The monasteries of Meteora are one of the world's most spectacular sacred sites. Located in the Thessaly region of north central Greece, the towering rocks of Meteora, meaning 'rocks in the air', have long evoked awe in human beings.
Paleolithic remains indicate settlements around the stones from between 100,000 to 40,000 BC, and hermits and ascetics have lived in the area since long before the Christian era. The arrival of Christianity began in the 8th century, organized monastic communities had developed by the 12th century, and by the mid 1500's sixteen Greek Orthodox monasteries had been constructed upon the spires of stone.
The monasteries, accessible only by baskets lowered by ropes, became a center of scholarship and art until the mid 18th century when popular interest in monasticism declined. Most of the monasteries were abandoned and today only six survive, of which four can be visited (they can now be reached by bridges and rock-cut steps).
Previously a remote area, the construction of a highway in the early 1960's made the monasteries accessible to pilgrims and tourists. This influx of visitors however, has discouraged new monks from joining the monasteries and compelled others to move to Mt. Athos in search of solitude and privacy.
The word Meteora, as previously mentioned, means literally ‘hovering in the air’ and of course brings to mind the word meteor. What created this rare geological phenomenon is one of the mysteries of nature and there are many theories though they remain theories and none have been proven. But as amazing a marvel of nature as these giant rocks are the buildings on the top of these is a marvel of man and seem just as miraculous.
Monks who lived in caves within the rocks during the 11th Century originally settled the area. But as the times became more unsure during an age of Turkish occupation, brigandry and lawlessness, they climbed higher and higher up the rock face until they were living on the inaccessible peaks where they were able to build by bringing material and people up with ladders and baskets and build the first monasteries. This was also how the monasteries were reached until the nineteen twenties and now there are roads, pathways and steps to the top. There are still examples of these baskets which are used for bringing up provisions. Back in the days when these baskets were the only way to get to the monasteries a nervous pilgrim asked his monk host if they ever replace the rope. “Of course we do” he replied. “Whenever it breaks”, which I am sure put the guy at ease. But now you don’t have to worry about ropes breaking since the monasteries are all connected by a series of path works that if you begin early enough you can see them all in one day. They are also connected by roads so if you are coming by car and don’t have all day to wander around you can also get close enough and then continue on foot.
During the Turkish occupation it was the monasteries which kept alive the Hellenic culture and traditions and were not only religious centres but academic and artistic as well. The monasteries attracted not only the deeply religious, but the philosophers, poets, painters and the deep thinkers of Greece. Today only six of the monasteries are active.
Roussanou Monastery was founded in 1545 by Joasaph and Maximos, two brothers from Epirus who built it on the ruins of an even older church. To get to this monastery you cross a small bridge from another peak. The church contains outstanding wall paintings, wood iconstasis, panel icons and icon stands.
Varlaam Monastery was founded in 1517 by Theophanis and Nektarios Apsaradas from Ioanina though the first to establish a monastery here was an ascetic anchorite named Varlaam. The monastery houses an important collection of relics, intricately carved wooden crosses, icons, embroidered epitaphoi and many other ecliastical treasures. It also contains frescos by the well-known post Byzantine iconographer Frangos Katelanos.
Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas was built in the 16th Century by Dionysious, the Metropolitan of Larissa and named after an old Patron. The Katholikon is decorated in wall paintings by the renowned Cretan Iconographer Theophanis Bathas-Strelitzas.
Megalo Meteoro or Metamorphisis, the first church of the Transfiguration is the best known of the Monasteries and is built upon the highest rock. Founded by Athanasios the Meteorite, one of the most well-known figures in Orthodox monasticism, work was begun before 1382 and later completed by the Monk Joasaph. Because the Serbian Emporor Symeon Uros gave the monastry all his wealth and became a monk it became the richest and most powerful of all the monasteries and contains some of the most beautiful wall paintings and post Byzantine Mural art that can be found in Greece as well as a museum collection in the refectory. the katholikon has a twelve sided dome 24 meters in height with a striking series of frescos by Theophanis which depect the persecution of Christians by the Romans in somewhat gruesome detail.
Agia Triada or Holy Trinity was founded by the monk Dometius in the 15th century. It is decorated with wall paintings from the 18th century by the brothers Antonios and Nikolaos. To get to the monastery you walk up 140 steps cut into the rock, past the church of Saint John the Baptis with its wall paintings from 1682.
Agios Stefanos is the only convent in Meteora and has an unimpeded view of the plain towards Kalambaka. It is not known when the old church was built but the present katholikon dedicated to Saint Haralambos was built in 1798. The saint’s skull which was given to the nuns as a gift from Prince Vladislav of Wallachia is kept here. The church of Saint Stefanos has a timber roof and wall paintings by the priest Ioannis from Stagoi painted in 1545.
The monasteries themselves, besides providing an incredible view are full of religious treasures, wall paintings, icons and libraries rich in old manuscripts. Most of them were built in the 1500’s and then added to over the centuries.