27 August 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)

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