Meteora "suspended in the air""
Your first, second and third sight of these impossibly tall, vertical rocks will have you gasping in disbelief. But it’s not just the incredible geology that stretches your imagination. It’s the monasteries balanced on these pinnacles. How did they get there? The monks who built them were the original rock climbers, lifting the materials up with pulleys, nets and their naked hands. Today, fans of the sport come to Meteora from the world over, to pit themselves against these gigantic rocks. Unesco has declared Meteora a World Heritage Site. The Greek state calls it a sacred spot, inviolate and immutable. You’ll no doubt come up with other adjectives to describe Meteora, this wonder of the world.
Caves in the vicinity of Metéora were inhabited continuously between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago. The oldest known example of a man-made structure, a stone wall that blocked two-thirds of the entrance to the Theopetra Cave, was constructed 23,000 years ago, probably as a barrier against cold winds – the Earth was experiencing an ice age at the time – and many Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts have been found within the caves. The cave of Theopetra is located 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from Kalambaka. Its uniqueness from an archeological perspective is that in it contains, within a single site, the records of two greatly significant cultural transitions: The replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans, and the later transition from hunter-gathering to farming after the end of the last Ice Age. The cave consists of an immense 500 square metres (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 metres (56 ft) wide by 3 metres (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 doorsteps of the cave meant that cave dwellers had always 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. The cave is open to the public.
In the 9th century AD, an ascetic group of hermit monks moved up to the ancient pinnacles; they were the
first people to inhabit Metéora since the Neolithic Era. 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
The exact date of the establishment of the monasteries is unknown. 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 (mother of God). By the end of the 12th century, an ascetic
community had flocked to Metéora.
In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Metéora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the great Meteoron monastery on Broad Rock, which were perfect for the monks; they were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of the entry to the monastery. The only means of reaching it was by climbing a long ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened. At the end of the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire's 800-year 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. More than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century. Six remain today. In 1517, Nectarios and Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaám, which was reputed to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew. Access to the monasteries was originally (and deliberately) difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and people. This required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only "when the Lord let them break". In the words of UNESCO, "The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 373 metres (1,224 ft) cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction." Until the 17th century, the primary means of conveying goods and people from these eyries was by means of baskets and ropes. In 1921, Queen Marie of Romania visited Meteora, becoming the first woman ever allowed to enter the Great Meteoron monastery. In the 1920s there was an improvement in the arrangements. Steps were cut into the rock, making the complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau. During World War II the site was bombed. Many art treasures were stolen. Six of the monasteries remain today. Of these six, four were inhabited by men, and two by women. Each monastery has fewer than 10 inhabitants. The monasteries are now tourist attractions.