Designing from Bones ~ Heavens Monasteries

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.

Xuankong Si

Perched upon the side of a cliff to rise above the distractions of Earth.

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.

The support beams seem little more than toothpicks yet have secured the monastery for 1500 years.

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.

Blending the three mighty religions of the East, Xuankong is a rare and precious gem.

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?

Roussanou, Greece

Roussanou overlooks the majestic Meteora Valley, flanked by guardian giants.

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.

Dedicated to St. Barbara, associated with lightning, it is easy to imagine a priest calling the powers of the heavens from Roussanou.

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.

Interior of the church at Roussanou. What mysteries await the careful observer?

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.

Roussanou lit by the glory of the heavens.

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.

Peaceful Journeys!


About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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15 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Heavens Monasteries

  1. A couple of extraordinary places. I have always been very admiring of the way form follows function in places like this; and that is not limited to these aeries either. To this day I recall the sense of awe I felt, years ago, as I stepped into the main chamber of Sainte Chapelle, just around the corner from Notre Dame in central Paris. Walls of glass – with delicate stone tracery holding up a stone roof. An astonishing piece of engineering. Being a geek, I spent a chunk of my time there figuring out how they’d got around the tensile limits of their material (the answer was via a raised floor that hid massive supporting foundations and flying buttresses which were deep rather than thick and transferred the load via their depth, unloading the pillars while leaving unprecedented space for massive windows, more than most European cathedrals). And if that was marvellous to me, in the 21st century – well, imagine how the thirteenth century peasant felt going there after their dirt-floored hovel. The rest of my time was spent marvelling at the spectacular art of it all. A fabulous asethetic by any standards. A triumph of ingenuity. And not a single Dan Brown mystery in sight…

  2. Hi Gene

    Fabulous places. I had to grin at”lifestyle of moderation,” yes, you’re certainly not going to send out for pizza, but seclusion could lead to all sorts of behaviors!

    You might like this place in Poland It’s not isolated, but it’s a marvel of wooden engineering and a great piece of photography.


  3. Oooh! I could use a little solitude in the hanging monastery. And it would be excellent to be surrounded by men. Who cares if they’re monks. LOL. I could totally see a piece of fiction set there. Of course, that novel would be turned into a fabulous movie! 😉

  4. I can’t even look at the hanging monastery without braking out in a clammy sweat! It’s so high and quiet so when I fall off the edge, no one will hear my screams. Eesh, that freaks me out. Roussanou is gorgeous, but a little too remote. I always wonder how exactly they built structures like this. I’m in awe of their drive and commitment.

  5. I can not begin to imagine even how these were built, let alone conceptually thought up. Who goes mountain climbing in 491 CE and thinks “I should build a monastery on stilts here?!?! Wow. Amazing, impressive, and just leaves me in AWE! Love these types of buildings and you are right…the imagination runs wild!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Matthew: St. Chapelle is our travel list for the eventual trip to Europe. There is such a wide range of incredible architecture and engineering across the breath of the planet it is difficult at times to choose which to see first. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Nigel: Seclusion could indeed lead to a wide array of behaviors, both noble and deviant, which is one of the fun things about a location like this. A crossover of monks and The Shining comes to mind. Thanks for sharing the link, my wife loves the style. It is a wonder that an Earth-bound wooden structure survived this long, especially in Poland which has been a battleground for centuries.

      Renee: Ha! You would run those poor monks ragged no doubt, I know your energy level Renee. It would absolutely make a fab movie 🙂

      Tameri: Since heights have never bothered me (probably because I’m tall) I hadn’t considered that aspect. But indeed, one could fall, accidentally or otherwise, off the side of either of these places and have their voice lost to the winds. Interesting idea, thanks. I’ve always wondered the same thing about remote locations, it must have been a major undertaking to bring in supplies and labor to build these places. My bet is the first hermit at Roussanou just built himself a wood shack from the local flora.

      Natalie: People with less distractions then we have today envisioned these places for sure. I don’t believe a modern thinker can fully appreciate the pre-tech world and the extreme amount of time people had to just think, wonder and imagine. I’m glad our predecessors did, however, or I’d not have much to write about 😀

  6. As always, very interesting and cool pictures. I wish I had a place to escape where there was no sound except the whispering of the wind. Those monks were on to something there. Looks a little scary getting there, but totally serene upon reaching those heights.

    Wonder why the refuge in Greece wasn’t built with the same gray stones as the surrounding mountains. Seems like it would have blended in so well, no one would have even seen it.

    In one of my manuscripts I have designed a home built into the mouth of a cave in the Arizona desert. It’s fun to think up new things for our stories. Your blogs help with that.

    I mentioned you in my blog this month regarding a photo I took that just somehow reminds me of your blogs. If you get a chance you might want to check it out.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  7. Ruth Nestvold says:

    Beautiful and fascinating, Gene! Thanks for sharing all this interesting research with us. Makes me want to write a new short story — if only I had the time. 🙂

  8. authormarieandrews says:

    This is fantastic going from the underground dwellings to the waaaaaay above ground dwellings. The monastery just makes my jaw drop. I’m in awe of what drives someone to create places like the ones you mention. Though I’m afraid of heights (major baby) I still find living up high from the ground exciting. Even the really cool treehouses that have been built – villages and such where people live among the trees – it fascinates me. Maybe I’d get over my fear of heights if I called it my home 🙂

  9. Gene! Wonderful post and I just can’t imagine what it must have been like to build those structures, let alone live and pray in one. Well, I guess the praying would come pretty easy when you had that kind of view.

  10. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Fascinating and amazing. I wonder how many people died while building these structures? Countless, I’m sure. Gene, do you know if these photos are public domain photos? I’m so tempted to put some of them on my Pinterest page. It would list your blog as the source and probably drive some traffic to your site, but if they’re not royalty free, I won’t do that. I’ve always like tree houses, and these cliff hangers take it to the next level. LOL!

  11. Sad that these beautifully engineered places were composed as they were at least partially out of the necessity for safety. The builders rejected construction on flat ground for more than one reason. When including such places in your writing, don’t forget the locations that surround these places. They often hold the seeds for additional story elements.

    Thanks for the great post, Gene!

  12. Jess Witkins says:

    I wouldn’t mind traveling to see these monasteries. What gorgeous unique buildings within the rock. Awesome find, Gene, I’d never heard or seen anything like this.

  13. Pingback: Blog Treasures 5~5 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

  14. Pingback: Mind Sieve 5/7/12 « Gloria Oliver

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