Inside an ancient monastery
CBS correspondent Bob Simon interviews Father Matthew, one of the monks on Mount Athos.
April 22nd, 2011
04:42 PM ET

Inside an ancient monastery

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - 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."

Simon's report is scheduled to air on Easter Sunday. You can see a preview of the report here.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Europe • Greek Orthodox Church • TV

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soundoff (803 Responses)
  1. james

    Only CNN would take a group of relatively benign, monastic individuals and turn them into nazis.

    CNN is truly the Communist News Network – they make me ashamed to call myself liberal.

    April 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  2. Cat Lover

    I really don't think that's right towards the cats. That's animal cruelty. Those monks really should use women to satisfy their needs instead of cats.

    April 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  3. Henry

    Welcome to CNN Forums where stupidity reigns, ignorance abounds, and tyrannical Globalists rejoice.

    April 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  4. rodrigo65

    World War 11 ? Damn ! I have to wake up ... I missed from WW 3 to WW 11 !!!

    April 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  5. Militant Reasonist

    Wow, what a way to waste an entire life. All day, every day is spent talking to oneself under the guise of praying to a mythical being. It's sad what humans do with the justification of religion. At least these deluded guys aren't killing other people though.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  6. Chris

    All these monks must have had a life in modern society before they joined, as they could not been born there, obviously.
    I have read another interview with monks in Mt. Athos. They have PC's, internet, a good education and they very well informed about the world outside. Certainly not stupid people either. Just because they chose a different life style does not mean they do not enjoy life. It may in fact be of better quality than what most of us have: quality food, quality wine, lots of nature, job security, quiet streets and no TV commercials/crowded malls/traffic jam/domestic abuse/gun violence etc. Most people in the modern world are stuck in the rat race anyway, with bank loans up to their neck. Is that really better? Surely for the ignorant. Or the uninformed. One thing I know for sure: there are more than one life style worth living. And more than we know about.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Enriqe

      Wise words

      April 24, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  7. Ammar

    I think its a disgrace to Women of the whole world, if they think that a woman as "impure" at they will decrease their spirituality.
    Where are the Feminist organizations and Human Rights activists.....!!!!!!

    and whats the point of "the purest" prayer, if you are not going to take a stand for The Good, and seek refuge from hitler, They should have asked God to protect them. After all they had been praying to Him "uninterruptedly" for thousands of years....

    April 24, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • TheProdigal

      Unfortunately, Bob Simon's statement is not correct – there have been women allowed on the Holy Mountain over the centuries, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Women on ships fleeing pirates were always given refuge in the monasteries if they could reach the port; during times of war, women and their families were sheltered in the monasteries and forests, including Jewish families from Thessaloniki during WW2 [take note, David, from the post just above]; and in other instances of extreme need women were also allowed to enter. In Orthodox monasticism, the rules serve a purpose for the monks, but they are never meant to be oppressive, either for themselves or others, even though it may be viewed that way by people who don't understand. Unwillingly, the Vlachs for a short time forced the monks to allow their shepherdesses to use the land, and during the Greek civil war, women rebels happily joined their male comrades in abusing the monks and trashing their environment. A few women have thought it clever to disguise themselves as men and gain entrance.

      The absence of women – as well as of many other things – gives the monks more freedom to devote themselves more fully to prayer, including for those denied entrance to their monasteries and lands (there are women's monasteries, by the way, closed to men for the same reason). I doubt there is another place on earth where men – 2000 of them – spend as much time beseeching God to show his loving kindness to their sisters in the world, even to those who hate and despise them.

      People in these blogs are so quick to speak and judge others without bothering to try to understand them. If you feel compelled to judge and speak, at least take the time to first learn something about those you are ready to condemn – or defend!

      April 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • don't judge

      You do not understand their motives.
      Quick to judge, slow to think. (MTV culture)

      April 24, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
  8. Ahmed Faraz Rao

    The people living there are the children of women.
    So the children of women are allowed to live there.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  9. vicky

    Dear All,
    A word of caution: before blurting and putting in writing whatever comes to your mouth (I'm not saying 'mind' because if you used it you wouldn't write all those inaccuracies) please, please, do some homework !

    April 24, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  10. P M Beyer

    Why would a woman even desire to go there? To redecorate? There certainly aren't any attractive men to choose from. They can have the place, who cares, really. Just like the Vatican, another old men's club. Ick!

    April 24, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • Chris

      Maybe to follow her instinct and clean up a bit?

      April 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  11. poor list

    "they don't have newspapers or television or radio or women"

    The interviewer might have thought twice before incuding women in a list of forms of entertainment. Very poor judgment.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  12. JWH

    Religion killed Christ.
    typical religion.....no women, full of treasures and saved by Hitler himself.
    Unreligion – is treasures in heaven, not saved by Hitler and women are welcome.
    What is missing from religion here is the ONE AND ONLY MESSAGE – Jesus died and rose again that you may live.
    After thousands of years of what> They have no fruit to share the Gospel?

    April 24, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  13. ali

    how do they maintain their population? it must fluctuate a lot without women. i mean. they're basically dependent on word of mouth enrollment of sorts...

    April 24, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  14. Evgenia

    Christos Anesti Χριστός ἀνέστη!

    April 24, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  15. Abu Hamzah

    The Garden of the Mother of God is the name of this temple. So will the so-called mother of god also be banned?

    April 24, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  16. Gorman

    Cheese? What's with cheese? If they import cheese, they're connected to the outside world.

    April 24, 2011 at 6:04 am |
  17. Goner

    No women ever eh?

    I'll bet that place needs a good dusting!

    April 24, 2011 at 5:07 am |
    • Alan tarkenton

      hahahaI'm sure those guys haven't had a proper meal in ages!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  18. David S. Brown

    During World War 11 the Nazis with full cooperation of the Greek Christians rounded up, deported slaughtered and burned 98% of the Jews who were living in Greece at that time. My mother and her immediate family escaped but every cousin aunt uncle, friends, neighbors....... were murdered. I visited Solonika back in 1970, the homes of over 80,000 Jews were still empty with the star of David painted on the walls i was a young boy and that fear stayed with me till i moved here to Israel . A real ghost town. The Greeks still have plenty of praying to free their immortal souls from the depths of Hell.

    April 24, 2011 at 5:05 am |
    • Anton

      Some Greeks – not all. My grandparents were Greeks who suffered terribly under the Nazi occupation. Jews at least have the privilege, it seems, to point fingers because of their more blatant suffering in the holocaust – but aren't all humans rotten anyway? No single people or civilization or culture is innocent, not even the Jews.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • Gina Coroneos

      David, you dont know what you are talking about. The state of Israel has on many occasions thanked Greece for protecting the Greek jews during WWII from the Nazis. Its such a shame that you are unable to see the truth in your obsession to see yourself as a perpetual victim of everybody. You are not. Please for example go and read Salonka by Mark Mazower (a Greek jew from Salonika) where he describes Greece during WWII. Before talking you should become more informed. You owe the Greeks an apology which I am quite sure you will never give because it seems you are of the view that as the perpetual victim you cannot victimise anybody. Shame.

      April 24, 2011 at 5:29 am |
    • Tomas del Carpio

      David, you're an idiot

      April 24, 2011 at 5:48 am |
    • yvonne

      and what are the jewes doing to the palastinian people in israel. They put them in in a town whit walls around and they are not allowed to go in and out when they want to go. does that remind you of the past.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:30 am |
    • Alexandra

      My dad and the rest of my family is from Olympia. My grandfather and many others from the village were against the Nazis and worked hard to prevent them from getting their hands on people and ancient artifacts. My grandfather was one of the men who buried the Hermes statue that is now in the museum in Olympia. I also know my family and the people in the village did not hand over the Jews to the Nazis. An uncle was being hunted by the Nazis for his activities against them and died from a heart attack before he was caught. I am sure there were some Greeks who helped the Nazis, but I know from my family members who were there that they were not welcome. My mother is a Romanian Jew and we lost almost all of our family in Romania. There is good and bad in all countries and cultures. I knew a Polish man who went from the U.S. to Poland to help the Jews and was put in a concentration camp for it. Atrocities about, but you cannot pin it on someone because of their religion, culture or race. Pin it on the person's lack of humanity and morals.

      April 24, 2011 at 6:31 am |
    • Balkhi

      David what you have said is not totally truth and you know it ! Even if I believed your lies thats does not has anything to do with the new generation whom has not witnessed your suspecius story !!

      April 24, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • ali

      the greeks seem to have done to the jews what the jews did to christ. sold out some of their own to prevent the annihilation of the greater populace. if you look at the numbers it makes sense. not saying its an easy decision but hey, the compulsion to survive is quite strong...

      April 24, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • George O.

      As the descendant of those among MANY Greeks who fought the Nazis in the resistance, I am personally offended by your (David's) comments. Perhaps you could read up on history instead of making bigoted generalisations?

      April 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Aristide Caratzas

      With all due respect but you appear to pick facts selectively and ignore the context: The Jews of Thessalonica were seized late in the war (1943), in part because the main rabbi of the community gave their names to the Germans. The rabbi in question pointedly ignored the (strident) advice of the Greek [collaborationist] authorities in part because of his relationship with and trust of the Austrians who manned much of the intelligence apparatus (Waldheim worked for the Abwehr station with which the rabbi had contact).
      This is not to say that there were no Greeks that profited from the elimination of the Jewish community; it should also be remembered that in 1922 there were Jews in Smyrna that took advantage of the elimination of the Greek community there by the forces of Kemal Ataturk (a chapter in the first genocide of the 20th century, i.e. the destruction of the Christians of the Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic). It is a simple historical fact that we have a gamut of human behavior during times of upheaval.
      It is true that the relationship between the Christian Greek and the Thessalonica Jewish communities was often tense, because many the latter were closely identified with the Ottomans (who held the city until 1912). This ethnic tension did not hold for the other Greek Jewish communities, and the large proportion of Jews of the rest of Greece survived, not least because of support from their Christian fellow-citizens. (The family of the undersigned helped give cover to the families of Jewish friends numbering a couple of dozen of people, so that all but one survived).
      I choose to pray for the souls of all manner of people not only those who commit crimes, but also those whom misfortune has twisted to refuse to see virtue past their own narrow group, and they are to be found among people of all cultures and traditions.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Geo

      I am Greek and I will pray, David. I will pray that you get rid of some of your ignorance.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Joe

      i don't know if your story is right but That is exactly what you have done to the palestinians in 1948 and still doing it today and you are maybe living in an arab home of a family that you killed or deported !

      April 24, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Chris

      The Jews are still complaining.I think you should move on and and free Palestine.

      April 24, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Mark

      Did WW 11 happen after WW 10?

      April 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • rodrigo65

      World War 11 ? damn, I have to wake up !

      April 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • David

      Your claim is totally specious and makes the rest of the Jewish people look bad. The Greeks overall did not want to deport anyone. There are so many stories of people, INCLUDING THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH going well out of their way to save people. People even paid the Nazis to ransom their Jewish brethren. Sure, you had collaborators, but thats everywhere in Europe during WW2, that doesn't mean the Greeks in general were Anti-Semitic.

      And a comment to some of the above people, building a wall around the Israeli border with Gaza is not illegal. They kill and fire rockets at civilians intentionally, they are not interested in Peace. The West Bank is a different story. Not every Israeli is some violent, racist person. Most Israelis are secular and want peace. The problem comes from the Religious Right who have 4-7 kids to a family who run a mock of the government, and the fanatics in the settlements who cause trouble in the West Bank.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Gonzo

      World War Eleven? Dear God...

      April 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Sotiris

      You are ignorant and a fool. Both my grandparents fought against the Germans, so I feel personally offended by your racist remarks, and I believe that you should apologise for offending a whole nation, especially on a Holy Day like Easter.

      April 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  19. Mike

    Perfect welfare society.....

    April 24, 2011 at 4:37 am |
  20. Dimitris

    Guys, please do some reading before you comment. I urge to google for Mount Athos or just read the wikipedia article

    April 24, 2011 at 3:04 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.