Metéora Monastery in Greece. Flickr/ alaskapine
Metéora Monastery in Greece. Flickr/ alaskapine

Nestled in the mountains of central Greece is a land that time forgot. Giant fingers of brown sandstone rise up out of the Kalambaka Valley like the hands of God reaching toward heaven. Perched miraculously on the tips of these fingers are monasteries and one convent, all of which are active and thriving. The area is called Meteora, and it literally means “columns of the sky.”

In the 11th century holy monks began to occupy caves high up in the almost inaccessible peaks. 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. 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.

At the time of the great revival of the eremitic ideal in the 15th century, 24 of these monasteries were built. 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 (305 m) 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 rock acts as a natural camouflage. A plaque over one monastery door telling 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.

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