The untold story of Kalambaka’s Byzantine church
In the old part of Kalambaka town, right beneath the giant cliffs of Meteora lies an elusive and relatively unknown monument. The locals know it as the Byzantine church. It’s the oldest standing monument of the entire Meteora region, with a truly fascinating story embedded on its walls, the stones, and the marbles. In fact, it’s the living history of the place we grew up in! Despite the fact that the church stands there for centuries, nobody so far has made any serious effort to piece together its fragmented history. Its story is buried deep beneath the layers of numerous eons and the generations that came to pass.
It’s a fascinating story to tell, spanning more than 25 centuries. It involves the mythological times, ancient paganistic religion, sacred geometry, occult symbols, and the mysterious order of knights’ Templars from middle-age Christianity. Even the modern period and the 2nd WW are present there, marked by the bullet holes on the marble columns. Different historical periods coexist in its architectural features, creating one of the most fascinating monuments of Meteora to visit. The old Byzantine church is dedicated today to the “Dormition of Virgin Mary” and still serves as an active church for the local people.
The site in the ancient period
The location where the church stands nowadays it’s been verified in the past by archaeologists that been in constant use as a religious site by the locals for thousands of years. According to a small guide booklet one might purchase at the entrance, Greek archaeologists who visited the Byzantine monument during the ’60s, found beneath its eastern side the buried foundations of a small ancient temple. Their estimate was that the buried foundations belonged to a small ancient temple dedicated to the god Apollo. From pottery findings, they’ve dated Apollo’s temple from around the 4th century BC. A period in which the town of Kalabaka was known by the name “Aiginion”.
It’s interesting to note here that at a much older period back in the 12th century BC, Homer in his famous epic the “Iliad”, gives a catalog mentioning the names of cities, the names of the Greek Kings, and the number of ships of all who participated in the Trojan War. A nearby city to Meteora, the city of Trikki (modern-day Trikala 20km south of Meteora) and its King Asclepius was mentioned in Homer’s catalog. Asclepius, according to Greek mythology was a demi-god. He was the son of god Apollo, either by Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas, or by Arsinoe. Phlegyas was the mythical King of Lapiths, an ancient Thessalian tribe of fierce warriors we’ve discussed many times in previous blog posts.
The mysterious snake symbol
Apollo, after the birth of Asclepius, carried his son as a baby to the centaur called Chiron who raised Asclepius and instructed him in the art of medicine. It is said in the myth that a snake in return for some kindness rendered by Asclepius, licked Asclepius’s ears clean and taught him secret knowledge (for ancient Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection).
The demigod and king of Trikki he was able to surpass in his medical skills both his teacher Chiron and his father Apollo. In fact, he became so proficient as a healer, that according to the myth he was able to raise people from near-death situations, or even from the actual death itself. This upset the gods, so Zeus had to kill him with his thunderbolts not to allow him to disturb any further the balance between the mortals and the immortal gods.
With all that in mind, it’s not a coincidence that the ancient people of Meteora decided to raise an Apollo temple in the vicinity of the place where Asclepius lived and ruled. Apollo, apart from being the god of prophecy, music, and poetry, the god of light, and a healer, was also known as the patron of herdsmen and protector of herds and flocks. The ancient inhabitants of Meteora were mainly herdsmen keeping tens of thousands of sheep and goats, would prefer to honor Apollo over other Olympian gods. To this day, many locals in their oral tradition believe that the Byzantine church is connected through underground tunnels to the ancient citadel of Trikki (Trikala) where King Asclepius, son of god Apollo ruled according to myth.
The snake in the Christian and pagan tradition
There is yet another interesting connection of Asclepios rod with the snake, and Christianity worth mentioning. In the biblical story of Israelites following their Exodus from Egypt, they set out from Mount Hor, where Aaron was buried, to go to the Red Sea. However, they had to detour around the land of Edom (Numbers 20:21, 25). Frustrated and impatient, they started complaining against God and Moses (Num. 21:4-5), and in response, God sent “fiery serpents” among them. For the sake of the ones who were repentant, Moses was instructed by God to erect a “serpent of bronze” which was used to heal those who looked upon it (Numbers 21:4-9).
Nehushtan (or Nohestan) is the derogatory name given to the bronze serpent on a pole first described in the Book of Numbers. At a much later period, in the Gospel of John, Jesus discusses his destiny with Nicodemus, a Jewish teacher, and makes a comparison between the raising up of the Son of Man and the act of the serpent being raised by Moses for the healing of the people. Jesus applied it as a foreshadowing event to his own execution on a stake stating:
“And as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”
I would suspect that associates of St. Paul who preached Christianity according to ancient sources in Trikki on their way from Thessaloniki to Athens, probably couldn’t have dreamed a better way to start their preachment by citing the above serpent connection. Christianity spread like a wildfire within the Roman world over the first 3 centuries and despite the ‘great persecution’ Roman authorities unleashed against it. In 313 AD, Constantine the Great becomes the first Roman emperor to declare religious tolerance for Christianity. Now, for the first time, the Christians of Meteora enjoyed the freedom to build a church for worship. So, they decide to take down the old Apollo temple and on the foundations of it, they raised an early Christian church. The Byzantine church of Kalambaka undergoes at least 3 to 4 major restorations and repairs over the centuries. The most important ones take place between the 1oth and the 13th centuries.
Byzantium and the crusades
Most of the monument as we see it today belongs to that period, hence the road signs leading to it which write “11th-century Byzantine church”. This particular period when the church was restored, coincides with the pick of the Byzantine empire, the crusades, and the rise of the Templars. During that turbulent period, pilgrims from all over Europe would make a difficult journey to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. The Christian pilgrims would require protection along the way and the Knights Templars order stepped in to offer exactly that. The order, which was among the wealthiest and most powerful, became a favored charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power.
They became very prominent in Christian finance. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.
One way the Templars protected the pilgrims was not to allow them to carry with them big amounts of money or other valuables to pay for their expenses along the way. The biggest threat pilgrims had to face on the way to Jerusalem were the bandits roaming the countryside who would rob and kill them on the spot. So, instead of having to carry money with them, Templars offered pilgrims the choice to safely deposit to them all their gold and valuables before they start the pilgrimage.
Templars laid the foundations of an international banking system
In return, Templars would issue to them a paper check with the deposited amount, for the holder of that check to be able to collect along the way the total or a fraction of the amount if needed. With this very clever system of banking, an early version of an international transactional/clearance system Templars introduced from one hand made the pilgrims a far less desirable target for bandits, since they didn’t have to carry a lot of money on them and on the other, Templars became one of the wealthiest institutions in the West. For such an international banking corporation to truly work they had to establish along with the pilgrimage routes depositories or treasuries from where they would be able to withdraw gold or silver and “feed” efficiently the “cash” needs of the pilgrims. The Byzantine church in Kalambaka with its excellent position very likely played such a role of a secret safe place to hide their stash of gold. It’s also possible that a renovation of the church was funded by the Templars, probably the one around the 13th century. It’s well documented that all the buildings used by the Knights Templars were marked with sacred symbols and secret codes they used. The Byzantine church is no exception to that and it’s filled with Templar symbology, inside and outside alike.
The quest for the Holy Grail
The question is did the Templars use the church simply to hide their stash of gold as we presume or was it used for another hidden purpose? It is known that the order was very secretive in relation to its activities and many researchers believe that the Templars had a hidden more sinister agenda involving the occult and Gnosticism. It seems likely that the order was on a secret quest to uncover something of great importance, a relic like the Holy Grail, or knowledge of some sort, but nobody to this day seems to know exactly what they were searching for.
At dawn on Friday, 13 October 1307 a date sometimes linked with the origin of the Friday the 13th superstition, King Philip IV ordered all French Templars to be simultaneously arrested. Many of them were tortured and burned at the stake as heretics. Pope Clement followed shortly after issuing the papal bull on 22 November 1307, which instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets. That leads to the dissolution of the powerful order and the ending of one of the most controversial organizations of the Catholic Church.
The Fourth Crusade and the Latin Conquest
Another important part of the greater picture of this story, in relation to the Byzantine church and the Templars, is the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) which lead to the conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire subsequently was fragmented into three rump states centered in Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus. The Crusaders then founded several Crusader-Latin states in former Byzantine territory, largely hinged upon the Latin Empire of Constantinople.
The region of Meteora changed hands many times over the next century but most of the 13th and 14th centuries Meteora remained under the rule of the Epirus state. The presence of the Latin Crusader states almost immediately led to war with the Byzantine successor states and the Bulgarian Empire. The Nicaean Empire eventually recovered Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire in 1261. The Fourth Crusade is considered to be one of the most prominent acts that solidified the schism between the Greek and Latin Christian churches, and dealt an irrevocable blow to the already weakened Byzantine Empire, paving the way for Muslim conquests in Anatolia and Balkan Europe in the coming centuries.