“…the political upheaval required to keep Greece in the Eurozone is giving rise to a myth of self-sufficiency”
The first monks arrived in the 9th century. They were probably Anchorites, those living outside of any monastery. We might call them hermits. They sought God in isolation in caves atop the towering pinnacles in the picturesque hills above Kalambaka. The name they gave the place, Meteora, means “suspended in the air” and so the Anchorites lived; supplying themselves with donations hoisted up the spires in baskets on the ends of long ropes. They were known to descend on Sundays for mass in the town and as their numbers increased, so too did the size and beauty of their dwellings. The community grew quickly as a growing onslaught of banditry from the north pushed clergymen from the Thessalian plain to the relative safety of the hills. They were eventually aided by the largesse of the Byzantine emperors who, like wealthy Muslims of today, sought favor with God by financing religious infrastructure. Under the Byzantines, Anchorite dwellings became chapels, the chapels churches, the churches monasteries, the monasteries an order.
At the time, the Byzantines were mounting a crumbling strategic defense against a growing threat from the Ottomans; a hopeless struggle that exacerbated the natural Byzantine paranoia. Their largesse evolved into attempts to control the Anchorites, a very unwelcome development in the view of those independently minded hermits. Meteora’s monasteries had been established to perfect worship through the denial of worldly distractions but with the bubble of isolation punctured, disputes and political maneuvering overcame religious devotion. Byzantine money it seemed, was toxic indeed. Blood was shed, lending pretext to an intervention by the ascendant Ottomans in the early 16th century. Meteora became a magnet for repression – and a beautiful stronghold – first for the faith, but eventually for all of Greece.
The Archive of Pain
Upon entering the great monasteries, one is greeted by beautiful hand painted scenes of religiosity on every wall and ceiling and arch and mantle. The murals have been beautifully preserved by the monks over the centuries and present each visitor with a feast for the eyes. With nothing to prepare the casual traveler however, one tends not to notice immediately that the ancient murals are not about the idyllic lives of the saints, but instead are about their grizzly deaths. Visitors will realize with a shock that the Ottomans were cruel masters indeed, focusing their Islamic zeal on converting the disinterested monks of Meteora; a losing struggle that escalated with each Pasha that came, tried, and left in frustration. The Meteorans proved incorruptible, or so the legend goes, choosing sainthood and honor over conversion but at a gruesome price as Ottoman attempts transitioned from argument to coercion to torture. Over the years, the abuse grew systematic, mechanized; carried out by soldiers and abetted by cruel inventors endowed with twisted genius.
The period left its mark on the walls in Meteora; now an archive of Turkish torture. There are endless scenes of monks impaled with spears and swords and other steel implements through every conceivable body part, sometimes with great care paid to fanfare and aesthetics. The Turks knew that six skewers arranged in a geometric pattern through the body of a saint had a greater impact on Greek onlookers than just one fatal stab. Turkish executioners dealt death slowly and spectacularly with assemblies of wheel-mounted knives, racks and fire, stretching machines, death by beast and rat, acid, water, and pressure…The only thing lacking was electricity. Ottoman torturers routinely impaled uncooperative monks on pikes after removing parts of their bodies a piece at a time with the executioner’s blade. There was no torture too horrific for the monks and while the survivors took great pains to illustrate the horrors, the faces of the departed always expressed calm determination, even when detached from their bodies. The gruesome murals in Meteora serve as a reminder that the monks bore much of the cost of the Ottoman occupation of Greece.
It was never clear what the Ottomans wanted from Meteora but as the anti-Orthodox temperature of their rule increased across Greece, the towering monasteries became a beacon for the hope of generations and a refuge for the artifacts of their religion. The monks hid everything of importance in their vaults; sacred texts, public records, histories of the families of the region. The cultural riches of Greek society weathered the oppression of an empire amongst the bones of saints in ossuaries atop the spires. As Ottoman power waned in the 19th Century, it became clear the lack of real estate in Meteora had performed a natural triage on the riches hidden therein. Only the most precious of Greek cultural treasures were allowed in over the centuries, making Meteora the beating heart of Greek Orthodoxy as the Islamic tide subsided.
Symbol of Resistance
Though the Byzantines built Meteora and the Ottomans made it a symbol of religious permanence by trying to destroy it, it was the Nazis that would carry Meteora into the modern age as a symbol of Greek strength. The Nazi invasion came early in the Second World War and was not a surprise. Since October 1940, Germany had been building a complex military and diplomatic defense of their oil fields in Romania by increasing troop strength in Bulgaria, Hungary, and of course Romania. The southern flank (Greece) was left to the Italians but after the Greek Army repulsed two combined Italian-Albanian invasions, first in October 1940 and again March 1941, the Nazis felt they had no choice but to take Yugoslavia and Greece themselves.
In frenzied preparation, Allied high command rushed troops from Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain to Macedonia in northern Greece to guard the right flank of the Greek Army but it was too little too late. In the early hours of 6 April 1941, the German 12th Army crossed the border from Bulgaria and reduced the Metaxas defensive line in just a few days. They quickly outflanked the Greek Army still concentrated on the Albanian border and drove Allied forces all the way to the southern shores of the Peloponnese where 7000 of them surrendered into captivity. Just three weeks after the Wehrmacht entered Greece, the country ceased to exist and the resistance began.
Once again, Meteora became a center of Greek resistance to occupation. The Nazis believed, with some historical justification, ordinary Greeks would take some cues about resistance from the monks of Meteora. The Nazis were probably correct about that but they failed to understand the moral significance – or maybe the literal truth – of the Meteoran murals. Like the Ottomans, and the Byzantines before them, the Germans tried to co-opt the Anchorites who, it turns out, were not interested in shaping public opinion in any way, much less in a way that benefited the Germans. Frustrated, the Nazis took a more Ottoman-esque approach and attempted to coerce the monks into giving up their treasures and into admitting complicity for aiding the insurgency. But lacking even the brutal tools of Ottoman torture, Gestapo officers never had a chance when it came to making the Meteorans cooperate. Instead the Germans bombed some of the monasteries and defaced church artifacts; an effort that failed. Some of the monastic art from this period shows a Nazi officer in free fall from one of the spires. According to the legend, he attempted unsuccessfully to replace a crucifix with a Nazi flag atop one of the monasteries when he fell to his death. Whether he was pushed by a man or by the will of God is irrelevant, the Nazis paid the price for their attempts to control Meteora.
Greeks today are naturally proud of their independent history. As the world’s oldest democracy they have successfully fended off empires for thousands of years. The Persians, the Spartans, the Mongols, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the Nazis all tried and failed to control Greece. Meteora, Greeks believe, has been key to that independence since at least the Byzantines and now some Greeks perceive a new encroachment. Because this new invader from Brussels wields no torture machines, doesn’t put heads on pikes, and has for now refrained from bombing a single Greek village, the threat seems somehow less urgent. But as austerity and political instability take hold in Athens, the perception grows that perhaps European monetary policy and the trade regimes that underpin it are just as brutal as an Ottoman scimitar or a Nazi assault rifle. One thing is certain, the political upheaval required to keep Greece in the Eurozone is giving rise to a myth of self-sufficiency the country has never really had. The delusion links European economics to Greek politics and as Greeks face the possibility of being suspended from the monetary union, they may once again look to those suspended in the air to lead them through it.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He likes Greece.