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A Dozen Delights in Byzantine Thessaloniki

Recently I enjoyed talking about Byzantine Thessaloniki at the Hellenic Centre, Marylebone, London, at an event held by the Macedonian Society of Great Britain and sponsored by the A. G. Leventis Foundation. My own spiel, which can be found here, was mainly about how the city was key to the survival of the Byzantine empire in Europe, hence its subjection to four military expeditions in roughly 120 years. I learned a lot in these lectures but what struck me most was a sentiment shared by my fellow speakers, Dr Maria G. Xanthou and Dr Anastasios Tantsis, that Thessaloniki suffered a relative omission in Anglo scholarship. I hope the following does its little bit to rectify this. After Philip II of Macedon won the battle of Crocus Field (353 BC) over the Phocians in Thessaly he named his daughter “Thessalian victory.” Roughly four decades later Cassander founded a new city at the head of the Thermaic Gulf and named it after his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great: Thessalonike. Conquered by the Romans in 146 BC, Thessaloniki sat at the centre of the Roman road network in the Balkans and was sufficiently close – in strategic terms – to the Danube and Iran for the emperor Galerius (250-311) to make it his HQ. During this period it acquired much of its definitive form as a walled city, though Constantine’s addition of a harbour at the south-western edge of the city came slightly later, perhaps inspired by his stay there during the civil war against Licinius. Its fame continued to snowball during the reign of Theodosius the Great (r. 379-395) who was baptised in the city by bishop Ascholios. A dubious gong when the emperor became famous for massacring 10,000-15,000 spectators (roughly half the toll at Nika) at the city’s hippodrome in 390 after a tiny percentage of them had killed his magister militum Buthericus in a riot. A scene immortalized by Ambrose’s confrontation (which amounted to an epistolary scolding rather than some sort of theatrical blocking of the church doors sometimes imagined by painters such as Anthony van Dyck here) and, later, Gibbon’s vivid description. The city was not unworthy of such a catechumen. As a church created by St Paul, it was not only a city that the old and new Rome sought to possess in squabbles over jurisdictions (the latter won in 733) but also the capital of Illyricum, a prefecture. The city suffered the Byzantine “Dark Ages” more harshly than most of its urban counterparts that did not go under. Amorion’s fate in Anatolia – sans its unfortunate ninth-century demise – comes closest to mind. According to tradition the city only evaded capture in the seemingly endless century between the fall of Sirmium and Singidunum (582/583) and Justinian II’s offensives in 688-689 thanks to the intervention of St Demetrios. Despite having its limelight perpetually stolen by the Queen of Cities, Thessaloniki remained the empire’s “second city.” In geographical terms, however, while Byzantium topped the imperial cake and Alexandria and Antioch vied for Asian supremacy, the city boasted only the very limited, refracted remnants of the European empire after the seventh century thanks to the submergence of the Danubian military-cities beneath a Slavic tide. Despite being besieged by Avars and Slavs in the seventh and eighth, then Saracens in the tenth, then later Bulgars, Normans and Franks, the city dominated the region as a Balkan powerhouse. Two brothers from the city, Cyril and Methodius, for instance led the charge that created an alphabet in which the Slav language could be written. Channeling Roman civilisation throughout the Balkans, its influence reached its apogee in the 14th century.

While Constantinople’s Byzantine traces run through the city like triboluminescence through quartz, they are also a bit easy. How many people have not heard of Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, Basilica Cistern, Column of Constantine, Hagia Irene, Chora, City Walls, Sergios & Bakkhos and so on? Sure, some of the more intrepid might wander to Pantokrator monastery, Panagia Mouchliotissa, Theotokos Kyriotissa etc. but chances are even if they have not been visited, few are even vaguely unknown. Thessaloniki, on the other hand, has a vast array of Byzantine treasures that lay outside the ken of all but the most diligent or enthusiastic. Who knows, for example, of the thirteenth-century Byzantine bathhouse on Theotokopoulou Street which functioned until 1940? Or that near the northern city wall, Vlatadon – founded by a pupil of Gregory Palamas – is the only Byzantine monastery in Thessaloniki to still function? Or that the Ayion Mandelion seems to feature much more in church embellishment here than other places? Here are a few of Thessaloniki’s beauties...

N. B. Many Byzantine churches are hard to identify. Their names were mostly forgotten during almost five centuries of Ottoman rule. Many dedications derive from false etymologies, which take Turkish names and recast their homonymous elements within a Christian framework.


The late fourth-century walls of Thessaloniki formed the shape of a trapezium and incorporated (mostly as buttresses) an earlier circuit that dated from the third century AD, which had been built to protect the city from Gothic raids. Triangular bulwarks alternated with rectangular towers at the sensitive points of the Acropolis. Later, Prokopios rather mysteriously called it “easily conquerable.” The reasoning for such an assertion is uncertain, perhaps it was a judgment against the city’s elites rather than its fortifications. It once had a sea wall too, though this did not wrap around either Constantine’s harbour (protected by a breakwater known at first as molos, and later the tzeremboulo) or the natural harbor Kellarion on the east coast of the Thermaic Gulf. After the earthquakes of 620-630 spolia from late Roman buildings in the Agora were used for repairs. Still, it was not particularly tall – a fact that prompted general Petronios’ plan to throw sarcophagi and stelai into the sea to prevent access to hostile fleets. But this idea had not come to fruition by the time the Arabs – under a Byzantine renegade named Leo, or Rashiq in Arabic – besieged the city in 904, securing access via this vulnerable spot. Later reinforced, the Normans gained entry to the city by undermining the eastern land walls. Though their victory (1185) in August was short lived as they were defeated at the battle of Demetritzes three months later.

The Acropolis formed the main enceinte at the north-eastern end of the circuit and at its northern edge lay the fortress of the Heptapyrgion (fortress of seven towers), later the Turkish Yedikule – just like Istanbul’s castle in Fatih. This became a prison in the 19th century, a feature that was not removed until 1989. The city walls had four main entrances: two in the east and west. The Golden Gate was the point through which the Roman Via Regia (or Leophoros of the Byzantine period) flowed, terminating in the eastern Cassandreia/Kalamaria Gate. Today it is Egnatia street. The second gate was Letaia to its north, which ran to Asomatoi (Incorporeal Saints) gate. Then there was Roma gate near what would later become the White Tower – which was probably a fifteenth century Ottoman rebuild – in the city’s south-eastern corner. This Ottoman fortification is mirrored by Vardari fort at the south-western edge of the harbour, as well as Zincirli Kule (Chain Tower), which was originally the (Byzantine) Trigonion Tower – the point at which the city fell to the Ottomans in 1430. 34 metres high, the White Tower was originally known as the Fortress of Kalamaria, and it was mentioned by metropolitan Eustathios during the Norman siege of 1185. Under the Ottomans it was given a new set of walls with small octagonal towers at the corners that were used as arsenals, and renamed, at first, the Tower of Leo, then the Tower of the Janissaries and then the Bloody Tower thanks to its use as both a jail and executioner’s block. In 1890 a life prisoner whitewashed the building in return for his freedom and the tower was renamed to honour his accomplishment.

2. CHURCH OF THE SAVIOUR (SOTIR) A fourteenth-century tetraconch-in-square church which was probably primarily a funerary monument, its nave is covered by an octagonal dome covered in paintings which show Christ ascending in glory with his angels. The Virgin watches below, followed by the Apostles, as well as the sun moon and winds. Eight prophets stand between the dome’s windows, while a Divine Liturgy unfolds, giving a glimpse of the Heavenly Liturgy.

3. THE ARCH OF GALERIUS The rotunda, arch of Galerius, hippodrome and palace were the main buildings of an imperial complex built by the emperor Galerius who considered it second only to Sirmium on the Danube (which fell in 582) as a key node in the Balkan network. Today not much survives. The hippodrome is gone and the palace has been partially excavated. Galerius’ triumphal arch, erected in 305, which rose at the main crossroads of the city, still has three of its western pillars. Once domed, these relate scenes from Galerius’ eastern campaign in 297 and celebrate the tetrarchy.

4. THE ROTUNDA Erected by Galerius c.300, though some scholars still believe it was built as the emperor’s mausoleum, others point to the fact he was buried in Gamzigrad, Serbia – a tetrarchic project that went nowhere. More likely, perhaps, is that it constitutes a temple dedicated to Zeus, the patron god of two tetrarchs Galerius and his colleague Diocletian. Its circular shape – topped by an opaion – connects it with the Pantheon in Rome, as well as Hagia Sophia and the rotunda of Myrelaion in Constantinople. Though its internal diameter of 24.5m and a height of 29.8m, measures poorly against its counterparts. Eight recesses, covered by barrel vaults, punctuate the thick cylindrical walls. Above them are windows and then lunettes. Aedicules framed by colonnettes once broke the pillars and supported small statues. The rotunda was probably converted into a church during the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) and dedicated to the Archangels. The wall at the eastern end was demolished to make way for a sanctuary, which made the building a little unstable, meaning large exterior buttresses were needed for the apse. An ambulatory eight-metres wide was also constructed, though this was destroyed in seventh-century earthquakes. All this is small-print however on the fibulae of the Byzantine mosaics, which are reminiscent of Rome’s Byzantine mauselea – especially Santa Costanza’s naturalistic motifs and Galla Placidia’s vivid palette. Birds, acanthus scroll, cornucopias, vases, flowers, jewel-laden ciboria, gospels, and crosses on silver and gold grounds all relate the kinetic energy of life and the stable nature of heaven’s goodness and glory. Order is expressed in the zone of the martyrs as it is superseded by the apostles and then Christ’s Theophany. Then – just as at St Paul’s in Rome – there are portraits. Not of medallioned popes but martyrs framed by mosaics of columns, capitals and arches. Sadly not much survives of the apostles (or angels?) as only sandalled feet survive. They culminate in four figures (three survive) accompanied by a phoenix. These angels (who resemble their later preraphaelite Victorian christmas card successors) hold the glory of heaven, which looks like a wreath, stars and rainbow combined. Thanks to a little charcoal sketch on the dome it is clear that the part that has since fallen away once contained Christ holding a staff surmounted by a cross – perhaps a similar staff to the one he possesses when he tramples the beasts at the sixth-century Archbishop’s chapel mosaic in Ravenna. In the ninth century the hemisphere covering the apse was painted with the Ascension.

5. NIKOLAOS ORPHANOS Built as the katholikon to a monastery in the fourteenth century, its paintings form one of the most complete ensembles of Byzantine works in Thessaloniki. In the nave at the lowest level are the military and healing saints. The Virgin Paraklisi and Christ the Saviour near the sanctuary, the higher levels narrating the Passion, the Dormition of the Virgin, the twelve great feasts and the Resurrection. In the apse is the Virgin between two archangels, then beneath is the melismos (division of eucharistic bread) and hierarchs. Above and around this are the apostles communing and the Ayion Mandelion (AKA the Image of Edessa). The north arm of the ambulatory has full-length saints and scenes from the Akathistos hymn. Its southern arm has episodes from the life of St Gerasimos of Jordan and the Burning Bush.


Formerly the katholikon of a monastery, its dedication is a little random given it had originally been dedicated to the prophet Zacharias in the fifth century, and later Christ the Saviour of Latmos. Founded by Theodora, daughter of the emperor Maximianus, her mosaics were covered by oxhide during iconoclasm but this arrangement fell in an early ninth-century earthquake. The paintings date to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The hemisphere over the apse has a scene of a Theophany. The centre is occupied by a young vision of Christ seated on a rainbow. The four rivers of paradise (Phison, Geon, Tigris and Euphrates) flow beneath his feet feeding the River Jordan. The glory of heaven is surrounded by an angel, eagle, lion and calf symbolising the evangelists Matthew, John, Mark and Luke. The figure on the far left in fear and ecstasy is the prophet Ezekiel. The figure seated to the right is Habakkuk. Dated to the foundation of the church, it is one of the most brilliant Roman mosaics to survive from this period.

7. AYIOI APOSTOLOI Founded as a monastery in 1310, the katholikon is a tetrastyle cross-in-square with a narthex and ambulatory on three sides. Patriarch Niphon funded the mosaics, which are somehow – mysteriously – enhanced by the loss of gold ground. In the dome Christ the Pantokrator survives surrounded by ten prophets. On the pendentives are the four evangelists with the Ayion Mandelion among them. The nativity and baptism are depicted on the south vault of the cross, the transfiguration and entry into Jerusalem on the west, the descent into hell and the crucifixion on the north, parts of the annunciation and presentation of Christ at the temple are traced on the arches linking the north-east column with the north wall, and the south-west column with the south wall. Along with Chora, these mosaics must be considered some of the last flourishes in mosaic art before the Ottoman occupation.

8. THE AGORA The agora, which had an entrance that came off the Lephoros (near the modern rather underwhelming Aristotelous Square), was furnished with the Incantadas or "enchanted ones," ancient statues now – like so many late Roman and early Byzantine beauties – imprisoned in the Louvre. Most of them originally came from the colonnade on the south of the lower square, opposite the baths and library on the north side. It functioned until the seventh century when an open square to its south known as the Megalophoros seems to have been preferred. Perhaps the colonnaded square had become part of the walls and sea walls. To its east stood the Odeion, where gladiatorial combat took place until the late sixth century.

9. AYIOS DIMITRIOS Standing where a large Roman baths complex had once been, it was in these baths that Demetrios, a Roman officer, had been arrested, imprisoned and speared to death on the orders of emperor Galerius for his faith. Buried by his brethren in Christ, his tomb was hallowed as part of the baths. His cult might not have grown any bigger had Leontios, eparch of the Illyrikon theme, not fallen into a severe illness and attributed his recovery to the saint. In gratitude he built a huge basilica on the site with a silver ciborium. This building fell down in the earthquake of 620. Rebuilt in its old form, St Demetrius gained a reputation not unlike St James in Spain. In other words, he protected his city and people from heathen barbarians and his fair – the Demetria – held every October attracted pilgrims and merchants from all over the Roman and ex-Roman worlds. The fire that destroyed the centre of Thessaloniki in 1917 burnt down large parts of the church. These were restored in 1949, so again it resembles its former self as a five-aisled church with a three-aisled transept to the east. The nave is divided by four colonnades. In the sanctuary beneath the altar is a marble ossuary that contained the martyr’s blood. The capitals of the columns are a highlight. Doves, rams, eagles, wind-blown leaves all contribute to a luxurious, almost Egyptian vibe. Even these are outdone by the surviving mosaics, however. Covering the fifth to ninth centuries they include St Demetrios in consular uniform, children making offerings to the saint, priests on the battlements, the saint with the founding bishop of Thessaloniki and eparch Leo who renewed the basilica, the saint with martyr and deacon, St Sergios and a Deesis, the Virgin with St Theodore – mostly dominated by sea-green shades. On the first pier in the colonnade to the south of the central aisle is John VI who took the name Ioasaph, accompanied by Gregory Palamas. A mystery surrounds the painting on the south wall. Depicting a mounted emperor entering the city with his military retinue, and a church put to the torch, interpreting such a scene is treacherous territory. Perhaps it is Justinian II fighting the Slavs or Basil II recapturing Sirmium. The chapel on the south wing of the transept is Ayios Euthymios whose art was the gift of Michael Doukas Glavas Tarchaneiotis, founder of the Pammakaristos monastery in Constantinople.

10. THE CRYPT Buried when it was converted by the Ottomans into a mosque, the crypt was rediscovered after the 1917 fire. Once the eastern section of the bathhouse where the saint was imprisoned and speared, it was marked by a ciborium. Historically this stood at ground level but modern worshippers must descend a staircase to a small semi-circular room enclosed by colonnades. Originally built in front of a bath fountain, this was blocked for the tomb, but in the Middle Ages St Demetrios became the figurative fountain as the original was given a triple reservoir. In its centre was a ciborium and before that a circular basin from which the faithful collected the saint’s myrrh.

11. ACHEIROPIITOS Another large early Christian basilica – probably late fifth century – built on baths, Acheiropiitos was originally referred to as the Great Church of the Virgin Theotokos. The former name does not appear until 1320. A three-aisled basilica with galleries, its main highlights include a green thessalian marble tribelon (a triple arcade which connects the nave with the narthex) that culminates in a mosaic of the cross of life (Rome’s San Clemente eat your heart out), colonnades both with twelve columns of prokonnesian marble, gorgeous mosaics on the arches of both the north colonnade and south gallery, as well as original bath house mosaics – featuring birds – on the floor of the north aisle. Even more exceptional are the Theodosian capitals, which resemble those of the Stoudion monastery in Constantinople with their acanthus scrolls and wild volutes.

12. AYIA SOPHIA From the eighth century until its conversion into a mosque in 1523, Ayia Sophia was the Great Church of the city. Originally built in the fifth century on a bathhouse, it sat near the Roman Nymphaeum which it repurposed as the spring of John the Baptist. Destroyed by earthquakes, the current basilica dates to the late eighth century but some of its features hark back to the original. A green marble pulpit which is now in the Constantinople Archaeological Museum, for instance. The mosaics in the dome – complete with trees reminiscent of Rome’s St Paul’s basilica – are ninth century and depict the Ascension: the apostles all befuddled by Christ’s revealed nature; but Christ as extension of earthly glory not a weird deus ex machina.

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Dec 19, 2022

An excellent article as always, dear Henry. Thank you for looking gently on otherwise forgotten Thessalonica. If we move on to WWI, we realise that the connection between Thessalonica and Britain is closer than we think. Thessalonica has more Commonwealth cemeteries than Athens (three in total) and was part of the WWI campaign as British ships were docked in Thermaic Gulf. This chapter remains to be written. Congrats once again. Maria Xanthou

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