New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Maybe you noticed, in 2003, a CD album named “Meteora”, which sold 810,000 copies in its first week of release and 27 million copies worldwide since then. Clearly, I wasn’t paying attention, or I would have investigated the reason for naming an album of music that is identified variously as nu metal, rap metal, rap rock, alternative metal, or alternative rock, after the Meteora, the rock formation in central Greece that hosts one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries, second in importance only to Mount Athos. That Greece was relevant to new music in the early 2000s points up the diachronic power of its culture.
Quotes from the musicians suggest that they probably did experience the place, at least as a geological phenomenon. “Meteora was a word that caught my attention because it sounded huge” … the music is “very epic, dramatic, and has great energy…like The Meteora, the rock formations in Greece”: “The band wanted the album to have that same feeling from beginning to end with no part in it “where you start daydreaming”. Indeed, monasteries are not for daydreaming either, but a high school εκδρομή, (excursion) to the Meteora, located at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindus Mountains, led by our highly inspiring high school Classics teacher Nikos Stavroulakis, (later, founder of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens and the driving force behind the restoration of the Etz Hayim synagogue in Chania, Crete), does seem like an exotic dream that is not, cannot be, forgotten. On a freezing evening characterized by frosty breath, heavy sweaters, and teenage angst, skillfully handled by the wise Stavroulakis, the bus stopped its climb toward the Meteora, our next day’s destination, in the town of Kalambaka. The next day dawned on the immense natural pillars of Meteora rising precipitously from the plain, topped by the monasteries of Byzantium, fantastic and otherworldly.
We walked up the rock-cut steps to the Monastery of Varlaam (built by Theophanes and reputed to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew.) Cut into the rock in the 1920s, steps and pathways made the Meteora complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau, but before, for reasons of protection, access to the monasteries was deliberately difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets to haul up both goods and people. This required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only “when the Lord let them break”. UNESCO writes: “The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 1,224-foot cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.”
In 1989, UNESCO placed the Meteora on the World Heritage List as a distinct cultural and natural asset, characterizing the Meteora as “a preserved monument of humanity that belongs not only to Greece but also to the whole world.”
The Meteora is named after Saint Athanasios the Meteorite (Athanasios Koinovitis), who brought a group of followers to Meteora from Mt. Athos and founded the monastery of the Metamorphosis of the Savior in 1344. (Much of the architecture of the Meteora buildings is Athonite in origin). From 1356 to 1372, he founded the great Meteoron monastery on the Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks. They were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of the entry to the monastery because the only means of reaching it was by climbing a long ladder that was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened. In the middle of the 14th century, the monk Nile gathered the isolated monks living in caves in the rocks, organizing monasticism in the Meteora. At the end of the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire’s reign over northern Greece was being increasingly threatened by Turkish raiders who wanted control over the fertile plain of Thessaly. During the Ottoman domination of Thessaly (1393-1881) the Monasteries of the Meteora functioned as places of hope. By the mid 1500’s sixteen Greek Orthodox monasteries had been constructed, the number finally reaching 30. (Six remain open to visit). In the early 19th century, the troops of Ali Pasha destroyed and looted the Monastery of Ypapanti, Agios Dimitrios, and others. During World War II the site was bombed and many Church treasures were stolen. Now, most of the frescoes in the monasteries one can visit have been restored.
While women are prohibited on the peninsula of the Holy Mountain, Agion Oros, this is not the case at the Meteora(In 1921, Queen Marie of Romania visited the Meteora, becoming the first woman ever allowed to enter the Great Meteoron monastery, then the largest of the monasteries located there).
To imagine the mood of the place before Christianity, you must begin in the Stone Age. Of great archaeological importance, significance Paleolithic remains in the cave of Theopetra, 2.5 miles from Kalambaka indicate settlements around the stones dating from between 100,000 to 40,000 BC. Astonishing: the remains contain records of two greatly significant cultural transitions: the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans, and later, the transition from hunting-gathering to farming after the end of the last Ice Age.
We went by bus, but you can visit Kalambaka by train as it is the terminal of the OSE Northwest Railway Line, with an intercity bus and a passenger car. And visit you must, to see the Natural History Museum of Meteora & Mushroom Museum in Kalambaka, very close to the city of Trikala. The museum is located on the National Road that connects Trikala with Egnatia Odos, next to the big hotels of the city and five minutes from the center on foot.