Architecture Around the World

The Meteora, Greece

The Monastery of Barlaam

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Travelers suddenly see a cluster of gnarled black rocks rising out the plain of Thessaly. "Meteora" means "midair." Sheer, slippery, seemingly unscalable rocks are topped with monasteries, first of which was the Great Meteoron (Monastery of the Transformation) built by St. Athanasios. The first monks who came here were probably 10th-century ascetics who scaled the rocks, lived in caves as hermits. The word "monk" comes from the Greek for "alone." By the 14th century, there were enough monks for St. Athanasios to found the Great Meteoron monastery.

By 1500, there were 24 monasteries here, of which six are still inhabited and welcome visitors.

Conspicuous in more than one sense, the monastic settlements of the Meteora perch upon huge and precipitous rocks that rise abruptly from the north-western edge of the Thessalian plain where it meets the foothills of the massive Pindos mountain range. The strangely varied landscape that has few parallels anywhere in the world strikes the traveler with a curious mixture of awe and amazement.

This complex of colossal rocks emerged from the delta region of a great river which flowed for thousands of years into the narrow but deep sector of the sea that then covered the whole of what is today the plain of Thessaly.

According to tradition, the first hermits to seek solitude among these immense outcrops of rock settled on the Meteora long before the 10th century of our era. They lived in caves and crevices in the rock face and contrived small oratories where they dedicated themselves to prayer and to constant study of early Orthodox texts.

Their religious duties, however, required them to attend the Liturgy and to receive the Holy Eucharist and these rites called for the presence of a priest.

Athanasios the Meteorite, later Blessed Athanasios, had but one purpose in mind, to establish a monastery regulated in the same orderly manner as the religious houses on Athos. In 1344 he gathered around him fourteen monks from the neighborhood and scaled Platys Lithos (literally, Broad Stone), a huge rock rising to 613 meters above the sea and to 413 meters above the town of Kalambaka. There he and his companions commenced what was for those times the truly titanic task of erecting the earliest of the buildings that later became the famous monastery of the Great Meteoron. It was this pious monk who laid down the rules governing the conduct of coenobitic life on the Meteora.

Today only six of the original 22 monasteries are still functioning. Three are nunneries.

Photos and their arrangement © 2001 Chuck LaChiusa
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