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The Hanging Monasteries of the World

"QUANTUM SHOT" #286(rev)
Link - article by Avi Abrams

Truly, the way is narrow & the path is steep...

Dizzying heights, pervading mists and isolation seem to invariably fuel humankind's spiritual quests and lofty aspirations, so it comes as no surprise that we find monasteries and other sacred architecture suspended high above deep valleys, perched on impossible rocks and looming over gorges. The air is certainly clearer there, though at these heights, it's often much foggier.

(Hozoviotissa monastery at Amorgos Island, Greece - image credit: Joao Paulo Barbosa)

Serving partly as castles and almost always as unconquerable fortifications, these ancient sites were built on steep cliffs and daring promotories, often accessible only by secret paths - and thus provide the utmost seclusion amid serene surroundings, so valued in true spiritual devotion.

Some of these monasteries were featured on Dark Roasted Blend before, for example the "Haunted Monastery" of Sumela in Turkey:

(image via)

We also wrote about a "hiking" path to sacred places on Mt. Huashan in China:

Now we're going to add more pilgrimage destinations to this list. The accessibility to such places recently has improved due to the relentless progress of civilization (though this may not be a good thing for those seeking the original peace and quiet).

1. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka - The Lion Mountain

Build on a "magma plug" outstanding rock (being a remnant of an ancient volcano) the sacred city of Sigiriya contains the ruins of the palace and of the original temple, dating back to 500 AD. Even older times (around 3rd century BC) saw this rock used as a mountain monastery of the Buddhist Sangha devotees. Their caves still pepper the vertical walls, hardly accessible because of their overhanging formation and the 370-meter height.

(images credit: 1, 2, 3)

Here are some ancient rocks and the Sigiriya City in the background:

(image credit: Chinthaka Senanayake)

The whole western face of this rock (measuring 140 meters long and 40 meters high) was at one time covered with paintings:

"The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery... (being in total) the largest picture in the world perhaps" (quote from John Still in 1907). Colorful frescos were painted with the special mixture of egg yolk and wild honey, depicting the royal princess' procession and various exotic offerings. A few frescos in this giant mural were later obliterated by zealous monks, anxious not to disturb their meditation.

(images via)

Steep cliffs plunge down on all sides, commanding an ultimate view of surrounding plains & mountains:

(image credit: Munir Squires)

Stairs leading to the Mirror Wall... were some sort of "Stairway to Heaven" for the ancient monks:

(images via)

This sacred mountain did not remain sacred throughout all the years of its history. Eventually, "mad king" Kasyapa built Pleasure Palaces there, including a "health spa" and a harem for his 500 wives. At other time this place also served as a capital city of Ceylon. By the time Arthur Clarke wrote about it in his "Fountains of Paradise", it was again only a secluded monastery. Today this place is remote, but not "ideally" secluded, as hordes of tourists and hordes of archaeologists (this being a UNESCO site) clearly testify...

Don't look down there -

(image credit: Munir Squires)

More local danger:

(image credit: Ben D. Johnson)

2. Taktshang - Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan

The Taktshang Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan clings to a cliff 2300 feet above the Paro Valley floor. The legend behind the "Tiger's Nest" name speaks of the "Second Buddha", Precious Guru Padmasambhava, and his flight to the future site of the monastery on the back of a tiger. This is certainly marvelous means of transportation, but the rest of us must either hike on foot to reach the monastery and the temples, or ride a mule along the steep and narrow mountain paths.

(images credit: Leo Palmer Photography)

(images credit: Douglas J. McLaughlin)

The cliffs reign supreme... and the monastery looks like it's carved into a mountain:

Looking down into the valley below:

(images credit: Allyson and Dominic)

Some hikers reportedly have gone missing on their way up, presumably losing their balance and slipping off the path. As you can see, there is pretty much nothing standing between you and the bottom of the valley:

The surrounding area of the Bhutan's Tiger Nest monastery seem to be just as fascinating: here is a typical house on the way to monastery and a Medieval castle (or Dzong) overlooking the Gaza village:

(images via 1, 2, 3)

3. Meteora, Greece - "Build Your House on a Rock"

Our third monastery is situated on some curious cliff formations in Greece, in the plains of Thessaly. Some of these formations tower 1800 feet above the plain. Meteora site was originally a complex of two dozen monasteries, dating back to the 14th century. Six of them are still standing today and can be explored. By the way, Meteora means ""suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above":

(images credit: Leonidas Spetzos, Poseidon Simons, Adventurelogger)

First monks started to build in Meteora around 950-970 A.D. They clearly recognized and respected the grand nature of this place, especially the unique shapes of surrounding rock formations, which were eventually explained by Filipson, a German geologist. According to him, a few million years ago Meteora area was the estuary of a great river, with much mud and silt accumulating and then eroding into these cone structures. With the geographical uplift of the Central Greece, Thessaly itself became a big lake. Gradually, the rocks of Meteora became detached from the Pindos Mountain chain, and with ages of erosion, became the shapes we see today.

The Roussanou Monastery:

(images credit: Karolos Trivizas)

(image credit: Tomasz Moscicki)

View down the valley:

Originally, the monasteries were only accessible inside baskets lifted by pulleys - until the 1920's, when roads, steps and bridges were constructed to accommodate more pilgrims and tourists:

(image credit: Magdalini Eirinaki)

Still it's quite a climb up to get inside any of these houses. Which makes it not a very friendly place to deliver groceries, perhaps, but certainly a great location for taking great photographs... and maybe dreaming about dozens of James Bond movies which could take place here?

(image via)

Varlaam Monastery:

(image credit: Tom Dempsey)

Saint Nicholas Anapafsa Monastery:

(image credit: Tom Dempsey)

This area is predictably popular with rock climbers... as one can only imagine the tenacity of first hermits who repeatedly scaled the cliffs and inhabited austere caves in search of solitude and spiritual awakening. Further detailed history of this place can be found at Great Adventures.com.

(image credit: Ilias Kapetanakis)

(image via)

The monks might not find themselves jumping from cliff to cliff, but a certain dare-devil tourists would. It can be clearly called a "leap of faith":

(image credit: Mr. Teklan)

4. Cave Monasteries of Cappadocia, Turkey

And now we come to the most surreal landscape and weird habitation of them all - the fairy chimneys and hollow towers of the Cappadocia area in Turkey - a land rich in history and spiritual heritage. According to this, "Cappadocia is mentioned in the Biblical account given in the book of Acts 2:9, with the Cappadocians being named as one of the people groups hearing the Gospel account from Galileans in their own language on the day of Pentecost shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Acts 2:5 seems to suggest that the Cappadocians in this account were "God-fearing Jews".

The Natural Rock Citadel of Uchisar is the highest peak in the region, and quite unexpectedly it is completely honeycombed with ancient dwellings! Many of these spaces were used as cave monasteries, though today they mostly inspire photographers and artists. Its honeycombed architecture is revealed by erosion and suggests intense fortifications and infrastructure:

(image credit: Patryk Moriak)

(image credit: CT Pehlivan)

Fairy Chimneys:

(image credit: CT Pehlivan)

We will cover more difficult-to-access and precariously located monasteries in the next installment of this series. But by now, you might be asking yourself a question:

How far would you be willing to go, just to get your peace & quiet?

Some paths to sacred places require a special blessing for safety. Take for example, this bridge... where the Russian sign states it clearly: "Did you get a blessing before crossing this bridge?"

Once you put all the sheer walls and narrow paths behind and reach the "sacred ground", then it will prove to be truly inspiring:

Article by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.





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Anonymous Sky said...

Beautiful 'photo gallery' indeed...Thanks DRB !

Anonymous Learner said...

Something rather Avataresque about some of them...

Anonymous Erik said...

amazing what can be accomplished if done for the right reasons. thanks for sharing

Anonymous Big Nemo said...

You mentioned the Meteora monasteries as being a perfect setting for a James Bond movie. I remember at least two action movies set there:

IMDb - Sky Riders (1976)
(terrorists with hostages in an abandoned Meteora monastery, James Coburn gets there via hang glider)

007, For Your Eyes Only (1981) - IMDb
(final showdown set in the Meteora, including Roger Moore climbing up there)


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