The mir­a­cle of Me­te­ora

The monas­ter­ies of Me­te­ora are a UNESCO World Her­itage site like no other. Rachael Lind­say ex­plores these churches, sus­pended in the air and built hun­dreds of years ago

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Ir­ri­ta­ble, un­com­fort­able, a lit­tle dusty, we wind our way up the moun­tain roads. The in­creas­ingly steep drop be­com­ing fa­mil­iar as it ap­pears driver-side, pas­sen­ger-side. We shrink to­wards safety as lorry by truck veers past with ap­par­ent ease. Quak­ing in the car after a de­ter­mined roar up a steep side road, we make out some shapes on the hori­zon. We have seen them be­fore, of course, in guide­books, blogs and In­sta­gram posts. The re­al­ity is some­thing else; these shapes are like gi­ant peo­ple ar­riv­ing on the hori­zon to meet us, reach­ing into the sky like hands or fin­gers. Im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe with mere words or im­ages, these are the mir­a­cles of Me­te­ora wip­ing the jour­ney from our minds in a mo­ment.

In one guide book, I read that ‘the vis­it­ing pil­grims are com­pletely pre­oc­cu­pied with ex­ter­nal beauty, with the delights of the life of na­ture, with­out tak­ing a sin­gle step in learn­ing the se­crets of the soul of the monks’. In­deed the pil­lars of Me­te­ora with their weath­ered sur­faces, their but­tresses and bulges, are breath-tak­ing in their Juras­sic Park-like elegance. Ar­riv­ing in the small vil­lage of Kas­traki at the foot of Me­te­ora is an awe-in­spir­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and it is dif­fi­cult to pre­vent your­self from con­stantly look­ing up at the rocks fram­ing the sky. But for many a trav­eller, I think it is the con­nec­tion that these rocks have with monas­tic life, which makes them even more in­trigu­ing than how they look.

But be­fore monk or man stepped foot in these lands, about 60 mil­lion years ago dur­ing the Earth’s Ter­tiary Pe­riod, Mother Na­ture cre­ated the pil­lars of Me­te­ora. No­body can say with com­plete cer­tainty how they came to be, but the most ac­cepted the­ory of their for­ma­tion was de­vel­oped by Philipp­son, a Ger­man ge­ol­o­gist. Philipp­son came to Greece in the late nine­teenth century and stud­ied these an­cient, oddly-shaped rocks. He be­lieved that this spot, at the foothills of the moun­tains of Pin­dos on the north-western edge of the Thes­salian plain, was once the es­tu­ary of a large river. This river flowed for thou­sands of years into the sea which at that time com­pletely

cov­ered what is now the plain of Thes­saly. Ac­cu­mu­la­tion of ma­te­rial at this river delta caused deltaic cones to form. Twenty five to thirty mil­lion years later, when the cen­tral part of to­day’s Europe was lifted above the sea, the plain of the river Pin­ios formed be­tween the moun­tains chain of Pin­dos and Me­te­ora, leav­ing these sand­stone pil­lars iso­lated. It then took mil­lions of years of wind, waves and rain for the rocks to be beaten and thrashed into their cur­rent un­usual for­ma­tions.

It would be im­pres­sive enough if this were the only story be­hind the rocks of Me­te­ora. But the tales that Me­te­ora can tell just be­gin with its un­usual cre­ation mil­lions of years ago. Sur­pris­ingly there is no men­tion of these rocks in Greek mythol­ogy or by for­eign his­to­ri­ans un­til around 1,000 years ago. Per­haps be­cause of their in­ac­ces­si­ble na­ture, they were sim­ply ig­nored and feared by the Greek peo­ple un­til that time. It is said that the first use of these rocks was as a sanc­tu­ary. The fis­sures and cav­i­ties in their struc­tures were used by lo­cal peo­ple flee­ing raids by suc­ces­sive con­querors and armies. Then her­mits and as­cetics seek­ing tran­quil­lity be­gan to spend time living in these nat­u­ral caves. This would have been a painfully iso­lated ex­is­tence with lit­tle to no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world and con­stant chal­lenges to source the most basic in­gre­di­ents of hu­man ex­is­tence. When the her­mits who lived in the caves be­gan pray­ing, they cre­ated small chapels called pros­efha­dia or ‘places for prayer’ where they could meet to­gether and wor­ship God. These were the first steps in Me­te­ora’s evo­lu­tion to be­come a holy and sa­cred place, a place of pil­grim­age.

When vis­it­ing the monas­ter­ies of mighty Me­te­ora, you have the choice to base your­self at Kas­traki, a pic­turesque ham­let nes­tled in the out­crops of rock, or in the nearby town of Kalam­baka. We stay in Kas­traki, and that’s what I would rec­om­mend too, be­cause you can watch the sun­set over the sand­stone rocks from the town square and take some lovely walks through the smaller rocks di­rectly from your guest house. Kalam­baka was de­stroyed by the Ro­man con­querors in 167 BC and was again razed to the ground by the Nazis in World War II. To­day it is a com­par­a­tively modern place, and, de­spite its close prox­im­ity, feels worlds away from the monas­ter­ies up high amongst swirling clouds. It is worth a quick visit to take in the Church of the As­sump­tion of the Vir­gin Mary to the north of Kalam­baka. The church is built in the eleventh century over the ru­ins of an ear­lier Chris­tian build­ing; it boasts a three-aisled basil­ica, each aisle sep­a­rated by colon­nades, the only solid marble pul­pit in Greece and some lovely wall paint­ings that date to the twelfth century.

There are only six monas­ter­ies that re­main in Me­te­ora to­day, so we are keen to get a sense of each one. Set­ting off from Kas­traki, we drive right to the western end of the com­plex of rocks, start­ing at the Great Me­te­ora, the largest rock in the col­lec­tion, where the Monastery of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion is perched. As the very first monastery to be built here, its story be­gins in the early tenth century. Her­mits had been gath­er­ing to­gether to pray at Me­te­ora for sev­eral years and their re­li­gious du­ties re­quired them to at­tend the Liturgy and re­ceive the Holy Eucharist;

rites which called for the pres­ence of a priest. A small as­cetic state and spir­i­tual brother­hood was thus formed where her­mits came from their independent her­mitages to wor­ship God to­gether as well as to prob­lem-solve and seek help from oth­ers with sim­i­lar liveli­hoods.

After two or three cen­turies of such peace­ful ex­is­tence, the thirteenth and four­teenth cen­turies ar­rived with blood­shed and terror; the Franks, Serbs, Cata­lans, Turks and Al­ba­ni­ans in­vaded by turn, at­tempt­ing to con­quer the sought-after ter­ri­tory of Thes­saly. A monk called Athana­sius who was based on Mount Athos, was hounded from his monastery by cor­sairs’ raids. He reached Me­te­ora in 1334 with a dream to es­tab­lish a new monastery like the one he had fled from at Mount Athos. In 1334, he gath­ered four­teen monks from the lo­cal area, and to­gether they scaled the high­est rock in the area and be­gan the mam­moth task of con­struct­ing the ear­li­est of the buildings to later be­come the fa­mous Monastery of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion of Je­sus on the Mount.

The first monks used scaf­folds wedged in holes in the rock to make the perilous as­cent to the top of the rock, bring­ing build­ing ma­te­ri­als with them as they climbed. One can only imag­ine the fear as each climber took his life into his hands each day, us­ing only the most basic climb­ing and build­ing ma­te­ri­als to con­struct a monastery which no war could touch. It was Athana­sius who named this rock ‘Great Me­te­oro’ mean­ing ‘in the air’ as the rock seemed sus­pended be­tween earth and heaven.

As­cend­ing the steps to the Monastery of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion to­day, the first thing you see is the holy her­mitage of the monastery’s founder, Saint Athana­sius, which is a small, sim­ple build­ing, re­flect­ing his mod­est way of life. The cen­tral church in the monastery is ded­i­cated to the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion of Christ whilst an­other is ded­i­cated to St John the Bap­tist and boasts or­nately carved wooden screens and mu­rals be­long­ing to the six­teenth century. The re­fec­tory has been con­verted into an in­ter­est­ing mu­seum dis­play­ing relics such as cru­ci­fixes and hand­writ­ten codices made from parch­ment. These deal with re­li­gious, philo­soph­i­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal mat­ters and many have been won­der­fully well pre­served.

It can­not be for­got­ten that these are not the only monas­ter­ies that ex­isted at Me­te­ora. At one time, it was thought that there were twenty four thriv­ing monas­ter­ies in to­tal, sup­ported by de­vout rulers and no­ble­men as well as the monas­tic com­mu­nity. How­ever, the iso­la­tion of these com­mu­ni­ties was at once its glory and its down­fall

Through the doc­u­ments pro­duced by the monks them­selves, they pro­vide a small in­sight into the liveli­hoods of the monks who have, over the cen­turies, made this monastery their home.

After the death of Athana­sius, a monk named Var­laam con­ceived of the idea of build­ing an­other large monastery on the tall rock op­po­site Great Me­te­ora. To­day you can see his dream brought to life in all its glory when look­ing out from the Monastery of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion. This red-roofed monas­tic com­plex, known as the monastery of Var­laam, is a place of myths and leg­ends. One doc­u­ment at­tests that the church there was built in twenty days, ma­te­rial for it hav­ing been col­lected on the top of the rock for a pe­riod of twenty two years. An­other story has it that the artis­tic monk, Theo­pha­nis, who had been bedrid­den for ten months, rose from his sickbed once the monastery’s con­struc­tion was com­plete, blessed the monks, the stone quar­ries, the builders, the ma­sons and the crafts­men, re­turned joy­fully to his bed and died. The main body of the church is richly dec­o­rated with re­al­ist mu­rals deeply in­flu­enced by the Ital­ian tra­di­tions. The great icon-painter, Frankos Kate­lanos is thought to be the au­thor.

Head­ing down­wards from Var­laam, we pass the Rou­sanou monastery, mirac­u­lously con­structed on a steep rock with a ver­ti­cal drop on ei­ther side, to the last monastery be­fore re-reach­ing the vil­lage of Kas­traki: the Holy Monastery of St Ni­cholas Ana­paf­sas. Its shape is moulded to the site and top of the rock and it oc­cu­pies a very small space, form­ing a labyrinthine clus­ter of rooms and chapels. The tiny chapel, ded­i­cated to Saint An­thony, is only big enough for one priest, and step­ping in­side is both claus­tro­pho­bic and quite mag­i­cal. Many trav­ellers have come to this monastery to marvel at the wall paint­ings by Theo­pha­nis, the only known mu­rals in ex­is­tence which bear his sig­na­ture. You can see a serene im­age of Je­sus sur­rounded by a choir of an­gels car­ry­ing a sa­cred chal­ice and Adam nam­ing each of the an­i­mals, amongst other won­der­ful re­li­gious im­agery. Theo­pha­nis was a master of cre­at­ing harmony with colour, skil­fully mask­ing the un­even rocky sur­faces he was work­ing with and cre­at­ing fa­cial fea­tures with tiny ex­pert brush strokes. The high fore­heads on each of the fig­ures he cre­ates ex­press calm and tran­quil­lity and an oth­er­world­li­ness with is very much in keep­ing with the mys­ti­cal set­ting.

Theo­pha­nis was born in Crete in 1500 where he was taught re­li­gious paint­ing. De­spite be­ing mar­ried with two chil­dren, he wore a monk’s habit to dis­play his deep de­vo­tion to Chris­tian­ity and the monas­tic life. He is re­mem­bered as a great painter of the Cre­tan school and his work marks one of the high points of Byzan­tine paint­ing. His mu­rals in the Monastery of St Ni­cholas Ana­paf­sas dis­play the Byzan­tine ideas of no­bil­ity, spir­i­tual depth and ide­al­ism with na­ture pre­sented in a supernatural man­ner, dis­tanc­ing its sub­jects from life on earth. To see such ex­am­ples of Byzan­tine art in the set­ting of Me­te­ora’s stone for­est hints at both the cre­ativ­ity and the spir­i­tu­al­ity of monas­tic life here.

We take the round trip through Kalam­baka to reach back round to the two re­main­ing monas­ter­ies: the Holy Trin­ity Monastery and the Monastery of St Stephen. The Holy Trin­ity Monastery is the most dif­fi­cult to reach but also the one which af­fords the best panoramic views in the col­lec­tion. The morn­ing that we de­cide to climb the 140 steps carved into lead rock to reach this monastery is a par­tic­u­larly rainy one, mak­ing the jour­ney both slightly perilous and very re­ward­ing when the clouds swirling be­neath our feet clear to re­veal the hills, ravines and gul­lies of the plain of Thes­saly. After Great Me­te­ora and Var­laam, the Holy Trin­ity Monastery is thought

to be the third el­dest in the group, es­tab­lished by in­scrip­tion ev­i­dence found within the monastery it­self. It nes­tles el­e­gantly into the top of an un­usu­ally lop­sided rock and boasts an in­ter­est­ing rock-hewn ro­tunda filled with mu­rals as its chapel. Ac­cess to the Monastery of St Stephen, which stands proudly and castle-like, pale rock blend­ing into the veg­e­ta­tion, is via a move­able bridge con­nect­ing the rock to the hill of Kouk­ou­los. This makes it the most easy to reach of all of the monas­ter­ies, per­fect for the last visit of the day. The Monastery of St Stephen was con­verted into a nun­nery in 1961 and now flour­ishes in this func­tion. Some nuns write on re­li­gious themes whilst oth­ers are teach­ers or doc­tors.

It can­not be for­got­ten that these are not the only monas­ter­ies that ex­isted at Me­te­ora. At one time, it was thought that there were twenty four thriv­ing monas­ter­ies in to­tal, sup­ported by de­vout rulers and no­ble­men as well as the monas­tic com­mu­nity. How­ever, the iso­la­tion of these com­mu­ni­ties was at once its glory and its down­fall. By the 1600’s the theo­cratic com­mu­nity had ex­pe­ri­enced a steep de­cline and even­tu­ally many of the orig­i­nal monas­ter­ies fell out of use. Many have since crum­bled to noth­ing or van­ished al­to­gether. In these cases, their ex­is­tence has been es­tab­lished us­ing manuscripts, en­grav­ings or works of art left be­hind and kept within the monas­ter­ies that do re­main. Some of the monas­ter­ies which fell into dis­re­pair can still be vis­ited to­day. If you are very intrepid, you can ven­ture to the Monastery of St Ni­cholas Ba­to­vas which can only be reached by pass­ing through three caves linked by wooden lad­ders. An­other ru­ined monastery, the Monastery of St Ge­orge Mandi­las, is marked by hand­ker­chiefs hung by the lo­cal com­mu­nity, fol­low­ing a tra­di­tion passed down since the Turkish oc­cu­pa­tion.

After one day of clear skies ex­plor­ing the rocky land­scapes and re­mains of monas­ter­ies on foot, and one rainy day of shel­ter­ing in the monas­ter­ies and lis­ten­ing to the in­sis­tent rain pat­ter­ing on the won­drously con­structed slate roofs, we are a lit­tle re­luc­tant to face the re­turn jour­ney to Athens. The monks who built these monas­ter­ies did so in or­der to stay right out of the reaches of con­flict, of man-made wars be­ing waged on earth. And in so do­ing, they have cre­ated places which seem to of­fer a tran­quil and time­less shel­ter from the chaos of modern life. Whether when climb­ing the steep steps to the Holy Trin­ity Monastery or ad­mir­ing Adam’s face brought to life in Byzan­tine style by Theo­pha­nis at the Monastery of St Ni­cholas Ana­paf­sas, Me­te­ora is a place where you can­not help but ab­sorb the peace of monas­tic life.

It is a place to for­get about the pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause you will never be able to cap­ture a place like this with­out phys­i­cally be­ing here. A place of mir­a­cles, se­crets and dis­cov­ery, a lit­tle bit of Me­te­ora’s peace stayed with us even as we re-joined the hair-rais­ing Greek moun­tain roads and the mad­ness and may­hem of the city.

Clock­wise from top: En­trance to the Monastery of St Var­laam; The Monastery of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, the first monastery to be built at Me­te­ora; Paint­ings from the Monastery of the Holy Trin­ity; The vil­lage of Kas­traki which lies at the foot of the sand­stone rocks

Pre­vi­ous pages: Pamorama of Me­te­ora at sun­set with Rou­sanou monastery in the fore­ground, Agios Niko­laos and the vil­lage of Kas­traki be­hind the rocks on the left (Im­age: Mikadun/ shutterstock) Above: The Monastery of St Stephens

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