Meteora and its people

Since the early beginning of the touristic development of Meteora, most of its visitors who come here to admire the famous monasteries and the impressive rock landscape, one thing tend to ignore the most and that is its local people. It is people who largely influence the surroundings and people at the end of the day are the ones who write the history of each place they reside.

Going far back into time when history itself becomes legend and legends into myths, Homer tells us the story of our people in the Iliad. Our ancestors were present onboard the 30 ships of the Machaon and Podalirius who took part on the war of Troy. And alongside the 2 sons of the “father of medicine” Asclepius our people fought on the walls of Troy! Our people from Meteora, who latter witnessed the golden age of classical Greece and formed their own city state under the name of Eginion, made their own coins and built a temple dedicated to Apollo on the present day church of Virgin Mary in Kalampaka. It was the same people of Meteora who contributed many of their horses to form the fierce Thessalian cavalry, the finest cavalry of Greece riding next to Alexander the Great.

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Alexander the Great crossing the Granicus river

And under the commandment of Alexander they fought and died on the numerous battlegrounds, fighting to subdue the great Persian Empire. Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela. These proud Thessalians stood alongside their great King all the way to the high mountains of Hindu-Kush, witnessing the edges of the then known world and reaching the doorsteps of Himalaya. Many years later, the people of Meteora saw the countless roman legions marching with their generals and passing through Pindos Mountains narrow passes on their way to either Italy or to the east.

And then a new religion came and the gods of the old all but changed; but in reality the change was not that deep. In most instances only the names of the shrines and the names of the old rituals and of the paganistic festivities changed. But even then, what was considered at the time to be a new building or a new construction, most of them were all based upon the same old recycled marbles and stones they took from the now laid ruined temples of the old gods like our Virgin Mary church. The same people who built the magnificent ancient temples of Greece they were now building Christian churches and monasteries to worship the One true God.

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The inside of the church of Virgin Mary in kalampaka

And the name of our town was also changed from its ancient Eginion to its middle ages name, the name of Staggi. The humble people of Meteora helped the first monks to build their monastic communities high up on the rocks. They provide shelter to many Byzantine Emperors and the princes who all came here to pay their respects to the monasteries and the many hermits who used to dwell among the caves of the area.

Those hermits lived here in a complete isolation, constantly praying day and night, maintaining an almost absolute disregard for their biological needs, either for cold, hunger, or disease. Their only purpose in life was to connect with the Divine powers and attain enlightenment. Nothing else mattered for them. We can only imagine what kind of spiritual giants and Saints must have walked among the people of Meteora during that times! Many of the hermitages are still visible even today inside the caves.

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The caves where the hermits used to live in Meteora

And in years when crops were not that good and monks of the monasteries high up on the rocks suffered, it was the local people who provided them with what they needed to sustain themselves.

And then the Ottoman Turks came and the name of our town was changed yet again to Kalambaka! “Kale-bak” in Turkish it means strong fortified position. That’s how they named our town and we gave them a good reason to do so. Within the dreadful Ottoman rule, thousands upon thousands of our people perished on the numerous revolts and the local uprisings. Like the one in 1808, when Efthimios Vlahavas who was born in a village just few km away from Meteora, gave a hopeless battle for freedom against the Ottoman Turks next to the monastery of Ypapanti. Today’s visitors can still see his statue standing beside the monastery of Ypapanti to commemorate his sacrifice for freedom.

And it was this urge for freedom so cherished by our people, that when again upon the calling of faith to rise up one more time to defend our freedom and democracy during the 2nd World War, our people answered the call. Without allies we stood all alone and fought the invading forces of Axis for 6 whole months. And it was the ordinary people from Kalampaka, Trikala, and Kastraki who like the Spartans in Thermopylae before them, they manage to stop an entire Italian offensive on the early spring of 1941 on the Albanian front.

Our people fought nonstop for 17 consecutive days in the battle for the anonymous hill 731. Less than 700 men of the II/5 Thessalian battalion stood up against the assault of an entire Italian Corps of more than 100.000 soldiers. And from those 700 less than half survived the offensive. And yet despite the overwhelming odds, despite our people being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, somehow almost miraculously they manage to hold the line till the end and rise from this hell victorious. Even though the price they had to pay was very heavy.

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The anonymous hill 731 after the battle

Men who survived upon their return told stories that when they were fighting up there on the anonymous hill 731 on the spring of 1941, they all had this gut feeling that along their side were fighting all the great heroes of our past. Achilles, Odysseus, Themistocles, Leonidas, they were all there with them up on that hill. Even today some of them they still swear of seeing apparitions and hearing the battle cries of ancient hoplite warriors encouraging them over the trenches not to lose courage and to keep fighting. And they gave fascists a hell of a fight to remember. Those are some of the real stories behind the monuments, the real history of my people.

Eons have passed, like waves of time constantly breaking upon the thick rocks of Meteora and all that remains are those rich memories of people’s myths, legends and the stories told from mouth to mouth to each generation that comes; ensuring that way the continuity and the feel of unity among our people, the people of Meteora.

The Great Meteoron monastery

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The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, photo by N.Ziogas

Definitely the bigger and one of the most impressive monasteries in Meteora is the Holy Monastery of Transfiguration of Jesus, best known as Great Meteoron. The monastery was constructed on top of the biggest rock named accordingly “Platis lithos” or “Wide Rock”, having a total area of more than 50 acres and height reaching more than 613m above sea level.

The first to climb “Platis Lithos” was the monk Athanasios, a prominent ascetic figure of the Meteora’s early hermitic community who later became a Saint of the Greek Orthodox church. He was to be followed by other 14 monks and in 1340 AD they manage to built Theomitoros (God’s Mother) church, thus organized into the very first systematic monastic community in Meteora. Later on founder St Athanasios constructed a second church dedicated to Transfiguration of Jesus Christ and this church became the Catholicon of the monastery from which the monastery took its name.

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St Athanasios of Meteora (1302-1380) and Osios Ioasaph of Meteora (1349/50-1422/23)

St Athanassios successor and the second proprietor of the Great Meteoron monastery was the monk Ioasaf (Ioannis Uros), the son of the Serbian-Greek king Symeon Uros Paleologos who supported the monastery financially.

In those early times access to the monastery was achieved only through wooden ladders, ropes and nets. That was the case up until very recently and only in 1923 did they build the 146 stairs one has to climb to reach the monastery.

The cofounder monk Ioasaf completed and frescoed the Catholicon of the monastery in the year 1484 AD. Stories and spoken tradition in the area narrate the huge difficulties those early monks faced in building the monasteries and the need of a 25 to 30 years period to assemble all the necessary materials on top of these huge rocks and another 20 to 25 years of very hard labor in almost isolation to complete the monastery.  A great leap of faith was needed by anyone in order to undertake such a monumental task and with such sparse resources to utilize for the construction, while on the same time most of the 14 monks who initially followed Athanasios they never lived long enough to see the monastery being completed!

The inside of the monastery

The inside of the Great Meteoron monastery

The nave of the Catholicon is bright and filled with frescoes. The iconostasis is beautiful and elegantly carven and glided constructed in 1617 AD and includes images taken from the flora and the animal kingdom.  Another great sample of elegant wood carving can be seen on the Episcopal throne which was constructedthe same year as the iconostasis.

There are 3 chapels at Great Meteoron monastery: The chapel of John the Baptist, the chapel of St Constantine and St Helens, of which the latter was built in 1789 and it is characterized from its polygonal domed basilicas. The third chapel of the monastery is dedicated to St Athanasios.

Priceless are the treasures of books and manuscripts being preserved in the monastery’s library. Byzantine and post-Byzantine era manuscripts and documents, books concerning the function of the monastery, patristic texts, hymnographical, rare incunabula of the 15th-19th century, legal documents, as well as classical ancient texts of Homer, Sophocles, Demosthenes, Hesiod, Aristotle, and many writers and authors from  Hellenistic times. The monastic library is one of the wealthiest of its kind.

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The monks follow strict regulations and gather at the church 4 times a day, Orthodox liturgy lasts about 6 hours a day. The practice of the monastic life, which is the monks’ main concern, is in absolute agreement with the imperative morals of the Holy Fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church.

There is both social activity and spiritual support of the pilgrimages, which stems from our saints’ miraculous grace.The monastery has offered a great deal to our nation, education and our culture. It constitutes a vibrant monastic community for more than six hundred and fourteen years, a bastion of true Christianity and the traditions of Hellenism.

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The amazing view from Great Meteoron monastery

Monks devoted to Christ, carrying prayers in their hearts and building materials on their backs, renovate, restore and preserve the monastery, celebrating its beauty. As a result, every year, pilgrims and tourists are getting overwhelmed by the great mission undertaken there, making Great Meteoron one of the most visited monasteries of Greece.

Discover more of Great Meteoron monastery and all the other hidden gems of the area with a hiking tour

Saint Nicholas of Anapafsas monastery

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St Nicholas of Anapafsas

The Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of Anapafsas is the first Monastery that we encounter on our way to the Holy Meteora. The monastery is only a short walk from Kastraki village just 1km away.  For the name “Anapafsas” there are numerous interpretations two of which are the most popular.

The first one is that the name “Anapafsas” was attributed by one of the monastery’s benefactors, while the second explanation has to do with the monastery’s position being the first to be encountered on the way up to the other Meteora monasteries, and probably served to the pilgrims and other visitors as a resting place before continuing further up. Resting translates into Greek “anapafsys”. So, Saint Nicholas of Anapafsas it literally means Saint Nicholas the one who rests you.

We have to keep in mind that back then there wasn’t any hotels or rooms to let, so all travelers usually had to either camp outside or seek for shelter to places like monasteries or even on common people’s houses. That’s why for the ancient Greeks one of the biggest blasphemies of all was to deny to provide “philoxenia” for shelter to any traveler asking for it.

The monastery itself was built on an 80 meters’ high rock and is surrounded by the deserted and ruined monasteries of Saint John Prodromos, the Pantocrator and the chapel of Panagia Doupiani.

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The view from St. Nicholas monastery

The Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas was founded at the end of the 14th century. The limited surface of the rock forced the building of the monastery to be built vertically on floors, one level on top of the other.

Access to all monasteries different floors is achieved through an inbuilt staircase. At the entrance of the Monastery lie the Church of St. Anthony and the crypt where codes and the monastery’s heirlooms were previously stored. On the walls, paintings of the 14th Century can be seen.

The Catholicon, where St. Nicholas is honored, is on the second floor and it is elongated and stuck on to the south side of the wall of the monastery. The dome of the church is low and has no windows.

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Good Friday’s service

On the third floor rests the Holy Table, decorated with murals. The Table, recently restored, is used as a reception area for the visitors. There is even the ossuary, the cells of the monks and the chapel of St. John Prodromos.

Since the space is restricted and there is no courtyard, the monks could only gather in the narthex, which was roomy, when there were no liturgies in the nave.

The monastery and the current Catholicon of the Monastery were renovated in the early 16th century by the Bishop of Larisa Nicholas, Saint Dionysus and the Abbot of Stagi, Monk Nickanoras. There are portraits of the founders painted in the narthex of the Monastery. The 1527 AD the hagiography of the Monastery was completed by Theophanis the Cretan, who is included in the most significant hagiographers and frescoes painter of the Mount Athos’ monasteries and Orthodoxy in general.

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St Nicholas fresco made by Theofanis the Cretan

His exquisite murals are considered to be the best in Meteora and render the monastery a true gem, abounding in vitality, plasticity, freshness and bright tones. There is also a notable overall high quality and excellence in design and color of the figures painted by Theofanis the Cretan. The rules and the aesthetic principles of the Cretan mural school have been formulated here.

The monastery has been closed and without monks since 1909. That year, N. Veis paid a visit to the monastery to record the existent manuscripts. He discovered 50 codes which were transferred to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, where they are still kept today.

In the 1960s, the monastery was reconstructed and restored under the supervision of the 7th Inspectorate of Antiquities. There has also been maintenance of the murals, which regained their old splendor.

The monastery remains open to the public to visit any day of the week from 09:00-17:00 except Fridays.

If you wish to know more about Meteora, hotels, things to do, or the hidden gems click here