A Byzantine cross by the sea marks the border between Mount Athos in northern Greece and the 21st century. Prayers have been offered in its monasteries 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.
For more than two years, "60 Minutes" had 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 their monasteries.
The peninsula is home to 20 monasteries and some 2,000 monks.
There's nothing remarkable about the clock tower in the Vatopedi monastery, except for one thing: there is a six hour time difference, as the monks on Mount Athos keep Byzantine time. The day begins at sunset, not at midnight. The monks measured time this way during the days of the Byzantine Empire, which fell in 1453.
Mount Athos's monasteries get more applicants than it can handle: it's harder to get into than Harvard. A man comes as a novice. He's free to leave if he doesn't like it, and the monks can tell him to leave if they don't like him
The monasteries are a place of silence. It's only broken by the occasional tapping on a chiseled piece of chestnut. It is a call to prayer and started being used 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.
One of the 20 monasteries on the Mount Athos peninsula.
The monasteries house some incredible treasures, including this 14th century icon of Jesus Christ. Some might consider the treasures art, but Father Maximos, a former professor at the Harvard Divinity School, corrected us, explaining, "They're devotional objects. And they're part of the living, liturgical life of the church. So we don't have any art. And we're not a museum. I mean to put it starkly."
Mount Athos is a big draw for pilgrim; when "60 Minutes" was there, it was packed with pilgrims from all over the Orthodox Christian world, including Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Russia.
Frescoes adorn the wall of the 10th century church at the Vatopedi monastery.
The main goal of the monks at Mount Athos is to get closer to Christ. Many never choose to leave the peninsula.