Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

March 2016

Here we are in March, after a most peculiar February: I can’t remember another one like it. The tourists are probably very appreciative of what can be considered an early spring, but the reality is a winter drought in what is usually the wettest month of the Peloponnesian year. As an unreconstructed Aussie sheila, even after all these years away, I become worried about drought. Very worried, in fact. Childhood memories come rushing back: my father banging the rungs of the water tanks, and saying, ‘A rotten state of affairs for November,’ and the watching and hoping as clouds built up. All too often they simply disappeared, and much the same thing has been happening here.

And this afternoon a sirocco started to blow. This is a warm southerly wind that comes from the Sahara; it can last as long as four days, is often very strong, and usually dumps red dust on every available surface: Crete, of course, is particularly affected by sirocco dust. The wind is generally unpleasant, and is accompanied by a heavy humid atmosphere in which the sun burns dully through a thick layer of grey cloud. All this can happen, and will continue to do so, but we will bear it cheerfully if some rain falls as compensation. This would be A Very Good Thing.

It is quite a long time now since the family and I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Meteora, but if ever a place lingers in the mind, this is it. It would be hard to find a more dramatic and picturesque setting for the six monasteries that have become tourist attractions. (There were once 24 functioning communities.) They sit atop towering sandstone pinnacles: in the olden days, the monks could only get in and out via extremely long ladders and/or baskets on ropes. This must have been a mind-bogglingly daunting business, and a real test of faith.

Opinions are divided as to the geological origins of the Meteora: the word has various translations: I think the one I like best is columns in the sky. But it seems that either a river or a sea receded at some point in the far distant past, and erosion eventually left only these bulky protuberances, which are very different from the sandstone formations off the south-west coast of Victoria, for example.

There is no disputing the fact that the formations are extremely old: 60 million years is one estimate. And human habitation goes back about 50,000 years, when people lived in caves, and a poor, nasty, and brutish existence it must have been. Not to mention short. There was some sort of a monastic community established by the 12th century, as hermits had started living in the area as many as three hundred years earlier. The monastery we chose to visit, The Great Meteora, dates from 1344. The Serbian emperor Symeon Uros, who also ruled Epirus and Thessaly, endowed the monastery with a great deal of wealth at one point, and in 1373 his son became a monk there.

Most Orthodox monasteries insist on certain standards of dress, so that daughter-in-law Katerina and I had to don wrap around skirts, nearly ankle-length, over our trousers. The males of the party had acceptable garb in their long trousers: I would think there might be some regular difficulty at the height of the Greek summer, however. The buildings are enormous, and one could very easily get lost in the passages and in the various levels. The richness of collections: paintings, costumes, weapons, manuscripts, jewel embossed volumes, has to be seen to be believed, and then it is difficult to remember many of the vast numbers of exhibits. And one is too busy simply looking to make a list.

Being Orthodox is part of being Greek: about 97% of the population at least claims Orthodoxy as their religion. And the Church’s official line is that it is, of course, the One True Faith. Not only that, it continues a glorious tradition:  a statement prominently displayed on one of the walls tells the reader that Orthodoxy is the pride of Orthodox Christians all over the globe. ‘It is the Greek nation in its entirety, as old as the world, a source of life and endless hope.’ We are also to note that Christ brought the Ancient Greek way of life to its completion. Small wonder, then, that the Church finds it difficult to change.

But while we are reminded of continuity within a great tradition, we are also reminded of the brevity of our human span. The charnel house is prominently open for viewing, and there on display are a great many skulls, neatly arranged on shelves. Who needs a more graphic reminder of what we are to become? But it interested me to see that my grandsons, aged 9 and 7, gazed on this sight with great equanimity. At the same age I would have run in terror from the scene and would have had the first of many fits of what my Grandfather used to call the screaming meemies.

 

 

 

 

 

Gillian Bouras

 

Eureka Street

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