Meteora is one of the most stunningly beautiful and other-worldly places on earth. Nearly a millennium ago, monks traveled throughout Greece in search of a place where they could get close to God and spend their days praying in undiluted solitude. Ultimately, six monasteries were established there, all but one perched atop stone pillars rising hundreds of feet above the plain below.
“Metéora (Greek: Μετέωρα, ‘suspended rocks,’ ‘suspended in the air’ or ‘in the heavens above’) is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece. The nearest town is Kalambaka. The Metéora is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.”
OK, I confess. The previous paragraph is lifted verbatim out of Wikipedia. But it’s a decent geographical description of the place. But nothing quite prepares you for Meteora’s rock formations that tower over the town below, the monasteries that melt into the sandstone pillars effortlessly, flush with the edges of the majestic columns, the eerie view of the ever-changing scenery as you drive on the perilous mountain switchbacks.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s just a few hours to get to this unique place from Athens. You get on National Highway 1 and travel up the eastern coastline, stopping to see where King Leonidas and 300 Spartans held off the original Million-Man March at Thermopylae. Then, the road begins to wind inland until you arrive at Kalambaka, where you must find lodging if you are to visit the monasteries that tower above the town. Kalambaka strikes me as a town that grew up around the convents, bringing visitors to the brick and stone cloisters that were built and inhabited for seclusion. For centuries, the only way to the top was via a basket attached to a line that must have been cranked for hours before unloading its cargo of personnel and necessities. When asked how one would know when to change the cables, the priests drolly replied, “God lets us know.” Beginning in the early twentieth century, pathways from adjacent mountains were built for the many visitors. One too many ropes had snapped, leaving those in the baskets barely enough time to collect their thoughts and offer a final prayer to God.
In this place are scores of biblical manuscripts. As the only nunnery among the abbeys, St. Stephen (or Μονὴ Ἁγίου Στεφάνου) has a small collection of fascinating handwritten scriptures. But one in particular caught my attention—lectionary 2258.
The manuscript is a 230-leaf paper codex with parchment covers glued to cardboard. The parchment jackets have minuscule handwriting, with a majuscule text previously glued on top of them, both for the front and back covers. It is these covers that are of interest to us, since just the majuscule writing is the lectionary.
At first glance, the manuscript appeared to be a palimpsest—a text that was scraped over and reused in later centuries for writing. By the middle ages, the practice of reusing vellum was so ubiquitous that Charlemagne had ordered an empire-wide order to cease and desist. This codex looked to be one such palimpsest, produced by some recalcitrant scribe who scoffed at the Carolingian edict. By definition, the under-text of a palimpsest is older than the upper-text. And majuscule handwriting was exclusively used for the first eight hundred years AD in biblical manuscripts, with minuscule codices coming into play beginning in the ninth century. The minuscule text was obviously later than eleventh century, the date that scholars had determined for the majuscule lectionary. But the majuscule text looked to be on top of the minuscule text. How could this be? It was impossible, of course, but there it was, staring us in the face, mocking us with its mysteries.
We looked closer at the text, hoping against hope that it would somehow reveal its secrets to us by some mystical union between man and manuscript. We tried to read the text, and this proved impossible as well. Although it had Greek letters, they did not form Greek words.
Typing out each letter, there was nothing unusual about the Α, Δ, Η, Θ, Ι, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ο, Π, Τ, Υ, Φ, Χ, or Ω. But the other letters were different: they actually were written backwards. Because in majuscule script most of the letters look the same whether forward or backward, it took us some time to unlock the secret of this document. How did such a reverse image happen? That took some noodling, but the mirror image provided a sufficient clue. A majuscule text was apparently pressed against the minuscule text cover, got damp, and left a residue of letters. The majuscule leaf then vanished, but a shadow of its letters as a mirror image remained. For part of the majuscule handwriting, the outer layer of skin had completely peeled off, adhering to the paper below. We were reading the backside of the top layer of parchment, as though we were the parchment looking out as the scribe penned his words.
As we followed this hunch, a text emerged. On the recto, we could make out the following letters:
λεια (in the first column, about four lines down)
κνα και παντα οσα (second column, about half way down)
εν και αποδοθη (the underscoring = underdots, the traditional way to indicate uncertain letters)
The only text that fit this was Matthew 18.23, 25. The reconstructed lines thus read:
τεκνα και παντα οσα
ειχεν και αποδοθη
The verso had the following (with brackets indicating our educated guess as to what was in the gaps):
σκος το]ν λο[γον
μενος ην γ]αρ εχ[ων
This was Matthew 19.22, with the variant spelling νηανισκος for νεανισκος. This confirmed that we were dealing with a lectionary. Before the lines that contained βασιλεια on the recto, there must have been the previous lection as well. The lections thus detected were:
Unconfirmed since no letters could be detected
Lection κυριακη ια (12th week) for Sunday: Matt 18.23–35
Lection κυριακη ιβ (13th week), Sunday: Matt 19.16–26.
So, here was a manuscript that technically has no material on which it is written (except for the thin layer of skin for a small portion), because the material has vanished. All that is left is the shadow of letters, in mirror image, on another manuscript. I hesitate to call this unique; there may be other manuscripts that went through a similar process. But of the hundreds of biblical codices I have examined, this was a first for me.