Meteora: Greece's spiritual pinnacles, "suspended in the air"!
By: Barney Jeffries
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If you were designing another planet, you might invent somewhere like
Meteora. Geologists remain perplexed by the towering pillars of smooth
sandstone that demand a myth to explain their origin: petrified giants,
perhaps, or a perfect place for Zeus to store his thunderbolts. The word
Meteora means "suspended in the air" - meteor comes from the same root. It's
a perfect name, both for the natural landscape and for the area's other
attraction: the medieval monasteries that top many of the formations.
Heading north from Trikala, we first see the rocks from a distance, looming out of the
flat landscape. I can't take my eyes off them. Gloriously incongruous at noon,
silhouetted against the setting sun, or eerie and huge in the floodlights at
night, they're an awesome sight.
The rocks themselves are so overwhelming that it takes a
while to notice the monasteris. When you do, you will think
your eyes deceive. Is that a bell tower on a vertical pinnacle
hundreds of feet high or a conical dome of a Byzantine
church profile against the sky?
The first hermits came to seek solitude in Meteora's caves a thousand years ago. In
following centuries, as the Byzantine Empire crumbled at the end of the 14th century
and Greece fell to the Ottoman Turks, many more monks found refuge atop the rocks.
Their climbing skills must have been admirable, with the earliest monasteries
reached only by climbing articulated removable ladders. With patience and probably
numerous casualties, they managed to build complex monasteries on such unlikely
foundations that divine intervention seems the only explanation.
How the Monasteries Came to Meteora
There were once some two dozen monasteries here. Six remain active,
while ruins of others are abandoned and inaccessible. Untile the 1920s, provisions
and indeed the monks themselves were hauled up in nets on a windlass. This
required quite a leap of faith -- the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only
"when the Lord let them break." Today, visitors reach the monasteries via
bridges and steps hewn out of the rock.
The monks may now be safe from the threat of the Turks, but the world encroaches
ever closer. With a million visitor to the area each year, opportunities for solitary
contemplation must be limited. Guided tours and sales of souvenir postcards and
icons are now part of their daily lives.
Two Favorites: Metamorphosis and Moni Agia Triada