9 Precariously Perched Temples and Monasteries

A monastery on the edge of a mountain

TakeAway / Wikimedia Commons

They may be visually stunning, but cliff-top temples were typically not built with architectural beauty in mind. Instead, some of the most famously located monasteries — like these in Meteora, Greece — were built so that monks could protect themselves from the kind of political upheaval that was so common in the Middle Ages. The builders of another religious complex, the Paro Taktsang in Bhutan, chose their construction site because it was adjacent to a network of caves where early Buddhist figures had meditated and lived.

Today, some mountainside temples are off-limits for safety reasons. Others still hold cultural or religious significance and are either closed to the public or only partially open. Some still welcome visitors including pilgrims and those willing to display the requisite level of respect.

Here is a selection of clifftop structures that are significant for religious and historical reasons — and for the sheer drop-offs that surround them.

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Hanging Temple of China

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The Hanging Temple (Xuánkōng Sì in Mandarin Chinese) is far above the ground on a sheer cliff face. Experts believe the structures on Heng Mountain in Shaanxi, China, may be more than 1,500 years old. The buildings are seemingly held on the cliff by oak supports placed into holes chiseled in the rock face below. Overall, the complex has more than 40 halls and buildings. Interestingly, the three major religions of China, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, are represented together within the temple.

Visitors follow paths, steps and walkways hewn out of the rock up to the temple and in between the halls. The trails can get slick from rainfall, and there's also a danger from rock falls. Tourist websites even suggest avoiding the trek when it' raining. The main supports for the temple are in the bedrock, so the oak piers don't bear the entire weight of the structure. The design has proven effective through the centuries, withstanding a number of powerful earthquakes.

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Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest)

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Paro Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest, is a Buddhist temple complex in Bhutan. It's perched on a rock ledge in the Paro Valley. The temple was built around a series of caves where Padmasambhava, an Indian teacher who spread Buddhism in the region in the 8th century, meditated during his stay in Bhutan. The temple dates to the 17th century. It surrounds a total of 13 caves. Legend has it that Padmasambhava traveled to this precarious location on a flying tiger, thus the name Tiger's Nest.

There are strict rules about pre-scheduling and not taking pictures inside the monastery, but visitors are welcome if they have a guide and are able to make the 4-mile, round-trip hike. The trail has wooden walkways and stone stairs in some sections. All the buildings inside the monastery are likewise connected by stone steps. In the valley below the temple, the locals hold a traditional Bhutanese festival, called a Tsechu, to honor Padmasambhava in the springtime each year.

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Photo: Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

Meteora, which means "middle of the sky" or "lofty," is a collection of rock formations in Greece. The natural spires are picturesque, but the stunning collection of cliff-top monasteries are the main draw. Eastern Orthodox monks built the first monastery here in the 11th century, and more monks came over the next 300 years. The inaccessible rock formations proved to be the perfect places to hide from Turkish raiders and military groups who operated in the area. The monks built as many as two dozen temples. Most were only accessible by rope ladder, and the inhabitants would simply pull up the ropes when they felt threatened. Today, six of these original structures remain open at Meteora.

Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most of the remaining monasteries still have monks or nuns in residence. For this reason, it's usually best to explore the area as part of a tour. Unlike the Middle Ages, there are now roads and trails, so the sites are more accessible than they were in previous centuries. The monasteries have managed to retain a strict dress code despite the tourist attention. Long pants or a long wrap-around sarong are acceptable.

Also, since they're still used for religious purposes, the monasteries are only open on certain days of the week.

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Taung Kalat Monastery

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Mount Popa is an extinct volcano is Myanmar. The mountain is only 5,000 feet in elevation, but it seems more prominent because the surrounding plains are flat. Taung Kalat is a rock formation with sheer sides on the slopes of Popa. A large temple sits on the plateau at the top of this formation. To get to the temple, visitors must climb 777 steps. The temple features a number of shrines and offers views of the surrounding plains and mountain. You may even be able to see the famous temple complex of Bagan in the distance.

The Taung Kalat is known locally as the home of several important nats, or Burmese spirits. Festivals and pilgrimages to the top of the mountain take place several times each year. Like other religious sites, the monastery requests that visitors wear modest clothing and check hats and bags outside. In addition to the requisite respect, these rules prove practical because the temple's resident macaques often grab items such as headwear and purses from unsuspecting temple-goers.

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Sümela Monastery

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Located in northern Turkey near the Black Sea in the Pontic Mountains, Sümela Monastery is built into a cliff at an altitude of about 4,000 feet above sea level. The monastery is extremely old. It was founded by Greek Orthodox monks in the year 386 and was expanded and renovated over the centuries. The original purpose was to house a religious icon featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary.

Most of the current structure dates back to the 13th century. The monastery was closed during periods of political upheaval when the Greeks were forcibly expelled from Turkey, but the Turkish government began renovations recently. The site also became popular with tourists and pilgrims from Eastern Orthodox churches in Russia and Greece.

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Phugtal Monastery

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India's Phugtal Monastery is remote in more ways than one. It's located in the autonomous Himalayan region of Ladakh, and visitors can only reach it on foot. The monastery's supplies arrive on horses and mules. Like other prominent Himalayan temples, this one is built around a cave where Buddhist teachers once meditated. According to legend, the earliest residents of the cave were monks who studied directly under the Buddha.

The monastery is still in use. It is home to about 70 monks and includes a library with rare texts and sacred sites, which are protected. The temple has a honeycomb-like layout with different halls and buildings. Despite the remote monastic life, the resident monks spend time with the local population during festivals and ceremonies held throughout the year.

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Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe

Photo: Helene Talvard/Wikimedia Commons

This chapel is on the top of a volcanic plug that rises 279 feet above the ground. It's near the Loire River in the town of Le Puy-en-Velay, France. Saint Michel is accessible via 268 stone steps carved into the rock. The site was first built in the 10th century by a clergyman named Bishop Godescalc who had just returned from a pilgrimage to Spain. Inspired by the grand mosques and cathedrals there, he decided to create a chapel in the most eye-catching place in town. (Notably, "Aiguilhe" means "needle" in French.)

People have been following Godescalc's pilgrimage steps for centuries. The practice has continued into modern times. The official start of the trip is actually the cathedral in Le Puy, not the chapel on the rock. On a neighboring rock formation, a statue of Notre-Dame de France overlooks the town. This monument is relatively young. It dates to 1860, when French sculptors melted more than 200 Russian cannons captured during the Crimean War to provide metal for the figure.

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Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Photo: Jorge Láscar/Wikimedia Commons

Uluwatu means "rock at land's end." This Balinese Hindu temple sits on the ledge over a sheer cliff. The temple dates back to the 11th century, when a guru from the neighboring island of Java built it over 200 feet above the sea. Today Uluwatu is a tourist attraction, and the grounds host daily traditional Kecak Dance performances. It's open for Hindu prayer 24 hours per day, but those who aren't there for religious practices are only allowed during daytime hours.

You can also enjoy Uluwatu from a distance. In fact, some people get to see it from sea level because the cliffs here are a landmark for surfers looking for one of Bali's most popular wave breaks.

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Katskhi Pillar

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This monolith in Georgia rises 130 feet above the ground. A small building sits at the top the formation. Experts believe it was a hermitage that someone built in the 8th, 9th or 10th century. No one is quite sure how the builder accomplished the daunting construction project.

Though it was the source of many legends and given religious significance by the inhabitants of the surrounding river valley, the building itself was abandoned for centuries. Climbers accessed it for the first time in ages in the 1940s. In the early 2000s, the Georgian government undertook a renovation project that partially restored the hermitage. That project allowed a monk to take up residence at the top of the rock.