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In the northwest corner of Thessaly, just beyond the town of Kalambaka rise sandstone peaks where monks settled in around the 11th century. The clifftop monasteries of Meteora are a marvelous sight to gaze at, but why were these nearly inaccessible retreats built there in the first place? Read our brief history of these UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites for an an in-depth understanding of these truly stunning national treasures.
Meteora, meaning ‘suspended in air’, is famous for its monasteries perched atop vertical peaks – but few know that before their construction in the 14th century, hermit monks first climbed these soaring stones to settle in the caves and hollows of the rocks as early as the 9th century. As hermits, they lived a life of solitude and isolation but legend has it they would climb down on Sundays for mass, held at Doupiani. By the 12th century, Meteora was home to a thriving ascetic community.
By the end of the 14th century, the 800-year rule of the Byzantine Empire was slowly coming to end as monastic communities on the Athos peninsula were increasingly besieged by Turkish raiders. Three monks – Moses, Gregory and Athanasios – from the Monastery of Iviron left the peninsula in search for a new home, after an unfortunate face-off with brigands. As they had heard of ‘miracles’ taking place in the plains of Thessaly, they then settled on top of the rock called Stylos (the Pillar). Later, Athanasios founded a small monastery on Platys Lithos (the Broad Rock) in 1344, where the only access was via a ladder the monks would remove when they felt threatened.
As the Turkish raiders started their expansion towards Thessaly, hermit monks, searching for a refuge from the Turkish invasion, settled in the inaccessible rocks of Meteora. At that time, more than 20 monasteries of all sizes were constructed. With no steps and little access to the rest of the world, the monastic communities in Meteora flourished. To come and go, monks used to descend by way of a net hitched over a hook, hoisted up and down by a rope, or retractable ladders. They would grow grapes, corn and potatoes on the fertile lands below. By the end of the 14th century, the Grand Meteoron monastery was the biggest community, and they even had flocks and herds. Some monasteries, such as the oft-overlooked Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas – Anapausas – are home to some excellent examples of post-Byzantine painting, with splendid frescoes to admire.
After a decline in the 15th century, the communities of Meteora enjoyed a brief revival in the 16th century under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, who was less prohibitive towards Christians. During the 17-18th century, Meteora had become a refuge center for Greeks escaping the harsh dominion of the Ottoman overlords, as it was the only place where Hellenic culture was preserved, attracting not only the faithful but also poets, philosophers and deep thinkers. Some say that if it weren’t for the Meteora monasteries, Hellenic traditions and culture would have died.
History was made in 1921 when Romania’s sovereign Queen Marie visited Meteora, becoming the first woman ever to enter the Great Meteoron monastery. This event brought a whiff of change in the rock communities. The site was heavily bombed during World War II and many treasures were stolen. Today, six of the 24 monasteries are still active. Of these, four are inhabited by men, and two by women, while each monastery has less than 10 inhabitants. Now primarly touristic attractions, the monasteries offer a discreet glimpse into monastic life.