All religion might be said to teeter on the edge of an abyss. For those whom the word means something more than a catch-me-if-I-fall donation to a toll-free number, faith is a dizzying business. “The rocks beneath one’s feet are ever liable to crumble into the void, but that’s the test faith demands – and we shall be protected,” the crazies who built the perilously placed monasteries featured here seem to have been saying – unless they simply dug free rock climbing, that most ancient of extreme sports.
Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan
The awesomely named Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Lair’ monastery at a glance looks like something out of a bad 80’s Eddie Murphy movie, but pan out and you realise just how jaw-droppingly situated Bhutan’s famous Buddhist monastery is. Enveloped in mist, this beautiful but perilously positioned sanctum clings onto a sheer-sided cliff at a dizzying altitude of 10,200 ft (3,120m), some 2,300 ft (700m) above the bottom of Paro valley in the Himalayas.
Mist-cloaked crag: ‘Tiger’s Nest’ teeters some 2,300m ft above the Paro valley
Completed in 1692, Taktsang was built around one of the thirteen taktsang caves where Guru Padmasambhava – the Indian sage said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan – meditated in the 8th century. The name ‘Tiger’s Lair’ was born of the legend that Padmasambhava flew there on the back of a tigress. Today, less divine visitors must claw their way up the slope to the monastery’s seven temples on foot or mule-back. Still, mustn’t grrumble.
Xuan Kong Monastery, China
Built into the sheer cliff overlooking a canyon near Mount Heng in China’s Shanxi province, Xuan Kong Si – the hanging temple – looks as if it might collapse given half a divine chance, but has actually stood up rather well – and against earthquakes no less. The halls and pavilions of this structure follow the contours of the rock face, its buildings connected by bridges and walkways – the highest of which wavers over 200 ft (60m) above the riverbed, atop stilt-like pillars.
Mind over matter: Hanging monastery, a marvel of engineering and aesthetics
Constructed an über-beard-growing 1400 years ago, Xuan Kong Si is unique not only due to its position on a precipice but because it brought Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist elements to the party. Architecturally, crossbeams inserted into the rock provide foundation and the rock behind support to deny gravity. Xuan Kong’s location has sheltered it from rising flood waters as well as snow and rain from above, and in tune with the Taoist idea of tranquillity, it rests undisturbed by everyday noises. Chilled.
Sümela Monastery, Turkey
Hovering dramatically on the ledge of a steep cliff overlooking the lush forests and streams of Turkey’s Altindere Valley, Sümela lies at an altitude of around 3940 ft (1200m). The drop’s making us feel woozy already. As well as a Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens and other room, this majestic old monastery boasts a sacred spring revered by Orthodox Greeks and a many-arched aqueduct constructed against the side of the rock face.
Don’t look down: Sümela’s soupy plunge at an altitude of 3940 ft
Access to the monastery leads up a long and narrow stairway, but there are visitors aplenty due to its cultural and religious status. Founded in 386 AD, legend has it two priests got the ball rolling here after discovering a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in one of the mountain’s caves. Like many of our other monasteries, it fell into ruin and was restored several times over the centuries, reaching its current form in the 13th century under Alexios III. It was finally abandoned to the tourists in 1923.
Popa Taungkalat Monastery, Myanmar
Sat serenely among the clouds, some 2,417 ft (737m) up on top of a massive, sheer-sided lava plug, Popa Taungkalat towers above the plains of central Myanmar, a stunningly beautiful sight visible for miles around. The danger of the location admittedly diminishes when you learn that the volcano beneath this Buddhist monastery has ceased bubbling – but still, that’s some fall from the top.
Head in the clouds: Popa Taungkalat, nestled on a lava plug 2,417 ft in the air
This unique site is not only a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, but is also home to 37 Mahagiri Nats – spirits of humans who met violent ends revered in local belief, the statues of whom can be seen at the base of the shrine. The many visitors who flock here must remove their footwear, climb the 777 steps to the summit – once maintained by the famous hermit U Khandi – and if that’s not enough run the gauntlet of hundreds of hungry, kleptomaniac macaques. Still, enlightenment awaits.
St. George Monastery, Israel
Another cliff-hanging complex with a precipitous drop gracing one side, St. George Orthodox Monastery is located in the eastern West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Clinging precariously to the sheer north face of a gorge, this 6th century sanctuary is accessible via a pedestrian bridge across the Wadi Qelt – which incidentally many imagine to be Psalm 23′s Valley of the Shadow, immortalised on the Old Testament and, well, Pulp Fiction. Just sayin.
In the Valley of the Shadow: St George Monastery in the bone-dry Judean desert
The beginnings of St. George Monastery lie in the 4th-century-designs of a few monks who sought the desert experiences of their biblical fathers, and settled around a cave they believed held spiritual significance. Building began in the late 5th century, but a hundred or so years later the monastery witnessed bloodshed as some pesky Persians swept through the valley massacring the 14 monks who lived there – the bones and skulls of whom can still be seen today.
Phugtal Gompa, India
High in the Himalayas, an awe-inspiring sight greets the eyes of India-fatigued travellers trekking through the remote region of south-eastern Zanskar, in the far north of the country: Phugtal Gompa. Hanging onto the edge of a rocky gorge at the mouth of a giant cave, this strange, sacred construction is built directly into the cliff side, like some giant, human-sized honeycomb. Phugtal’s (Phuktal) devoutly busy bees would therefore be the 70 or so Buddhist monks who live there, dividing their holy time between the monastery’s library and prayer rooms.
Human honeycomb: Phugtal Gompa, basically built into a craggy gorge
Established in the 12th century by one Gangsem Sherap Sampo, this spiritual haven has weathered the attrition of time despite being made of mud bricks, stones and wood. In modern history, the Hungarian philologist Alexander Csoma de Korös, author of the first English-Tibetan dictionary, stopped by in 1826-27 – a stone tablet bearing witness to his visit.
Perched aloft natural sandstone rock pillars rising from the Plain of Thessaly in central Greece, the six remaining UNESCO World Heritage-listed Eastern Orthodox monasteries of the Metéora are a breathtaking sight to behold. Meaning “suspended in the air”, the haze-shrouded Metéora is one of the largest and most important monastic complexes in the Hellenic Republic – and surely the most mind-blowingly spectacular.
Towering pillar of rock: Metéora’s cliff-top-perched Monastery of Holy Trinity
Metéora’s human foundations were laid in the 11th century when ascetic hermit monks moved up to inhabit the fissures of the ancient rock pinnacles, some of which tower 1800 ft (550m) above the plain. The great height and sheerness of the cliffs deterred all but the most determined. When, in fear of Turkish raiders, the original 20 monasteries were built between the 14th and 16th centuries, long ladders and nets were used to scale the giddy heights. With elevators this primitive, quite a leap of faith was required.
Big drop: Metéora’s Holy Monastery of Rousanou, ropes hanging down one side
Popular belief has it that St. Athanasius, founder of the first monastery, did not scale the rock, but was carried there by an eagle; today’s tourists have the less exciting luxury of steps, cut into the rock formations in the 1920s. Roger Moore had a thrilling, smirking time of it when the Monastery of Holy Trinity was featured as a location in the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. If only Sean Connery had been starring; we could end the post with: ‘nishe’.