Mount Athos: A visit to the Holy Mountain

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

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Bob Simon gets rare access to Mount Athos, a remote peninsula in northern Greece that is the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity. For more than a thousand years, monks on Mount Athos have lived lives wholly devoted to prayer, work, contemplation, and isolation, with little time left either to eat or sleep. In this two-part story, the monks reveal that little has changed in their secluded, sacred world since their Byzantine brethren lived and prayed here.

The following is a script of "Mount Athos" which originally aired on April 24, 2011 and was rebroadcast on Dec. 25, 2011. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Harry Radliffe and Michael Karzis, producers.

Tonight - for Christmas - 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 here every day, with no interruption, for more than a thousand years. It was set aside by ancient emperors to be the spiritual capitol of Orthodox Christianity and has probably changed less over the centuries than any other inhabited place on the planet. The monks come here from all over and do everything they can to keep what they call "the world" far away. Not surprisingly, journalists are not exactly welcome. For more than two years, we corresponded, negotiated and, frankly, pleaded for an invitation but ran into one monastic wall after another. Then, as we first told you last spring, much to our surprise, and delight, the monks finally said, 'Okay, come see who we are.'

Behind-the-scenes travelogue to holy Mt. Athos

This Byzantine cross marks the border between Mount Athos and the 21st century. The monks come here as they always have for the beauty, the tranquility, and the isolation.

But most of all for this: (panoramic view of Mount Athos)

Father Iakovos is one of a few Americans on the mountain. He's been here more than half his life.

Father Iakavos: 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.

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. The top man at Simonospetras, one of the 20 monasteries. It was Abbot Elisaios who invited us here - and never let us forget - what a rare privilege it was.

Father Elisaios: It happened once! In 1981.

Bob Simon: The last time you invited a television crew here was 1981?

Elisaios: Correct. We weren't going to invite you, but your persistence convinced us to open the door.

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. 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.

There are 20 monasteries on Mount Athos - some 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 here. 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.

Father Serapion (translator): The monks here have one goal and that is how they can get closer to God.