Europe, History and culture

Halfway to heaven

Distagon

The Metéora monasteries were built atop of giant stone pinnacles in an era of no technology. Here there have been Monasticism, bombings and James Bond scenes.

AlexTois

At some point in the 14th century, on the plains of Thessaly in mainland Greece, a group of monks are likely to have debated the location of a new monastery. They had a habit of preferring remote, inaccessible places, but this time they took it to the extreme: they settled on a series of 400-metre high sandstone pinnacles close to the town of Kalambáka; a near-inaccessible location designed for prayer and spirituality. A few centuries later they had built 24 monasteries on the site, making Metéora the second largest Greek monastic area after Mount Athos, in Macedonia.

The building process was anything but easy. The first convenient path to the monasteries arrived in the 1920s, when a stairway was etched into stone. Before that, monks had to climb dangerous paths up the rocky hills. They transported materials via baskets and ropes. Even humans were folded into thick nets and reeled hundreds of metres up towards the buildings. As it happens, Metéora means ‘suspended in the air’, though the expression equally befitted the monks.

 

Why did they choose this location? Why go through so much trouble? “Partly because of inaccessibility,” says Andrew Jotischky, professor in history at Lancaster University. “Monasteries across the Greek Orthodox world are found in remote locations, to make them as difficult as possible for people to get to.” Security, he says, played another part, seeing as the monasteries contained valuable paintings and relics. But there was also another reason. “Mountains and cliffs have a symbolic value of being closer to God and closer to heaven,” Jotischky explains. “When the monks move higher up, it comes with the idea of being halfway between earth and heaven.”

The conception of the monasteries started in the 11th century, when a group of hermit monks settled at the foot of the mountains. They would climb the cliffs to be in solitude with God. The following century, they built a small church there, named Panaghia Doupiani. Then, in the 14th century – at a time of political instability – the first monastery started taking shape at the top. By the end of the 15th century, 24 monasteries were completed. They were to house a Monastic community that flourished until the 17th century. However, in the following years, many monks departed, leaving parts of the site in disrepair. Some buildings were bombed in World War Two, during which several art treasures were stolen.

Distagon(4)

Of the 24 monasteries originally erected, six remain today. They have been conserved since 1972, with an additional boost coming when UNESCO listed the site in 1988. More trivially, it hosted a scene in the 1981 James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. Unsurprisingly, and independent of cinematic fame, Metéora is a tourism magnet during summer, with artistic treasures from the 16th century still retained inside the halls. The remaining monasteries are The Great Meteoron, Varlaam, St Nikolaos Anapafsas, Roussanou, The Holy Trinity and St Stephen’s.

Life at these monasteries retains a curious mixture of past and present. They were repopulated by monks in the post-war period, though few live there today. Those who do must manage their rituals alongside an influx of visitors. “In the summer they get flooded with tourists, and this can be quite distracting for their routines,” says Dr Veronica Della Dora, senior lecturer in geographies of knowledge at the University of Bristol. “But apparently they move to different parts of the building during opening hours.” She says they have had to change some practices to respect the commercial time schedule. But at least the monasteries’ spiritual importance has not been erased just yet.

Photos: AlexTois, Distagon [both via Shutterstock.com].

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