I have just returned from one of the world’s most secretive states. I had to apply for a visa a month beforehand and send in a copy of my passport. There is no way into this place by road; you have to arrive on an authorised boat and a policeman checks your visa against your passport before you board. Private boats must keep well offshore and may not land. The visa is valid for only three nights; you have to book each night in advance and may not spend more than one night in the same place. Only ten visas are granted a day.
Women have always been forbidden here — this rule remains strictly in force. A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave — the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year.
Putin made a public rapprochement with the Orthodox church after many years as a KGB agent and therefore a presumed atheist. He well knows that a significant percentage of Russians are adherents so it makes sense to use the church and Mt Athos, or the Holy Mountain as it is known, as a propaganda tool. He has given money to the Russian monastery of Panteleimenos, which houses just 70 monks but has rooms for hundreds more.
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.
Mount Athos is one of the world’s few remaining theocratic states, alongside Iran and the Vatican. It is easier to visit and-travel around Iran or North Korea than it is Mt Athos. Since you have to spend each night in a different monastery, you lose much of the day travelling, meaning you can’t be too inquisitive. Athos is technically within Greece, which handles its external affairs, so Mt Athos is part of the EU — but there is no freedom of movement or equality of the sexes here.
The permanent residents are monks who live in one of 20 monasteries or their dependencies. The monasteries are ancient — the earliest, Great Lavra, dates from 963 ad — but most suffered from fires and neglect. Twenty years ago the number of monks had dwindled to fewer than a thousand, but in recent years there has been a resurgence. The monasteries are Greek apart from a Serbian one, a Russian one and a Bulgarian one.
The monks take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and, once their final vows are sworn, become monks for life. Personal expression is frowned upon. More visas are granted to Orthodox believers who seemed as fervent as the monks; prostrating themselves, endlessly making the sign of the cross and kissing many of the icons and holy relics. The smell of incense is all-pervading. Doubt or questioning is discouraged.
There is building work everywhere, not just restoration but lavish construction. Panteleimenos, the Russian monastery, is so perfect that it looks newly made. At Xenofontos we saw two new buildings made of marble and other fine materials within the confines of an historic site. Nearby, we came upon a cellar that housed a lift, six new stainless steel wine-fermenting vats, new plumbing and electrics of the highest calibre.
The stone walls of field terraces are in perfect repair; the vineyards and olive groves are well tended. There are cranes every-where as well as yellow earth-moving vehicles and diggers, plus trucks laden with cement, slates and other building materials. Looking at the hillsides, I could see evidence of recently graded dirt roads snaking over tortuous mountain passes — but no roads have been built to link Mt Athos with Greece.
The books tell you that there are approximately 1,700 monks in all the monasteries, but I saw sufficient accommodation for ten times that number, including a number of desirable-looking villas, all with sea views.
At Vatopedi, works included a new sea wall and dockside, but few boats were in evidence. We saw similar new docks and boathouses under construction elsewhere, despite the ban on private boats landing here.
Mt Athos is currently one large building site in contrast to the dereliction and poverty of the rest of Greece. It seems unreal that humble monks should be employing so much specialist labour. This must be costing hundreds of millions of euros. The ancient buildings have received EU and Unesco grants, but these surely account for a fraction of the lavish expenditure I observed. Such huge grants could not be justified given that access is so limited and entry is forbidden to women
We were told that Russian money forms an important source of funding all over the-peninsula. Donating to the church to buy favours in heaven doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation. Does Russia have a secret agenda to account for such largesse? Why might Mr Putin be interested in this closed, authoritarian and guarded community?
Many Russians visit and quite a number work here, but I found that people-avoided questions about the role of Russia on Mt Athos. Something deeper and more sinister seems to be at work. Maybe Russia is using Mt Athos as a listening post or centre for intelligence gathering located well behind Nato’s front line; we noticed a number of sophisticated looking antennae and dish arrays.
Could the answer lie in the important strategic position of Mt Athos? It is close to the border with Turkey and the narrow Dardanelles, a convenient haven for Russian vessels coming from their base in the recently annexed Crimea. Should the Turks decide to blockade the narrow channel between Europe and Asia, this place might become a safe haven, even a Russian Gibraltar.
The EU and Greece have questions to answer, as do the inscrutable monks of Mt Athos. Has the Greek government been party to the discussions between the monks and Putin? Greece and Nato have a responsibility to ensure that this small part of Europe remains firmly in our sphere. It is in danger of becoming a Russian satellite, if it has not become one already.
Does the EU know and approve of the price that Mt Athos is paying in return for Russian money?