Meteora

Now that world travel can somewhat resume to its former state, many will make plans to visit Greece, and rightfully so. The ancient ruins at Athens, Delphi and Olympia are impressive, awe-inspiring, and everything I had expected from reading about them as far back as grade school – which was several years ago, maybe even longer ago than that. 

But the site that affected me the most was the Meteora, located on the Plains of Thessaly in the central part of the country. The Meteora is several monasteries built on top of enormous rock pinnacles centuries ago by monks using nothing but hand tools, ropes and pulleys. Writing for the Life World Library, Alexander Eliot described them as “monasteries perched upon the pinnacles like storks’ nests on chimney pots.” It is mind-boggling, and that’s putting it mildly. 

The rock pillars themselves are almost beyond description. They rise abruptly and tower more than a thousand feet above the plains, standing like impassive guardians over the fertile land below. Early inhabitants believed they were meteors hurled to earth by angry gods. But in reality, the spires were initially split and contorted into their fantastic shapes by the erosive power of a prehistoric sea, then textured and groomed by wind, rain and time. 

The Meteora guide book, on sale at the ubiquitous gift shops in the nearby town of Kalambaka and the monasteries, describes it like this: “For centuries now, an otherworldly calm has pervaded the towering grey rocks that provide eagles’ aeries high above the encroaching plain while great monasteries, humble chapels and now-deserted hermitages cling to their pinnacles.” 

The rocks have been there seemingly forever; the monasteries not quite that long but long enough to stagger the imagination, considering the perils and difficulties involved in putting them there. Historians and archaeologists suggest that the area may have been inhabited as long as 50,000 years ago. Still, it wasn’t until the ninth century that a group of hermit monks ascended the rocks and took up residency in caves, fissures and hollows. 

The remoteness of the area, coupled with the steepness of the rocks, kept everyone else away, a much-desired factor by the determined monks, who wanted solace, not companionship. Around 1344 A.D., Athanasius Koinovitis, a religious leader, brought a group of his followers to the Meteora (Greek for “suspended in air”) and founded the Meteoran monastery on Broad Rock. 

It was a perfect setting for the holy men: they were safe from political upheaval and had absolute control over entry to the site. The only way to get there was by climbing long rope ladders, which the monks hauled up whenever they felt threatened. But according to legend, St. Athanasius, the founder, didn’t have to make the strenuous climb because he was carried there by eagles. 

Over the following centuries, 24 religious structures were erected atop the pinnacles; only six remain today. Construction must have been inspired by faith and unbelievable amounts of determination because access was so difficult. Getting there required a perilous trek on long ladders lashed together or in large nets used to bring up building materials, food and people. 

In the early years, the monks did the hauling themselves, tugging the ropes up from the ground below to their sanctuaries. Later on, they developed a system of winches that eased their burden, but it was still human-powered. Some necessary materials still arrive in baskets today, but the winches are powered by electricity. Modern roads also lead to most structures, further reducing the need for back-breaking labor. War, invasion and infighting brought about the demise of the monastery system. German and Italian occupation during World War II resulted in the looting and destruction of several sacred sites. Today the six remaining monasteries are sparsely populated by a few monks and nuns and serve primarily as museums and tourist attractions. 

Getting there is no longer a problem. Tour buses and rental cars traverse the switchback roads in less than 20 minutes and deposit visitors into parking lots below the commune sites. However, the trek from there to the top can be a little strenuous. My legs were on agony alert after climbing the 164 steps up to the chapel at St. Stephens, one of the sites open to visitors. 

Once there, the magnificent view and appreciation for the design and work involved in creating these structures caused all the pain to vanish. The craftsmanship that went into the churches and chapels is unbelievable, considering they did it by hand. The artworks that adorn the walls are equal to those hanging in first-class museums. And the 360-degree view of the Thessaly plains below is breathtaking.

– Sam Lowe is a former Valley newspaperman who now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.