07 April 2018

A fifth century Byzantine
church was once the main
mosque in Thessaloniki

The fifth-century Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki is one of the most important Byzantine churches in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this Easter weekend in Thessaloniki, I have been visiting a number of churches throughout the city each day. The Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos (Παναγία Ἀχειροποίητος) is a fifth-century Byzantine church in the city centre, at Aghias Sofias Street, opposite Makedonomachon square, a short distance to the north of Egnatia Street.

This church can be dated from its bricks and mosaics to the two decades between 450 and 470, making it one of the earliest of the surviving churches in Thessaloniki. It was built on the remains of a Roman bath, and was modified in the seventh century and again in the 14th and 15th centuries.

In Byzantine times, the church was known as the Panagia Theotokos (the Virgin Mary, Mother of God). The present name is first recorded in 1320, and recalls the presence in the church of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and known as acheiropoietos (‘not made by hands’). The icon was believed to be made by divine, not human hands.

Byzantine sources record that the city’s patron, Saint Demetrios, was also venerated in this church.

Inside the Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This church is a three-aisled basilica, 28 metres wide and 36.5 metres long, with a wooden roof. Its eastern end is a semi-circular vault, while the western side has a narthex, flanked by towers, and traces of an exonarthex survive.

The three aisles are separated by columns, while the two side aisles have galleries above them. At the east end of the north side aisle, there is a chapel from the middle Byzantine period dedicated to Saint Irene. On the north-west corner, the stairway leads to the galleries survives.

The present entrance to the church is through a triple-arched opening that connects the narthex with the main nave, while on the south side there is a monumental entrance that probably connected the church with the city’s Byzantine-era thoroughfare.

Another small adjoining building on the south side has been identified as the church’s baptistery or a diaconicon The modern roof of the church is lower than the original roof, where the section above the central nave was elevated to allow light in.

The fifth century capitals and columns are from a workshop in Constantinople (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The surviving parts of the church’s rich original interior decoration include particularly fine fifth-century capitals from a workshop in Constantinople, the columns made of green marble from Thessaly in the triple-arched opening, the original Proconnesian marble pavement in the central nave, and fragments of decorative fifth-century mosaics. The elaborate traditional ‘acanthus’ – leaf decorations that Byzantines loved so much – can be seen on the marble columns.

The high quality mosaics in the colonnades, gallery, narthex and at west wall depict crosses, water vessels, birds, fruit, fish and other religious themes. The sponsor of the mosaics is named to as Andrew, and he has been identified as the priest who attended the Council of Chalcedon (451) as the representative of the Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

All that survives from the Byzantine-era murals are a few poorly preserved examples in the south nave, on the wall above the south colonnade. The 18 figures, who are shown alternately in profile and in full face, were part of a depiction of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, and date from the first quarter of the 13th century (1200-1225).

Some of the remaining mosaics that once depicted the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Underneath the pavement in the north aisle, three layers of floor mosaics from an earlier Roman-era bath have been uncovered.

After the Ottoman conquest of Thessaloniki in 1430, the Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos was the first church to be converted into a mosque, by Sultan Murad II. An inscription by Murad survives in the northern colonnade, on the eighth column from the east: ‘Sultan Murat Conquered Thessaloniki in 833’ (1430).

Throughout the Ottoman period, this remained the principal mosque in the city and it was known as the Eski Camii or ‘Old Mosque.’ During that time, practically all the figurative decorations of the church, including the mosaics and frescoes, were hacked away.

The building became a church once again in 1930, and it remains a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture.

Excavations were carried out in 1927-1928, in 1946-1947 in the precinct of the church and in 1961, in the area to the west of the church. Further restoration work was carried out after the earthquake that devastated Thessaloniki in 1978, and several trenches were opened inside the church and in the courtyard.

Thanks to the robustness and external grandeur of the basilica, the harmony and balance of its internal layout, the high artistic merit of its mosaic and the sculptural decoration and its marble floor, this church is considered one of the most important examples of its kind throughout Greece.

The south porch of the Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A return journey to
Mount Athos during
an Easter pilgrimage

The monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos was once described by Osbert Lancaster as ‘the Christ Church of Athos’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is 13 or 14 years since I last visited Mount Athos. It was Easter Week 2004, and I stayed for a few days at the Monastery of Vatopedi that week. In 1749, When the Athonite Academy near Vatopedi was estab lished in 1749, the monastic community took a leading role in the Greek Enlightenment movement of the 18th century.

I took part in the Good Friday commemorations in Thessaloniki last night, and today, as part of this Easter retreat and pilgrimage, I am going back to Mount Athos for a short journey, before returning to Thessaloniki to join the Easter celebrations.

The day begins with an early pick up from my hotel in Thessaloniki at 7 a.m. and a bus journey to Ormos Panagias, north-east of the Sithonia peninsula in Chalkidiki.

From there we will continue our journey, sailing towards the south of the Athos Peninsula, until we reach the southern limit, where the highest point is 2,033 metres. We then continue sailing north, along the west coast, with time to see this mysterious and miraculous place.

Mount Athos is commonly referred known to Greeks as the Holy Mountain (Ἅγιον Ὄρος) and it forms its own autonomous Athonite State (Αθωνική Πολιτεία, Athoniki Politia) within the boundaries of Greece.

With its 20 monasteries and 12 sketes under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Mount Athos for centuries has been the centre of Orthodoxy.

Many of the monasteries are known for their opposition to ecumenism. The monastery at Esphigmenous is particularly outspoken in this respect, having raised black flags to protest against a meeting of Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI in 1972.

Esphigmenous was later expelled from the representative bodies of the Athonite Community. The conflict escalated in 2002 with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople declaring the monks of Esphigmenous an illegal brotherhood and ordering their eviction; the monks refused to be evicted, and the Patriarch ordered a new brotherhood to replace them.

Even Orthodox visitors find anything but a warm welcome at Esphigmenous, where daring monks have hung out a banner from the battlements greeting visitors with the slogan Ορθοδοξία ή Θάνατος, ‘Orthodoxy or Death’.

On the other hand, Vatopedi, where I have stayed, is the most welcoming monastery on Mount Athos. Once described by Osbert Lancaster as ‘the Christ Church of Athos,’ Vatopedi is like an intimate, hospitable Greek village with its cobbled courtyard, cascading buildings, hanging balconies and gently ageing bell-towers and fountains.

All visitors to Mount Athos need a special permit known as a διαμονητήριον (diamoneterion), similar to a visa. The Holy Mountain is forbidden to women and children. We are not getting off at any of the monastic piers or visiting any of the monastic sites, and for the women on board this is the closest they will ever get to the monasteries.

Mount Athos is on Unesco’s list of world heritage sites. The architecture and layout of the monasteries and their schools of icon-writing and painting have influenced art and architecture throughout the Orthodox world, from Greece and Cyprus to Romania and Russia.

Over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries, including Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia, live ascetic lives on the Holy Mountain, in secluded isolation from the rest of the world.

Today’s boat journey lasts about four hours and later we stop in the village of Ouranoupoli for free time or to eat.

Back in Ormos Panagias, the bus will take us back to the hotel in Thessaloniki late in the afternoon, in time for this evening’s Easter celebrations.

Mount Athos is only accessible by boat and visitors need a special permit (Photograph: Patrick Comerford])