Already in late mid-Byzantine times the towering rocks of the Meteora were a place of ascetic endeavour. The first inhabitants of the Meteoran rocks were hermit monks who lived in cave dwellings that were accessed by rope ladders.
Initially there were three monasteries, on the Rock of Doupiane: those of the Pantokrator (the Analepsis or Ascension), St. Demetrios the Myrrh-Streamer and the Theotokos. The Church of the Theotokos at Doupiane was to form the initial nucleus of Meteoran monasticism. A decisive role in this development was played by the ruler of Thessaly, Symeon Uroš Palaiologos, and three eminent ecclesiastical figures of the time: Anthony, the Metropolitan of Larissa; Bessarion I, Bishop of Stagoi, and, above all, the hieromonk Neilos, dikaios (agent) of the Diocese of Stagoi and abbot of the Monastery of the Theotokos Doupiane.
Later, the monastic community on the Meteora was to be further invigorated by the appearance and activity of St. Athanasios of Meteora, the real founder of cenobitic monasticism in the area.
According to his Life, St. Athanasios, together with his elder, Gregory, who was known as ‘Polites’ (the Constantinopolitan) or ‘Stylites’ (the Stylite), settled on the Rock of Stagoi in about 1333 or 1337. A few years later, St. Athanasios would occupy the so-called ‘Platys Lithos’ (Broad Rock) and would name it ‘Meteoron’ (the rock ‘suspended between heaven and earth’). On this desolate ‘Meteoron’ rock St. Athanasios was to establish a monastic community based on the Athonite models of cenobitic life, with a typikon (rule) drawn up by himself. He would also build a church, dedicated to the Panagia Meteoritissa. Later, he would construct another katholikon (main church) in honour of the Transfiguration of Christ the Saviour.
At some time between 1372 and 1373, at the young age of twenty-two, John Uroš Palaiologos, who succeeded the Serbo-Greek ruler of Thessaly Symeon, was tonsured as a monk, taking the name Joasaph. St. Athanasios, while still alive, appointed him as his successor at the Meteoron Monastery. The saintly former king Joasaph would remain at the Great Meteoron, continuing to live as a monk, for about fifty years, until his repose in 1422/23. In 1387/88 he reconstructed the church built by St. Athanasios, creating a much grander edifice. In this programme of patronage he was assisted by his sister Maria Angelina Palaiologina, the Queen of Ioannina, who was also to become a great benefactor of the Great Meteoron Monastery.
After the Ottoman conquest of Thessaly during the period 1423-1470, the region of Trikkala and Stagoi emerged as a semi-autonomous state. In the mid-16th century the Great Meteoron enjoyed a period of prosperity and growth. The abbot at this time was the hieromonk Symeon from Ioannina. St. Symeon was to play a part in enhancing the spiritual life of the cenobium and improving the material living conditions of its monks. It was at his initiative that a grand new katholikon was built for the monastery in 1544. During the tenure of this dynamic abbot, the Great Meteoron Monastery was spiritually very productive, which served to strengthen the Orthodox faith generally and help shape the historical identity of the Greek people during the post-Byzantine period. Two examples of this spiritual activity are the creation of a scriptorium at the monastery and the establishment of the so-called ‘Academy of Socrates’.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw no significant changes in the monastic life of the Meteora. However, the increasing financial hardship of the monasteries, evident in the wide-ranging fund-raising efforts of the abbots and the patriarchs of Constantinople, together with the monasteries’ crippling debts, was to lead to a decrease in the number of monks and, in fact, the total abandonment of some of the monastic houses. In 1616 Aslan, Pasha of Ioannina († 1618), ransacked the Great Meteoron and murdered four of its monks. A few years later, a huge fire destroyed a large part of the monastery. In addition, the Russo-Turkish War (1769- 1774), the looting and plundering by the Turco-Albanians, the massive debts and the predatory behaviour of Ali Pasha of Ioannina also greatly hindered the monastery’s development.
After the liberation of Thessaly in 1881, the situation at the Meteora deteriorated even further because of the oppressive tax polices imposed on the monasteries by the Greek government.
Unfortunately, the information we have about the situation at the Great Meteoron during the First and Second World Wars is scant. During these troubled times for the Greek people, the monasteries of the Meteora and their dependencies once again suffered great hardships. On 18 October 1943 Kalambaka was razed to the ground. The roof of the Church of the Theotokos Doupiane and the katholikon of the Great Meteoron were badly damaged. A large number of precious vessels and votive offerings, as well as manuscripts and icons, were illegally removed, to the benefit of numerous private and public collections across Europe. Apart from all this, the abaton (ban on the admission of women) was abolished.
Nevertheless, the situation was destined to improve from the 1960s onwards. During the tenure of Dionysios, Metropolitan of Trikke and Stagoi († 1970), an erudite man who was sympathetic towards monasticism, an attempt was made to reorganize the Meteoran monasteries. At Dionysios’ initiative, almost all of the monasteries were repopulated. The archimandrite Aimilianos († 2019) was installed as abbot of the Great Meteoron. Aimilianos established the first brotherhood at the monastery since the end of the Second World War, organizing it along cenobitic lines. Later, the monastery’s abbots – the archimandrites Alexios Mantziris (1973-1977), Chariton Sarris (1977-1984), and Athanasios Anastasiou (1984-2010), during whose abbacy the Meteora was designated a ‘sacred site’ – would play a major role in developing and promoting the spiritual riches of the Great Meteoron and the Meteoran monasteries in general.