MOUNT ATHOS – Vladimir Putin fulfilled his pledge to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos yesterday when, after two aborted visits in the past, the Russian president arrived at the Holy Mountain as the first Russian leader to visit the cradle of Orthodoxy. Byzantine and Russian pomp and splendor combined to welcome the distinguished guest yesterday, after a major security operation on the part of Russian and Greek police services. At Karyes, monks were out in force with a delegation from the Holy Community to greet him according to Byzantine protocol. The welcome was like no other given to a foreign leader, according to a Mount Athos official who drew attention to the centuries-old links between the Russian Orthodox Church and the monastic community of Mount Athos. The Russian monastery’s 12-ton bell – the largest still used in the Orthodox Church and which can be heard as far as the Sporades Islands – started ringing out early in the morning, reaching a crescendo as Putin entered the monastery gate. Putin appeared particularly moved when praying at the St Panteleimon Monastery and the hermitage of St Andreas in Karyes, which both have a strong Russian tradition. The Russian president arrived at Karyes, the gateway to Mount Athos, just after midday from nearby Sithonia, where he had met the previous evening with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. Wearing a black suit and shirt but no tie, he walked from the square in Karyes, accompanied by the chief superintendent Pavlos Lavriotis, toward the Church of the Protaton where he spoke to each of the abbots and other members of the Athos delegation, before lighting a candle and kissing the Axion Esti icon. After the liturgy, Putin expressed his joy at having had the opportunity to visit such a «special place for the Christian world,» adding that in Russia the Athos community members were held in great esteem. He then met with members of the Holy Community and was presented with an icon of Saint Athanassios; he in turn presented the community with a silver icon. After a visit to the Monastery of Iviron, it was on to St Panteleimon for the highlight of his visit. Russian and Ukrainian monks wearing white robes were lined up at the entrance to the church, headed by Abbot Jeremiah, who accompanied Putin into the church to the sound of Byzantine hymns chanted in Russian. The Russian president reportedly presented the abbot with a check for 3 million dollars toward the restoration of the monastery. Putin was due to return to Thessaloniki last night, although, according to unconfirmed reports, he was planning to stay overnight at the monastery, now surrounded by presidential guards aided by electronic satellite surveillance systems, land and sea searches by Russian frogmen and explosives experts. Local workers were replaced by Russian policemen aided by sniffer dogs. The Russians brought a doctor to examine the president’s food.