Pelasgia, Aeolia, Thessaly, different names same place in prehistory and history

Peneus River running on the outskirts of Kalampaka town, has been throughout the centuries the main basis and a driving force behind our history, civilization, economy and the development of our way of life in general. This is the reason why the earliest remains of human presence here have been discovered near the banks of this river. Peneus river god was the child of Oceanus and Tethys. In the Greek mythology the plain of Thessaly became known as one of the main battle grounds in the war between the Gods and the Titans.

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Thessalian plain and Penios river as seen from St. Stephen monastery in Meteora

Away from myths and according to the latest archeological findings man’s presence in the region is very old starting at the Mid-Paleolithic era, about 130.000 years ago and continued continued uninterrupted till our present day. In recent years important artifacts as well as human’s remains have been uncovered at Theopetra cavern near Meteora, where very significant excavations are being held continuously over the last 25 years. The last glacial period of the Paleolithic era started to retreat and the region’s climate slowly began to warm about 16000 years ago. This climate change lasted for another 8000 years and by the end of this period the early waves of agricultural revolution had already reached and swept the plain of Thessaly, while the domestication of animals was achieved some 2.000 years later! It’s really fascinating to know that very few places on Earth outside Mesopotamia can yield with such consistency the successive evolutionary stages of man’s agricultural revolution. And Thessaly plain is noted as one of those rare places!

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Neolithic settlement of Dimini

This “boom” of Thessaly’s Neolithic economy was mainly marked by the mass population movements, as well as from the creation of the first permanent settlements like Sesklo and Dimini mainly on the Eastern part of Thessaly closer to the Aegean Sea. That last wasn’t without a good reason because the Aegean sea along with it’s many islands it must have served at the time as a line of communication with Minor Asia and the Messopotamia. Sesklo enjoyed its heyday around 5500 BC. The community covered an area of more than 13 hectares and its population could not have been more than a few hundred inhabitants. The buildings at Sesklo had stone foundations and a “superstructure of pisé”, crowned by a gable of hip roof made of a thick layer of clay on a timber frame.” Most of them where one-roomed measuring between10 to 50 square meters.

Dimini covers on the other hand an area of 0.8 hectares, with the astonishing fact about this site being the six concentric circular enclosures. Initially it was thought that represented defensive walls but more recent reexamination points to better organization of the land. Dimini was established sometime after 5000 BC and its buildings are within the concentric circles mentioned above. On that same period Thessaly was known by the name of Pelasgia and its Neolithic inhabitants as Pelasgians.

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Neolithic pottery from Dimini

During the early 20th century, archaeological excavations conducted by the Italian Archaeological School and by the American Classical School on the Athenian Acropolis and on other sites within Attica revealed Neolithic dwellings, tools, pottery and skeletons from domesticated animals (i.e., sheep, fish). All of these discoveries showed significant resemblances to the Neolithic discoveries made on the Thessalian acropolises of Sesklo and Dimini. These discoveries help provide physical confirmation of the literary tradition that describes the Athenians as the descendants of the Pelasgians, who appear to descend continuously from the Neolithic inhabitants in Thessaly.

At about 1200 BC during the Mycenaean period in Thessaly region, became known at that time by the name of Aeolia, a considerable number of bigger in size settlements were developed that became strong enough to allow their participation on the Greek expeditionary force to conquer Troy. Those cities were Trikki (present today Trikala) Oechaliae and Ithomi along with Aeginion (present day Kalampaka) and formed under the name of Estiaeotis one of the four administrative regions of the ancient Thessalian confederation. The Thessalian confederation it lasted until 353 BC when in the aftermath of the Macedonian victory in battle of Crocus Field of King Phillip II against the Phocians, that the Thessalians appointed King Philip “Archon” of Thessaly. This was an appointment for life, and gave Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, control over all the revenues of the Thessalian Confederation, and furthermore made Philip leader of the united Thessalian army!  From that point on Thessaly became one of the closest allies of Macedonians and they remained so until the arrival of Romans in the 2nd century BC and the battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. Few years later Thessaly was annexed by the Roman Empire like the rest of Greece and along with Macedonia they became a Roman province.

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