Saturday, December 10, 2011

Meteora the Magnificent

Once upon a time, or more accurately sixty million years ago, a sea existed in the middle of northern Greece.  Then the earth started pushing the seabed up toward the sky and, with the help of water, wind, and temperature, massive pillars of gray stone emerged near the northwestern edge of today’s Thessaly plain by the mighty Pindus mountain range (the “spine of Greece”) and the wide and fertile Pineios river basin.

Carbon dating conducted in a cave by those natural rock towers revealed human presence in the area 50,000 years ago.  But that cave of Theopetra is not the big draw to the region (in fact, the cave has been closed to the public), nor is it what makes that complex of sandstone and conglomerate cliffs among the most revered sites in Eastern Orthodoxy, second in Greece only to Mount Athos (See, Prey on Patmos).

To find the reason for Meteora’s significance you must look heavenward two thousand feet or so.

Welcome to the scene of more than twelve-hundred years of monastic life “suspended in air,” the literal meaning of meteora.  The first recorded dwellers among the cliffs were 9th Century hermit monks, and although no one knows precisely when the first monastery was built, by the beginning of the 12th Century a rudimentary monastic state had evolved around the church of Theotokos (the mother of God).  That church still stands today.

By the end of the 12th Century many had come to join the community, but it was not until the 14th Century that work began on architectural contributions that still stun the imagination.  The Byzantine Empire was crumbling and Turkish pirates were on the rampage—notably against vulnerable Mount Athos monasteries sitting on an Aegean peninsula 150 miles northeast of Meteora.

Three Mount Athos monks fed up with battling brigands left in search of what they’d heard was a place of miracles and prayer in the land of the “great rock forest.”  There they scaled the heights of the cliffs and with the Serbian emperor as benefactor erected the Grand Metereron (aka Monastery of the Transfiguration). By the 16th Century twenty-four monasteries were built on Meteora, and of the six that survive, Grand Metereron is one of them.

Today, the cliff-side monasteries welcome visitors with roads, steps, and paths, none of which existed in Meteora’s heyday of isolation from the world below.  To shuttle between their fields and flocks down in the valley the monks relied upon ladders as long as 130 feet and hand-cranked hoists to lift baskets and nets well over 1000 feet in the air.  Everything going up and down in those nets, particularly the monks, trusted their fate to the strength of their brethren.

Scary huh?  But wait, there’s more.  Legend has it that the ropes were only replaced “when the Lord let them break.”  Now that’s the sort of workday commute I’d call a true leap of faith.

But the glory years of Meteora’s 15th Century monastic life faded as the unscrupulous plundered the monasteries, squatters took over, and moral direction deteriorated to where one monk lived in a monastery with two women dressed as monks.  There were brief interludes of monastic revival but by the 18th Century it was more a refuge for Greeks fleeing Ottoman overlords and later for 19th Century Greeks fighting Turks in their battle for Independence.  The most serious toll on the monasteries and their treasures, though, came during Greece’s occupation in World War II.

Meterora in the crosshairs
But all that’s in the past, and today Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an absolute must see for anyone interested in architectural brilliance amid magnificent natural beauty.  Particularly if you’re female, because Greece’s other site of such wonder, Mount Athos, forbids women.  Ibid, Prey on Patmos. 

And for those armchair travellers among us, you can catch a bit of it in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, where one of the monasteries serves as the bad guy’s hideout.  The more things change…



  1. My husband has, in common with many pilots, acrophobia, from which I thought I was immune until looking at your pictures. The monks will never see me up there, but the pictures are breathtaking.

  2. Sorry about that, Liz. I guess keeping your eyes closed the whole time to ward off fear would defeat the purpose of the journey. And it might also rattle the monks.

  3. How strange we humans are! The monks built these mountain top retreats to escape the distractions of the world in the twelfth century when the loudest noise pollution was caused by bells on livestock, hawkers in the market, chanting in the churches, and children playing in the road. Now we are assailed by traffic noise, music in cars played at such volume that the car vibrates, and people everywhere either talking to themselves or talking into tiny cell phones.

    No one will ever know how many men lost their lives building the monasteries. Like Liz, I would never have the courage to be in a place where you can be inside and still be standing on the edge of a cliff.

    As to the ropes, God helps those who help themselves. If women were traveling to those mountain tops, they would have checked the equipment a dozen times and then one more.

  4. Breathtaking is right. Some of those sunlit shots look like CGI, just beautiful. I'm glad you showed those pictures because no one could get me up there. I have to order your book so I will know what it's like to be there.

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  6. I want to thank each of you (Beth, Lil, and Liz) for kindly remarking that my piece took you to heights beyond any you ever imagined seeing. We writers need encouragement like that from time to time.

    And yes, Beth, a woman traveler beats an OSHA inspector anytime.

  7. Gorgeous, terrifying, and not for me to visit. I have too much respect for gravity. But what an eye-opener, and what a testimonial to the distraction power of the "real" world that people built these extraordinary retreats to literally be above it all.