Athens is a city that interplays both east and west. From the deluxe hotels and modern office buildings, to the bazaars that hint of the Orient, Athens is a fast moving, modern capital. It’s hard to believe that once it was considered to be an unimportant provincial town. Seeking out the Byzantine churches of Athens is a great way to learn about and understand life in Byzantine Athens.
During the time of the Byzantine Empire (approximately 330 AD to 1453 AD), the Emperor Justinian passed an edict forbidding the study of philosophy in Athens. This law dealt a death blow to the ancient city. Athens, shorn of its glory, was ignored by the rest of the Byzantine Empire. Compared to the capital, Constantinople, it was thought to be culturally and politically insignificant. Because of this, Byzantine Athens is represented by only a dozen or so churches and monasteries, most of which date from the 11th century.
Byzantine art and architecture was primarily a religious art with icons and relief carvings, mosaics and paintings representing sacred figures. The decorations of churches with figures of Christ, the apostles and saints, was an early form of writing, with images explaining the Orthodox faith for those unable to read. Byzantine artists sought to create buildings that accented the harmony of the universe.
The cruciform church, with its twelve-sided cupola and four arms of equal length forming the Greek cross, replaced the older basilica form of churches. Today, most of the exquisite icons and relics of this period are housed in the Byzantine Museum in Athens. The little Byzantine chapels are an interesting introduction to the visitor in this specialized architectural and art form. These tiny churches with their red-tiled domes are antique gems set among the modern concrete buildings of the urban metropolis.
One of my favourite of these Byzantine gems is the tiny church called Kapnikarea located near Sindagma Square, on Ermou Street where the street divides. The origin of its name is uncertain. By the existing cruciform structure it’s no older than the 11th century. It was saved from demolition in1834 and carefully restored.
Within the precincts of Plaka, which is Athen’s oldest district surrounding the foot of the Acropolis, you will find these architectural treasures nestled among neo-classical houses and traditional village tavernas. Others huddle in the shadow of the city’s tall modern buildings, such as the tiny Ayia Dynamis, dwarfed under the corner of a large office block.
I love to meander through Plaka’s narrow streets and often stop at one of these chapels to light candles and spend a few quiet moments, away from the city’s bustle. Sometimes you’ll find a christening or wedding in progress. Don’t hesitate to step inside. You’ll be transported into another world, the interiors alight with candles, gold and silver relics gleaming, the pungent aroma of incense and candle wax permeating the stone interiors. On Sundays and religious feast days, the church bells chime, a pleasant sound in the cacophony of traffic and street noise. And sometimes you will hear the chanting of the pappas or a choir of mellow tenor voices.
Just at the entrance of Plaka, on Filelinon Street, are the remains of the Church of St. Nicodemus, a Russian Orthodox church since it was purchased by the Tsar of Russia in 1852. A short distance away on Farmakia Street, is the beautiful church of Ayia Katarina with its spacious palm-shaded courtyard beside the remains of a Roman colonnade. The interior of this 11th century church glows with a rich collection of gold relics and priceless icons.
I climb up a stepped lane from nearby Tripodon Street to the Ayios Nikolaos Rangava, built within the precincts of an old palace. It is part of a complex belonging to the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In the shaded courtyard, nestled among pink oleander, is the little church of the Anagyri with its 17th century Baroque interior.
Within Plaka’s tiny settlement of Anafiotika, one of Athen’s most unique villages settled by immigrants from the island of Anafi, there are several tiny chapels of historical importance. I climb the steps and wind through the whorl of lanes, some only an arms length across, until I’m just under the flank of the Acropolis. Here is the Church of the Metamorphosis, a small domed cruciform church with an altar made out of stones from an early Christian church.
As I go back down to the lower level of Plaka, near bustling Monastiraki Square and the Flea Market, there are several churches which have been restored. Here is the Ayios Ioannis Kolona, named after a Roman column which rises above its roof. It is a church famed for its reputation of invoking cures for ailments affecting the head.
Within the enclosure of the ancient Agora, the Church of the Holy Apostles, the only surviving church in this quarter, is an unique contrast beside the ruined temples of antiquity. It has been restored to its original state and inside the narthex are wall paintings (c 1700) from the church of St. Spyridon, demolished in 1939.
As I walk out of Plaka, the beautiful Mitropolis Cathedral, built next to the original diminutive Byzantine church, dominates Mitropolis Square. The majestic new cathedral with its gold frieze, houses the crypt of Patriarch Gregory V who was hanged in Constantinople by the Turks. Nestled among flowering shrubs under the dominating shadow of the great church, the Little Mitropolis is a 12th century building incorporating a variety of ancient and medieval fragments of ornament and sculpture. I slip into the near-darkness of its sanctuary, light a brown beeswax candle, and meditate before returning to the bustling avenue outside.
To see more of Byzantine Athens, on the city’s eastern and western limits there are two monasteries accessible by public transportation. At Daphni there is a beautiful 11th century church combining Gothic and Byzantine design, decorated inside with magnificent mosaics. The church occupies the site of an ancient sanctuary of Apollo.
On the slopes of Mount Hymettus, the monastery of Kaisariani is built near the shrine of Aphrodite. Kaisariani is named after a spring which fed an aqueduct constructed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. These waters are credited with healing powers and encourage child bearing. The monastery, built in AD 1000, is a cluster of stone-built cloisters and refectory buildings. Its tranquil, secluded location is an ideal place for picnics, with a view of the sprawling city and surrounding hills.
These Byzantine churches and monasteries of Athens are a quiet haven in the frenzied jungle of the more recently developed city. They link Athens with the part of history that once tried to exclude it. They are small oases where life still retains some of the old pattern and charm, a sanctuary in the great melting-pot of this modern capital.
For more information about the Byzantine Churches of Athens
Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com