Meteora—Towering Rock Pillars
“Nothing can be more strange and wonderful than this romantic region, which is unlike anything I have ever seen either before or since. In . . . any other mountainous region where I have been, there is nothing at all to be compared to these extraordinary peaks.”—Robert Curzon, English traveler, 1849.
WE ARE totally unprepared for the amazing spectacle we see as we approach the town of Kalabáka and the nearby village of Kastráki on the plain of Thessaly, Greece. Here is a stone “forest” of more than 20 enormous rock pillars—a jungle of detached precipitous rocks reaching hundreds of feet into the sky. Their summits are crowned by monasteries with wooden galleries and corniced rooftops.
This is the Meteora of Greece, where unique natural rocks are combined with incredible human endeavor. “Meteora”—from a Greek word meaning “raised up above the earth”—refers to this group of isolated rock pillars and to the more than 30 monasteries built on them. The average height of these rocks is 1,000 feet [300 m], with the highest rising about 1,800 feet [550 m] from the ground.
As we draw closer, the shadows of the towering rocks are lengthening. The landscape of this strange world is ever changing as the sun casts different shadows among the rocks. In the winter the huge rocks rise stark and black out of a white carpet of snow.
How They Were Formed
There has been much speculation about how the rocks of the Meteora were formed. Many believe that millions of years ago, the plain on which the Meteora stands was submerged beneath a vast inland lake. According to one theory, a gigantic geologic upheaval in some way caused these rocks to protrude upward. Experiment magazine explains that some geologists believe “that these rocks must have been given the form they have today between the years 2000 and 1000 B.C.E.”
Robert Curzon, quoted at the outset, wrote about Meteora: “The end of a range of rocky hills seems to have been broken off by some earthquake or washed away by the Deluge, leaving only a series of . . . tall, thin, smooth, needle-like rocks.” Interestingly, ancient Greek mythology also attributes the formation of the mountains of Thessaly to a flood, or deluge, caused by the gods.—Genesis 6:1–8:22.
Monasteries in the Air
Whatever the geologic explanation for Meteora might be, since the ninth century C.E., these rocks have attracted attention. Modern mountaineers, who climb the Meteora with special climbing equipment, can perhaps best appreciate the feat of early religious hermits who settled in the caves and fissures of the rocks. How the monasteries were built on the top of these virtually inaccessible rocks is still being debated.
How did those in early times get up to and down from their lofty monasteries? Well, as stated by the book Meteora—The Rock Monasteries of Thessaly, ‘they could either clamber up wooden ladders let down from the top of the cliffs or allow themselves to be hauled up in a net lowered from a windlass in the monastery above. In either case the visitor had to rely on the good faith and the doubtful engineering of the monks.’ Asked how often the rope that held the net was changed, a former abbot is reported to have said: ‘Only when it breaks.’ It was not until 1925 that steps were hacked out of the rock to make access much easier.
The first religious hermits who climbed up the pillars were Varnavas, sometime between 950 and 965 C.E., and Andronikos from Crete, in 1020. Other monks from all over Byzantium followed, swelling the number of the monastic houses on top of the rocks to 33. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the communities had reached their greatest importance, but they have been in decline ever since.
“Look at us now!” cried the abbot of one of the monasteries. “Ah, . . . the young don’t want us any more!” Indeed, only six of the monasteries, two inhabited by nuns, are still open. Abandoned monastic complexes can be found on various Meteora rocks.
A Rich Cultural Showcase
Today the rock monasteries form one of the most interesting spots on the cultural map of Greece. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, they are a unique treasure chest of cultural heritage. A recent concern of the Greek State is that the cultural wealth of the Meteora be preserved. Renovated buildings and museums have been opened for visitors. What do they contain?
Well, apart from such things as portable icons, ecclesiastical robes, and music codices, they contain rare historical Bible manuscripts. Among them is the parchment Codex 591, dated 861-62 C.E., which contains interpretative discourses on the Bible book of Matthew.
Powerful natural forces have indeed formed a unique spectacle. If you ever visit Greece, why not include Meteora in your itinerary? And make sure that you take along an ample supply of film because you will have the urge to use your camera often.—Contributed.
[Pictures on page 16]
Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas
Monastery of Rousanou
M. Thonig/H. Armstrong Roberts
[Pictures on page 17]
Monastery of the Holy Trinity
Monastery of the Great Meteoron
R. Kord/H. Armstrong Roberts
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture Credit Line on page 16]
Background: Y. Yannelos/Greek National Tourist Organization