Awe, Giddiness and Privation: The Monasteries of Meteora

text and photos by George Martin

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On my first trip through the Middle East, some years ago, I was duly impressed by the monuments of Egypt: the pyramids at Giza and the exquisite treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Yet that trip’s “Wow!” moment came not in Egypt, but in Jordan, when I visited Petra, the “rose-red city half as old as time.” Petra’s hand-hewn strictures lie in a spectacular natural setting: a miniature Grand Canyon.

I had a similar reaction when I visited the monasteries of Meteora in the Greek region of Thessaly, about 100 miles south-west of the city of Thessaloniki. I had vaguely heard of these monasteries, but I did not know what awaited me. I discovered, as I had at Petra, a spectacular natural setting: a forest of stone column, some broad, some spindly, thrusting up a thousand feet or more above the plain below. Perched incongruously and precariously on top of several dozen of these monoliths are monasteries, most of which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. One’s first sight of them inevitably invokes a “Wow!”

The pillars of Meteora were formed on the bed of an ancient river or lake from sediment deposits that accumulated over millions of years and were then compressed into a limestone mass. As the water level dropped, the elements wore away most of the limestone, leaving monoliths projecting from what is today the Thessalian Plain.

In the early church, Syrian hermits took up residence atop pillars. St. Simeon Stylites was the most notable of these ascetics. Hundreds of years later some Byzantines did much the same; they established themselves atop these immense natural columns.

From 726 to 843 the Byzantine Empire was embroiled in a bitter iconoclastic controversy – all images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints were forbidden and destroyed by the imperial authority. Monks, who favored the creation and veneration of icons, were driven from their monasteries, their prosperous holdings seized by the government.

Many of these monks fled to obscure regions of the empire, including the limestone columns of Thessaly.

Tradition identifies the first hermit as Barnabas, an ascetic who came to the area around 960 A.D. In the 11th and 12th centuries, with the material and spiritual support of the emperors and wealthy landowners, larger monastic communities were established.

Certainly it was an effective way to flee the distractions of a turbulent society for a life of uninterrupted prayer. Yet one wonders how those ascetics ever climbed the sheer sides of these monoliths, much less built monasteries – a few of which are excellent examples of Byzantine church architecture – on their summits.

Monastic life at Meteora reached its high point in the 17th century, with 24 monasteries and a scattering of hermitages. Since then, Meteora’s monastic life has been in slow decline: today only six of the monasteries are occupied, each with a small community of Greek Orthodox monks.

Visitors are welcomed if they are willing to climb the many steps leading to the monasteries and are “soberly dressed.” The stairways cut into the sides of the cliffs are a modern concession: until the present century, the only way to reach the monasteries was by rope ladder, or by being winched aloft in a net. I was grateful for the stairs.

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Tags: Monastery Art Greece Monasticism Orthodox Church of Greece