Meteora Monasteries: The Ancient Religious Buildings Floating In The Sky

Boasting its vast complex of giant rock pillars with monasteries built on the rugged sandstone, this once deeply religious setting was regarded as a perfect place to achieve absolute isolation.

The Monasteries of Meteora are now open to the public as a museum
The Monasteries of Meteora offer utterly breathtaking views

Meteora means "in the air," and the monasteries are indeed up in the sky. Perched astonishingly atop sheer pillars and pinnacles of rock up to 1,800 feet (549m) high on the edge of the Pindus Mountains, they look over the valley of the Pinios River in Thessaly in central Greece. Until the 1920s, visitors either had to climb perilous and rickety ladders, 100 feet (30.5m) or longer, fastened to the rock (these could be drawn up from above as a precaution against attack) or were hauled up by rope in a swaying net. The local straight-faced joke was that the rope was only fixed if it broke.

Supplies are still hauled up in nets, but the monasteries began attracting tourists after the First World War, and especially after the 1960s, when a new road was built from the town of Kalambaka to make them easier to reach. Access now is by long flights of steps cut into the rock and across bridges over dizzying precipices. Many monks have moved away to regain privacy, and the sites today are more like museums than living communities.

Holy Trinity monastery at Meteora
Holy Trinity monastery at Meteora

Worshipping God in remote and barren places, far from the pleasures and preoccupations of ordinary daily life, was an element of Christianity from early on. Ascetics were already living in caves and on top of the rock pillars in this region in the 12th century, but the founder of the principal monastery, the Great Meteoron, arrived in about 1350. He was St. Athanasios, a monk from Mount Athos. According to legend, he was lifted up to the top of the pillar on which the monastery now stands by either an angel or an eagle. His pupil, Joasaph, a son of the king of Serbia, enlarged and enriched the foundation 30 or 40 years later.

Many more communities - over 30 in all - were founded in the 15th and 16th centuries after the Turks conquered Thessaly, but a long, slow decline set in during the 17th and 18th centuries and most of them have not survived. In the 19th century, the monasteries attracted the attention of inquiring and indomitable travellers, and word of them began to spread.

Built of stone, with red-tiled roofs and wooden galleries projecting vertiginously over deep abysses, the monasteries had a cramped cell for each monk, a church, and a refectory for meals. Cisterns were cut in the rock to catch rainwater. The refectory at Agios Varlaam was restored as a museum in the 1960s. At the Great Meteoron, you can see the simple kitchen with its clumsy bowls and ladles. In both, the churches are adorned with frescoes depicting hell and the grisly sufferings of martyrs, replete with hackings and beheadings, hammerings and nailings, stabbings, boilings, and skinning alive. The deserted monastery of Agios Nickolaos has fine 16th-century frescoes by an artist from Crete named Theophanis.

The monasteries were strictly for men, but there were also nunneries. One of them, Agios Stephanos, is reached by a bridge over a terrifying chasm. Like all the communities, it commands the most breathtaking views.

The Great Meteoron Monastery
The Great Meteoron Monastery

The Life of Prayer

From late in the 3rd century A.D., Christian ascetics retreated into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to lead austere lives of prayer and meditation, away from people and close to God. They were also well away from the growing authority of the church. Their numbers increased in the 4th century when Christianity, now the official religion, became more identified with the power of the state.

The most famous of their early hermits was St. Antony of Egypt, celebrated for the attacks made on him by armies of evil spirits in grotesque and horrible forms, which furnished a lively theme for generations of painters. Another famous figure was St. Simeon Stylites, who spent 40 years perched on top of a 60-foot (18 m) pillar in the Syrian mountains.

Soon more organized communities could lead a life of prayer. Since the 10th century, the most important monastic centre of the Orthodox Church has been the "holy mountain" of Mount Athos in northern Greece. It was a monk from Mount Athos, St. Athanasios, who founded the Great Meteoron. TIKAL: An Ancient Mayan Citadel Hidden Deep In The Rainforest Of Northern Guatemala


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