Paleochristian and Byzantine Thessaloniki

February 5th 2024 in Explore
Paleochristian and Byzantine Thessaloniki

Paleochristian and Byzantine Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is like an open-air museum, where every walk around the beautiful northern Greek city brings discoveries and insights into its rich and timeless history. The town is a stunning blend of ancient memories, Roman influences and Byzantine splendour, forming a unique and charming mosaic. UNESCO has recognized the city's significance to humanity's historical memory and listed 15 early Christian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki as World Heritage Sites.

The Rotunda

The Rotunda in Thessaloniki is a circular structure built in the 4th century AD under Caesar Galerius. It is part of an enormous architectural complex that includes a race track and a palace. The Rotunda is an imposing monument showcasing a powerful architectural stle and exquisite sacred art.

After Christianity became the dominant religion, the Rotunda became a "Martyrium", or a shrine that held and revered the relics of martyrs. The mosaics inside are comparable to those in Ravenna, Italy, and are considered the oldest surviving examples of the East. They were created in Thessaloniki and are famous for their power and beauty.

The Acheiropoietos Church

The Acheiropoietos Church is named after an icon of the Virgin Mary, referred to as “Acheiropoietos”, meaning “made not by human hands”. This icon was kept in the Church. It is one of the earliest Christian churches, established between 450 and 475 AD. The Church is an example of an early Christian three-aisled timber-roofed basilica. It is located on Agia Sophia Street, opposite the Makedonomachon Square Park. The mosaics, murals, ornamentation, and portable icons inside the Acheiropoietos Church are a valuable collection of sacred art.

Agios Demetrius – patron saint of Thessaloniki

The impressive Agios Demetrius church, dedicated to the military leader known as ‘stratēlatē’, is situated on the street bearing the same name. This five-aisled basilica features a transept and is adorned with paintings and carved marble ornamentation of exquisite artistry. The Church we see today was constructed in the 7th century AD under the supervision of Bishop Ioannis on the remains of an older church. Agios Demetrius is the patron saint of Thessaloniki and holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Thessaloniki. In 1978, his relics were returned from the Abbey of San Lorenzo in Campo, Italy. The crypt and basement of the church house are a permanent exhibition of sculptures, column capitals, parapets, and other church artefacts.

Latomou Monastery

The central Church of the Monastery of Latomou, known as the ‘katholikon’, is located in Thessaloniki’s beautiful Ano Poli (upper town). It was constructed towards the end of the 5th century AD and was initially dedicated to Jesus Christ. Today, it is devoted to Hosios David. The mosaic in the church’s aps creates a unique scene not found elsewhere. It depicts the vision of Ezekiel of Christ Emmanuel, who is represented as a young, beardless man sitting on a rainbow. The composition also includes Ezekiel himself and the Prophet Habbakuk.

Agia Sophia

Agia Sophia is a church built in the 8th century AD on the same site as an older church destroyed by an earthquake. Since then, and up until the present day, it has been Thessaloniki’s spiritual beacon with an unbroken history of active presence. The church has a basilica-type structure with a domed roof. The church’s mosaics, tesserae, and religious paintings are exquisite.

Panagia Chalkeon: Our Lady of Coppersmiths

The Church of Panagia Chalkeon, or the “Red Church,” was built in 1028 by Prōtospatharios Christopher, a Byzantine Empire official and katepánō of Lombardy. It is located in the Archaias Agoras or the old market square. Its walls are bright red brick, built in the classical Byzantine stle, with four primary columns and three domes. The church’s exterior is adorned with arches and pilasters, adding to its architectural stle’s beauty. The marble carvings and frescoes that decorate the church are still preserved.

The Church of St. Panteleimon is in the heart of Thessaloniki, where Egnatia and Iasonidou Streets meet. It was built in the late 13th century AD and is associated with the Monastery of Panagia Peribleptos or Our Lady Who Sees All, also known as the Monastery of Father Isaac. The remaining original decorations are the murals in the ‘diaconicon’ or the Deacon’s place in the Sanctuary and the ‘prosthesis’ or the Table of Oblation on the NE side of the Altar where the Holy Communion elements are prepared.

Agioi Apostoloi: The Church of the Holy Apostles

The Church of the Holy Apostles is an excellent example of Byzantine Palaeologian architecture. Initially, the monastery’s main church was dedicated to Theotokos (the Virgin Mary). It is located on Olympou Street, in the western quarter of Thessaloniki, and was built in 1310 under the supervision of the Ecumenical Patriarch Nephron I. During the Ottoman period, it was converted into a mosque and the murals were covered up after the gold leaf was removed. In 1926, restoration work began to remove the layers of paint and restore the church’s iconography. Finally, in 2002, this monumental task was completed, and the murals were fully restored to their former glory.

Agios Nikolaos Orphanos (the Orphan Nikolaos)

Agios Nikolaos Orphanos is an Upper City (Ano Poli) church on the eastern walls. It was formerly a dependency and the principal church of the Vlatadon Monastery. The church boasts one of the best-maintained collections of iconography in Thessaloniki. The walls of Agios Nikolaos are adorned with magnificent depictions of liturgies, Christ’s miracles, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints, all created with great artistry. The overall effect is a profoundly moving atmosphere of devotion.

Agia Aikaterini (St Catherine)

The Macedonian School of Iconography has a significant place in the history of Byzantine art. The painters from Macedonia were known for their use of intense colours in their compositions and their unique approach to depicting the human body. They portrayed the body as vital, a fitting dwelling place for the spirit. Agia Aikaterini and many other churches in Thessaloniki feature ornate iconographic paintings created by artisans in the Macedonian stle. The church's decorations can captivate visitors with their intensity and power.

Transfiguration of the Saviour Church - Metamorphosis Sotiros

During the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki played a crucial role as a centre of hesychasm, a form of devotion and contemplation that resembled that of monks. The city was also a key site of spiritual revival in Christendom. Notable personalities such as Gregorius Palamas and the monks Dorotheus and Markos Vlatis, who founded the Monastery of Vlatadon, were active in Thessaloniki during this time. The reinforcement of religious sentiment was a strategic issue on which the existence of the Byzantine Empire relied. Because of this, Anna Palaiologina, a famous personality, arrived in Thessaloniki to oversee the repairing and restoring old churches and constructing new ones. During this time, the Church of Pantocrator Sotir Christos was built. The church still stands in the northern quarter of Ano Polis, untouched by time.

Vlatadon Monastery

The Vlatadon Monastery, also known as Tsaous Monastir during Ottoman Occupation, is situated in the Upper Town, merely 80 metres away from the Heptapyrgion (Seven Towers) Fortress. According to tradition, the monastery was constructed on the site where Paul the Apostle delivered his teachings when he stayed in Thessaloniki. It is the sole Byzantine monastery that is still operational today. The monastery complex was mentioned in 1405 by the Russian traveller Ignatius of Smolensk. The monastery thrived in the 15th century and may have also served as a venue for Islamic worship during the Ottoman era.

The Church of the Prophet Elias

The Church of Prophet Elias (Profitis Ilias) is at Olympiados and Profitis Ilias Streets in Ano Poli (Upper Town). It was constructed on a natural hill and used to have a panoramic view of Thessaloniki. The church is designed in the Mount Athos architectural stle, featuring an ornate dome and characteristic decorative brickwork elements. The restoration of the church took place between 1956 and 1961. The exquisite murals that embellished the church significantly influenced the later Serbian school of iconography.

The Byzantine Baths

The Byzantine Baths located in Thessaloniki are the only ones that have survived in Greece. They are situated in Ano Poli (Upper Town) and are nestled between tall buildings. According to historical records, the construction of the baths was completed around 1300 AD, and they remained in operation for seven centuries, finally closing down in 1940. They are still considered a significant part of the city's social history and are regarded as a living testament to its rich cultural heritage.

The walls of Thessaloniki

The history of Thessaloniki is closely tied to its walls, which were built following the Roman wall to protect the town from repeated incursions by the Thracian races in the 1st century BC. The Byzantine wall had many towers and was frequently restored, with the governors of Thessaloniki always taking care to protect the lives of the city's inhabitants within its stone embrace.

One of the most recognizable fortified complexes in the Balkan region is the Heptapyrgion Fortress, also known as the Seven Towers Fortress. This fortress dominates the northeastern perimeter of the walls. Its enclosed core was completed during the mid-Byzantine period. Today, the fortress has been renovated, and its interior is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.