The Meteora is a unique enormous rock formation in central Greece beside the Pindos mountain range, and in the western region of Thessaly, hosting the largest and most precipitously built complex of Greek Orthodox monasteries, second in importance only to Mount Athos. It is located near the town of Kalambaka at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios river and Pindos Mountains. Meteora is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Out of the twenty-four monasteries originally built on immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the local area, only six remain in use (four of men and two of women). These days each monastery houses fewer than ten individuals.
Meteora. By Wisniowy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4990018
The unusual form of this rock formation cannot as of now be explained geologically. They are not volcanic plugs of hard igneous rock typical elsewhere, but the rocks are composed of a mixture of sandstone and a conglomerate formed of deposits of stone, sand, and mud from streams flowing into a delta at the edge of a lake, over millions of years.
About 60 million years ago, during the Paleogene period, a series of earth movements pushed the seabed upward, creating a high plateau and causing many vertical fault lines in the thick layer of sandstone. The huge rock pillars were then formed by weathering by water, wind, and extreme temperatures on the vertical faults. It is unusual that this conglomerate formation and type of weathering are confined to a relatively localized area within the surrounding mountain formation.
The cave of Theopetra is located 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from the town of Kalambaka. Its uniqueness from an archaeological perspective is that a single site contains records of two greatly significant cultural transitions: the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans and later, the transition from hunting-gathering to farming after the end of the last Ice Age. The cave consists of an immense 500 sq. m (5,400 sq. ft) rectangular chamber at the foot of a limestone hill, which rises to the northeast above the village of Theopetra, with an entrance 17 m (56 ft) wide by 3 m (9.8 ft) high. It lies at the foot of the Chasia mountain range, which forms the natural boundary between Thessaly and Macedonia prefectures, while the Lithaios River, a tributary of the Pineios River, flows in front of the cave. The small Lithaios River flowing literally on the entrance to the cave meant that cave dwellers always had easy access to fresh, clean water without the need to cover daily long distances to find it. Excavations and research and have discovered petrified diatoms, which have contributed to understanding the Palaeo-climate and climate changes. Radiocarbon dating evidences human presence dating back 50,000 years.
Surprisingly, Meteora are not mentioned in classical Greek myths nor in Ancient Greek literature. The first people documented to inhabit Meteora after the Neolithic Era were an ascetic group of hermit monks who, in the ninth century AD, moved up to the ancient pinnacles. They lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 1800 ft (550m) above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors. Initially, the hermits led a life of solitude, meeting only on Sundays and special days to worship and pray in a chapel built at the foot of a rock known as Dhoupiani. As early as the 11th century, monks occupied the caverns of Meteora.
Monasteries, however, were not built until the 14th century, when the monks sought somewhere to hide in the face of an increasing number of Turkish attacks. Up until the 17th century, access to the top for people and goods was via removable ladders or baskets and ropes. In the 1920s steps were cut into the rock, making the complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau. By the late 11th and early 12th centuries, a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi and was centered around the still-standing church of Theotokos. By the end of the 12th century, an ascetic community had flocked to Meteora. In 1344, a monk from Mt. Athos brought a group of followers to Meteora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the Great Meteoron Monastery on the Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks; they were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of the entry to the monastery. At the end of the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire's reign over northern Greece was being increasingly threatened by Turkish raiders who wanted control over the fertile plain of Thessaly. The hermit monks, seeking a retreat from the expanding Turkish occupation, found the inaccessible rock pillars of Meteora to be an ideal refuge. During World War II the site was bombed by the Germans and several art treasures were stolen.
The Monastery of Great Meteoron. By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85450603
The Monastery of Great Meteoron This is the largest monastery of Meteora, although in 2015 there were only three monks in residence. It was erected in the mid-14th century and was the subject of restoration and embellishment projects in 1483 and 1552. One building serves as the main museum for tourists. The Katholikon (main church), consecrated in honor of the Transfiguration of Jesus was erected in the middle of the 14th century and 1387/88 and decorated in 1483 and 1552.
The Monastery of Varlaam, Meteora. By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85450536
The Monastery of Varlaam The Monastery of Varlaam is the second largest monastery in the Meteora complex, and in 2015 had the largest number of monks (seven) of the monasteries for men. It was built in 1541 and embellished in 1548. A church, dedicated to All Saints, is in the Athonite type (cross-in-square with dome and choirs), with spacious exonarthex (lite) is surrounded by a dome. It was built in 1541-42 and decorated in 1548, while the exonarthex was decorated in 1566. The monastery is reputed to house the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew. The old refectory is used as a museum while north of the church is the parekklesion of the Three Bishops, built in 1627 and decorated in 1637.
Roussanou Monastery, Meteora. By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85518487
The Monastery of Rousanou / St. Barbara It was founded in the middle of the 16th century and decorated in 1560. Today it is a flourishing nunnery with 13 nuns in residence in 2015.
The Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, Meteora. By photosiotas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72744911
The Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas It was built in the 16th century, has a small church, decorated in 1527 by the noted Cretan painter, Theophanis Strelitzas. There was one monk in residence in 2015.
By photosiotas - Own work, CC The Monastery of St. Stephen, Meteora. BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72742505
The Monastery of St. Stephen It has a small church built in the 16th century and decorated in 1545. This monastery rests on the plain rather than on a cliff. It was shelled by the Nazis during World War II who believed it was harboring insurgents, after which it was abandoned. The monastery was given over to nuns in 1961 and they have reconstructed it into a flourishing nunnery, with 28 nuns in residence in 2015.
Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora. By Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85448145
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is on top of the cliffs. It was built in 1475 and was remodeled in 1684, 1689, 1692, 1741. There were four monks in residence in 2015.