The Metéora (Greek: Μετέωρα - "suspended rocks", "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above") is one of the largest and most important complex of monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos. The monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pinnacles, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pinios river and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece. The Metéora is home now to six monasteries and is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The date when monasteries were established in Metéora is not known. Hermit monks were believed to be living among the caves and cutouts in the rocks on top of rocky pinnacles as early as the eleventh century. By the twelfth century a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi which was centered around the church of Theotokos of Doupiani (Mother of God). This church still stands today.
As the Turkish forces increased pressure on the Byzantine empire in the fourteenth century the monasteries of Mount Athos were besieged by Turkish pirates. Having heard of the rock forest in central Greece, Athanasius Koinovitis, with two other monks, Gregory and Moses, left the Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos, in 1344, in search for a new home and found the inaccessible rock pinnacles of Meteora to be an ideal refuge. Here they settled on the top of a rock called Stylos or Pillar.
Later, Athanasius began another community on the nearby Platys Lithos, or Broad Rock, where a few cells and a chapel in a cave were built. In 1356, the Serbian Emperor Symeon Uros endowed the community with funds to build the Church of the Transfiguration and expand the monastery that became known as the Great Meteoron or Monastery of the Transfiguration. The Great Meteoron was perfect for the monks; they were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of 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.
About 1373, John Uros, the son of Symeon Uros, retired to the Great Meteoron as the monk Ioasaph. In 1383, he succeeded Athanasius on his death. Ioasaph further expanded the monastic community and the church, but after his death in 1422, the Great Meteoron community began a period of disorder and decline. A brief revival occurred during the sixteenth century. In 1517, Nectarius and Theophanes built the Monastery of Varlaám, which was reputed to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Meteora became a refuge from oppressive Ottoman officials and a hideout for members of the Greek independence movement. During World War II the Meteora suffered from bombing as well as further disorder and looting of art treasures that occurred during the German and Italian occupation.
During its height, Meteora, at the end of the fifteenth century, was the site of 24 monasteries, of which only six remain today. These six are:
Of the six monasteries, four are inhabited by males, two by females. Each monastery has fewer than ten inhabitants. Due to the uniqueness of Meteora the valley attracts numerous tourists every year. The monasteries are now among the most popular tourist sites in the world and serve primarily as museums.
Access to the monasteries originally was extremely difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and humans. For pilgrims to reach Varlaam monastery that dominates the valley a hoist was required to gain access vertically alongside a cliff that is 1,200 feet (373 meters) high. During the 1920s improvements were made in the arrangements for access to the monasteries. Steps were cut into the rock to some monasteries making the complex accessible as well as bridging from the nearby plateau.