The Meteora , located in Greece , is one of the most important complex of Eastern Orthodox monasteries , and second largest after Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios river and Pindus Mountains . The Meteora is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In the 9th century, an ascetic group of hermit monks moved up to the ancient pinnacles and were the first people to inhabit Meteora. They lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some of which reach 1800 ft (550m) above the plain. By the late 11th and early 12th century, a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi and was centered around the still-standing church of Theotokos (mother of God). By the end of the 12th century, an ascetic community had flocked to Meteora. There were no steps and the main access to the monasteries . Monks descended in the nets or on retractable wooden ladders up to 40m long to the fertile valleys below to grow grapes, corn and potatoes. Each community developed its own resources and by the end of the 14th century, the Grand Meteoron emerged as the dominant community. Its wealth included landed estates, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle.
After 1422, Meteora gradually plunged into a period of disorder and decline. A brief revival of monasticism toke place in the 16th Century under the reign of Suileman the Magnificent who relaxed earlier prohibitions on the building and restoration of Christian churches but fell once again into decline. By the 18th century, Meteora had become a refuge center for Greeks escaping the increasingly harsh administration and taxation of the Ottoman overlords . The German and Italian occupation during WW II saw further destruction of the monasteries. Today, only 6 from 24 monasteries survived as museums which are sparsely occupied by few monks and nuns .
Chemical analysis suggests that the pinnacles were formed about 60 million years ago during the Tertiary Period. Weathering and earthquakes then shaped them into their present shape. Seismic activity increased the number of fault lines and fissures and hewed the shapeless masses into individual sheer rock columns.
Only 6 monasteries remained to this day and Holy Monastery of St. Stephen is still inhabited by nuns :
- The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest one erected in the mid-14th century AD and was the subject of restoration and embellishment projects in 1483 and 1552. The building serves as the main museum for tourists.
- The Holy Monastery of Varlaam is the second largest monastery in the Metéora complex. It was built in 1541.
The Holy Monastery of Rousanou/St. Barbara was founded in the middle of 16th century AD and decorated in 1560.
- The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas was built in the 16th century AD
- The Monastery of the Holy Trinity built in 1475 siting on top of the cliffs was transformed couple of times in 1684, 1689, 1692, 1741.
- The Holy Monastery of St. Stephen is a small church that was built in the 16th century and decorated in 1545 . It was damaged by the Nazis but nuns reconstructed it .
Meteora means ‘Suspended in the air’ and represents an example of the architectural transformation of a site into a place of retreat, meditation and prayer and one of men greatest achievement .