Sunday, 6 October 2019

The pinnacles of Meteora
form a unique combination
of geology and theology

The monasteries of Meteora are balanced precariously on the rocky pinnacles above the Plain of Thessaly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

A holiday in Corfu in late August and early September allowed me to explore some of the neighbouring Ionian Islands, including Paxos and Antipaxos, to visit churches, monasteries, convents and places of historical interest in Corfu, and to return to southern Albania, visiting Saranda and travelling south to the Greek-speaking areas on the borders with northern Greece, including the archaeological site in Butrint.

Early one morning, I also took a boat from the small port of Lefkimmi in south-east Corfu to Igoumenitsa on the north-west coast of Greece.

Igoumenitsa is the gateway port from the Ionian Islands to the Greek mainland, and I spent a day visiting the many monasteries of the Meteora in the plains in central Greece, halfway between Thessaloniki and Athens.

Until the late 1970s, Meteora was virtually beyond Greece or the Orthodox world. All that changed in 1981 with the movie For Your Eyes Only, and the final, climactic with James Bond at the fictitious Saint Cyril’s Monastery, which in real life is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

The first monasteries may not have been formed until the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Unique rock formations

Meteora is a geologically unique and captivating collection of rock formations in central Greece and is home one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of monasteries in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Indeed, in the Orthodox world, the monasteries of Meteora are second in importance only to Mount Athos.

In all, there once were 24 monasteries in this Meteroa, although only six of the original 24 function as monasteries today. They are built precariously on top of immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the area.

Meteora, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is near the town of Kalambaka at the north-west edge of the Plain of Thessaly, close to the Pineios River and the Pindus Mountains. The name means ‘in the air,’ ‘lofty’ or ‘elevated,’ and the word is related to the word ‘meteor.’

These enormous columns or pillars of rock rise precipitously from the ground, and their unusual form is not easy to explain geologically.

Six of the original 24 monasteries still function today as monasteries or nunneries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Caves in the Meteora area were inhabited continuously between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago. The oldest known example of a built structure, a stone wall that blocked two-thirds of the entrance to the Theopetra cave, was built 23,000 years ago, probably as a barrier against cold winds during an ice age.

It is surprising then that Meteora is not mentioned in classical Greek myths nor in Ancient Greek literature.

After the Neolithic Era, the first people to inhabit Meteora seem to have been ascetic hermits or monks who moved to the pinnacles in the ninth century AD. At first, they lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 550 metres above the plain. These heights and the sheer cliff faces deterred all but the most determined visitors.

The Monastery of Great Meteoro is the largest of the monasteries at Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Isolated solitude

Initially, the first hermits led lives of isolated and lonely solitude, meeting together only on Sundays and holy days to worship and pray together in a chapel built at the foot of a rock known as Doubiani.

Some monks were living in the caverns of Meteora as early as the 11th century. By the late 11th and early 12th centuries, a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi and was centred around the Church of the Theotokos (the Mother of God).

The exact date when the first monasteries were formed is not known, but it may not have been until the 14th century, when the monks sought places to hide and shelter in the face of an increasing number of Turkish attacks in this part of Greece.

Varlaam is the second largest monastery in Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Meteora in 1344. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the Great Meteoro monastery on the Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks. This impressive rock rises 613 metres above sea level and 413 metres above the nearest town, Kalambaka.

Athanasios gathered 14 monks from the surrounding rock, organised a community, and laid the foundations for a common monastic life. There they were safe from political turmoil and had complete control of the entry to the monastery. The only way the monastery could be reached it was by climbing a long ladder that was drawn up whenever the monks felt under threat.

Looking out onto the world from the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Dangerous and difficult access

Byzantine rule in northern Greece was increasingly threatened by the end of the 14th century by Turkish raiders seeking to control the fertile plain of Thessaly. The monks found the inaccessible rock pillars of Meteora were ideal refuges, and more than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century.

Access to the monasteries was deliberately difficult, requiring either climbing long ladders latched together on the rockfaces, or balancing in large nets and basks used to haul up both goods and people and to let them down again.

It is said this required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only ‘when the Lord let them break.’

A modern icon of Christ in a ceiling in Varlaam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

At their peak in the 16th century, there were 24 monasteries at Meteora. Their architecture is often Athonite in origin, inspired by the monasteries of Mount Athos. Today, six of these monasteries are still functioning, but the rest are largely in ruins. Perched on high cliffs, they are now accessible by staircases and pathways cut into the rock formations.

Queen Marie of Romania became the first woman ever allowed to enter the Great Meteoro monastery when she visited Meteora in 1921. By then, living conditions were beginning to improve for the monks. Steps were cut into the rocks in the 1920s, making the complex accessible through a bridge from the nearby plateau. The area was bombed during World War II and many art treasures were stolen.

Today, only six of the original 24 monasteries are functioning, with 15 monks in four monasteries and 41 nuns in two monasteries: men in the Monasteries of the Transfiguration or Great Meteoro, All Saints or Saint Varlaam, Holy Trinity and Saint Nicholas Anapafsas; and women in the Monasteries of Saint Stephen and Saint Barbara, also known as Roussanou.

An engraving from 1792 shows monks accessing the monasteries by ropes and ladders (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Visiting two monasteries

Apart from their rhythm of daily prayer and their breath-taking views, the treasures of these monasteries include their decorated churches with frescoes and icons, their libraries, relics and museums.

I visited two of the monasteries – the monastery of All Saints or Varlaam and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, also known as Saint Barbara – and stopped on the way to see the other four functioning monasteries.

Visitors need no permits issued in advance, women as well as men are welcome as visitors, and all the monasteries display notices outside advising when they are open and when the Divine Liturgy is served.

The early ropes and pulleys still survive in many monasteries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The monasteries stand precariously on top of immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the area. But, because of their openness and their reputation for hospitality and welcome, I was not surprised to find that Russian and Romanian tourists find pilgrimage and tourism an interesting combination.

The Monastery of Great Meteoro is the largest of the monasteries at Meteora, although only three monks live there today It was founded in the mid-14th century and was restored and embellished in 1483 and again in 1552.

The Katholikon or main church Great Meteoro is consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of Christ. It was built in the mid-14th century and again in 1387-1388 and was decorated in 1483 and 1552. One building serves as the main museum for tourists.

However, the first monastery I visited in Meteora was the Monastery of Varlaam, the second largest monastery in the Meteora complex. Today, seven monks live here and it has the largest number of monks among the men’s monasteries.

A precarious ladder balanced against a rockface below a monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The monastery of Varlaam was built by Theophanes in 1517, and is reputed to house the finger of Saint John and the shoulder blade of Saint Andrew.

The main church or katholikon in Varlaam is dedicated to All Saints. It is built in the Athonite style, in the shape of a cross-in-square with a dome and choirs, and spacious exonarthex is surrounded by a dome.

The church was built in 1541-1542 and decorated in 1548, while the exonarthex was decorated in 1566. The old refectory is used as a museum while north of the church is the parekklesion of the Three Hierarchs, built in 1627 and decorated in 1637.

The monastery became more accessible in 1923 when 195 steps were cut into rockface, allowing monks and visitors to walk to the top.

The six surviving monasteries remain centres of prayer and pilgrimage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The second monastery I visited was the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara, founded in the mid-16th century and decorated in 1560.

The name Rousanou may be derived from the family name of the founder, or from the red colour of the rock on which it is built.

Ascent to the monastery was by rope ladders until 1897. Later, two wooden bridges were built for monks and visitors. Since 1936, two strong but picturesque bridges serve the same purpose.

The monastery went into decline after World War II, and was eventually abandoned. But a community of women were invited to move into Rousanou, and today, it is a flourishing nunnery with a community of 13 nuns living there.

A prayer in the Monastery of Varlaam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

I had also expected to visit the Monastery of Saint Stephen, but our plans were changed. This monastery has a small church that was built in the 16th century and decorated in 1545. This monastery is unusual because it stands on the plain rather than on a cliff.

The Monastery of Saint Stephen housed 31 monks in 1888. But it was shelled by the Nazis during World War II, who claimed it was harbouring Greek resistance fighters. It was abandoned after World War II, and it was virtually deserted by 1960. The monastery was given over to nuns in 1961 and they have rebuilt it, so that today it is a flourishing nunnery, with 28 nuns living there.

Icons in a workshop in Kalambaka (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Icon workshops

As we drove around Meteora, we also saw the two other monasteries that have survived into the 21st century.

The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was built on top of the cliffs in 1475 and was remodelled in 1684, 1689, 1692 and again in 1741. Today there are four monks living in the monastery that was Bond’s fictitious Saint Cyril’s.

Orthodox religious goods in the Zindos workshop in Kalambaka, below Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapafsas, near the village of Kastraki, was built in the 16th century. Its small church was decorated in 1527 by the noted Cretan painter, Theophanes Strelitzas, also known as Theophanes the Cretan. Today, there is only one monk living in this monastery.

The day also provided an opportunity to visit the Zindos icon workshop in Kalambaka before returning to Igoumenitsa and catching a return ferry to Lefkimmi on Corfu.

The port of Igoumenitsa is the gateway from the Ionian Islands to mainland Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This feature was first published in the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) in October 2019.

Early morning sunrise in the Ionian Sea on the way to the monasteries of Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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