11.5.17

Meteora

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.

But beyond the monasteries and mountains, Meteora is far from being just a visual delight.
This little-known terrain holds claim to some of Europe's most fascinating history, as well as a heap of exhilarating outdoor activities.


Just 2.5 miles outside of Kalambaka is Theopetra Cave, a stunning archaeological site that holds evidence of continuous human inhabitation for over 130,000 years.
The transition from Neanderthal to Homo sapiens is indicated in the layers of soil, and remarkably one of the world's oldest known man-made structures lies at the cave entrance: a wall believed to be 23,000 years old.
The Metéora (Greek: Μετέωρα, pronounced, literally "middle of the sky", "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above" — etymologically related to meteorology) - is a formation of immense monolithic pillars and hills-like huge rounded boulders which dominate the local area.

It is also associated with one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second in importance only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural conglomerate pillars, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios river and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece.
Metéora is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List under criteria I, II, IV, V and VII.

The nearest town is Kalambaka.

History
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.
As early as the 11th century, monks occupied the caverns of Meteora. However, monasteries were not built until the 14th century, when the monks sought somewhere to hide in the face of an increasing number of Turkish attacks on Greece. At this time, access to the top was via removable ladders or windlass. Nowadays, getting up is a lot simpler due to steps being carved into the rock during the 1920s. Of the 24 monasteries, only 6 (five male, one female) are still functioning, with each housing less than 10 individuals.

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.

Monasteries 
Meteora is from the biggest and most important group of monasteries in Greece after those in Mount Athos. We can locate the first traces of their history from 11th c. when the first hermits settled there. The rock monasteries have been characterized by Unesco as a unique phenomenon of cultural heritage and they form one of the most important stations of cultural map of Greece.
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 Dhoupiani.

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 are inhabited by men, and two by women. The monasteries are now tourist attractions.

Description
No reference concerning these rocks exists, neither in mythology nor by some Greek or foreign historians.

Historians and geologists started to be interested in the creation of these rocks about 1000 years ago, expressing several theories.

The prevailing theory is that one of the German geologist Philipson, who came to Greece in the late 19th century. According to his theory, a large river had his estuary in this area which for million of years was covered by a narrow and deep part of the sea .The river waters place matter, stones and generally several materials that were transferred by its waters at the estuary from Northern parts of primordial central Europe. From the accumulation of these materials deltaic cones were formed.


25-30 million years ago, after some geological changes took place during the centuries, the central part of today’s Europe was lifted. That’s how the opening of Tempi was created ,having as a result the pouring of the waters in today’s Aegean sea.

During the tertiary period ,at the time of the alpine orogenies, the solid volumes of the “rocks” were cut off from the mountain chain of Pindos that was created and as the centuries went by, the plain of Pinios river was formed between them.

With the continuous corrosion by the wind and the rain as well as by other geological changes, these rocks took their present form through the passing of million of years.



At the cavities, fissures and peaks of the rocks, the people of that place found protection from the raids of several conquerors and of those who passed from the area.

Also, several bold hermits and anchorites found shelter at these rocks, seeking for mental calmness, tranquility and while praying they saught for Christian perfection.

In the beginning, the hermits were isolated and were praying in small chapels called “prosefhadia”(in Greek means places for pray) not only for their salvation but also for the salvation of all people. Their life was simple and the work painful.

The exact time that the rocks were inhabited is not known, but according to the existing scripts the monkhood is presented when already organized.

According to the Byzantinologists the first hermits must have taken refuge in the rocks at the end of the first millennium.

According to some information, Barnabas is mentioned as the first hermit at around 950-970 AD, who established the cloister of the Holy Ghost followed by the establishment of the cloister of the Transfiguration of Jesus by the monk Andronikos from Crete in the early 1000 AD. Later, at around 1150-1160 AD the Cloister of Stagi or Doupiani is established.

Except the aforementioned cloisters others also existed in several cavities around the rock of Doupiani, of Holy Ghost and the rock of “Sourloti”.

Religious life in this region can be traced from about 1000 ce, when hermit dwellings were established in the lesser peaks of the rock mounds. The ascetics eventually joined to establish the Doúpiani monastery. At the base of the rock formation known as the pillar of Doúpiani is the chapel of the Holy Virgin, probably built in the 12th century. The first monastery erected on a summit dates from the 14th century, when Athanasios Koinovitis, a monk from Mount Athos, ascended the plathy lithos (“broad rock”) and built the first structures of the Great Metéoron. 
The Serbian king then in control of Thessaly granted the monastery religious privileges. In 1388 the king’s son and the hermit Ioasaf, a pupil of Athanasios, enlarged the Metéoron, making it the wealthiest and most prominent monastery in the area. In the period of Ottoman rule over Greece (1453–1832), the sultans left the Orthodox religion intact, and the monastic communities at Metéora thrived; several more monasteries were erected in the 15th and 16th centuries. During the last hundred years of Turkish occupation, these monasteries offered asylum to persecuted Greeks and independence-seeking rebels. The frescoes adorning the walls of the structures mark an important stage in post-Byzantine art.

Although 24 monasteries were built, each containing a church or two, monks’ cells, and a refectory, only 6 remain: Great Metéoron, Varlaám (also called All Saints [Áyioi Pándes]), Roussanou, St. Nikolas (Áyios Nikolaos), Holy Trinity (Áyia Triada), and St. Stephen (Áyios Stéfanos). Some still serve a religious function, though they are now only sparsely populated by monks and nuns. Since the construction of paved roads through the area in the 1960s, it has been visited annually by thousands of tourists and Orthodox pilgrims. 

The monasteries are accessible by bridges and stairs cut into the rocks, although before the 1920s ascending the rock columns involved the perilous enterprise of climbing ladders or being hauled up by ropes and nets. Conservation efforts have been ongoing since 1972 to counter overall decay and the destruction incurred during World War II, when the area was bombed. Ongoing threats to the structures include vibrations caused by low-flying aircraft and damage relating to the area’s frequent tremors and earthquakes.
Vegetation in the surrounding region is typified by pine and beech forests. Riverine zones provide refuge for gray wolves and otters, among other mammals, and the high cliffs are well-known habitats for the endangered Egyptian vulture and honey buzzard, as well as several species of eagle and falcon. In 1988 the monasteries and their evocative landscape were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Monuments
At their peak in the sixteenth century there were 24 monasteries at Metéora in Greece. They were created to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Much of the architecture of these buildings is Athonite in origin. Today there are six still functioning, while the remainder are in largely in ruin. Most of these are perched on high cliffs, now accessible by staircases cut into the rock formations. Of the six functioning monasteries, the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen and the Holy Monastery of Roussanou are inhabited by nuns while the remainder are inhabited by monks. The total monastic population of the Metéora monasteries in 2015 was 66, comprising 15 monks in four monasteries and 41 nuns in two monasteries.

The most important monasteries of Meteora are: 

The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron
It is the biggest of the Meteorite monasteries. The church 'Katholikon', honoured to the 'Transfiguration' was erected in the middle of 14th c. and 1387/88 and decorated in 1483 and 1552. The old monastery is used as a museum, nowadays. 

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam
It is the second, after the Great Meteoro, big in size monastery. The church, honoured to the three Bishops, is in the Athonite type (cross-in-square with dome and choirs), with spacious esonarthex (lite) surrounted by dome as well. It was built in 1541/42 and decorated in 1548, while the esonarthex was decorated in 1566. 
The old refectory is used as a museum while North of the Church we can see the parekklesion of the Three (Bishops) built in 1627 and decorated in 1637. 

The Holy Monastery of Rousanou
It is dedicated to 'The Transfiguration' but honoured to Saint Barbara. The 'Katholikon', in the Athonite type, was founded in the middle of 16th c. and decorated in 1560. Both, the Katholikon and the reception halls are in the ground floor while the 'archontariki', cells and subsidiary rooms are scattered in the basement and the first floor. 

The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas
It is the first to meet on our way from Kastraki to Meteora. The 'Katholikon' dedicated to St. Nicholas, is a single - nave church with small dome, built in the beginning of 16th c. It was decorated by the Cretan painter Theophanis Strelitzas or Bathas, in 1527. 

The Holy 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 small single-nave church of St. Stephen was built in the middle of 16th and decorated in 1545 or a little later. The 'Katholikon', honoured to St. Charalambos, was built in the Athonite type, in 1798. The old refectory of the convent is used as a museum nowadays. 

The Monastery of Holy Trinity
It 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. The church is in the cross-in-square type with the dome based in two columns, built in 1475-76 and decorated in 1741. The spacious barrel - vaulted esonarthex was founded in 1689 and decorated in 1692. A small skeuophylakeion was added next to the church in 1684.

Monastery of Ypapanti (Presentation of the Virgin) at Meteora
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.

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