High in the plains of central Greece, about 5 hours by train from Athens, once stood 24 Byzantine monasteries, each perched atop sandstone pillars, high above the valley floor. It is almost as if they were literally suspended between heaven and earth.
I first visited these incredible structures in 2013. I was in Athens for a conference and before returning home, I decided to spend a couple of days touring these monasteries. I packed a small overnight bag, deposited the bulk of my luggage at my hotel, and headed for Athens’s Larissa Train Station. There I boarded an early morning train for Kalambaka–a small city at the foot of these incredible vertical shafts upon which the monasteries sit.
As I was coming into the Kalambaka station, I caught several glimpses of one of these imposing structures siting, as if delicately balanced, atop a high vertical rock formation. Rising above the Thessalian plain, these sandstone shafts average about 1,000 feet in height, with some reaching as high as 1,800 feet.
Historians suggest that as early as the 9th or 10th century hermit monks climbed these soaring stones to settle in the caves and hollows formed by the rocks. By the 12th century, monks had the inspiration to construct monasteries on top of these rocks so that they could live “closer to God.”
In modern times, the area has come to be known collectively as Meteora, which means “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above.” The name, of course, brings to mind the word meteor.
What created these rare, natural, sandstone-rock pinnacles? That question has never been answered definitively, but theories abound. This much is generally agreed: The rock masses upon which these monasteries were built were formed about 60 million years ago. They achieved their distinctive shape over millions of years being “sculpted” by natural elements such as earthquakes, rain, and wind.
If these towering rocks formations were not unique enough, several of them are topped with buildings that are themselves a marvelous witness to the ingenuity of humankind. In their own right, given their location, these buildings seem almost as miraculous and astounding as the sandstone shafts upon which they were built. Of course, the original idea was to make access to these monasteries difficult if not impossible. Long ladders lashed together or large nets attached to ropes were used to haul up both goods and humans. For example, in order for pilgrims to reach what is today the Varlaam Monastery, a hoist was used to lift large baskets vertically alongside a cliff that is 1,200 feet high.
Beginning in the 1920s improvements were made and access to the monasteries became easier and safer. Steps were cut into the rock giving access to some of the monasteries and bridges were installed from the nearby plateaus in other instances. One brochure about Meteora I saw at my hotel recounted one familiar story about the area. When baskets pulled up by ropes were the only means of transport to the monasteries, a nervous pilgrim asked his host monk if the ropes were ever replaced. “Of course they are” came the monk’s reply without a trace of the obvious irony, “whenever they break!”
Today only six of the 24 original, exquisite complexes remain active. Four of these are for male occupants, two for female. Fewer than 10 persons reside at each monastery. The decline in the number of monks inhabiting the monasteries reflects the fact that they are now essentially museums.
Tourists may enter any of the surviving monasteries by dressing “appropriately” and paying a 2€ fee. Why would a tourist want to see the interior? Setting aside being able to witness the incredible views of the valley below, each monastery contains beautiful frescoes painted by world-class artists from around this part of Europe. While I am certainly not an art critic, I am told by others who are that the opportunity to see these paintings is alone worth the time, effort, and expense required to visit Meteora.
During WWII the Nazis bombed extensively throughout Greece. These natural sandstone rock pinnacles and the monasteries that sit atop them were not spared. After occupying Greece, the Nazis arrived at the monasteries with the intention of stealing these valuable frescoes. The Nazis had been “collecting” (read “stealing”) priceless works of art from many European countries to be later displayed inside the Fuhrer Museum that was to be built in the Third Reich. Imagine the frustration of these Nazi thugs when they discovered that many of the much-desired works of art had been painted onto the walls of the monasteries and could not be carted off to the “fatherland”!
The exquisite, natural beauty of Meteora has not escaped Hollywood’s notice either. The monasteries served as a filming location for the 1976 action movie “Sky Riders” starring Susannah York, James Coburn and Robert Culp. In “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” episode “Travels with Father,” Indiana and his father visit the monasteries of Meteora. More recently, the monastery of the Holy Trinity was a filming location for the 1981 James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only.”
More significantly, however, the monasteries at Meteora played a central role in the propagation of what we know today as “western culture.” During the Turkish occupation (1453-1821), it was these monasteries that helped preserve and shape not only religious traditions, but also the academic and artistic threads of Hellenic culture. The monasteries attracted not only the deeply religious, but also the philosophers, poets and painters. The monasteries became centers for the intellectual foundations of the west. Some historians have even suggested that were it not for these monasteries, the Hellenic traditions we know as “western culture” might have disappeared entirely and that modern Greece would be a reflection of the Ottoman empire with little knowledge of its genuine roots and history.
After taking way too many photos and walking up and down more steps than I care to remember, I told the driver to take me to the hotel in Kalambaka. He told me that he had one more treat in store. Soon we stopped at a pull-out about a quarter of the way down joining several other tourists. I was about to witness a picturesque sunset over the spires of rocks at Meteora. The afternoon air was cooling slightly, the rays of the sun no longer able to warm the atmosphere quite so much as earlier. Slowly, the shadows in the valley began to lengthen and the sky became tinged with multi-colors changing from blue to purple to red and orange and, finally, to darkness. There came a silence among the handful of onlookers as we stood mesmerized by the grandeur of nature displayed before our very eyes. It was as if the score of a great symphony had concluded – there was just nothing else that could be said.