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Monk crossing at monastery Megalo Meteoro. photos by the author.

Land in the Clouds:

Greece's Giant Fingers of Granite Contain Monasteries and Mystery

By James Michael Dorsey

Nestled in the mountains of central Greece is a land that time forgot. Giant fingers of Granite rise up out of the Kalambaka valley like the hands of God reaching toward heaven.

Perched miraculously on the tips of these fingers are five monasteries and one convent, all of which are active and thriving. The area is called Meteoras and it literally means 'up in the clouds."

In the 11th century holy monks began to occupy caves high up in the rock face. These were natural refuges from the distractions of civilization and a quiet place in which to lead a life of contemplation. These hermit caves can still be seen from the highway.

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Some are hundreds of feet up a sheer cliff. Once inside, the occupant was there to stay. None are currently in use but are popular stopovers for rock climbers scaling the vertical heights.

Looting and Banditry

The oldest monastery was begun around 1382 during the Turkish occupation when the local monks kept climbing higher to avoid the looting and banditry infecting the area. Once atop these almost inaccessible peaks they lowered rope ladders to friends on the ground that sent up building materials and food.

A system of levered pulleys with large baskets followed and that is how they bring up their supplies to this day. Now there are roads connecting all the buildings, but the inhabitants mostly use the old baskets and even have a hand pulled cable car system for crossing some of the deeper chasms. Creaking cables cause all eyes to look up at a basket full of monks inching along a tiny cable a thousand feet above the valley floor.

The natural rock buildings blend so evenly with the scenery, they are hard to spot at first. Only the red tile roofs give them away. Centuries of weather have caused natural streaking of the granite that acts as a natural camouflage. A plaque over one monastery door giving the history of the valley says the streaks are monk's tears, crying for the sins of the outside world.

Upon completion, the monastery Megalo Meteoro or Metamorphosis, claimed the former Serbian Emperor, Symeon Uros as a monk. He gave the bulk of his wealth to his new home and had the interior frescoed with gruesome scenes of Romans persecuting Christians. A visit to the main chapel is a tour through a Bosch painting where blood and torn flesh is the order of the day.

James Bond was Here

Next in time came the Agia Triada or Holy Trinity monastery built during the 15th century. It is the most photogenic of them all and even starred in the James Bond Movie, "For Your Eyes Only." Today Agis Triada is the poster ad for all of Meteoras. Even with the modern parking lot at its base, a visitor must climb 140 steps cut into the rock wall. It sits on the steepest and most isolated of all the granite fingers.

Monastery Megalo Meteoro.

Two monks who named it for an esthetic hermit that had originally occupied the mountaintop founded the Varlaam Monastery in 1517. It houses a valuable collection of Byzantine relics, from carved crosses and icons to intricately embroidered altar vestments. A famous muralist named Frangos Katelanos frescoes its interior.

Two brothers, building upon the old site of a former church founded the Roussanou Monastery in 1545. It is the most inaccessible having to cross a wooden bridge between two granite fingers to reach its drawgate, and is known for its icon collection.

Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas was named for a patron responsible for funding its construction in the 16th century. It is the smallest of the monasteries and sits on a stub of granite alongside its much taller brothers, looking very much like a thumb to the finger towering over it.

The valley's single convent, Agios Stefanos or Saint Steven is fairly modern by local standards, having been built in 1798 after the original church was destroyed, possibly by an earthquake. The occupying nuns are courteous and friendly but no visitor gets past them with bare shoulders or knees.

Novices holding piles of plain blue aprons and capes meet tourist buses at the gate. Anyone not meeting the exacting dress standards must don the local sackcloth or be turned away.

Once inside novitiates line the walkway with fingers to their lips reminding people this is a place of worship. The nunnery houses a large skull collection of former members. It is a powerful reminder of the impermanence of this life.

Life Goes On

Inside the walls of these Byzantine fortresses life goes on as it has for over nine hundred years.

Wine is still made in giant oak vats where the monks climb in with bare feet to crush the grapes. Most of the carpentry and masonry tools are hand made in the same style as their ancestors. A monk in a leather apron works a hand pumped bellows on a furnace where terra cotta bowls are fired. Bearded black robed monks wander the cobbled streets, with bowed heads buried in their vespers. If approached with a camera they will turn away or issue a fierce look that leaves no doubt about taking their photo.

Monk paints icons.

In a tiny studio tucked away by itself, I came upon a monk painting traditional icons. He did not acknowledge me as I entered, but neither did he turn me away when he saw my camera. Perhaps he allowed himself this one tiny act of vanity, being proud of his work.

He used hand ground pigments bonded with egg yolk to make a tempera common in the middle ages, but almost unheard of today. He outlined his subjects in pencil then applied real gold leaf backgrounds.

The gold leaf was applied by rubbing it over his forehead using natural oils in his skin as an adhesive. Icons are a time-honored tradition in Greece and this man was continuing a line unbroken for centuries. I shot without a flash so as not to disturb him and he never looked up as I exited.

Visitors are Welcome

All who dwell within these walls have forsaken the modern world. Visitors are welcome but there is little or no interaction between tourists and the inhabitants.

The one concession they make to the modern world is their gift shops. Each building has one, selling reproductions of icons, statues, and books about the history of the valley and its famous residents. The monks and nuns who man the cash registers are friendly and courteous but self contained. If you ask a personal question or anything not covered by a guidebook they will stonewall you with a polite smile. They are among us but not of us.

Today you can park your car and climb a walkway to all these places, but once you pass their gates you have stepped back centuries to the land in the clouds.

James Michael Dorsey is a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor. He writes from Culver City CA.

 

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