Lighting offering candles in St. Sophia Church. (photo: Margot Granitsas)
A 14th-century fresco in St. Nicholas Orphanos Church details the wedding feast at Cana. (photo: Margot Granitsas)
Typically elaborate Byzantine brickwork on Church of Twelve Apostles. (photo: Margot Granitsas)
Greek Orthodox wedding in Church of St. Demetrios. (photo: Margot Granitsas)
A woman displays liturgical bread, “prosfero psomi.” (photo: Margot Granitsas)
Every morning I come to light a candle, said Chrysoula Paraskeva, a young woman, obviously pregnant, as she emerged with her mother-in-law from the church of Profitis Elias. Outside the large edifice, her husband Georgios awaited the two women. The young couple had come to Thessalonica from Sitia, their village on the nearby Chalkidiki peninsula. Here the young woman will give birth.
Thousands of women have done as Chrysoula Paraskeva has, asking for a blessing for their unborn child. For half a millenium they have also come to pray for the sick, to worship, and to seek strength. The church of Profitis Elias has stood on the hill high up in the upper town of Thessalonica since the time when the Paleolgii ruled in Byzantium. The church was then, it is now generally believed, the catholicon of a monastery.
The living faith of Thessalonica, Greeces northern capital, is intimately linked with the earliest days of Christianity. In the first century Paul taught there. After being expelled from the city, he wrote two letters to the Thessalonians, believed to be the first epistles. From Thessalonica also traveled the brothers Cyril and Methodius, ninth-century monks, to christianize the Slavs.
Between those centuries, during both Roman and Byzantine rule, Thessalonica was a second city to Rome and Constantinople. This modern Greek city today is secondary to Athens. The number of Byzantine churches in the midst of a bustling modern city testifies to the eminent position it held in those long-gone times. Churches such as the Rotunda, St. Demetrios, the Church of Acheiropoietus, Panaghia Chalkeon, and St. Nicholas Orphanos are not the only surviving Byzantine structures still in use. Small chapels throughout the city are dwarfed by surrounding apartment houses.
These churches have seen grim and sad times since the years of their glory in an empire where church and state were often synonymous. When the Byzantine empire collapsed, the Dark Ages that engulfed much of the Christian countries in the East descended upon once glorious and prosperous communities. During the four centuries of Ottoman rule over Greece and its northern neighbors, many of the churches were converted into mosques.
The Rotunda, Thessalonicas most famous church, is unusual in its circular shape. Originally it was built as a mausoleum, part of the palace complex erected by Galerius Caesar around 300 A.D., when he made Thessalonica his seat of government. It was never used as a tomb, however, since he died far away from the city. During the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) it became a Christian church and served as the citys cathedral until its conversion into the Suleyman Efendi Mosque in 1590. Only in 1912, when Thessalonica finally joined the modern Greek state, did it revert to a Christian house of worship.
Visible even to the most casual observer is a more important aspect of Thessalonicas churches: They are an integral part of community life to this day. They are used daily for worship. Rarely is one alone in them. Men come in on their way to work; women before they go to market. On Sundays, church services are conducted for those who live in the neighborhoods.
The tiny church of St. Nicholas Orphanos, the patron saint of orphans, is charmingly set in a garden, high in the hilly upper town, where modern buildings have yet to encroach. Rows upon rows of frescoes line its walls, showing scenes from the life of Christ and from that of the churchs patron. This church, like many others, was once part of a monastery that no longer exists. Today it serves a dual function: On Sunday mornings, liturgy is held for the neighborhood. At other times it is displayed to visitors and administered by the Archaeological Services.
The church of Panaghia Chalkeon, the Church of the Coppersmiths to this day their workshops line the streets of the neighborhood is surrounded by a rose garden. This quiet atmosphere is a blessed relief from the busy thoroughfare at its corner, the Egnatia, once a major travel route in Roman times. A funeral service being held in the church adds to the reflective atmosphere here. Flowers surround the casket which had been brought in past several men holding huge flower wreaths at the entrance of the church.
Greeces largest church is dedicated to the patron saint of Thessalonica, Demetrios. A five-aisled basilica with a narthex and a transept, Aghios Demetrios is one of the busiest churches of the town. In addition to the large numbers of people who congregate on Sundays and holy days, a continuous stream of people enters and exits the impressive building at all times. Greeks have a rather down-to-earth attitude toward their churches. Even during liturgy there is a continuous coming and going. Children play in the aisles while their parents pray and worship.
On this morning a wedding is to be held in Aghios Demetrios. The bride and guests wait for the groom who, as it turned out, had a considerable age difference with the apple-cheeked bride. This is not unusual in traditional Greek families. Even though he might be the eldest of several children, a brother was until recently expected to marry off his sisters before he would take a bride. This tradition could mean a long wait for a man who had a line of younger sisters.
The ceremony had aspects of both the old and the new. The Orthodox priest, officiating in his richly embroidered vestment, quite adeptly used a microphone. A quartz light shone on the couple to facilitate the work of the photographer hired for the occasion. A young Greek woman videotaped the traditional dance around the altar, a ceremony as old as the Greek Orthodox church. The priest leads the couple while the best man holds the stefania, the orange-blossom wreaths, above the heads of the bride and groom. Soon Aristotelis and his bride Helen, a couple with pre-Christian names, were husband and wife.
In 1978 a severe earthquake shook Thessalonica, and many of the Byzantine churches suffered serious damage. Ever since that event, restorations have been ongoing, which in turn brought to light fissures and deteriorations dating to previous earthquakes. Thessalonica has suffered many in its history. Nowhere is the magnitude of work to be done more evident than in the Rotunda. The huge building is covered inside and out with scaffolding. Even the minaret on the churchs side, a reminder of the time when the church served as a mosque, is surrounded in scaffolding. We do make progress, but slow progress, admits Mrs. Katarina Sigarida, the archaeologist in charge of the restoration. We never know if we can adhere to our schedule, she adds, since behind a superficial fissure much more extensive damage might be discovered.
The Rotunda, with eighteen-feet-thick walls, is an architectural treasure. Once the restoration is finished, the most outstanding feature of the circular church will be a magnificent frieze of saints. These mosaics almost circle the building just below the cuppola, some ninety feet from the floor. Only one of the three bands of mosaics is now painstakingly reassembled from the old, tiny bits found in the rubble. In the barrel vaults at ground level of the Rotunda, the mosaic patterns of flowers, birds, fruits, and other ornaments suggest their rich diversity. Sofia Marmara, a young woman and one of about ten mosaicists, estimates that she will have work in her profession until her retirement. as she laughingly says.
Today, many of Thessalonicas Byzantine churches are hemmed in by high, often ugly apartment buildings hastily erected in the Fifties, when the city experienced an explosive growth. If one can erase those structures in ones mind and instead replace them with the modest buildings common before, the churches grandeur takes on an awe-inspiring perspective.
The reconstruction of external structures and their ornaments symbolizes the vitality of the Christian community here. They are preserving their religious heritage in their liturgies and daily observances. It is no doubt, then, why expectant mothers have come to Profitis Elias for blessings for the future generations. If Thessalonicas vitality is any indication, those blessings have been granted with generosity.
Margot Granitsas travels to the Balkans frequently on research and photography assignments.