Around this time last winter, I set off to travel around Europe for a couple of months to explore Greece, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. Each country was spectacular and awe-inspiring in its own way, however one of the most extraordinary places I had the pleasure of visiting during this time was Meteora.
Atop the holy mountains of Meteora, in central Greece, sits an illustrious monastic community where monasteries rest upon a peculiar set of rocks, suspended between the heavens and the earth. In old days, hermits used to live in complete isolation between caves etched aloft the mountain tops and then the first monasteries were built during the 14th century as monks fled the temptations and pleasures of the modern world.
As I walked among the many pillars of Meteora, I noticed each rock is blessed with its own unique form that encompasses an intrinsic array of stories and occult history, one of them being Prisoner’s Rock.
Unlike the prison carved into the bedrocks of Filopappou Hill where Socrates spent his final days, after refusing to flee Athens in exile, Prisoner’s Rock was a cave where monks were exiled from the monasteries to live as hermits. Life as a hermit was certainly less pleasant than life amidst the monasteries not only because the cave had no walls or beds but also there were far less barrels of wine!
Furthermore, life as a hermit may have been more terrifying than that of the monks due to a legend about a dragon who used to dwell inside a huge cave underneath Varlaam Monastery.
‘The sun, stretched across the horizon, mirrored that of the golden light reflected from the gold embroidery for which the monks were famed for, before disappearing within the stillness of the night. As the darkness slowly crept in, the dragon would emerge from his lair. With his wings spread wide and the last of the golden rays still reminiscent in the air, he would rush down to the surrounding villages, chasing people from their homes and terrorizing their livestock. In desperation, with no one else to turn to, the villagers decided to climb the treacherous path leading up to the monastery of Varlaam to seek help from the holy monks. Sympathetic with the local villagers’ plight, one monk dared to step forward and sacrifice himself for the good of the people. Standing upon the edge of the mountain, the tips of his feet pointing down the barrel of the valley, the monk spoke his final words before leaping from the ledge. As he fell through the air cursing the dragon, the rocks surrounding its cave began to crumble and fall, soaring past the monk like meteors sent from the heavens above, the meteors of Meteora. Beneath the rubble now lay the dragon, killed where he slept, and to his side the monk who would now also sleep forever.’
If you visit Meteora, the collapsed dragon cave, known locally as Drakospilia, is still visible today and the villagers, like a princess freed from her tower, have been freed ever since from the dragon who lived deep within the towering mountains.
Preceding the monk’s sacrifice, there had always been a strong bond between those who chose to live high above and the villagers who lived down below. During long winters and in times of need, when crops along the mountain tops were scarce, a few brave locals would dare to climb perilous ladders fashioned from rope, paired with planks of wood fixed between jagged holes in the rocks to provide them with the food and provisions they needed to survive.
As the story goes, this was quite a perilous journey as the ropes and nets used to haul up both people and food were used until “divine” intervention caused them to weather and break.
As I glanced over the edge of the mountains at life-threatening heights, the mere thought of scaling the rocks with nothing but ancient rope was terrifying. Nevertheless, the hermit’s sole purpose was to connect with the divine and attain enlightenment, praying day and night. Nothing would stray them from their path, be that hunger, cold, disease, or even the terrorising thought of plunging to their deaths.
As I walked upon the divine rocks of Meteora, I could not help but wonder about all those who had walked upon them throughout the ages. These mountains housed great spiritual saints and monks, witnessed thousands upon thousands of deaths during the Ottoman onslaughts, commended its people as they fought for freedom during the Italian invasions of World War II and, if the legends are true, once housed one terrifying dragon.
As a result of these invasions, only six of 24 monasteries are still standing today, and you can visit and explore their religious treasures, iconic paintings and libraries filled with old books and manuscripts. It was because of these that, during the 17th century, several raids by both thieves and conquerors alike, paired with heavy bombing following the eruption of World War II, led to the abandonment and destruction of several of the holy monasteries.
You can only imagine these thieves attempting to flee the towering mountains of Meteora, nets filled with treasures as they slid down the side of the massive rocks which have been divided by ground-shaking earthquakes and weathered by water and wind over the centuries.
If you choose to visit Meteora, you need not worry about ancient ropes or fear of being hauled up the mountainside by a group of monks and their nets, as modern-day visitors have a choice of several paths leading up to the monasteries which are then accessible via bridges and steps carved into the rocks.
Throughout the ages, these divine mountains are credited for keeping Hellenic culture and traditions alive and have not only been a place of refuge for the highly religious but also a source of inspiration for great philosophers, painters and poets alike.
By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.