Aghia Triada — even evil shuns these heights (photo: Margot Granitsas)
Varlaam Monastery — approaching heaven (photo: Margot Granitsas)
St. Ephraim, Jonah and Adam immortalized in 14 century frescoe (photo: Margot Granitsas)
The young monk, in well-pronounced English, announced to the few visitors that it was time for him to close for lunch. He lifted his calimaphion the stovepipe hat worn by Greek Orthodox priests and monks combed his dark wavy hair, and motioned everyone outside the tiny church. A few minutes later he stood at the foot of the long flight of stairs that lead up to the monastery, a black attache case in one hand, a plastic shopping bag in the other. A taxi whisked him away.
The monks who established the monastic community at Meteora in eastern Greece during the Byzantine era could not have foreseen the changes that time would bring to their monasteries. They chose the site precisely because they thought it would never succumb to the assault of outsiders. The name Meteora means between heaven and earth, and that is where the monks built their monasteries: 1800 feet above the plain of Thessaly, atop rock formations that rise like stalagmites from the valley floor.
The hermits came in search of solitude for prayer and penance. Until the 20th century, the rest of the world did not intrude upon their peace. Today, especially during the summer, the silence of Meteora is shattered by buses and cars bringing a steady stream of tourists and travelers.
The approach to Meteora through Kalambaka, a dusty little town at its foot, does not prepare the visitor for the stunning sight ahead. Out of the fertile Thessalian plain, where farmers raise cotton and tobacco, the thin rocks rise like needles, their surfaces polished for millennia by wind and water. Clinging to their summits are churches and surrounding monastic buildings. They appear to be an outgrowth of the rock, and their balconies overhanging the abyss can make even the viewer on the ground feel dizzy.
According to legend, the first hermits came to Meteora as early as the 9th century. More reliable documentation traces them back only to the 11th century. They were hesychasts, practicing control of breathing and other bodily faculties in order to achieve a state of mystical contemplation and enlightenment. They lived on sparse meals of beans and water and imposed on themselves the most severe conditions they could think of. By means of crudely made ladders, one section fastened atop another, the monks ascended to caves and crevices in the rocks. Some are said to have pushed away the ladders after reaching their abode, quietly perishing as they ran out of food.
The real life of Meteora as a monastic community started, however, in the 14th century. A monk named Athanasios is believed to be the first to move from his original retreat in a crevice to the top of what is now called the platys lithos, the wide rock. It was so high that even the forces of evil were reluctant to search him out there. He settled 1800 feet above the plain and built a chapel.
News of the holy mans life reached others who were eager to follow him. He soon found himself surrounded by a group of monks, and together they formed the Metamorphosis monastery, now called the Great Meteoron.
Around 1340, Thessaly became a province of Serbia. One of Athanasios followers was Prince Johannes Dukas Palaeologos, son of the Serbian tsar, Stephan Urosch, and a Greek princess from the house of the Palaeologi. The prince renounced his title and position and joined Metamorphosis as monk Joasaph. He later succeeded Athanasios as the leader of the monastic community. Thanks to him and his devout sister, Maria Angelina Komnena Dukina Palaeologina, Metamorphosis entered a period of great wealth.
Other monastic communities formed at Meteora, and the earlier settlers gave a helping hand to the newcomers. They lent their mules to transport stones to the base of the pinnacles. The monks used hoists and pulleys to raise the stones to the cliff tops, where they were used to build churches and chapels.
The hoists still in use for hauling goods, but no longer operated by sheer muscle strength became a famous trademark of the Meteora monasteries. Lord Curzon, the British statesman and traveler, visited Meteora in the late 19th century and described how he was transported from the peaks back to earth. A net was spread out on the floor of an open wooden shack overlooking the abyss, and Lord Curzon was instructed to sit upon it, holding his arms around his knees. The net was then folded over his head and fastened to a hook. With a lift and a swing, the monks suspended him outside the shelter in midair, where the net with Lord Curzon inside swung wildly until it lost momentum. Then the monks slowly lowered their guest to the ground.
During the 15th and 16th centuries the Meteora monasteries thrived, keeping alive the Byzantine tradition and heritage. Throughout the 450 years that Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the monks were left undisturbed and free to practice their religion.
Of the 24 monasteries that once comprised the Meteora community, only five survive. One of them, Aghios Stefano, was converted to a nunnery in 1961 and now has 10 nuns in residence. The other four Metamorphosis, Varlaam, Aghia Triada, and Aghios Nikolaos have a combined population of about 40 monks. Another monastery, Roussanou named after its founder, the monk Roussanos is being restored and will be opened to the public when the work is completed.
Visitors to Meteora today have a comparatively easy trip. In the 1920s the rope ladders that were the only means of access to the monasteries were replaced by stairs cut into the rock. In the 1940s the last obstacle to a travelers comfort was removed when a road was built connecting all the monasteries.
The building of the road and the development of tourism in Greece in the last 20 years have greatly increased the number of tourists who come to Meteora; they are not deterred even by the many steps they still have to climb from the road. The influx of visitors, in turn, has brought a profound change to the lives of the religious men and women who came there seeking solitude.
In the summer we hardly have time to do our work, says Sister Theoterpi. A vivacious young woman with a ready laugh, she paints icons in the monasterys workshop. The young monk who locked the doors of Aghia Nikolaos at lunchtime admits that security has become a problem.
Twenty years ago, churches in Greece observed an open door policy. Today they cannot take chances. Only a few years ago Aghia Triada was the scene of large scale art thefts. Precious icons of the Byzantine era were stolen, only to turn up later in antique dealers stores in Germany and other western European countries.
The magnificent treasures of the Meteora monasteries are comparable to those of Mount Athos, the venerable Holy Mountain and wellspring of Greek monasticism. The monks of Meteora have preserved frescoes, icons, vestments, and silver and gold chalices, as well as manuscripts that date back to the first millennium.
Although Aghios Nikolaos is one of the smallest monasteries at Meteora, its treasures are among the richest. Outstanding frescoes cover the walls of its tiny church; they were painted in 1388 by Theophanes the Cretan, who also worked at the Megisti Lavra and Stavronikita monasteries on Mount Athos. There are frescoes depicting the death of the great hermit and teacher, St. Ephraim the Syrian; the prophet Jonah emerging from the mouth of the whale; and Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden. In the catholicon the central monastery church the image of Christ Pantocrator is encircled by angels and saints.
At Metamorphosis, the 100-foot-long room that once served as the refectory has been turned into a museum housing a remarkable collection of liturgical art. Among the treasures are a manuscript of the Gospel which belonged to the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (912-959); a 14th-century icon of the Virgin Lamenting; a gold-embroidered epitaphios (cloth depicting the entombment of Christ, used in the Easter liturgy); and the cross of St. Daniel, carved by a monk, which took 14 years to complete.
Perhaps the greatest treasure Meteora has to offer is the one the hermits came to find: its peaceful, prayerful stillness. The visitor who can linger at dusk, when the tourist pavilions have closed and the bouzouki music from the vendors radios has been silenced, can imagine what Meteora must have been like when monks first stood before its sheer rock walls a thousand years ago. For a few hours it becomes remote and inaccessible once again, a haven of austere beauty. Daylight fades behind the Pindos mountains in the west; below, the shimmering Pinios River cuts through the plain. The ancient silence envelops the cliffs as it did when holy men perched in their caves, cut off from the world and communicating only with God.
Margot Granitsas is a freelance writer and photographer.