Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.
This week continues a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. Since the legends of the Tower of Babel, mankind has striven to reach the heavens – proximity and piety driving us ever upward. Today, we will look at two stunning examples of the Babel principle and the intriguing stories they whisper to the clouds.
Clinging two-hundred and fifty feet above the ground on the western cliff face of Jinxia Gorge in Shanxi Province, China, the Hanging Monastery, Xuankong Si, is an engineering and architectural wonder of the ancient world. With massive support beams buried half their length into the surrounding bedrock, the structure appears to defy the natural order of gravity, while in reality, using the environment fully to its advantage.
Built in 491 CE, Xuankong Si went through major renovations and expansions during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, as well as a succession of lesser repairs. The monastery has been studied by architectural engineers from around the world and is living proof of the ancient Chinese building expertise.
Fun Facts about the Hanging Monastery
- The oak beams that act as supports for the part of the structure hanging off the cliff are designed in such a way that the weight of the building is transferred primarily to the bedrock into which they are set. Thus appearing to defy the laws of weight and gravity.
- The weight of the structure is evenly distributed so that any support beam can be removed and replaced without compromising the integrity of the whole. When using wood, or any temporal material, it is smart to plan ahead.
- Floods pass below the structure due to its height, while the surrounding mountains deflect rain, snow and heat. The location is ideal for a lifestyle of moderation that rises above the volatility of the natural world.
- The temple is high enough above the ground that almost no sound can reach it, in accordance with the Taoist builders beliefs that neither the crow of a rooster nor the bark of a dog should reach their ears. Only the eternal whisperings of the passing winds.
- Finally, Xuankong Si, is rare in that it incorporates elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism all into the same temple, and in the rarest occurrence, within a single room.
Imagine a lone monk, sitting lotus-style on the edge of a terraced balcony high above the floor of the gorge below. The whisper of the passing wind lulls the senses into a dreamlike state as the rays of the sun rise up over the opposing cliff face. Serenity by design.
Xuankong Si teaches us to use the natural settings to their fullest advantage and to be prepared for the eventualities. Does the design of your structure use the natural setting to gain the desired results for those that abide there? Is it designed in such a manner that it will remain stable should a piece need replacement? Or is there a subtle flaw built in that will one day cause the whole to fall away in a dramatic moment?
Seated atop a towering pinnacle and surrounded by mighty giants of rock, Roussanou allowed nature to perfect its tower and claimed the zenith throne. Greece is a rugged and beautiful land and the monastery built in 1545 by the brothers Ioannina (Joasaph and Maximos) is a lasting testament that takes advantage of its settings. Roussanou is built on the ruins of an earlier Catholic church and believed to be named for a shadowy hermit that first settled at the location. Who can blame him, the view is peerless.
The monastery did not remain in the hands of the Ioannina brothers for long, becoming an axillary of the Varlaam Monastery in 1614 and descending slowly into disrepair, the beautiful frescoes within fading even as the land without remained lush and vibrant.
During World War II the Germans occupied Roussanou and, of course, looted it, which proved to be the nadir for this gracefully perched location. In 1988, the regional archeological service repaired the monastery, adding in the white staircase that can be seen in the photos.
Dedicated to the mysterious and controversial St. Barbara, Roussanou is currently the home of thirteen nuns. I add this fact because, St. Barbara, removed from the liturgical calendar in 1969 as a probable myth, is one of the fabled Fourteen Holy Helpers, gifted with power over lightning, fever and sudden death. Interesting that thirteen wait upon the pinnacle of Roussanou in reverence to the missing fourteenth. I’m sure there is no connection.
Shift the time and genre trappings around Roussanou and a host of possibilities come to mind. A monastery of monks perched within a majestic ecology is nearly a trope for the world of fantasy. Or a good location to act as a base for aliens.
What dark mystery might lie behind the legends of such a place? A terrible power buried within, the monastery a necessary facade to distract a seeker? The key location in a puzzle worthy of a Dan Brown or David Gibbons adventure? Is there a hidden message in its ancient frescoes? Who was the original hermit that settled here? What of the ruined church – what ruined it and why?
All of these things, placed within the creative mind, await the power of your imagination to live. What visions do you have of Xuankong Si and Roussanou? What adventures await those that travel to the exotic Aeries of Heaven?
Only you can decide.
Join me next week when we visit a unique location on the waters with a twisted and tortured history that continues to unfold before our eyes.