“In a region of almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, monks settled on these ‘columns of the sky’ from the 11th century onwards. Twenty-four of these monasteries were built, despite incredible difficulties, at the time of the great revival of the eremetic ideal in the 15th century. Their 16th-century frescoes mark a key stage in the development of post-Byzantine painting.
‘Suspended in the air’ (the meaning of Meteora in Greek), these monasteries represent a unique artistic achievement and are one of the most powerful examples of the architectural transformation of a site into a place of retreat, meditation and prayer. The Meteora provide an outstanding example of the types of monastic construction which illustrate a significant stage in history, that of the 14th and 15th centuries when the eremitic ideals of early Christianity were restored to a place of honour by monastic communities, both in the Western world (in Tuscany, for example) and in the Orthodox Church.
Built under impossible conditions, with no practicable roads, permanent though precarious human habitations subsist to this day in the Meteora, but have become vulnerable under the impact of time. The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 373 m cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.
The monasteries are built on rock pinnacles of deltaic origin, known as Meteora, which rise starkly over 400 m above the Peneas valley and the small town of Kalambaka on the Thessalian plain. Chemical analysis suggests that the pinnacles were created some 60 million years ago in the Tertiary period, emerging from the cone of a river and further transformed by earthquakes. The Meteora are enormous residual masses of sandstone and conglomerate which appeared through fluvial erosion. Seismic activity increased the number of fault lines and fissures and hewed the shapeless masses into individual sheer rock columns. Hermits and ascetics probably began settling in this extraordinary area in the 11th century. In the late 12th century a small church called the Panaghia Doupiani or Skete was built at the foot of one of these ‘heavenly columns’, where monks had already taken up residence.
During the fearsome time of political instability in 14th century Thessaly, monasteries were systematically built on top of the inaccessible peaks so that by the end of the 15th century there were 24 of them. They continued to flourish until the 17th century. Today, only four monasteries – Aghios Stephanos, Aghia Trias, Varlaam and Meteoron – still house religious communities.
The area includes forested hills and river valley with riverine forests of Platanus orientalis and species such as the endemic Centaurea lactifolia (found near Koniskos village) and Centaurea kalambakensi. The nearest protected area is Trikala Aesthetic Forest (28 ha), created in 1979, which has been planted with Pinus halepensis and Cupressus sempervivens. The potential vegetation cover is described as supra-Mediterranean, with climax cover of Quercus and Ostrya species and Fagus sylvatica beech forest above 700 m.
The monasteries of Meteora are:
- The Monastery of Great Meteoron. It is the biggest of the Meteorite monasteries.
- The Monastery of Varlaam is the second, after the Great Meteoro, big in size monastery.
- The Monastery of Rousanou. It is dedicated to ‘The Transfiguration’ but honored to Saint Barbara.
- The Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas. It is the first to meet on our way from Kastraki to Meteora.
- The Monastery of St. Stephen. It is one of the most attainable as we don’t have to cope with innumerable stairs to reach it.
- The Monastery of Holy Trinity is very difficult to reach. The visitor has to cross the valley and continue high up through the rock before we arrive outside the entrance.
Meteora General Info
U.N.E.S.C.O “monument of Humanity that has to be maintained”
The reason that the Monasteries of Meteora are included in the Monuments of world cultural Heritage is that U.N.E.S.C.O has characterized the Holy Meteora as a “monument of Humanity that has to be maintained“. They don’t belong only to Greece but also to the entire world. The same is valid for the Mount Athos, the Mistra, the Holy Monastery of Saint Lucas etc. So, the monasteries of the Meteora are included in the Monuments of world cultural Heritage, because they are a unique harmonious matching of Byzantine architecture and natural beauty. The buildings of the monasteries seem like a continuance and a natural ending of the rocks. Furthermore, because they are a priceless artistic and heirloom treasure. Moreover, the presence of many monasteries in such a small place, as well as the Orthodox spiritual life and exercise have provoked the admiration and the interest of people all over the world. Finally, because the monasteries are conveyors of culture, which as we know is not restrained in any country.
The original number of the Meteora monasteries was 24:
1)Holy Spirit 2) Holy Modesto, 3)Chain of Apostle Peter, 4)Saint Prodromos, 5)Saint Taxiarchs, 6)Saint George Mandilas, 7)Saint Dimitrios, 8)Saint Antony, 9) Saint Athanasios, 10)Virgin Mary, 11)Saint Nicolas Badovas, 12)Saint Nicolas Kofinas, 13)Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mount, 14)Varlaam, 15) Saint Stephen, 16) Holy Trinity, 17) Holy Monastery 18)Roussano,19)Candle mass, 20)Almighty, 21)Kallistratou, 22)Ipsiloteras or Kalligrafon, 23)Saint Apostles and 24)Saint Nicolas Anapafsas.
According to the tradition already since the 9th century the first hermits come to the Meteora. In the beginning ,they lived alone in caves. Later ,we have a first form of organization, the cloisters and then the “coenobiums” are created. During the years of the writing of the Chronicle of the Meteora(1521- 1542) the most of 24 monasteries ,that we mentioned previously, were already vanished. This state of decay and decline lasted until the age when Vissarion A’ from Dimitriada (1490), Marcos the blessed and Vissarion B’ from Stagi (1489-1541),ascended the Metropolitan Throne of Larissa, who made a lot of effort in order to reorganize the monkhood at the Meteora.
So, a period of prosperity follows, during which schools for Code Writing operate at the Meteora. As a result, many educated monks were involved with the copying of handwritten codes. At the same time, the monasteries are being beautified, the Catholics are being hagiografied and generally a great building action exists. However, from the early 18th century, a period of decline follows again, since Meteora turned into prisons and places of exile for those who were convicted by the Ottomans’government.
Since 1920, a time of prosperity has began again, because carved ladders and bridges are constructed on the rocks. Thus, more pilgrims arrive, since the old climbing way(with the net),which was an everyday challenge with death belonged to the past. In1948 a tarred road was constructed and the “abaton”(the forbidden place) for the women was abolished. Today, even though Meteora is a touristic area, there is prosperity of monkhood and many respectful and educated young people are coming in order to be monks at the 6 monasteries that still exist and operate.
Important facts for the Holy Monasteries of Meteora
The place of the Holy Meteora since October of 1995 with a state law was declared “a place holy, immutable and inviolable“, a fact that secures its orthodox authenticity and its effective protection. This is exactly how the centuries acknowledge the place and in 1990 the Holy Synod of the Greek Church, with this decision declared it. This law is of great importance and we’ve been asking it for years, because:
- the term Holy Meteora in the faithful’s consciousness indicates not only the monasteries but also the around area. Everything is blessed and compose a unified whole.
- “the Holy Meteora” mean to us what the terms “Holy Land”, “Mount Athos” etc mean.
- “the Holy Meteora”, at the same time are religious establishments of spiritual and ethical effulgence but also cultural monuments.
- Finally “the Holy Meteora” form a Monastic state of Orthodox Church in a unified area, that since its creation is maintained immutable.
Operation of the Holy Monasteries (Rules, values, customs etc)
All the monasteries of the Meteora operate as coenobiums. That means that everything is common .There is a common “trapeza” (food) for all the monks. No one has money. The funds are common, but the abbot who with love takes care of all the brotherhood of the monastery, is in charge.
For everything a monk does, he asks for the permission and the blessing of the Abbot, to whom he says all his thoughts and receives from him spiritual guidance, in order to be blessed at the end of his life. The monks try to follow precisely the 3 basic rules of monkhood: purity, lack of property and obedience.
They wake up in the morning at 03:30 and pray, each one separately, in their cells until 05.00. From 05.00 until 07:30 the services of midnight, of matins and of hours take place at the church. They pray and fast according to the rules of the Orthodox Church. They care for the salvation of their souls, but at the same time they care for their neighbors and try to help them in many ways. When a young man or woman comes to the monasteries in order to be a monk or nun, at first he or she is being tested for 3 years (novice), after the abbot believes that he or she is appropriate for monastic life of course.
Activities that the monks/nuns are occupied with in the monasteries
The monks abandon the world and come to the monasteries in order to be blessed. Thus, their first concern is pray. They combine pray with work, in order to live spiritually and physically. The jobs and duties that the monks undertake are called “diaconians“, because they are accomplished by the spirit of love and sacrifice, but also with much piety and pray. There are diaconians that interchange every week (that one of the church, of the guest chamber, of the kitchen etc) and there are the ones that are steady (hagiography, handiwork, gold embroidery, sewing, preparation of incense and candles). Because of the tourism the monks are compelled to be involved with a welcoming of the people (lordly man), the showing around etc, so that the people that come to the Meteora can obtain many things from the Orthodox tradition and the vivid faith of the monks.
Contribution of the Holy Monasteries of the Meteora to the cultural heritage
The contribution of the monasteries of the Meteora to the cultural heritage is very important in every level (local, national, international).
The Fathers of the Meteora didn’t start in order to create a civilization at the inhospitable rocks. The civilization was a natural consequence of their love to Lord. Thus their laboriousness, self-sacrifice, spirituality and aesthetics have lent to the monasteries of the Meteora exceptional architectonic beauty, masterly frescos, fabulous gold embroideries and other art work. However, the greatest treasure that they preserve is the Holy Relics of our saints and the life according to Jesus.
Moreover, the contribution of the monasteries of the Meteora concerning educational matters is great. During the years of the Turkish domination and afterwards, the Fathers of the Meteora founded holy educational schools with their own money. In that way, inside the monasteries, with the life of worshiping, Greek language was preserved along with the Orthodox Faith, the language that allowed the slaves to keep their national consciousness and their longing for freedom.
Finally, the manuscripts, the printed forms and the documents that remain in existence in the monasteries, are an unlimited source of information, both for our ecclesiastic and national history. In that way, at the difficult times that we are in, they retain our history, our national continuance, our tradition and the authentic (genuine) form of the Evangelic life, that Europe searches for and that has remained exactly the same during the course of the 2.000 years of our Orthodox Church.
Role of travellers that visited the monasteries of the Meteora concerning the spreading or protection of the Byzantine tradition
The phenomenon of travelling was observed at Western Europe since Renaissance and the afterward period as a result of the prosperity of classical letters. So, a great number of travellers visited Greece, and especially the Meteora. Such travellers were: Swedish Bjφrnstahl (1779),the English Lord Curzon (1834), the French archeologist Heuzey (1858), the Russian Dean Uspenkij (1859) and others. The texts about travelling that they wrote ,rescue and offer us great information concerning the place, the things and the people, that we don’t know from other sources.
Some of them showed no friendliness and no understanding towards the Orthodox Monkhood. Their texts are characterized by an ironical tone towards the monks who cordially offered them hospitality, trusted them and showed them the valuable heirlooms of the monasteries. They couldn’t tolerate Byzantium and its artistic heritage (the acceptance of the Byzantine art comes later). Some also were collectors of manuscripts, which they bought in degrading prices. However, in that way, they preserved them because otherwise they might be lost. The manuscripts that Lord Curzon had bought, for example, are kept at the British Museum, while two others illustrated parchment gospels of 11th/12th century that he couldn’t buy from the Great Meteoro do not exist today at the monastery’s library and neither do we know something for their fate.
Factors that had a threatening influence to the existence of the Holy Monasteries of Meteora
Basically, threatening influence had the various wars. During the Turkish dominance, for example, the Holy Monastery of Saint Demetrius of the Meteora (Saint Lavra of Thessaly) was destroyed by the armies of Ali Pasa of Ioannina because there was the fortification (headquarter) of the passionate priest Thimios Vlahavas. He was the inciter and leader of a revolutionary movement (1809) against the Turkish. After that, the Turkish closed the monasteries, imprisoned the Abbots at Ioannina and cut Priest Thimios in four pieces.
Many damages also were made during the occupation and the civil war, not only by the conquerors but also by Greeks who used the monasteries of the Meteora as war bases or shelters. The German mortars, for example, destroyed the hagiographied dome of the Almighty and the 4 Evangelists of the new catholic (Church of Saint Charalambos) of the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen. Also ,in the same monastery but at the Old Catholic (Church of Saint Stephen) the faces and especially the eyes of all the Saints were destroyed.
Cocial work that the monasteries perform
The social work of the monasteries is of great importance. Leaving aside many other great works, I will mention only some of them:
- The Holy Monastery of Varlaam built the Varlaamian Christian Center in Kalampaka years ago, where today the Metropolis of Stagi and Meteora is placed, along with the spiritual-cultural Center of the Metropolis. It also built an imposing church in Kalampaka in the honour of the Blessed Fathers of the Meteora.
- The Holy monastery of the Great Meteoro built the imposing church of Saints Theodori in Avlona of North Epirus in Albania, which was turned into a fire brigade station by the previous atheist regime.
- As soon as the atheists’ and oppressive regimes of the neighbor countries, that belonged to the previous Eastern World,collapsed, our monasteries with their initiative, were sensitized, acted immediately and helped spiritually and materially our undeservedly suffering brothers of the same confession.
- Finally, special efforts are being made for the material help and spiritual support of our orthodox Serbian brothers, who suffered a lot by the bombing of 1998 after the events in Kosovo.
Measures are being taken for the maintenance of the Holy Convents, the role of the state and of the European Union concerning it, the role of U.N.E.S.C.O, and measures have to be taken in the future
- Since the 60ies and the afterward period, serious restoring and constructing work started at the Holy Monasteries of the Meteora, with the initiative and actions of the metropolitans of Triki and Stagi, Dionysios, Stefanos and Alexios. The restoration and maintenance work of the monuments of Meteora is being continued until today with the support of the Metropolitan of Stagi and Meteora, Seraphim, the hard work of the abbots ,monks and nuns, the studies and constructions of the architect Mr. Sotiris Tzimas and the supervision and help of the superior of the 7th Supervision of Byzantine Antiquities (competent of the archeological service of the area), Mr. Lazarus Deriziotis. The masonries have been strengthened and the assemblages, the cement injections, the reantiquity of the buildings, the maintenance and cleaning of the frescos and of the icon stands have been done. Also two deserted Holy Monasteries have been restored: i. the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicolas Badovas, which was founded in around 1400 and is dependency of the Holy Monastery of the Holy Trinity, and ii. The Holy Monastery of Ypapanti (Candle Mass), that was founded in around 1366, has very beautiful frescos in excellent condition and is dependency of the Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration (Great Meteoro). We hope that with the passing of time and with the help of God, we will also restore other deserted monasteries of the Holy Meteora.
- Unesco, as we said from the beginning, has characterized the Holy Meteora as “a monument of Humanity that has to be maintained”. This means that much money is needed in order to buy the materials and cover the payment of the workers. The funding of the work is being done: i. by the state through the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry for the Environment, Planning and Public Works, ii. by the subsidies of the European Union and iii. by the money of the monasteries.
- The measures that have to be taken in the future are no others than the constant maintenance of the monumental wealth of the Holy Monasteries. Once a problem will occur in a place, the appropriate measures have to be taken. At the catholic of the Holy Convent of Roussano for example, because of the presence of many visitors, high humidity is created that destroys the frescos. Thus, a dehumidifier must be used, that will evaporate the humidity or will absorb it so that the damage at the frescos of the church won’t be greater.