"This is where they all come, and I'm the one who lets them in," says Father George, the sentinel monk who patrols the coiling dirt road...

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“This is where they all come, and I’m the one who lets them in,” says Father George, the sentinel monk who patrols the coiling dirt road into Moni Vatopediou, one of 20 monasteries on the isolated Greek peninsula of Mount Athos.

Today, this spit of cliffs and forests inhabited by 2,400 monks in northeastern Greece is a private pilgrimage site for many of the more than 2,250 elite politicians and businessmen assembled this week in the ski village of Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF).

Long before global paladins such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Citigroup Chief Executive Charles Prince embarked on their annual pilgrimage to Davos, Mount Athos was celebrated as the Western world’s most fashionable retreat where leaders came to ponder their souls and the state of the world.

The pilgrims in recent years have included Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, King Juan Carlos of Spain and former President Carter and Interaction Fund manager George Karaplis, the former chief financial officer of Hellenic Telecommunications Organization.

“The men come from all over the world,” explains Father George, 65, sweeping his visitors log toward the rugged terrain that for more than 1,000 years has served as host for the likes of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I, French President Charles de Gaulle, actor Mel Gibson, Prince Charles, President George H.W. Bush, Cuban President Fidel Castro, the Aga Khan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Peter Armitage, president and CEO of Capital International Fund Management in Los Angeles.

Standing outside his log guard cabin, Father George says the visitors come to “a mountain of saintly men,” all seeking to master a balance between the secular and the spiritual.


A view of the courtyard inside Moni Vatopediou monastery. According to the guest book, the first global business leader to visit was a grain broker on Nov. 19, 1444. King Alfonso of Spain followed in 1456.

WEF founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab says his 34-year-old Davos retreat, “an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world,” is also constructed on the monastic conventions of dialogue and contemplation.

World Economic Forum facts

Who: Presidents, ministers, religious leaders, labor organizers and others.

What: The 34th annual meeting of global leaders.

When: Five days starting tomorrow.

Where: Davos, Switzerland.

Why: Presentations, networking, debate and wheeling and dealing.

Agenda: With the global economy at risk from the weak dollar, the war in Iraq, Mideast instability and rising oil prices, participants in the exclusive annual meeting in the Alpine ski resort will wrestle with how to keep the world’s economic engine running smoothly.

Source: CBS MarketWatch

Spiritual focus

Indeed, along with seminars on “Asia’s New Multinationals” and comments by European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers on “Keeping the Global Economy Growing,” the WEF this year brings together 26 religious leaders from around the globe to host four assemblies dedicated to untangling spiritual issues. Gates is a co-chairman of this year’s forum.

“Davos is a search for the meaning of life and the meaning of what you’re doing in it,” the 66-year-old Schwab says. “The WEF is a religious quest but also a quest into other areas such as economics and biotechnology. Davos is the modern take on monastic endeavors.”

Yet, unlike Davos, the drama that world leaders experience atop Mount Athos is mostly personal and unfolds without the fanfare of media glare.

“Mount Athos was a private moment that I’d rather not talk about,” Armitage says through his spokesman, Chuck Freadhoff.

“The visits are kept very secret,” says Paris Kritikos, 52, proprietor of Kritikos Restaurant in the port village of Ouranoupoli.

“The boats to the Holy Mountain leave from here,” he explains while grilling lamb over an open fire. “I feed all the big names before they go in and after they come out. I have seen the change on their faces.”

No women allowed

Other than those making pilgrimages, which usually last three days and are free, the monks allow about 120 daily visitors to the heavily guarded Mount Athos, where entry is by boat or helicopter and women are forbidden.

Each day at 4 a.m., a lone monk in a flowing black cassock and habit walks the cloister of Vatopediou and pounds a wooden mallet against a 10-foot oblong plank. It awakens the 150 brothers and the pilgrims of many faiths to an almost five-hour Orthodox Christian service followed by a silent breakfast of wine, vegetables and prayer.

At the same time, similar rituals are taking place inside the 19 other Orthodox monasteries sprawled across the 135-square-mile peninsula.

“Deciding on a monastery is a metaphysical management decision,” is how Karaplis describes the process of selecting a retreat. “The spirits, God, call it what you want, tell you what monastery to go to.”

“Every CEO needs to visit Mount Athos,” the 48-year-old fund manager adds. “I’ve accompanied senior executives from Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley, but the privacy of the experience, the transformation these men experience on Mount Athos prevents me from revealing their names.”

The monks, too, say there are no names on the Holy Mountain. The only illumination in Vatopediou’s 10th-century basilica comes from candles, their glow reflected off clouds of frankincense, four massive gold chandeliers suspended from the frescoed dome, and an equal number of 15-foot-tall gold candlesticks on the rose-and-green marble floor.

From the darkened narthex, chanting monks with chest-length beards emerge, trancelike, to worship what they say is the belt of the Virgin Mary, a piece of the True Cross and the some 27 saintly body parts left in their care along with more than 4,000 priceless icons.

“Vatopediou is a place of miracles,” says Father Matthew, 53, a monk from Wisconsin who manages the abbey’s computerized building-supply warehouse from inside a converted donkey stable.

It’s also a place of wealth and influence.

Origins with Mary

The monks say the Holy Mountain was first settled by the Virgin Mary. The businessmen came in A.D. 985, three wealthy medieval merchants who spent their fortunes building Vatopediou and founding the abbey’s holy order. According to the guest book, the first global business leader was the Italian grain broker Ciriaco d’Ancona on Nov. 19, 1444.

King Alfonso of Spain followed in 1456. The Medicis arrived in 1472.

“All the mules in the Holy Mountain would not be enough to carry the gold in the treasury of Vatopediou,” one anonymous 16th-century pilgrim wrote in the guest book.

“No ego” there

“Vatopediou is the original WEF,” explains Karaplis, who since 1991 has made 70 pilgrimages to Mount Athos.

“It’s much better than the WEF,” he says. “There’s no ego on Mount Athos. No one expects anything of you, so you don’t face the cold, competitive and cutthroat atmosphere that awaits you in Davos.”

Schwab is quick to disagree and says the WEF offers world leaders a singular occasion to become aware of themselves and how they perceive and manage global affairs.

“Davos is a place to reflect,” Schwab argues. “Davos Men develop an awareness of priorities and leave with a clear vision of what’s going on in the world.”

Father Irenaios isn’t so sure. For the past seven years, the French monk says he has taken the confessions of many WEF attendees.

Weight of world

“I’ve spent hours listening to professionals, businessmen and politicians,” Father Irenaios recalls after an evening meal of grain and mountain grasses. “All of them have great problems in focusing on what is important. They all come to Vatopediou with a need to understand the difficulties they face in work and in their lives.”

Filling small glasses with a fiery eau de vie called “tsipouro,” Father Germanos, the deputy abbot, nods in agreement and adds, “All businessmen come to Vatopediou feeling a great emptiness.”

What the monks see is a global economy in which Davos Man is increasingly tormented by moral obstacles that money and power can’t overwhelm.

“Explaining how Vatopediou changes men is a hard question to answer,” says old Graham Speake, the Oxford, England-based manager of the Swiss publishing house Peter Lang and author of “Mount Athos, Renewal in Paradise” (Yale University Press, 2002). “We read, go to confession and talk to the fathers. We find wisdom.”

“I drove 10 companies into bankruptcy by the age of 38 to make money,” Karaplis says. “I traveled the world, divorced and with a bag of pills.

“By chance, I went to Mount Athos. I got off the boat and for no reason started running. One of the monks handed me a piece of cake and said, ‘George, why did it take you so long to come here?’ I’d never seen this man. Everything I knew went out the window. That’s not very CEOlike, is it?”