On the Plain of Thessaly, a series of sandstone pillars soar into the air more than a thousand feet above the rest of the landscape. For a band of hermitic monks in the 9th century, these massive towers proved a perfect hideaway: the caves at the base of the cliffs provided places to live and worship. But over the following centuries, as the number of monks grew, so did threats from the outside world, reaching crisis proportions during the 14th century, when Turkish raiders occupied parts of the region. Where were the monks to go?
Up. Way up.
Rising to New Heights
Leaving their easily accessible caves behind, the monks began building monasteries on the tops of these stone pillars. Over time, they built a total of 20, one of them perched a whopping 1,200 feet off the ground. Pulling off such a task was, obviously, no small feat, considering that materials and builders alike had to scale the staggering cliffs.
The solution was a progressively more complex system of joined ladders, netting, and rope pulleys for raising and lowering both goods and people. Even once the monasteries were completed, this remained true: monks and pilgrims alike had no choice but to risk the heart-stopping basket ride upward to a height equivalent to that of our Empire State Building.
It didn’t help that, according to legend, the ropes were replaced only “when the Lord let them break,” so that each trip forced the passengers to recognize the fragility of life. This remained true until the 20th century, when steps were cut into the rocks and a bridge allowed access to some of the monasteries from the nearest outcropping.
Inspiration Made Accessible
These steps and bridges allow you to see the remaining six monasteries today. The largest is Great Meteoron, which sprawls across 50 acres. You need no rope and pulley to get there, but you’ll need good lung power for the steep steps leading up to the church. It’s worth the effort: the interiors are truly memorable, with the skulls of past residents lining one chapel and intact 15th-century frescoes in another. It even boasts a library with works by Homer, Sophocles, Demosthenes, and Aristotle.
The 15th-century St. Varlaam’s monastery still holds a massive oak water barrel, a key component of the community’s survival in those early years. At St. Stephen’s monastery, more recent history is on display as the ornately decorated interior is studded with bullet holes from the successive battles of World War II and the Greek Civil War.
Two of the monasteries, Roussanou and Saint Nicholas of Anapafsas, appear to merge seamlessly into the cliffs. But it’s Agria Triada that perhaps offers you the clearest insight into the bravery of the early monks. The hardest of the churches to reach, this “Holy Trinity” monastery perches on a cliff that itself seems to be leaning—as if the height alone wasn’t dizzying enough.
When you visit Meteora, soaking up views of the plains and beyond to the River Pinios and the Pindos Mountains, it’s clear why UNESCO declared the complex a World Heritage Site: the upward bound monks created a world that sends the human spirit soaring even now.