The tradition of monasticism comes from Egypt and Syria, with the patron of this reclusive lifestyle, St Anthony. In the most extreme form of abandoning the world and its temptations, monks would seek the most remote places, living in the wilderness only by the means provided by nature. The rocky hills of Meteora were ideal for this type of asceticism. The believers climbed the 500 m high rock pillars to live a solitary life probably a thousand years ago, and some holes like vulture nests can still be seen on top of this cliffs. They would only come down and unite for religious ceremonies.
With time, humble buildings were erected on top of the rocky hills, and monks started living in very small communities.
St Stephen is the oldest monastery built at Meteora. In the expansions period of Meteora, there were as many as twenty monasteries on top of those mountains, but today only six of them are still active, renovated and protected as UNESCO monuments. The Great Meteoron, which celebrates the Transfiguration, is the greatest monastery at Meteora.
Until a century ago access to these monasteries was only for monks and occasional pilgrims, as climbing to the top was done with rope ladders or in baskets pulled by winch. When facing a danger, the monks pulled off the ladders. The monasteries were used as a refuge during the Ottoman invasion, and as a resistance point against the Nazi, during the second world war, as the military museum in St Varlaam shows. Manuscripts as old as a thousand years, icons and other ritual artifacts can be seen in the exhibitions of these monasteries.
The Great Meteoron even has a wine shop museum from the period when the monasteries were supported by local community with the right to produce wine from the vineyards at the foot of the mountain.