Location: Kalabaka, Greece
Era: 1350 CE
The Christian monasteries of Meteora (which literally means suspended rocks), in central Greece, sit atop huge natural sandstone towers These 600-metre-tall rocks acted as a natural security barrier.
Greece had adopted Orthodox Christianity at an early stage. Neighbouring Turkey, on the other hand, adopted Islam a few centuries later, while also having significant populations of Christians and Jews. Islam had a simple concept of Imams leading a congregation through which any member of the congregation could lead prayers and there were no monks. In contrast, Christianity had monks and nuns whose worship included celibacy and isolation from the world. In Islam, participation in daily life was seen as part of the trial of life, but in Christianity, monks and nuns were inspired and motivated to seek isolation and to avoid temptation.
Christian monks sought locations to be isolated from the drudgery of daily life and to contemplate. Meteora (near modern Kalabaka) was an attractive location, and home to natural caves. It was a tough and dangerous climb, only accessible through ropes and ladders. The sheer rock walls made it unlikely to attract casual visitors.
The site was first used as a religious retreat by a hermit called Barnabas in 985 CE who sought seclusion in one of the caves. Through the 14th century CE, monasteries were constructed on top of the rock towers to enable the monks to be ‘closer to God’.1
The original monastery is the Great Meteoron, established in the 14th century CE. Ioannis-Ioasaph was the son of a Greek king and took on the throne in 1370CE. He would have inherited a lot of power, but chose instead to reject the world and to become a monk. He came to this monastery at the tender age of 22. It was almost as if he chose a place as far as possible from the temporal world to be closer to his Creator. He enlarged and renovated the original church.
Within a few hundred years, Meteora hosted 24 monasteries and had become second only to Mount Athos in its significance for Orthodox Christian ascetics in Greece. Several hundred monks lived in the rocks in small individual cells. Essential supplies would be passed up to the monasteries using ropes and baskets, to minimise contact with the outside world. If they felt worried by intruders, the monks would draw up the ladders to make it difficult for anyone to climb up.
Apart from the cells for monks and churches, the main monastery had other facilities, including a kitchen and a hospital.
Six of the monasteries are still in use today by a small number of nuns and monks maintaining the ascetic life, and are popular with tourists to the region.
- Antara Bate, “Meteora,” HistoryHit, July 10, 2020. Accessed: December 14, 2022. https://www.historyhit.com/locations/ meteora/
- Meteora Thrones. “About Meteora – The Holy Meteora Monasteries”, Accessed: December 14, 2022. https://meteora. com/meteora-monasteries/
Other sources: Marc Dubin, Greece, Athens and the Mainland (London, UK: Dorling Kindersley, 2004).