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Apart from the Orthodox icons hanging on the walls, it resembled the waiting area of a provincial police station, complete with a glass partition between the monastic bureaucrats and the applicants. On my mother’s side, there is some Russian Orthodox blood, and in my passport my place of birth is listed as Russia, the most populous Orthodox country in the world.

This was apparently enough to earn me a diamonitirion, the visitor’s permit that comes stamped with an image of the Virgin Mary.

A lot of them seemed as confused as we were upon reaching the ancient city of Karyes, the capital of the Holy Mountain.

It is a tiny hamlet, consisting of a bus station, a medieval church and a few administrative buildings, along with a few cafes and souvenir shops, where T-shirts printed with Putin’s face were on sale next to rosary beads and icons of Orthodox saints.

“Forbidden entry for all,” said the sign on the other side of it.

“Violators will be prosecuted fully to the extent of the law.”We started to question our chances.

From the port of Daphne, where our ferry came ashore, we pushed our way onto a bus full of pilgrims, priests and monks from all around southern and eastern Europe, mostly Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians and Serbs.

Like any large community of people, they come in all types, including a fair share of zealots.

Some were narrow-minded or even hateful in their opinions of the sinners of the outside world.

The shopkeeper said the shirts were selling briskly, and he advised us on how to reach the place where we were staying.

Over the next four days we met dozens of monks on Mount Athos, and apart from the fact that they have beards and dress in black, it is difficult to generalize about them.

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Men not baptized into the Orthodox faith are discouraged from even visiting, as we learned upon presenting our documents at the Athos pilgrimage office.

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