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
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