It’s after one of those rare occasions when earth begins to play games with land and sky that landscapes like Meteora are born. For humans like us the anchoring force of gravity becomes a physical reality when our gaze beholds rocks that reach for the sky, as if pushed from within.
The Meteora rocks look as if they were pushed by giant fingers from deep within the earth to stand straight up from the land around them; an Olympian god playing games? Who knows? Meteora is
a visual feast for the soul, connecting in such a majestic way the underground, the earth and the sky that it is not by accident that it was chosen as a major place of worship for monks and nuns who found a place closer to the universe. These monks found atop the suspended rocks a place of meditation created seemingly by metaphysical forces; the kind of forces that earth forges over millions of years.
Prior to my visit I thought Meteora constisted of hard volcanic rock formations made of accenting lava that solidified in chambers below the surface, and with time the softer ground around them eroded to leave them exposed. Once on site however I was puzzled to see that this is not the case at all. Meteora is really made of small and large pebbles -- the kind a river would round, carry and deposit -- trapped in hardened sandstone. The Meteora rocks are actually made of a conglomerate that is constantly being shaped by wind and water -- a living earth sculpture.
How did the Meteora form? Why do they look so out of sorts with the surroundings, and unlike any other landscape we are familiar with? I would not want to destroy the mystery (not that I could), but finding out the reason for the landscapes’ form is a bit like explaining to children that clouds are really not swans and horses or dragons, but simply clusters of moisture droplets suspended in the atmosphere. The Meteora story is so layered with meaning however, that there is no danger of loosing the magic in explanations.
With these thoughts I dove into some research. Why do the Meteora rocks look the way they do? I am sure I was not the first to ask such a question, and soon I spotted the possible answer in “A Geological Companion to Greece and the Aegean”:
“These conglomerates formed from sediments deposited in the deltas of streams flowing south-westward from the mountains. As the delta built up, southward-flowing streams cut down into the existing deltaic sediments, forming wide channels, that were later also filled with sediments.”
To the west and north of Meteora one finds the imposing Pindos mountain range and to the east and south the endless valley of Thessaly. According to geologists, this valley was once an enormous lake that was emptied into the Aegean in one cataclysmic moment when the natural levy collapsed around today’s Tempe, leaving behind a very fertile and relatively flat land. At the western edge of this lake, near the Pindos Mountains, a number of streams formed a delta right where Meteora is today as they emptied their waters into the lake. The conglomerate was formed over thousands of years of stone, sand and mud deposits at the edge of the lake, and when the lake dried the softer sandstone around it eroded away leaving Meteora standing.
Meteora captures ones interest in so many levels, it’s impossible to focus only on one aspect no matter how imposing it might be. In this place, geo-forming has been amalgamating with the spiritual quest of humans for many centuries. The accenting dance towards the sky performed by the rocks was not lost on those who desired their own accent to the heavens for religious reasons. Monasteries occupy many of the rocky terraces, most of which were built during the Byzantine era and have changed little over the centuries. They are the dwellings of monks who found in Meteora a sanctuary that isolates them from every day life, a protected refuge from danger, and above all, a vehicle that delivers one closer to the heavens.
Aesthetically, Meteora is one of those places where all the elements gather in perfect order to create a natural work of art on a monumental, yet human scale. Being engulfed by the landscape one is awed by the shapes, volumes, and textures that we often recognized in excellent art. The flowing, curvy outlines of the rocks emanate a peaceful mood that contrasts sharply with the majestic scale of the volumes. The mass of rock would seem so intimidating if it weren’t for the soft, fluid appearance of their surface. Meteora is not just masses of rocks however. Meteora is the forms and the space that weaves around them. Meteora is the agent that makes us aware of awesome natural processes, of what’s below the earth’s surface, of time, and the sky above. Meteora is this rare moment where time becomes eternal, and where a human can feel simultaneously so small and so great, so much of the earth and so much of the sky.