Nothing beats elevation when you want to get away from the madding crowd (huge deserts and ocean floors are good too, but hard to live in). High mountain peaks also fill the bill, but the Orthodox Christians of mid-15th century Greece, wanting solitude, had some unusual geology close at hand. Near the western edge of the Plains of Thessaly in central northern Greece, lie the Pindus Mountains. These and the surrounding area are made mostly of limestone and sandstone. The area around a place called Meteora is former seabed, uplifted, fractured and faulted, and eroded into sandstone and conglomerate towers that look otherworldly. They must have been a marvelous sight to anyone traveling to the nearby town of Kalambaka. Hermit holy men began to settle in the area around the year 1000, and they secured adequate privacy for their solitary lives in caves found nearby. One sanctuary was built at the base of a rock prominence, but some wanted to find serious isolation.
The strange and wonderful landscape of Meteora.
In the 1300s, Saint Athanasios of the Meteorites (as he became known) began to build the monastery now called the Great Metéoron not at the base of, but on top of one of these great monoliths. It was enlarged over the years, and became the most important in the region. The name is loosely translated from the Greek as “suspended in the air” or “suspended rocks.” The monks could not have chosen a more isolated or difficult location. There was no road or trail to the top of the pinnacle. They had to haul themselves and all their building materials some 1,300 feet up a series of ladders tied together with rope. The story goes that the monks were so frugal that the frayed and weathered ropes were only replaced if they broke, which they felt would happen when the Lord saw fit. In some places, monks had to jump from ladder to ladder due to the layout of the rock face. Talk about faith. Once established at the top, supplies and visitors could be hauled up by net, which must have been nearly as daunting.
A high and secure perch.
Though it is the oldest, and highest, and became the largest of the monasteries of Meteora, it is perhaps not the one that looks the most impossible to have been built. Over the centuries, 24 monasteries were built on the high perches, ranging from 1,000 to 1,800 feet in height. The need to build in these inaccessible locations was fueled to some degree by the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. The Ottoman conquerors were not known to be particularly accommodating to Christian monks. The high monasteries provided an impregnable space, and gave sanctuary to persecuted Greeks and rebel elements in the latter stages of the Ottoman Empire, but the culture of Meteora was for the most part left to function in peace.
Elaborate frescoes adorn the walls within the Varlaam monastery.
Only six of the two dozen monasteries survive today, and most are now open as historical tourist sites. Some still have a few monks living on site, and some of those faithful have never left—their skulls sit on shelves, row upon row, in rooms called ossuaries. Tourists and worshippers no longer have to risk their lives to ascend to the top of these nearer-my-God-to-thee pinnacles, as steep stone staircases have been built over the years, winding their way up the rock faces. One of the monasteries, St. Stephen’s, sits on a stone tower that stands just feet away from another cliff face, and a short bridge was built for easy passage across the gap. Besides the historic and death-defyingly constructed architecture, the monasteries feature some of the best examples of Greek Byzantine frescoes, depicting saints and biblical scenes. Time and isolation were apparently good incubators for devotional artistic expression.
The skulls of monks who served on high.
While the monks and buildings escaped harm or destruction during the ascension of the Ottoman Empire, some of these amazingly built structures were damaged during World War II. Natural wear and tear, including earthquake shaking, has also inflicted damage along the way, but the funds and worker dedication have always been found to restore, and even expand the complexes. Having been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, there will no doubt always be strong support for maintaining these astounding examples of human ingenuity, perseverance, and religious devotion.
Agios Triadas, made more famous by James Bond.
And if the setting looks vaguely familiar to you despite not having been there, it may be because the Holy Trinity monastery—the AgiaTriada—was the location of scenes in the 1981 James Bond thriller, For Your Eyes Only. A curious intersection of the sacred and the secular.
Just got to see Meteora to believe it? Let Michelin guide your way with this travel map of Greece, available here from Maps.com:
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Header Image: The plan of the katholikon
source: Wikimedia Commons: Erud (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: The strange and wonderful landscape of Meteora.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Dimitris9444
(CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: A high and secure perch.
caption: Agios Triadas, made more famous by James Bond.
caption: Elaborate frescoes adorn the walls within the Varlaam monastery.
caption: The skulls of monks who served on high.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Zdvihak
(CC byn 3.0 Unported)
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