Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Varlaam and Rousanou,
two monasteries perched
on the pinnacles of Meteora

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

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of Sunday visiting the unique monasteries of Meteora in central Greece. Once there were 24 monasteries in this area, but only six of the original 24 function as monasteries today.

In the Orthodox world, these monasteries are second in importance only to Mount Athos. But they differ in many ways from the monasteries of Mount Athos. 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 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 on Sunday to find that many of the visitors were Russian and Romanian tourists, who seemed to find pilgrimage and tourism a quite relaxed combination.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest of the monasteries at Meteora, although only three monks live there. 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 Meteoron is consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of Christ. It was was built in the mid-14th century and 1387-1388 and decorated in 1483 and 1552. One building serves as the main museum for tourists.

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

However, the first monastery I visited on Sunday was the Monastery of Varlaam, which is 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.

Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaam was built by Theophanes in 1517, which was 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.

My second monastery to visit on Sunday was the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara. This was founded in the mid-16th century and was decorated in 1560.

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.

I had expected to visit the Holy 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 was shelled by the Nazis during World War II, who claimed it was harbouring Greek resistance fighter. It was abandoned after World War II. 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.

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. There were four monks living in this monastery today.

The Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapausas was built in the 16th century. It has a small church that was decorated in 1527 by the noted Cretan painter, Theophanis Strelitzas. Today, there is only one monk living in this monastery.

But more about Meteora and its monasteries at a later date … perhaps in a feature in an edition of the Church Review before the end of the year.

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

After sailing from Lefkimmi in south-east Corfu to Igoumenitsa on the north-west coast of Greece on Sunday morning, I spent much of the day visiting the many monasteries of the Meteora (Μετέωρα).

This 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, the monasteries are second in importance only to Mount Athos.

In all, there once were 24 monasteries in this area, 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 Rriver and Pindus Mountains. The name means ‘lofty’ or ‘elevated,’ and is etymologically related to meteor.

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

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.

Initially, the 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 Dhoupiani.

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 (Mother of God).

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

We do not know the exact date when the first monasteries were formed, 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.

In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Meteora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the Great Meteoron monastery on the Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks. 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.

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 or balancing in large nets and basks used to haul up both goods and people or to let them down. 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.’

At their peak in the 16th century, there were 24 monasteries at Meteora in Greece. Much of the architecture of these buildings is Athonite in origin. Today, six of these monasteries are still functioning, but the rest are largely in ruins. Perched onto 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 Meteoron 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: the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou.

I visited two of the monasteries on Sunday – the monastery of Varlaam and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, also known as Saint Barbara – and stopped on the way to see the other four functioning monasteries. But more about these later.

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