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Meteora: Between Heaven and Earth

text and photos by Margot Granitsas

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The young monk, in well-pronounced English, announced to the few visitors that it was time for him to close for lunch. He lifted his calimaphion – the stovepipe hat worn by Greek Orthodox priests and monks – combed his dark wavy hair, and motioned everyone outside the tiny church. A few minutes later he stood at the foot of the long flight of stairs that lead up to the monastery, a black attache case in one hand, a plastic shopping bag in the other. A taxi whisked him away.

The monks who established the monastic community at Meteora in eastern Greece during the Byzantine era could not have foreseen the changes that time would bring to their monasteries. They chose the site precisely because they thought it would never succumb to the assault of outsiders. The name Meteora means “between heaven and earth,” and that is where the monks built their monasteries: 1800 feet above the plain of Thessaly, atop rock formations that rise like stalagmites from the valley floor.

The hermits came in search of solitude for prayer and penance. Until the 20th century, the rest of the world did not intrude upon their peace. Today, especially during the summer, the silence of Meteora is shattered by buses and cars bringing a steady stream of tourists and travelers.

The approach to Meteora through Kalambaka, a dusty little town at its foot, does not prepare the visitor for the stunning sight ahead. Out of the fertile Thessalian plain, where farmers raise cotton and tobacco, the thin rocks rise like needles, their surfaces polished for millennia by wind and water. Clinging to their summits are churches and surrounding monastic buildings. They appear to be an outgrowth of the rock, and their balconies overhanging the abyss can make even the viewer on the ground feel dizzy.

According to legend, the first hermits came to Meteora as early as the 9th century. More reliable documentation traces them back only to the 11th century. They were hesychasts, practicing control of breathing and other bodily faculties in order to achieve a state of mystical contemplation and enlightenment. They lived on sparse meals of beans and water and imposed on themselves the most severe conditions they could think of. By means of crudely made ladders, one section fastened atop another, the monks ascended to caves and crevices in the rocks. Some are said to have pushed away the ladders after reaching their abode, quietly perishing as they ran out of food.

The real life of Meteora as a monastic community started, however, in the 14th century. A monk named Athanasios is believed to be the first to move from his original retreat in a crevice to the top of what is now called the platys lithos, the wide rock. It was so high that “even the forces of evil were reluctant to search him out there.” He settled 1800 feet above the plain and built a chapel.

News of the holy man’s life reached others who were eager to follow him. He soon found himself surrounded by a group of monks, and together they formed the Metamorphosis monastery, now called the Great Meteoron.

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Tags: Monastery Art Greece Icons Orthodox Church of Greece