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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. Allison

    Hmmm, instead of becoming a sanctuary and working to rescue people who were being persecuted by the Nazis they got "personal protection" from Hitler. Go ahead, isolate yourself... that is how you stay ignorant and archaic. Remove temptation and there is no reason to grow or practice self control. It's just another case of all or nothing logic.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  2. Mark Waldron

    The article is not strictly correct. It isn't that no women are allowed on Mt. Athos. Rather, only *one* woman is allowed on Mt. Athos. From the area's nickname, the Garden of the Mother of God, you can probably infer who that one woman is.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  3. abc123

    If these monks were actually muslims, I wonder how many of you would be blasting islam right now?... How many cnn and foxnews shows would be dedicated to this "discrimination and prejudice" against women?

    April 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  4. capnkirksniples

    poor cat, must just lie curled up in the fetal position, shaking.......

    April 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  5. Proud I am a woman

    Gee I don't care if they don't allow me to go in there. They can live in their own little world, I'll enjoy the rest! Who is better off here?

    April 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  6. Proud I am a woman

    Gee I don't care if they don't allow me to go in there. I don't think I am missing anything. They can live in their own little world, I'll enjoy the rest! Who is better off here?

    April 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      I am so glad your proud. Leave the poor monks alone, they are just doing their thing.

      April 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  7. capnkirksniples

    poor cat, by now it just lies in the fetal position shaking.......

    April 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  8. Paul NYC

    At least they recognize the worth of kittehs.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  9. Ted Ward

    Judging from the pathetic remarks here, these fine and pious monks would do well to stay right where they are for the next thousand years, even without women. The furniture can stay right where it is, and who needs to ask for directions when you're staying in the same place?

    April 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  10. justlook502

    its a man cave,of course woman arent allowed

    April 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  11. steve

    The purpose of these Monks is to get closer to God and to prepare for his second coming. They love God and nothing else matters. It's hard for us to understand who live in a material world of sin, greed and corruption of the body and soul. They spend all their time praying, upkeeping the monestary, with minimal amount of food they grow. They live a long life without the stress and man-made illness of the world. Don't feel sorry for them; feel sorry for the rest of us!

    April 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • tsmith

      It's unfortunate they don't use their faith and love for God to help others in need, including women and children. Go out into the world and help others if you love God. So the real test for avoiding temptation is just facing it head on and trusting your God to help you overcome it. Seems incredibly selfish to just hole yourself into a bubble to pray instead of serving God in the world that he created for us to help each other.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  12. laero9

    extremist, fundamentlist, backwards, frozen in time!!! sounds familiar?

    April 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Drew

      Is it any skin off your neck if these monks want to separate themselves from the outside world?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      Muslims?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  13. iftikhar khan

    "female animals are also banned".........OMG, those monks are so........

    April 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  14. Navigate

    Every one of those men were born, nurtured and loved by a woman who hopefully had a husband. I wonder why they would devote their entire lives to worship the same god that made those same mothers that bor them and not allow women to worship? Or did they get the response they wanted per the article so that tourist can visit and chip in a bit.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Frank

      Tourists? Did you read the article? It took years before they would agree to allow these journalists to come to the island, and they are all about separation from things of the world. I highly doubt that they allow tourism.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  15. John

    No women...what is there to live for? I would hang myself.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      I guess they haven't rearranged the furniture or redecorated in ages!

      April 23, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Navigate

      I have to agree with you on that.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  16. Susan

    Well the "no women allowed" thing is rather offensive, but I do find this to be really fascinating none the less. A thousand years is a looooong time. I guess I am just happy to see that it is possible for something to endure that long. Female cats are allowed. No wonder cats think they are gods.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  17. steve maminakis

    At the beginning Bob Simon says "we will take you to Turkey". Obviously he's been hitting the bottle because Mt Athos is in Greece as even the article states. You would think he would know the difference between Greece and Turkey?

    April 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  18. Mike

    I understand the prohibition against women is to free one's self from erotic temptation. So the logic behind prohibiting female animals is.....?

    April 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Bob

      Ex. Lonely farmer + whole lotta sheep = Let's hope you can figure this one out.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Edwin

      I believe the prohibition is no animals of any kind, not just no female animals. They are probably vegetarian.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Ntchwaidumela

      Sheep.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  19. Crazy Ed

    I wonder how many jars of Vaseline these Greek monks have gone through in the last 1000 years?

    April 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Jonny

      That's mature and insightful....

      April 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • SpiderMan

      nonetheless....

      a valid question.....

      April 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Ntchwaidumela

      Maybe they have an endless supply of sheep. They, white men, would take sheep on those long voyages. Why do you think it's illegal to baaaah a sheep.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      Probably less than you.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  20. Angel

    It figures, another religion, that downgrades women!!!

    April 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Matthew

      no moron, it's cause they want to avoid erotic temptation. God almighty nobody raises a fuss if a female organization doesn't allow men, so why can't men do the same?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • tsmith

      Stop calling people morons – so rude and inappropriate

      April 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Gil

      Amen, Matt. But what would women do if there was nothing to complain about?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Freethinker

      Muslims are notorious from hiding from temptation instead of facing it. Forbidding women in your monastry does not mean you have won the greatest jihad against ones self, it means you run away and hide from your enemy so you wont have to fight. That is the same reason muslims make their women cover themselves from head to toe, so they can control their own lusts. Cowards.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Frank

      There was no reference to any "downgrading" of women in either the minds or religion of the men at this monastery. The very term "monastery" assumes that all of the residents are male, just as "convent" assumes that all the residents are female. These men are just taking it one step further, by becoming entirely self-sufficient. It would be totally contradictory to their way of life if they had women travelling to and from the island every day, as nothing else except for cheese makes this trip. And women certainly could not live on the island, as it is a monastery, which, as I said before, exclusively houses men. Maybe you should consider the context before making sweeping judgments of religious beliefs.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Ntchwaidumela

      Yeah, another religion that downgrades women. I am a male and if you look at history, women have always been the beginning of the end in almost every regard. Wasn't a woman on tv complaining about not being able to interview a man in a locker room during the PGA championships? Money is the root of evil, women are it's fruit. Who doesn't like fruit? I love fruit, unfortunately.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
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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.