Although it is unknown when the monasteries of Meteora were established, as early as the 11th century AD hermit monks were believed to be living among the caves and cutouts in the rocks. By the late 11th or early 12th century a rudimentary monastic state had formed called the Skete of Stagoi and was centered around the church of Theotokos (mother of God), which still stands today.
The hermit monks, seeking a retreat from the expanding Turkish occupation, found the inaccessible rock pillars of Meteora to be an ideal refuge. Although more than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century,only six remain today. These six are: 'Great Meteoron (or Transfiguration), Varlaam, St. Stephen, Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas Anapausas and Rousanou. There is a common belief that St. Athanasios (founder of the first monastery) did not scale the rock, but was carried there by an eagle. Access to the monasteries was originally extremely 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-meter cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction."
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 and many art treasures were stolen. Only six of the monasteries remain today. Of these six, five are inhabited by men, one by women.
Each monastery has fewer than 10 inhabitants. The monasteries are now amongst the most popular tourist sites in the world and now serve primarily as museums.
Beside the Pindhos Mountains, at the western region of the Thessaly plain in the middle of northern Greece, these sandstone rocks rise from the ground. Since the 9th century, an ascetic group of monks moved up to the ancient pinnacles. The rocks are composed of a mixture of sandstone and conglomerate.
They were formed about 60 million years ago. A series of earth movements pushed the seabed upwards, creating a high plateau and causing many fault lines to appear in the thick layer of sandstone.
Continuous weathering by water, wind and extremes of temperature turned them into huge rock pillars, marked by horizontal lines which geologists maintain were made by the waters of a prehistoric sea. Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BC that local people believed the plain of Thessaly had once been a sea. If this was accurate, there was most probably an inundation at the end of the last Ice Age, around 8000 BC.
However, he failed to mention the rocks of Meteora, and nor are they recorded in the writings of other ancient Greek authors. This has led to the belief that the pinnacles did not exist 2000 years ago; a theory dismissed by modern geologists. The first people to inhabit Meteora were hermits, who lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some of which reach 1800ft (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.
Until the 17th century, the primary means of conveying goods and people from these eyries was by means of baskets and ropes.
In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Meteora. 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.
In 1517, Nectarios and Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaam, which was reputed to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrea.