Meteora is a five-hour bus ride from Delphi, partially on a winding and steep road over a mountain pass before it drops down to the plains of Thessaly. Beyond the plains to the north astounding pillars abruptly rise skyward, some as high as 1800 feet above the plains. Neanderthals and our earliest ancestors sheltered in caves here some 50,000 years ago. The surrounding area was known in ancient times, mentioned by Homer and Herodotus, and was the home of the most famous doctor of antiquity, Asclepius, who founded a healing center here. Then, like Delphi, its fame receded into the mists of time until the 9th century when Greek Orthodox hermits settled in caves to lead solitary lives of contemplation and prayer.
Whether from the desire for closeness with others who shared the same beliefs or a change in religious philosophy, the first of twenty-four monasteries was founded sometime before 1200 AD, although sources differ on dates. The first monks drove wedges into crevices to ascend the pillars. Reaching the top, they wove rope ladders which could be drawn up in case of attacks from the Turks, and baskets for building materials and later arrivals. Ladders and baskets were replaced “when the Lord let them break,” which I suspect was quite often.
Some of the building complexes were built on pillars large-enough to support a small church, terraces, lodges and refectories. Others rested on pinnacles so small there was only room for one tiny building.
Now, only six of these religious monuments continue to function while the ruins of the others lie lonely and desolate. Even those that remain are barely populated with dwindling numbers of ascetics desiring the isolated life: about 15 monks and 40 nuns.
We had the opportunity to visit two of the monasteries:
St. Stephen is relatively easy to approach because there is a wooden foot bridge from land to pillar although it’s not a good idea to look down if you suffer from vertigo. Monks were living a common life here by the 1300s. Despite the designation, the complex was deserted by 1960, and converted into a nunnery in 1961. We were welcomed by a smiling apple-cheeked elderly woman in black. Hanging on pegs were neat black and white wraps which those of us women who wore slacks had to wind around our waists before we joined Sunday crowds of every age.
Doubly covered, I began to look around. There are two churches, the oldest built in 1545, was heavily damaged by Germans in WWII. The second church, built in 1798, has relatively modern frescoes, some done in 1915, and while lovely, they don’t hold the same fascination for me as other-worldly Byzantine era masterpieces.
The monastery reportedly has a piece of the True Cross and relics of John the Baptist although they weren’t on view, but the refectory holds marvels: icons, embroidery, silver and ancient parchments. The most interesting icon was done by a painter from Crete, later known as El Greco when he moved to Spain to produce the elongated and luridly-colored paintings for which he is famous.
Varlaam or All Saints Monastery, 1200 feet above the plain, began as a cluster of cave-dwelling monks about 1350 and transformed into a church and cluster of outbuildings in 1518. Stairs were cut in 1923 and we began the long walk and then climb what seemed to be a thousand steps to visit the church, said to have been built in twenty days after collecting the materials for 22 years.
We passed a cat sound asleep in a niche as we struggled ever upward. I stood panting on a terrace at the summit looking at the remains of an ancient winch and rope net formerly used for humans and materials I wondered how many monks and visitors fell to their death as they reached for heaven. The thought of swinging out over the abyss was terrifying. Now a small cable car does the job safely.
The interior of the small church with brilliant gold, red and blue icons; lamps; and furnishings glowed in the dim light, a truly holy atmosphere. Many of the chairs and tables in the church were of inlaid wood in the Syrian style. When I inquired why our guide reminded me that the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church remains in Istanbul the former capital of the late Roman Empire known as Constantinople. I wished to take photos but unsurprisingly none were allowed.
What were these men’s lives really like divorced from the world and its cares? It seemed to me it would have been a short life of privation, freezing cold and snowy in the long winters, with chilblains and arthritis wracking their bodies in an unremitting struggle to reach a state of holiness through ritual and prayer as flickering candles lit the golden icons.
A life I could not imagine for myself but admire anyway. The world could use more holiness.