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At the edge of the Pindus Mountain across the great plain of Thessaly in central Greece, are a collection of monestaries that have been built hundreds of feet up on columns of rock. These are know as the monestaries of Meteora. From these lofty height, monks once lived simple lives of devotion to God. Today only a few of these magnificent structures are still open to visits from the public.
Rising nearly a thousand feet over the valley floor, the 24 pillars of sheer rock are one of the most spectacular sights on earth. As phenomenal as these gigantic rocks may be, the buildings, which cling unbelievably to their surfaces, are even more amazing. It is on these barren and inaccessible rocks that a center of Byzantine art was created.
The earliest inhabitants of the rocks’ crevices were simple hermits and monks, who first arrived here as early as the 10th century. Attracted by the seclusion of the place, they lived their lives and worshipped within the many caves of these rocks. On Sundays and holidays they often gathered at Stagi, the place of the saints (present day Kalambaka), and formed religious communities.
Abbot Gregorious of Magoula and his companion St. Athanasios, two monks from Mt. Athos, arrived here in 1336. The Abbot eventually returned to Mt. Athos, but he commanded St. Athanasios to build
a monastery here. St. Athanasious chose the largest rock in the area as the foundation for his task. He called it Meteora, from the Greek word meteorizome, which means “to hang in midair”, because it seemed to be suspended between heaven and earth.
Legend isn’t clear whether St. Athanasious was carried by an angel, or flew on the back of an eagle, to the top of the rock where he built the first monastery. Most likely, he used some form of scaffolding to conquer the sheer rock face. In 1356 he began construction on Megalo Meteoro - the Great Meteora - which was to be only the first “monastery in mid-air”. Then, using ropes and pulleys he hauled up construction materials until 1372, when he considered the task complete.
Megalo Meteoro is not only the first monastery, it is also highest, reaching 1361 feet above the valley. And in its day it was the most powerful of the monasteries. St. Joasaph, son of the king of Serbia, became one of St. Athanasios’ followers. His lineage enlarged and enriched the monastery, providing the monastery with jurisdiction and extended privileges over the others for centuries. St. Athanasios’ monastery attracted many followers and he was soon followed by other monks who sought a monastic life without outside interference.
In the 15th century the turks invaded Europe, and by 1460 overran and conquered all Greece. During the time of the Turkish occupation the monasteries kept much of the Hellenic culture alive. These were not only religious centers, but academic and artistic center as well. Because of its remote location, the monasteries were of little importance to the turks and by the 16th century there were at least 20 small settlements and 13 monasteries.
During the 17th century a long, slow decline of monasticism began. By the 18th century the smaller, poorer monasteries could no longer afford to maintain the buildings. Many were abandoned, or neglected to the point where they were no longer habitable. As a vocation, monasticism lost its’ appeal, and even the wealthy monasteries, plagued by bitter power struggles, declined and faded away.
By the 19th century, the few remaining monasteries attracted the attention of travelers, and word of them began to spread. The near impossibility of these structures drew the tourists. Their wooden balconies and red-tiled roofs crowned the tops of seemingly impossible pinnacles. Rain water was collected in cisterns, cut in the rock, and most monasteries had small gardens. Originally all access to the monasteries was either by climbing retractable ladders or by riding in a net, suspended at the end of a long rope, which was pulled up by a winch.
Inside, the monasteries limited space allowed only a small, cramped cell for each monk, and an equally small kitchen and refectory for meals. The church, to which the monastery is dedicated, were often constructed many years after the completion of the monastery itself. These islands of monasticism provide a fascinating insight into the everyday life monks led in such confined spaces.
Before the 1920’s, tourist accessed the monasteries by climbing 100 feet or more up rickety ladders, or were winched up in a net or basket. In some monasteries, supplies are still hauled up by net.
A common story is that the early tourists riding in the baskets were put at ease, being told that the rope was replaced whenever it breaks. Tourism rapidly developed in the 1960’s when a road was built from the town of Kalambaka.
Today visitors take narrow steps carved into the rocks or cross swaying footbridges to the monasteries. Of the 30 or more monasteries that once flourished at this site, only six are still functioning and open to the public. Many of the structures, which stood since before the birth of Columbus, abound in religious artifacts, frescoes, icons, and history. Many monks, to regain solitude, have moved out of this region and the sites have become more like museums than living communities.
The most famous of the monasteries is Ayia Triada, the quintessential monastery in the air. Seen in the climactic close of the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, it feels the most primitive and remote of all the monasteries. Founded by Dometius, a monk who arrived here in 1438, the monastery was built on its’ lofty perch between 1458 and 1476, and even has a small area of cultivable land
If You Go:
The winding road leading up to the monasteries can be a hazardous drive. It is narrow and must be navigated with care, especially when large tourist busses are on their way down. It is best to drive to the top early in the day before the tourist busses arrive, and do your sightseeing on the way down. That way you are always driving with the canyon walls at your side and not along the edge of the drop.
There is a fee (about $10 per person) to enter each monastery, and rules of conduct and dress are enforced. For the men, shorts are not permitted, and long hair must be tucked up. For the women, skirts must fall below the knees, and shorts, trousers, or sleeveless dresses are not allowed.
In the summer it can get hot, so take plenty of bottled water with you. Expect to spend at least a half day exploring the sites and admiring the view. Lunch can be had in the town of Kalambaka.