Wednesday 11 August 2010

Day 24 - Greece

Day 24 - Wednesday 4th August 2010 - Greece

Today we visited the Monasteries of Metéora.

The Metéora (literally 'suspended rocks') is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Kalambaka, Greece. The monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars, at the north western edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Peneios River and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece.

The Metéora is home to six monasteries and is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Studies suggest that the pinnacles were formed about 60 million years ago during the Tertiary Period. Weathering and earthquakes then shaped them into their present shape.

Although it is unknown when Metéora was established, as early as the 11th century AD hermit monks were believed to be living among the caves and cut outs in the rocks. By the late 11th or early 12th century a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi and was centred around the church of Theotokos (mother of God), which still stands today. The hermit monks, seeking a retreat from the expanding Turkish occupation, found the inaccessible rock pillars of Metéora to be an ideal refuge.

Although more than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century, only six remain today. These six are: 'Great Meteoron (or Transfiguration), Varlaam, St. Stephen, Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas Anapausas and Rousanou. There is a common belief that St. Athanasios (founder of the first monastery) did not scale the rock, but was carried there by an eagle.

Access to the monasteries was originally extremely difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and people. This required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only "when the Lord let them break". In the words of UNESCO, "The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 373 metre cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolises the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction."

Monk accessing monastry by cable car.

In about the 1920s steps were cut into the rock, making the complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau. During World War II the site was bombed and many art treasures were stolen. Only six of the monasteries remain today. Of the six monasteries, five are inhabited by men, one by women. Each monastery has fewer than 10 inhabitants. The monasteries are now some of the most popular tourist sites in the world and now serve primarily as museums.

At the western region of the Thessaly plain in the middle of northern Greece, these sandstone rocks rise from the ground. Since the 9th century, an ascetic group of monks moved up to the ancient pinnacles. The rocks are composed of a mixture of sandstone and conglomerate. They were formed about 60 million years ago. A series of earth movements pushed the seabed upwards, creating a high plateau and causing many fault lines to appear in the thick layer of sandstone.

Continuous weathering by water, wind and extremes of temperature turned them into huge rock pillars, marked by horizontal lines which geologists maintain were made by the waters of a prehistoric sea. Local people believed the plain of Thessaly had once been a sea. If this was accurate, there was most probably an inundation at the end of the last Ice Age, around 8000 BC. The rocks of Metéora are not recorded in the writings of the ancient Greek authors. This has led to the belief that the pinnacles did not exist 2000 years ago; a theory dismissed by modern geologists.

The first people to inhabit Metéora were hermits, who lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some of which reach 1800ft (550m) above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors. Initially the hermits led a life of solitude, meeting only on Sundays and special days to worship and pray in a chapel built at the foot of a rock known as Dhoupiani.

By the end of the 12th century, an ascetic community had flocked to Metéora. At the end of the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire's 800-year reign over northern Greece was being increasingly threatened by Turkish raiders who wanted control over the fertile plain of Thessaly.

Until the 17th century, the primary means of conveying goods and people from these aeries was by means of baskets and ropes.

In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Metéora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the great Meteoron monastery on Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks; they were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of the entry to the monastery. The only means of reaching it was by climbing a long ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.

In 1517, Nectarios and Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaám, which was reputed to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew.

Most of the monasteries are perched on high cliffs and accessible by staircases cut into the rock formations. They were created to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Greek Orthodox Church. Much of the architecture of these buildings is Athonite in origin.

The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron – This is the largest of the monasteries located at Metéora. It was erected in the mid-14th century AD and was the subject of restoration and embellishment projects in 1483 and 1552. The building serves as the main museum for tourists. The Katholikon (main church), consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of Jesus was erected in the middle of 14th c. and 1387/88 and decorated in 1483 and 1552.

Skulls and Bones of Monks

The best part of the monasteries for me though, was the breathtaking views they offer. Not only do you get a great view of the other monasteries, but the surrounding plains and mountains seen from such heights are truly spectacular and, if there aren’t too many tourists around, you really sense the atmosphere of peace that drew the first hermits here over a millennium ago.

We spent a lot of time just sitting outside on the 6-million-year-old cliffs, enjoying the sights after climbing to The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron. Really, what better views are there to indulge in after climbing all those stairs on a very, very hot summer’s day?

Late lunch Souvlaki and some well earned shade for Barnaby

Sunset at Stavros. Late night arrival at campsite. Dinner was cooked with haste as a thunder storm developed overhead.

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