A colossal mass of rock looms over the north of the town of Kalambaka in Thessaly. This is the valley of Meteora.
The METEORA comprise a series ot monastic buildings perched on a cluster of detached precipitous rocks. These are composed of a stratified conglomerate of iron-grey colour scarred by erosion of wind and streaked by centuries of rainwater. 'They rise' (in the words of Dr. Henry Holland who visited them in 1812) 'from the comparatively flat surface of the valley; a group of isolated masses, cones, and pillars of rock, of great height, and for the most part so perpendicular in their ascent, that each one of their numerous fronts seems to the eye as a vast wall, formed rather by the art of man, than by the more varied and irregular workings of nature. In the deep and winding recesses which form the intervals between these lofty pinnacles, the thick foliage of trees gives a shade and colouring which, while they enhance the contrast, do not diminish the effect of the great masses of naked rock impending above.' Awe-inspiring in the most favourable conditions, the landscape in lowering weather or by the light of the full moon is daunting in the extreme.
The earliest monastic community here, the 'Thebaid of Stagoi' at Doupiani developed betore 1336 among the hermits who earlier sought in the caves religious isolation and a secure retreat from the turbulent times. Their Protaton, or communal church, is located by a small chapel (comp. below) on old foundations. Before the end of the century this skete and its protos had been eclipsed by the Meteoron, which, with other communities, was encouraged and endowed by the Orthodox Serbian conquerors of Thessaly. During the Turkish conquest the monasteries became an asylum for refugees. At its greatest extent the community numbered 13 monasteries, all coenobite and c 20 smaller settlements flourishing under Abbot Bessarion in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, deriving revenues from estates on the Danube granted by the voivodes of Wallachia. The Patriarch Jeremias I (1522-45) raised several of them to the rank of imperial stavropegion. They declined in the 18C, and were already a decaying curiosity to early-19C travellers. They lost their independence to the Bp of Trikkala in 1899. The motor road that now makes the visit a commonplace of tourism has shattered the solitude and isolation.
Access was intentionally difficult, being made either by a series of vertical wooden ladders of vertiginous length (20-40m), which could be retracted at night or in emergency, or in a net drawn up by rope and windlass to specially buflt towers, overhanging the abyss. The old methods, uncomfortable at best and often perilous, gave way in the 1920s to steps cut on the orders of Polykarpos, Bp of Trikkala, though the rope and windlass is still occasionally used for taking in provisions.
Beyond the village of Kastraki turn the road bends right. On the left stands the Doupiani Chapel (comp. above), rebuilt in 1861. The 'Broad Rock' (left), on which is seen the Great Meteoron, rises above several lesser pillars: the cleft rock of the Prodromos whose scanty ruins, already deserted in 1745, are now inaccessible; on a higher rock St. Nicholas Anapafsas (c 1388), partly repaired in 1960 when its fcescoes, by Theophanes the Cretan (1527), were restored; and the inaccessible Ayia Moni, dangerously perched on its slender pinnacle in 1614 and ruined in an earthquake in 1858. We leave Rousanou to the right, take the left fork pass Varlaam (left), and arrive at the Great Meteoron, or coenobitic Monastery of the Transfiguration, the largest and loftiest of the monasteries, built on the Platys Lithos ('Broad Rock'; 534m).
The Great Meteoron was founded by St. Athanasios as the poor community of the Theotokos Meteoritissa. Its privileges were guaranteed in 1362 by the Serbian Emp. Symeon Uros and under the guidance of John Uros his son, who retired here c 1373 as the monk Ioasaph, it became a rich monastic house. Euthymios, Patriarch of Constantinople (1410-16), made it independent of local jurisdiction, but its head was not officially granted the title of Abbot ('hegoumenos') until c 1482.
The Katholikon was reconstructed at his own expense by Ioasaph in 1387-88. His apse and sanctuary, decorated with painting in 1497-98, form the E extension of the existing church, which was enlarged after an earthquake in 1544. It is a Greek cross in square with a dome set on a drum. The paintings are in good preservation. The Refectory (1557), on the N side of the church, has a vaulted roof set on five pillars.
From the SE corner of the monastery (or from the path in the ravine towards Varlaam) there is a striking view of the neighbouring rock. Here among the vultures' nests can be descried two painted ikons and broken lengths of the ladders that once gave access to Hypselotera, highest of the monasteries and dedicated to the 'Highest in the Heavens.' This convent was Iounded c 1390 and disappeared in the 17C, possibly owing to the peril of the ascent.
About 30 minutes N of the Broad Rock is the seldom-visited Hypapanti, derelict but still accessible, in a huge cavern. It merits a visit for its brightly painted frescoes and gilded ikonostasis. The inaccessible Ayios Dhimitrios stands on top of a nearby rock. It was destroyed by Turkish gunfire in 1809 after having served as headquarters of a locaI 'klephtic' band.
The monastery of Varlaam is approached by bridge from the road. The windlass and rope in the Tower (erected in 1536) were much used for materials in 1961-63 when the refectory was reconstructed as a Museum for the monastic treasures. The founders in 1517, Nektarios and Theophanes Asparas of Ioannina, reoccupied a site where a 14C anchorite named Varlaam had built a church dedicated to the Three Hierarchs. This they restored and it survives (repaired and frescoed in 1627-37) as a side chapel of the present Katholikon erected in 1542-44. This is a good example of the late-Byzantine style with a carved and gilded ikonostasis and frescoes by Frangos Kastellanos and George of Thebes (in the narthex; 1566).
We return to the main fork. Rousanou, a small monastery compactly set on a lower hill, is approached by bridges built in 1868. It was founded before 1545 by Maximos and Ioasaph of Ioannina, but by 1614 had decayed to such an extent that it was made subject to Varlaam. It has recently been reoccupied by a convent of nuns. The Church, with an octagonal dome, is a smaller version of that of Varlaam, with frescoes of 1560.
The monastery of the Holy Trinity (Ayia Triadha), situated on an isolated pillar between two cavines, is entered by 130 steps partly in a tunnel through the rock. Off the passage leading into the courtyard a round chapel carved out of the rock was dedicated to St. John the Baptist in 1682. The little Church of 1476, ornamented in brick and tile, was not improved by the addition in 1684 of a large narthex. The conventual buildings are in an attractive half-timbered style with a pretty garden.
The monastery of St. Stephen (Ayiou Stefanou), though the farthest away by road, is the only monastery visible from Kalambaka. It is easy of access since its solitary pinnacle is joined directly to the Kuklioli hill by a bridge. The convent was founded c 1400 by Antonios Cantacuzene (probably a son of Nikephoros II ot Epirus), whose portrait in the Parecclesion (the original Katholikon) was defaced by Communist rebels in 1949. The New Katholikon rebuilt in 1798, is dedicated to the martyr Charalambos, whose head is the monastery's chief relic.
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