Isolated and Spectacular Sacred Sanctuaries Hanging on Cliffs

Three inspirational sayings might explain why sacred sanctuaries exist so high in the mountains, midway between heaven and earth.

“When the mind is silent, truth has her time to be heard in the purity of silence,” maybe. “Nothing in all creation is so like God as quiet,” according to the second, while “the finest view comes after the longest climb,” according to the final.

These monasteries, poised in the air as if reaching for God, demonstrate that the need for calm, tranquility, and inner peace may be so strong that it drives mankind to create inconceivable things in unimaginable places. Monks, priests, and followers of all cultures and faiths have climbed the most difficult slopes in quest of “better vistas,” and have heard the truth in the purity of solitude that only a mountain can give via prayers and meditation.

Buddhists, Confucianists, and Taoists in China discovered it while sitting in quiet at Mount Hengshan’s gravity-defying Hanging Temple, erected 250 feet up on a cliff 1,500 years ago. Statues of Siddhartha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu, enshrined together in the San Jiao Hall, one of the temple’s 40 halls and cabinets, demonstrate that, while “quiet is a source of tremendous strength, knowing others is wisdom” (Lao Tzu), and “virtue is not allowed to stand alone. “He who does it will have neighbors” (Confucius).

Hanging Temple in Henshang Mountain at China Asia

Taung Kalat, a Buddhist temple built on top of a 2,000-foot-high volcanic plug in Myanmar, is ideal for people who want their retreat to be at the summit of a mountain rather than hanging perilously to sheer rock (Burma). Those who climb the 777 stairs leading to it may enjoy stunning vistas in all directions as well as its 2,000 temples—all while being entertained by naughty macaque monkeys who coexist peacefully with the local monks.

If that isn’t enough, hundreds of air balloons are flown from the Bagan Valley below after sunset, filling the sky in an incredible dreamy sight, making the trek even more worthy. Setting foot on the final step is an experience unlike any other.

Legend has it that Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, arrived in the Himalayas of Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress who was his consort and teacher before being reincarnated and changed, not far from China, Myanmar, and Taung Kalat’s macaque monkeys.

Guru Rinpoche had gone from Tibet to pacify a mountain tiger demon that resided in the caverns surrounding Paro Valley. After taming the monster, he sanctified the caverns and transformed them into sanctuaries, where he meditated for years before spreading Buddhism to the Bhutanese in the decades that followed. The Taktsang Palphug Monastery, or the Tigers Nest, is one of these caves, set on a high rock 10,000 feet above sea level and 3,000 feet from the valley floor. It is said that around 1692, believers determined to keep the legend alive erected this fortress in the skies.

Located on the cliff side of a mountain, 800 m over the valley. 2950 m above sea level. Guru Rinpoche meditated in Taktshang Pelphug.

Due to the dampness in the surrounding area, visitors claim that the monastery is typically enveloped in mist or covered by small clouds floating overhead, giving the temple an even more ethereal and surreal appearance. It was a favored retreat for local monks and Buddhists, which should come as no surprise.

Due to a paucity of flying tigers and tigresses in recent years, monks and visitors must hike a very long and steep road up the Himalayan cliffside to reach this beautiful 17th-century Buddhist temple. On the bright side, the mood is fantastic, the view of the Paro Valley scenery is stunning, and the many little cave shrines that are now part of the temple complex will undoubtedly offer the patience and fortitude required to reach the cliff-hanging Taktsang Palphug.

Sumela monastery near Trabzon, Turkey

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, pilgrims travel hundreds of kilometers and climb nonstop for days to reach a shrine physically carved into a 4,000-foot-high cliff in Turkey. The Sumela Monastery, excavated in the 4th century and designed to seem like a fortress with its facade, was allegedly created after two monks discovered a mystery icon of the Virgin Mary in one of the caves in the Altndere Valley.

Greece may be proud of its precipitously erected Meteora complex of Orthodox monasteries perched on top of a rock formation in the country’s heart, Peneas Valley, and one can only appreciate those who created them. The devotion and dedication of those who found the energy to go there and pray inside are also impressive.

Meteora translates as “in the air suspended.” In a few decades, twenty-four monasteries were built in the skies to make the purpose of making entry difficult, if not completely impossible. This is where the monks may get as far away from conflicts and the world of devastation as possible.

Unfortunately, institutions built on top of 1,200-foot-tall sandstone pillars were difficult to maintain, and just six have survived. They now serve as excellent examples of how nature may be used as a location for retreat, meditation, and prayer without the burden of altering it. The Roussanou Monastery and the Holy Trinity Monastery, in particular, are spiritual treats.

Meteora, Greece

Italy, viewed by many as the cradle of modern Christianity, the Renaissance, and much of the world’s beauty, has more than enough sanctuaries to be proud of. Two in particular offer actual meaning to Giuseppe Verdi’s famous line “You may have the universe if I may have Italy,” but only one has a legend about a troublesome monster and the name of a great saint who overcame it to tell.

The Sanctuary of Madonna Della Corona, tucked beneath a rock on Monte Baldo just outside Verona, the city of love, is a haven of calm and meditation.

Eremo di San Colombano towers 400 feet above the valley floor, smack dab in the heart of the valley’s steep rock wall. It’s been there since the 8th century, and the only way to get there is via climbing. It was allegedly built atop a cave that was a dragon’s dwelling 14 centuries ago. According to legend, it feasted on children who came to be baptized in the Leno River until a courageous Irish saint extinguished the threat and proclaimed the cave sacrosanct.

The modest scenic cliff-hanging monastery dedicated to St. Columban was established around 1319, but historians claim it was utilized as a hermitage as early as the 8th century.

The 102 dangerous high stairs leading up to it are lighted with torches each Christmas to mark the road traveled by pilgrims determined to pay respect to the saint who defeated evil when mankind needed it the most.

San Colombano

When it comes to minor scenic things, Georgia has a gorgeous church, although a small one. Perhaps the tiniest hermitage created anywhere in the world. Its whereabouts, on the other hand, are nothing short of remarkable. The shrine dedicated to Maximus the Confessor is on top of the Katskhi Pillar in the town of Chiatura in the country’s central area, matching the size of a pigeon house and bearing a remarkable similarity to the Meteora monastery in Greece.

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