Built on sandstone rock pillars and silhouetted against the Grecian skyline, the lofty Meteora Monasteries sit atop staggering cliffs.
If you ever visit the Plain of Thessaly near the Pindus Mountains in central Greece, and happen to look up – and you should look up – you’ll see the Meteora Monasteries high above you, drifting in and out between the clouds. The Meteora (a word meaning “suspended in the air,” which they certainly appear to be) are some of the oldest, largest and most precariously perched Eastern Orthodox monasteries in the world, and the second most important after Mount Athos in Macedonia.
Monasteries In The Sky
The Meteora Monasteries sit atop towering sandstone formations that rise over 1000 feet above the plains. Unlike other similar geologic formations, these towers weren't volcanic plugs, but layers of sediment piled up in a pillar-like formation – a rare phenomenon.
In addition to the rarity of the formation, the formations themselves hold rarities – monasteries. Carved into the tops of the formation and peeking out from behind the clouds lie the Meteora Monasteries, home to a group of reclusive monks, and years of important history.
The towering pillars have been inhabited for almost as long as humans have walked the earth, though the buildings date back to the 14th century. Prior to the construction of the structures, those who inhabited the area lived in caves that tunneled deep into the pillars.
The earliest structures date back roughly 23,000 years, consisting of rudimentary walls at the entrances of caves. Neolithic and Paleolithic artifacts have been found in the caves that illustrate a colorful history of their inhabitants.
Beginning in the 9th century, the great monk Athanasios Koinovitis brought a group of followers to the pillars, in search of a group of hermit monks who lived in the fissures and caves that dotted them. The hermit monks were adept at climbing and were able to teach Koinovitis' followers how to scale the cliffs to reach the habitable areas.
The height of the caves combined with the treacherous climb left the monks in relative solitude, free to meet for worship without interruption
As the years progressed, Greece found itself in turmoil as their neighbors to the east, the Turks began to invade. Seeking refuge from the attacks, the monks moved out of their caves and began building the monasteries. In total, they carved 24 of them into the tops of the pillars, making them accessible only by hanging ladders and windlasses.
For the next 400 years, people and goods reached the monasteries by nets, ladders and baskets all held together by ropes that broke "when the Lord let them break." The risk involved in traveling to the top of these pillars continued to ensure that the monks lived in relative isolation.
The Meteora Monasteries In Modern History
In its 16th century heyday, the eyries boasted 24 monasteries. Today, just six of the Meteora Monasteries remain. They still serve as monasteries, and homes for the monks and nuns that serve in them. Four of the monasteries are for men and two for women including the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou.
In the 1920s, steps were cut into the rock to make the monasteries more accessible – which, in turn, made them more attractive to tourists. Visitors could suddenly flock to the pillars and scale them whenever they liked, using them for inspiration – for instance, the monasteries served as inspiration for The Eyrie, the loft seat of House Arryn in "Game of Thrones." Additionally, their singular landscape and recognizable skyline can be seen in "Indiana Jones" and the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only."
Today, the site serves as one of Greece's most popular adventure tourism sites. While there are several relatively easy access routes to the monasteries – roadways and hiking paths – many of the visitors that come to the monasteries are there for rock climbing.
The sheer cliffs and the craggy surface are enticing for seasoned climbers, and it's not unusual to see one or two of them dangling beneath the Meteora Monasteries. Many paths have been forged by climbers, such as the "Iron Road" a pathway up the side of one of the pillars dotted with chains and ropes left behind by former climbers to lead the newbies up the safest route.
In addition to climbing, many tourists enjoy mountain biking around the area, skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and hiking through the plains that surround the pillars.
In addition to the activities, the monasteries house years of history, much of which is visible in some buildings. One, in particular, the Megalo Meteoro Monastery or the "Metamorphosis Monastery" houses a cabinet full of the skulls of deceased monks.
Even today, many of the ancient lifting systems are still visible. In the Monastery of Agia Triada visitors can see examples of ancient climbing devices, once used to haul people and artifacts up to the lofty buildings. Open air cable cars used to ferry monks from one Meteora Monastery to another still stretch between several of the buildings, giving visitors a frightening glimpse of how the monks once traveled.
Serving as both tourist attraction and functioning monasteries and nunneries, the Meteora Monasteries are the perfect way to combine a trip through history with an exciting adventure through the Greek countryside.