Where else in the world can you find gigantic fingers of sandstone reaching for the heavens? Here, in the western Thessaly region of Greece, are the rocks of Meteora—over a thousand of them, some as tall as 600 meters or almost 2000 feet! Yet there is scant reference to these unique formations in Greek mythology or by historians, not until interest began some thousand years ago.
To avoid invaders and marauders, people living nearby took refuge in the caves that dot the sides of these towering rocks. Towards the end of the first millennium, Christian hermits and holy men were known to shelter in the caves, and the first cloisters were recorded in the very early 11th century. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the monks climbed higher and built monasteries atop the largest rocks. Built around 1340/50, the oldest and largest monastery is the Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Saint Athanasios Koinovitis (called the Meteorite), originally from Mount Athos, is credited with its foundation on top of the Playts Lithos or “Wide Stone”, the one he named Meteoron (translated as “hovering in the air”) and which gives the area its name of Meteora.
Twenty one monasteries were built as well as an additional twenty hermitages, but most of them were abandoned or destroyed after the 17th century. These monasteries, with their limited access, played a crucial role in preserving Greek language and culture, religious tradition, and ancient manuscripts during the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Turks. Today, fewer than sixty monks and nuns maintain six of the monasteries along with two structures considered dependencies of larger monasteries, while the other monasteries are ruins. The Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration of Jesus (the Great Meteoron), the Holy Monastery of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapafsos, and the Holy Monastery of Varlaam are monasteries maintained by monks, whereas the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Holy Monastery of Rousanou are now convents maintained by nuns. Access was improved in the 20th century, first with bridges and ladders and later via a paved access road to allow easier visits by pilgrims.
Most of my images in this series come from the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen which sits some 528 meters or 1730 feet in the air and is the only monastery visible from the nearby town of Kalampaka. This monastery was founded by Saint Antonios Kantakouzenas (Saint Anthony) and expanded by Saint Philotheos. The first katholicon, the Church of Saint Stephen, was rebuilt by Philotheos in 1545 with frescoes added in the 17th century. The skull of Saint Charalambos was brought to the monastery in the 15th century, and the larger katholicon built in 1798 is dedicated to him. There was heavy damage to the monastery and significant looting during the 20th century, but nuns returned in 1961 and began restoration. Some 28 nuns now maintain the monastery and perform its work. Saint Stephen’s houses over 150 manuscripts, over 800 rare ancient books, numerous artistic works, and unique wood carvings. In 1988, UNESCO designated Meteora a World Heritage site; in 1995 Greece proclaimed Meteora “a sacred site, unchangeable and inviolable.”