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Words From Adelaide: The Meteora Monasteries

John Powell is impressed by the Meteora monasteries, which are set atop 1,800 ft peaks – but he fails to find meditative peace and quiet.

After about four hours drive north of Athens the Meteora Mountains came in sight. I had long been looking forward to see these beautiful gigantic mountains, 1,800 feet high, mostly of sandstone, that have been weather-etched into unimaginably beautiful shapes with countless pinnacles, like fingers, stretching skywards. Time, wind, rain, earthquakes and geological changes over millions of years gave us these monuments to nature. Equally breathtaking is to see monasteries, dizzily perched on top of them, man-made monuments to God.

It is believed that Christian hermits took refuge in the many caves of the mountains in the first millennium, for security from bandits and persecutors of their religious Christian beliefs. Over time they gathered for mutual prayer and their gatherings grew. In the 11th century, monks sought sanctuary on the top of the pinnacles of rock and started to build the monasteries there. Twenty four monasteries were built but only six of the originals remain today. Seeing them one wonders immediately how they managed to build them, perched precariously on the top of sheer rock faces stretching to the skies, hundreds of feet high.

Their method of building started with scaffolding, and then wooden joists were knocked into the mountain side giving an anchor for rope ladders. Slowly they progressed to the summit. When there, supplies for building, and more monks, were hauled up by rope and large nets. Gradually, over the years, the monasteries were built. It is reported that a tourist, surprised to hear that in old times people were hauled to the summit within nets on a rope remarked, 'How dangerous! What would happen if the rope broke with people in the net?'
The monk replied, 'We would make a new rope.' Simple answer.

Today, roads have been built to the monasteries followed by never-ending precipitous steps for entry, although with some it is only a short walk into the front portals. From the monasteries the breath-taking views overlooking the town of Kalampaka, far below, and across the valley to the distant pine-covered mountains, topped by snow-capped Mount Koziakas brushing the clouds, has to be imagined. No words can do them justice.

The fortune of the monasteries fluctuated over the centuries. At the end of the 14th century, Turkish raiders wishing to control the valley threatened them and later the rule of the Ottoman Empire closed several monasteries but others survived. Those that did opened evangelical schools for religious instruction. Theologians maintain that in doing so they safeguarded the traditions and beliefs of the Greek Orthodox Church together with Greek culture, which otherwise would have been lost.

The monks lead an austere life of purity and obedience to the Abbot from whom they ask blessings and spiritual guidance for the salvation of their souls. Prayers start at 3.30am . . . which rules out any monastic ambitions on my part. There are not many monks today: in the 16th century, the Great Meteoran Monastery had 300 monks; today 3. I saw not one anywhere, only nuns who occupy St Stephan monastery entirely. One very authoritative nun swooped on me, admonishing me sternly with waving finger for trying to enter a Bell Tower to take a photo; she had me quaking—which may contribute to the explanation of the reduction in recruitment of monks.
It was my hope to sit in a monastery chapel in solitude; to savour the ancient architecture; to hear the very silence ringing in my ears as I absorbed the magic of the atmosphere and its antiquity. Alas it was not to be. I squeezed in with two busloads of tourists, their guides competing in loud voices with their commentaries. Directly they left there was another flood of camera-wielding human tsunami.

Now, with easy access roads there were tourist buses parked outside each monastery. Inside and outside there are shops selling icons, books, DVDs and other religious 'gimmicks' awaiting credit cards. Today the Monasteries thrive on tourism. Alas, hordes of camera-clicking tourists have rather spoilt the joy world-wide.

As we drove home through the mountain roads with their ever-changing, beautiful breath-taking views of valleys, and rolling pine-covered mountains and streams and the snow-topped mountain-peaks, I turned to my friend and guide, Alexandros, and said 'You have a superbly, beautiful country, Alex, you must be proud that it is yours.'

He smiled and replied, 'Well, John, it's not just mine, it is your country too, you know; its beauty belongs to mankind.'
His generous reply was a fitting ending to a very spectacularly enjoyable day indeed-long to be remembered.

© John Powell 2008

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