The Rocks of Ages.
The handful of remaining monasteries at Metéora in central Greece suspend on the gnarly knobs and knots and knuckles of sandstone as if glued into place. Some of the buildings appear as if they would slip off the striated slick rock if a gale wind kicked up. (Opening photo is of The Holy Trinity Monastary.)
In the often complicated Greek tongue Metéora means “suspended in air” or often “in the heavens above”. The early Eastern Orthodox nuns and priests placed their communes of nature on the “Rock of Ages” to get closer to god. At one time 24 monasteries populated the popcorn-shaped domes but now only a few are still actively occupied, usually with about ten nuns or priests in each enclave. Metéora is the largest concentrations of monasteries in all of Greece, but is second in importance to Mount Athos for worshippers of the Eastern Orthodox faith.
My first panoramic glimpse of the magnificent monasteries was the divine inspiration from the glass-windowed elevator at the Divani Hotel, located at the boulder strewn base where our Insight Vacations tour group bivouacked for adventure. The natural sandstone pylons and pillars and puff-balls are uplifted from Greece’s largest open plain of Thessaly, the home of Hercules. We had passed the small town of Kalambaka on the northwestern edge of the plain on the way to the Divani.
The new Eastern Orthodox Church below ancient monasteries.
From the top of the outcrops is seen the Pineios River which flows around the Pindus Mountains foothills, where its braids of floodwaters once laid down the sand and conglomerates that were compressed over millions of years before the thrust upward. The spears and pinnacles were formed during the Paleocene Period 60 million years ago. Earthquakes dropped the river valley floor along a fault line, and as the valley dropped (called a graben) the edges of the valley were pushed up and weathering carved the sandstone into the present shapes.
How many monasteries can you find in the photo?
Note the church in the fissure.
Metéora (pronounced matt-tear-ah) is a natural amphitheater of beautifully composed shadows and light, so magnanimous that it was added to the UNESCO catalog of unique places in the world; the rocky domain name is similar to the Greek word “Meteorite”; possibly the Titans tossed down the geological wonders when struggling with the lesser demagogues during their battle for heaven.
The average height of the monasteries is about 300 meters or about 1,000 feet above the plain, but I guarantee you the views from the church balustrades are verges of vertigo.
Some of the more remote monasteries have dinky cable cars to bring up goods and guests. The James Bond thriller, “For Your Eyes Only”, starring Roger Moore, shot gut wrenching scenes of the scenery here.
A much older chapel clings to the rocks.
Before the Christian era, and 50,000 years ago, inhabitants occupied the Theopetra caves five kilometers south of Metéora. Radio carbon dating proved that it was a substantial population, but they had not moved to the “Knob Hill” aerie yet. In the 9th century A.D. the first monastic ascetics scrambled to the ancient spires. At first they lived in the rock hollows and tower fissures. When looking through my telescopic camera lens I inadvertently discovered neatly placed gray rocks that blended in perfectly with the pinnacle’s natural colors. It was one of the earliest structures hand-built with mortar-less walls and still clinging to the lip like an unused eagle’s nest; only the shadows gave away its presence.
The early hermits lived a simple life of solitude, with the sheerness of their lofty home keeping out the tourists. They congregated only on Sundays and on special occasions. The first true chapel was constructed at the foot of the rock known as Dhoupiani. There is no known date for the construction of the first monastery but by the early 12th century A.D. a monastic state was cobbled together called the Skete of Stagoi, and it was centered on the church of Theotokos (mother of God) which still stands today, possibly making it the oldest monastery. By the end of the 12th century A.D. Metéora was a thriving religious community.
In 1344 A.D., Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought his followers to Metéora and built the great Meteoron monastery (from 1356 to 1372) on the Broad Rock. When the monks felt politically threatened they just hauled up the long ladder, the only means of reaching their abode in the sky.
The Meteoron Monastery is the largest, built on the Broad Rock.
The hermetic life of solitude.
By then end of the 14thcentury A.D. the Turkish Ottomans were pushing into the crumbling Byzantine Empire’s Grecian realms; the Turks coveted the fertile fields and plains of Thessaly. Again the monks retreated to Metéora and rode out the eastern storm of occupation. During this time an additional 20 monasteries were built for the burgeoning population; there were now 24 in total.
About 1517, Nectarios and Theophanes built their monastery of Varlaám, which was reputed to house the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew. They added nets to the lashed together ladders to haul up goods. In the 1920s steps were carved into the living rock with a bridge thrown across the expanse from a plateau to the Varlaám monastery, which still dominated its dome. Some of the monasteries were bombed in World War II and some of the art treasures were stolen from the small chapels and churches.
The steep climb to the top.
I climbed the 134 steps to the small Roussanou Monastery and crossed a couple of wire mesh bridges across deep fissures and looked down to another chapel hidden in the shadows with awe inspiring arrows of rock all around.
The Holy Monastery of St. Stephen and Monastery Roussanou/St. Barbara are inhabited by nuns. I squeezed my way through narrow hallways and down steep steps to the higher Roussanou chapel built about 1560 A.D. The medieval artworks all had a kind of varnishy sheen, encrusted with the ages that turned the bright colors to a dimmed glow, like the interior of the chapel itself. Curtains were drawn and no cameras were allowed to protect the treasures. Black clad nuns went about their duties as if we tourists didn’t exist.
Our tour visited the Roussanou Monastery for nuns.
Rope ladders were once the only access.
The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest monastery at Metéora, built in the mid-14th century A.D., and now utilized as a museum. The Katholikon (main church) honors the Transfiguration of Jesus and it was consecrated in 1387/88 A.D. The Holy Monastery of Varlaám is the second largest monastery in the Metéora complex. It was built in 1541 A.D. A church, dedicated to All Saints, is in the Athonite type (cross-in-square with dome and choirs), with spacious esonarthex (lite) surrounded by a dome. It was built in 1541/42 and decorated in 1548, while the esonarthex was decorated in 1566. The old refectory is used as a museum while north of the church is the parekklesion of the Three Bishops, built in 1627 and decorated in 1637.
The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, built in the 16th century A.D., is a small church, decorated by the Cretan painter Theophanis Strelitzas, in 1527. The most remote of the present monasteries is the Holy Trinity on top of the cliffs, built in 1475.
St. Stephen Monastery offers tourists the easiest access, with our motorcoach able to park in a lot nearby; the church was built and decorated about 1545. The most magnificent paintings and sculptures and gardens were at St. Stephen. A small gift shop sold nunnery made items. The monastery harbored Greek insurgents during World War II, so consequently the Nazis destroyed sections of it but the nuns rebuilt it after the war.
The St. Stephen Monastery is for nuns.
St. Stephen’s rock garden.
Around the world many monasteries often take in overnight guests, but not at Metéora to my knowledge. The awesomeness of the cliffs and remoteness of some of the chapels makes Metéora memorable, especially on a full moon as we encountered. Insight Vacations accommodates guests in the best and most strategic hotels on its tours, and the Divani certainly fit the bill. The dinner buffet was one of the best I came across in Greece, with a full display of locally grown organic vegetables and meats.
The most awesome tour of Greece is the Glories of Greece excursion with Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com) which covered the vast Thessaly plains in restful motorcoach style. We stopped off at the Pass of Thermopylae for a quick gander where the Spartans held off an overwhelming Persian force while the citizens of Athens escaped to the island of Salamis in 480 B.C.
The 4-Star Divani Hotel.
On the way back from Metéora we passed through the small city of Marathon, 24 miles from Athens where in 1930 the world’s only marble dam was constructed.
In 490 B.C. the Athenians destroyed the Persian forces and a “marathon” runner brought the news to the citizens of Athens; the marble quarries on the hills around Marathon can only be used to reconstruct old temples in Athens. I guess the Persians ransacked and burned Athens in 480 B.C. to avenge for their Marathon defeat.
On the Insight Vacations tour we visited numerous major ancient archaeological sites throughout the beautiful countryside of Greece. The London-based tour operator offers exceptional tours all over the world.
The Holy Monastery of Varlaám;
Church on the “Rock of Ages”.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.