Sunday, August 10, 2008
The almost flat valley of the Pineios River, north of the town of Kalambaka in Thessaly, is punctuated by spectacular formations of iron gray conglomerate rock, huge, sheer-sided columns abruptly projecting up to 2,000 feet (600 meters) above the plains. On the seemingly inaccessible pinnacles of many of these weathered outcrops there stand, as though growing out of the rock, the monasteries of Meteora. Were they architectural feats? We believe so. Although most conventual buildings by definition demonstrate some degree of preoccupation with solitude, those at Meteora are unique, built where it appears virtually impossible to build. Not only were there no materials in situ, the task of delivering the imported materials to the builders—indeed, of getting the builders themselves to the precarious sites—could hardly have been more difficult. The logistical problems were subordinated to the need for isolation.
Christian monasticism originated in Egypt and spread throughout the Byzantine Empire between the fourth and seventh centuries. For a hundred years after the accession of Emperor Leo III in a.d. 717, the Iconoclasts attacked the eastern monasteries, seizing their treasured relics, thus greatly diminishing their wealth and power. As the rabid movement waned, Christian ascetics, perhaps moved with fear of a recurrence or perhaps with an eye on the restless power of Islam, sought secure places in which to follow their religious exercises. Throughout the ninth century hermits settled in rock crevices and caves in the great brooding pillars of the Pineian valley, long known as a retreat by mystics of pre-Christian religions.
As their numbers increased, the Thebaid of Stagoi Monastery was created at Doupiani, and its community grew during the eleventh century. Meteora became a sanctuary, especially after about 1300, when it provided asylum for secular as well as religious refugees under Ottoman rule. Around 1356 St. Athanassios Meteoritis founded Great Meteoron (from which the region derives its name), and about eighty years later the Serbian Orthodox prince John Uresis joined the community, endowing it with such wealth and privilege that it soon became the region’s dominant monastic house. The growth of other foundations—Varlaam, commenced in 1350 and rebuilt in 1518; Holy Trinity of around 1470; and Roussanou, established in 1288 and rebuilt sometime before 1545—led to a golden age of monastic life and produced an environment in which scholarship and Byzantine ecclesiastical art flourished. At its peak the whole community numbered thirteen coenobite monasteries and about twenty smaller foundations. The patriarch Jeremias I (ruled 1522–1545) raised several of them to the rank of imperial stavropegion.
The monks set out to create places of inaccessible isolation. In the completed buildings entry could be gained only by a series of vertical wooden ladders of dizzying length (65–130 feet, 20–40 meters), which could be drawn up at night or when intrusion was imminent, or by nets hauled up by windlasses housed in cantilevered towers. Great Meteoron, or the Monastery of the Transfiguration, largest and highest of the houses, stands on the Platylithos (Broad Rock) 1,780 feet (534 meters) above the valley. Varlaam was originally reached by using scaffolding dug into the rock, and its windlass and rope in the tower (built 1536) were used for materials and supplies until 1963. Roussanou is built on a site only just large enough for it, and its walls stand right at the edge of the precipice. Whatever the reason for such a defense against the world—whether to protect the souls and minds of the monks or the wealth of the monasteries—the construction of these buildings in the sky, some of which are large and complex, represents a formidable challenge to the resolve and skill of the builders. It has been well met.
The monasteries generally declined in the seventeenth century (although some had failed long before), and by about 1800 they were little more than a “decaying curiosity,” a unique sight for tourists. They surrendered their independence to the Bishop of Trikkala in 1899. At the beginning of the twenty-first century only five are still occupied: the monasteries of Great Meteoron, Ayia Triadha, Varlaam, and the convents of Agios Stefanos and Roussanou.