Metéora Monasteries – Greece
Metéora is the second biggest and most important monastic complex in Greece. The first inhabitants of Metéora were hermits. They settled here during the 11th century, living in hollows and fissures in the rock pinnacles. The word monahos, or monahia, means ‘the person who is alone’. Some of these rock towers reach 550m above the plain, with the great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, making it impossible to reach except for the most determined visitors.
By the end of the 12th century, an ascetic community had flocked to Metéora. 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. 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. More monks fled to Metéora to escape the Turkish invaders and the earliest monastery was believed to have been established during this period.
There were originally 24 monasteries, but only six are in active use today, whilst the remaining ones are deserted. Four of the six monasteries are for the monks: Metamórphosis – Transfiguration, Varlaám, Agiou Nikólaos Anapafsás and Aghía Triada – Holy Trinity. Rousanou and Aghios Stéfanos monasteries are for nuns. The monasteries of Metéora have been listed as monuments of cultural heritage by UNESCO.
Metéora means ‘suspended rocks’. Until the 17th century, the main way of conveying goods and people from these rocky towers was by means of baskets and ropes. The monks must have had utmost faith in their religion and the mechanism used to winch them up the steep cliffs. It was believed that the ropes were only replaced “when the Lord let them break“. Around the 1920s steps were cut into the rock, making the complex more accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau. Today, you can drive almost all the way up, with only the final stage to be completed on foot. I’m sure if baskets and ropes were the only means of getting to the top, not be many of us who would have the faith and courage to do the trip.
Our visit today was to Moni Rousanou, which was where we visited a few years ago as well. Being the most spectacularly located of all the monasteries, it naturally features in most tour itineraries. Photography is not allowed inside the monastery. Although there were conflicting advice as to what length pants was acceptable, ladies actually must wear skirts. Do not panic if you’ve not got a skirt with you as they provide wrap skirts up there. Guys, if your shorts are perceived to be a little on the short side, you’ll be asked to wrap up as well which is no big deal.
Rousanou was converted into a nunnery in 1960 and this was followed by Aghios Stéfanos. Fourteen nuns live up here and each morning at 4:30 a.m. when the sound of the wooden drum occurs, they wake up for prayers. Their day consists of 8 hours of prayer, 8 hours of work and 8 hours or rest. They take turns with different chores, including sounding the ‘Talandon’ which is the wooden chime or ‘Symandron’, the metal chime sounded at festivals – it sounds like bells chiming. It takes three years of religious practice before one could be accepted here.
We visited the very small 16th century Church of the Metamorfosis which has very impressive frescoes, painted in 1560 by iconographers of the Cretan school. The most important painting is the Last Judgement above the doorway.
There is a nice giftshop where you can buy postcards and souvenirs. A couple of original gift ideas include small pieces of rocks with pictures of Metéora painted on them or hand-painted bottles with religious images. We were told that these are all painted by monks and the candles are made by the nuns.
From Roussano, you can look across to the other monasteries and the views are spectacular. Also, as the coach winds its way down the rock formation, you’ll also get more views of the other monasteries. Don’t forget to look out for Aghia Triada, the Monastery of Holy Trinity. For fans of James Bond, this monastery was a film location in the 1981 movie “For Your Eyes Only”.