Built into cliffsides and atop mountains, these gravity-defying marvels are true wonders of the ancient world.
Of all the wonders of the ancient world, faith-related architecture is perhaps the most formidable. Irrespective of religion, ancient places of worship were such remarkable feats of ingenuity that one questions if there was some sort of competition to see who could build the most awe-inspiring complex.
If that were the case, the architects of temples and monasteries surely would have won. Some of these were built in the most hostile, inaccessible places: into mountainsides above the clouds, on the peaks of rock monuments, and on the edges of sheer cliffs. The purpose was twofold: to isolate the faithful from the world of sin and temptation, and to elevate them to a higher place — both physically and spiritually. Not to mention such locales would separate the wheat from the chaff: only the most devout would invest the time and effort to get there.
These wonders of the ancient world exist to this day, and many are accessible to visitors, albeit with some effort. The five described below are among the most impressive — and worth adding to your must-see list.
In the heartland of Greece, near the town of Kalabaka, a complex of monasteries is perched onto sandstone pinnacles shaped by wind, water and tectonic shifts. The forbidding landscape of Metéora — meaning “suspended” in Greek — was originally the stronghold of ascetics, who climbed the spires and lived in solitude inside caves and fissures. In the 14th century, when Turkish occupation threatened the monastic way of life, monks built and occupied 24 monasteries on top of the rocks. In the ultimate “test of faith,” people could access these monasteries by rope ladders and nets hoisted by a rudimentary pulley system. Most of the monasteries are now derelict, but six are still inhabited (four by monks, two by nuns).
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is open to visitors — no ropes needed. The most beautiful of the structures is the Varlaam monastery, with its significant collection of religious murals and a display of the monks’ art, including gold embroidery and iconography. For the adventurous, the vertical trek to the top of Holy Trinity, featured in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, yields mind-blowing views of the valley.
Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem, so named because it was conceived as a pilgrimage site for Coptic Christians, is one of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet. The 13th-century complex of 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela is a true feat of medieval architecture. Constructed from a single piece of stone in the manner of a sculpture, each monolithic structure was chiseled and shaped from floor to ceiling with remarkable detail, evident in carved columns, keyhole windows, altars, and daintily decorated arches.
Considering the builders had only primitive tools and tons of dirt and stone to move, it’s no surprise this wonder of the ancient world, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, took a reported 24 years to complete. The fruits of their labor impress to this day. Best-known among these churches is St. George (Bete Giyorgis), a subterranean monolith cut 100 feet into the mountain in a perfect cruciform shape. Steps lead down to the entrance, and tunnels connect the edifice with surrounding churches.
Bete Medhane Alem is the largest rock-cut church in the world, with 34 slab columns outside and 38 inside. It also houses the gold cross of Lalibela, a relic of particular significance to the Ethiopians, who come in droves every Sunday and on religious festivals to glimpse it.
In 386 AD, at the height of the Roman Empire’s spread eastward, two traveling monks found an icon, supposedly painted by St. Luke, inside a cave in the mountains near Trabzon, Turkey, and decided to build a sanctuary to house it. It was an inconvenient location — on the edge of a steep cliff almost 4,000 feet above sea level — but it didn’t stop the monks, Sophronios and Barnabas, who quarried the stones from the mountain to construct this improbable structure.
The monastery of Sümela has been razed and rebuilt many times throughout history. The latest iteration, circa the 14th century, includes a fresco-covered rock church, a 19th-century arched aqueduct, the monastery complex with chapels and acolyte housing, kitchens, several courtyards and a library. Restorations at the site, currently under way, have exposed a subterranean tunnel leading to a newly discovered chapel. The monastery is expected to reopen in 2018.
4. Xuan Kong Si
It’s known as the Hanging Temple for good reason: Xuan Kong Si, in China’s Shanxi province, literally hangs off a vertical cliff face 246 feet above the ground. It seems like folly to build anything this way, but there was method to the architects’ madness. The building is supported by oak joists fitted to holes drilled into the mountain.
From a distance, the temple’s pagodas and bridges seem suspended in midair, as if they will tumble at any moment. In fact, they’ve held fast for 1,400 years — which cannot be said of far more modern structures. For the brave, this wonder of the ancient world can be accessed through steep, narrow pathways. Is the nail-biter worth it? Considering Xuan Kong Si pays tribute to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and houses sacred relics representing all three religions, the answer is a resounding yes.
5. St. George of Choziba
Like other monasteries, St. George of Choziba started as a holy man’s hideout in an inhospitable land. Inside a cave high on a cliff face in the Judean Desert, in what is the West Bank today, the prophet Elijah once hid and, as legend has it, was fed by ravens. In the fourth century, a monastic compound was built around the cave and served as a gathering center for hermits who lived in the nearby caves.
The location — the deep gorge of Wadi Qelt on the road to Jericho, not far from Jerusalem — is part of the attraction of this Eastern Orthodox monument. Few places are so serene or so, well, biblical. Accessible only by foot or donkeyback, this wonder of the ancient world isn’t easy to reach, but the journey is worthwhile — if only to witness Elijah’s cave.