In the northwest corner of Thessaly, the wide bed of the Pinios River emerges

from the mighty canyons of the Eastern Pindus Mountains that plummet abruptly onto the Thassalian plain. Here, in the shadow of the mountains and just beyond the town of Kalambaka, massive gray coloured pinnacles rise towards the sky, the Meteora a strange but breathtaking landscape that has been sculpted by wind and water over thousands of years. These smooth, vertical rocks have become a favourite destination for rock climbers who are, perhaps, the only ones today who can truly appreciate the feat of the 9th century hermits who first climbed them to settle in the caves and fissures of the rocks. On Sundays, they clambered down from their cells to celebrate mass in Doupiani and as their numbers increased, the Theotokos of Doupiani was

established as the first semi-organized community during the 11th century.

By the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire was already on the wane and the monastic communities of the Athos peninsula were increasingly besieged by Turkish pirates. After an encounter with brigands, three monks, Gregory, Moses and Athanasius, left the Monastery of Iviron on the western coast of the peninsula to search for a new home. They had heard of ‘miracles' taking place in the land of the great rock forest and on arriving there, settled on top of the rock called Stylos or the Pillar where they built a hesychasterion or wooden hut. Later, Athanasius assembled a small community and constructed a few cells and a chapel in a cave on the nearby Platys Lithos or the Broad Rock. The Serbian Emperor, Symeon Uros provided them with an endowment that allowed them to build the Church of the Transfiguration around 1356 and to expand the monastery with more cells and cloisters. His son, John Uros, retired here as the Monk Ioasaph about 1373 adding to the already sizable endowment enjoyed by the Grand Meteoron, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration. Ioasaph assumed authority upon the death of Athanasius in 1383 and he further expanded the monastery and the Church.

Meteora soon came to encompass the entire rock community of 24 monasteries. There were no steps and the main access to the monasteries was by means of a net that was hitched over a hook and hoisted up by rope and a hand cranked windlass to winch towers overhanging the chasm. Monks descended in the nets or on retractable wooden ladders up to 40m long to the fertile valleys below to grow grapes, corn and potatoes. Each community developed its own resources and by the end of the 14th century, the Grand Meteoron emerged as the dominant community. Its wealth included landed estates, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle.

After Ioasaph died in 1422, Meteora gradually plunged into a period of disorder and decline. Unscrupulous men expropriated the income of the monasteries, Vlach squatters settled in Holy Trinity and Kallistratos and a squint eyed monk named Theodore lived with two women dressed as monks in the Monastery of the Pantocrator. The rock community enjoyed a brief revival of monasticism in the 16th Century under the reign of Suileman the Magnificent who relaxed earlier prohibitions on the building and restoration of Christian churches but lapsed once again into decline. By the 18th century, Meteora had become a refuge center for Greeks escaping the increasingly harsh administration and taxation of the Ottoman overlords as well as a hideout of the klephts, rebel warriors who harassed the Turks and participated in the fight for independence in the 19th century. The German and Italian occupation during World War II saw further looting and destruction of the monasteries. Today, only six monasteries survive as museums. They are sparsely occupied by a few monks and nuns but they offer a rare glimpse of Orthodox monastic life.