Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Friday at the 1,000-year-old monastic community of Mount Athos, in the first visit by a Russian head of state since the early 20th century Bolshevik revolution to what is regarded as the cradle of Orthodox Christianity.
"I am grateful for the opportunity you gave me to visit the Holy Mountain," Putin told assembled abbots of the peninsula's 20 monasteries at a welcoming ceremony in Karyes, the medieval community's administrative center.
"This is a very special place for Orthodox Christians and the whole Christian world. In Russia, we always held the monks who lived here in great admiration and respect."
The Russian president started his trip from the small port of Dafni, the main point of entry to the all-male, autonomous sanctuary in northern Greece. He was due to continue to the monastery of Saint Panteleimon, which houses Russian monks, as well as Iviron Monastery, the AP informs.
Putin had planned to visit Mount Athos - a narrow, rocky peninsula east of Thessaloniki - last year, but the trip was canceled following the Sept. 1-3 Beslan school siege in southern Russia, in which 331 people were killed.
The Russian president arrived in Greece on Thursday, and held talks with Greek Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis at a heavily guarded seaside hotel in Port Carras. The two discussed a planned oil pipeline, Cyprus, the Balkans and relations between Russia and the European Union.
More than 1,500 monks live on Mount Athos, a self-governing Orthodox Christian community also known as the Holy Mountain, from which women are banned.
Mount Athos is considered a spiritual cradle of the Orthodox faith, and its conservative monks are widely perceived as guardians of the faith. Its monasteries' libraries are stocked with ancient and medieval manuscripts, while its' treasuries contain religious and secular artifacts dating back to Byzantine times.
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