Meteora is the name given to a series of Eastern Orthodox monasteries located in Greece. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1988. The name means suspended in the air or, more poetically, hanging in the heavens, and one visit to the site reinforces what a perfect name that is.
The Meteora are settled in the Plain of Thessaly, perched atop awe-inspiring natural pillars of sandstone that jut up into sky. The tallest of these pillars reach more than 1800 feet (550m). These pillars are the result of uplifting in the seabed, and the subsequent wearing away of the surrounding land by water and wine.
Historically, Meteora is not mentioned in the classical Greek texts. The Plain of Thessaly itself is mentioned by Herodotus sometime in the 5th century BCE, but he makes no mention of the massive stone pillars. The strangeness of this oversight has led some to speculate that the pillars didn’t exist in the time of Herodotus, but in the absence of an alternative geological explanation for the pillars of Meteora, most experts simply shrug it off.
There are six monastaries still in operation at Meteora: the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, the Holy Monastery of Varlaam, the Holy Monastery of Rousanou or Saint Barbara, the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapausas, the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen, and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
Sometime in the 9th century, Christian hermits began to inhabit natural fissures in the towers. The remote location of Meteora, as well as the difficulty in ascending the towers, made it an ideal location for hermits. A small chapel was constructed at the foot of Dhoupiani, and there the hermits would meet collectively for Sunday mass.
In the 12th century, an ascetic community had formed at Meteora, for similar reasons as the earlier hermits. In the mid-14th century, a group of monks came from Mount Athos, led by Anthanasios Koinovitis, and established the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, on Broad Rock. This was one of the safest monasteries imaginable, virtually impregnable, as the monks could simply pull up the rope ladder that led to the monastery if they ever felt threatened. As the Turks were beginning to take a violent interest in the Plain of Thessaly at the time, this was particularly welcome.
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was built next, near the end of the 15th century. Next came the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapausas, followed by the last three monasteries in the middle of the 16th century, including the Monastery of Saint Stephen, which is the only of the monasteries at Meteora for women.
Although originally intended as fairly remote and hermetic monasteries, in recent years Meteora has grown to rely heavily on tourism, and has built an infrastructure around that. The Great Meteoron is the largest monastery, and serves as a museum for visitors. Many of the monasteries require a small entry fee to visit them, and they all offer various icons for sale as mementos.