Suspended in the air
UNESCO world heritage site.
Rock pillars that in some places reach six hundred meters in height.
One of the biggest and most important complexes of eastern orthodox monasteries in the world.
Meteora (translation: suspended in the air) in central Greece are all these and much more. A must see place for tourists, a place of prayer for devoted Christians, a refuge for those in need, a home for those that have decided to leave the world behind and become monks and a perfect excursion to enjoy spectacular views and impress girlfriends when we were younger for us locals.
The sandstone rock pillars stand there for millions of years. Geologists maintain that at some point they were submerged into water. The interesting point is that there is no mention whatsoever of Meteora in the ancient Greek mythology.
The first hermits inhabited caves in the rock face sometime in the 11th century AD. In fact, there are unconfirmed accounts for hermits as early as the 8th century AD. Another cave in the area, 3km away from Meteora (Cave of Theopetra – Theopetra means “God’s stone”) has been inhabited since 50.000 years.
The first monasteries were built during the 14th century AD and then more and more were built during the next two centuries until at some point there were more than 20 operating monasteries on the rocks. The monks built there mainly for safety from bandits, armies and enemies of any kind. Most of the monasteries were until recently only accessible by rope ladders. When these ladders were hoisted up, the monasteries were easily defensible.
The alternative to rope ladders was to be hoisted up on a net pulled by the monks from above. The ropes were not replaced until they were cut, since the rope would only be cut “when it was God’s will”. The ascent lasted in many cases around 30 minutes going straight up 200 meters; getting in that net then, required considerable faith in God, or the rope, or the monks turning the pulley system.
The monastic community went through eras of growth and decline in its thousand year history. Only six monasteries are open today, the biggest of which are the Great Meteoro and Varlaam. The other four are St. Stefanos, St. Nikolaos, Holy Trinity and Rousanou. However, the community is on the rise again and we may see more monasteries in the future. In the meantime, these that are open are well worth visiting, with chapels chiselled by hand in the rock, five hundred year old paintings and decorations and of course the breathtaking views.
Four of the monasteries are inhabited by monks and two by nuns. Most of them are quite small with around 10 inhabitants. The monks often wake up at 4am, they have a common prayer at 5 am and at 9am each starts his assigned duty. Duties include welcoming guests, or taking care of the chapels, cooking, cleaning, gardening, but also taking confessions and driving to town for provisions. The last mass is at 5pm and at around 6:30pm their day comes at an end.
Nowadays, the monasteries are not isolated as in the past, on the contrary they are continuously open for worship and visiting. Christians go there for mass on religious holidays. Evening mass during the week before Easter is quite popular and people come from many kilometres away to attend. Tourists flock the place, particularly in the summer, the more adventurous to combine monastery visits with rock climbing. They are a source of income for the monasteries. Religious souvenirs, often made by the monks themselves are available at the gift shops.
One doesn’t need to visit a monastery or to be religious to appreciate Meteora. Just standing there on one of those rock edges, five hundred meters above the Thessaly plain, one feels overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all.
The grandness of the scenery makes one feel in awe makes one feel small and leads to a rare calmness and inner reflection. This is interpreted differently by different people, some see in the scenery God’s miracle and others nature’s miracle, but it is impossible to go there and not to be deeply touched by Meteora.
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