come for the religious way of life that has hardly changed in more than a thousand years.

Photos: A visit to Mt. Athos
Video: Patriarch Bartholomew

Father Iakovos is one of a few Americans on the mountain; he's been there more than half his life. "You have to understand, the words that we're saying in today's liturgy, are the same words that Christ was saying, are the same words that saints from the first century, the second century, the third century, the fourth century," he told "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon.

And nothing has changed in orthodoxy since then - it's the only branch of Christianity that can make that claim.

Father Elisaios is the Abbot at Simonospetras, one of 20 monasteries that dominate the peninsula. It was Abbot Elisaios who invited us - and never let us forget what a rare privilege it was.

He told Simon the last time anyone was invited to film at the monastery was back in 1981. "We weren't going to invite you but your persistence convinced us to open the door," he said.

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The door he opened revealed the wonder that is Simonospetras, which fits like a crown on top of a rock 800 feet above the Aegean Sea. It was founded in the 13th century and the monks will tell you it must be considered a miracle that it hasn't fallen into the sea.

Some of the monasteries on Mount Athos look like medieval fortresses, others are so large they resemble small cities. They rise from virgin forests and line the coast, shrouded in mist. There's nothing on this 130-square mile peninsula other than monasteries and monks. Nothing.

We expected Mount Athos to be a quiet place, but we couldn't have imagined how quiet until we were dropped off at Simonospetras.

The silence is only broken by the occasional tapping on a chiseled piece of chestnut. It is a call to prayer and started being used here before there were bells.

"The monks here have one goal, and that is how they can get closer to God," Father Serapion explained.

Father Serapion wanted us to understand that there is no place on Earth closer to heaven than Mount Athos. "Everyday a thousand divine liturgies are celebrated on the peninsula. It's unique in the world and in the Orthodox church," he explained.

Asked what exactly makes it unique, Father Serapion said, "It's sort of (an) absolute way of life of the monks."

It's a Spartan way of life, but all the monks we talked to said they never want to leave, not even for a day, so they try to be self sufficient - they grow their own fruit and vegetables, and do their own tailoring.

And when they get sick, there's an in-monastery doctor, Father Ermolaos, who is not very busy because the monks are in excellent shape: there's remarkably little cancer, virtually no heart disease or Alzheimer's. They must be doing something right, in addition to drinking wine at nine in the morning.

They eat two meals a day. The "first meal" lasts 10 minutes; the "second meal" also lasts 10 minutes. There's no meat and no dinner table conversation - the only sound is a monk reading from sacred texts.

Produced by Harry Radliffe and Michael Karzis

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