Friday, 12 July 2013

Preview: Meteora

When you think of Greek history, you think of men in sandals debating philosophy and creating democracy. A minotaur or two might be hanging around. Rarely however do you think of the 15th Century, and a bunch of monks sitting on rocks.

This is the Meteora of Greece, a series of monasteries and retreats improbably built on the pinnacles of rock pillars. At its peak in the 17th Century, there were 24 monasteries - there are just six active ones now. Overshadowed by the more ancient history all around, this UNESCO World Heritage site has been quietly going about its business for the last 600 years. And quiet is the operative word. The monks first moved to these remote rocks for some peaceful contemplation. They've never been interested with the politics of the day; for most of time they've quietly avoided being part of the world's history. Meteora is just a bunch of monks wanting away from the world, and finding the most inaccessible locations possible to achieve that.

The entire area of Meteora pinnacles and monasteries takes up around 1 square mile, and geologically speaking was formed by earthquakes and erosion about 60 million years ago - the traditional ancient Greece is a baby by comparison. But throughout recorded history, the crazy landscape of Meteora avoids any mention. Greek and Roman histories ignore it, despite it being perfect for the backdrop of a Greek myth. We have to wait until the 14th Century, and the appearance of a single-minded monk called Athanasios.

It seems likely that Meteora was the home of hermits and monks before Athanasios, with some records and traditions suggesting life as far back as the 9th Century, but even if this was the case, it was not at all organised or developed. A few people hanging around on rocks or in caves. But Athanasios began the rocks' new - indeed, their first - role in history when he settled there in the 1340s. Born in 1305 to a prosperous family, he'd been brought up by an uncle after his parents had died young. He was captured in battle but escaped captivity to rejoin his uncle, who had now become a monk. His uncle then died, but Athanasios, still a boy, was recognised as being bright and keen and was given a free education. Even at a young age, he was keen to follow a spiritual path but was still too young to become a monk, so he made his way to Constantinople and visited its various shrines and relics, befriending a number of influential religious people. This got him into the mystical practice of Hesychasm.

Hesychasm was a practice within the Orthodox Church that was almost Buddhist in its methods. The followers believed that an inner light and vision of God could be attained by what could be described as a form of meditation. Repeated chanting of "Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me" while in a fixed position would lead, so it was claimed, to a spiritual vacuum necessary to receive divine enlightenment. Total solitude was required. It became very popular with monks, who would find a rock or a cave somewhere and just sit there, for ages and ages, chanting away to themselves. Eventually, it was claimed, the devout followers would eventually quite literally see a godly light.

Athanasios became a full monk by around 30 years old, and to practice this focussed form of worship needed somewhere seriously out of the way. The usual spot would have been Mount Athos, tucked away on a small peninsula, but it was going through an unstable period and being raided by Turks. Eventually, he came to hear about this strange, as yet unnamed, area filled with towers of rock, and made his way over to investigate. In the words of his biographer, " there was no-one living on them but vultures and crows". It was perfect. One rock in particular stood out, and he gave it the name Meteora, or "in the air". The name soon came to mean the whole area.

On top of this rock, the largest and most imposing of all the surrounding rocks at 415 metres tall, Athanasios founded the first proper monastery, the Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron. At first it was just a little church, built with a couple of disciples who had joined him from his previous monastery. Athanasios liked to spend six days a week in a cave midway up the rock, and it seemed to annoy him that once a week he had to come down from the rock to attend a proper church. So by building a church on the rock, the problem was solved. Somehow he gathered a total of 14 disciples, and the church became a monastery. And soon, other monks heard the news, and started populating other rocks, and building other monasteries. Athanasios had, probably unwittingly, transformed a bunch of remote rocks into a hotspot retreat for reclusive monks.

So, what do we see today? The monastery established by Athanasios, the Great Meteoron, is still the biggest and the best in Meteora. It has been reconstructed more than once, so the version we see now is from the 16th Century. We also see a lot of other rocks, with churches, monasteries, and other buildings either perched right on top of them, or tucked away at the side. Some, like the Monastery of St Nicholas Anapafsas is notable for seemingly merging with the natural rock, as though the monastery is growing out of it. Others, like the Monastery of Rousannou, jutting out the side of a huge boulder, and accessible only by a small footbridge, look like they're from a fantasy world.

Mostly though, Meteora's monasteries and settlements are now ruins. At its peak in the 17th Century, there were 24 monasteries scattered around the rocks, and even by the early 19th Century there was still a pretty thriving community. But being a reclusive monk seems to have gone out of fashion, and by the mid-20th Century the total population was less than 20, across six monasteries. This is about the number today. The decline was exacerbated by war. Unfortunately, the monasteries' impregnable position has made them ideal for guerrilla fighters hiding out, and rebels and Communists have also used them, causing great destruction in the process. In World War 2, Italian soldiers looted monasteries, and German artillery damaged buildings. For those seeking peace and quiet, Meteora became a pretty undesirable place to be. Fortunately, since then it's been a time of recovery and repair. Tourism has helped - and is probably the monastery's main saviour.

As a Wonder, Meteora's qualities seem to lie strongly in its glorious improbability. Like Machu Picchu, the constructions themselves aren't so much celebrated, it is the unlikely position of these constructions amidst the dramatic scenery. They seem to become part of the rock. That they were built by a bunch of monks with just basic tools simply seems impossible. There is a fairytale quality to them, remote and otherworldly, a magical landscape peppered with monasteries perched up high. Prior to the 20th Century, some of them were effectively inaccessible. Some could only be reached by the monks lowering a net, getting inside, and being pulled up a few hundred metres. This could take half an hour. God's will determined the rope's strength.

These days they have been adapted for easier visitor access, with steps cut in the rock and so I won't have to put my life in God's, or some monks', hands. I'm looking forward to this one - it's a bit different from most of the places on my list. Often I have a rough idea about what to expect, but with Meteora I have none. It's unique. While many monasteries around the world have been built in dramatic and spectacular locations, often hanging from cliffs or the sides of mountains, Meteora seems especially improbable and inaccessible. It may not be as isolated and remote as Athanasios found it, but it still looks like a different world.

I'll probably be visiting Meteora in around February of next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

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