The Patron Saint of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki Short Stories

The Patron Saint of Thessaloniki

By The Honest Explorers

St. Dimitrios Church

Saint Dimitrios is one of three churches in Thessaloniki you should definitely visit even if you are not interested in religion.

The Story of Dimitrios

In the late 3rd century the persecution of christianity was reaching a climax under the Emperors Galerius and Diocletian. At the same time, in Thessaloniki inhabited a young Roman soldier with a name Dimitrios. Talented, bright and a preacher of christianity. The latter made him very unpopular to the Emperor and Dimitrios found himself prisoner in a Roman bath – it sounds weird, I know. 

In the same bath, Dimitrios received a visitor and follower named Nestoras. Nestoras had the fine idea to fight against the undefeated champion of the emperor Liaios. With the blaising of Dimitrios and the will to revenge the christian persecutors, Nestoras, in a David vs Goliath type of battle, managed to defeat his enemy despite the overwhelming odds. 

When the emperor asked him how he managed to accomplish such a miraculous did, Nestoras got somewhat cocky: It was the love and power of the one God that aided me – the God of Dimitrios.

Galerios, offended, ordered the execution of both him and Dimitrios with the latter finding a bitter end with 33 spears (symbolic) piercing through his ribs.

In the aftermath of the event, the christians hid his buddy in the well, not to be dishonored by the pagans. Soon later, christianity became a legal religion and at the spot raised a small church. The great basilica was built about a century later by the Leondios, the prefix of the region when he, in a desperate attempt to cure his untreatable disease, tasted the miracle water of Dimitrios and became all well. 

Sandly, the church has been entirely destroyed twice with the last one being during the Great Fire of Thessaloniki in 1917.  However, the church has been well remade and currently operates with regular services. 

If you visit, and you should, make sure to check the crypt: the underground space where the original bath used to be.

Fun fact: the city of Thessaloniki was liberated to the Ottomans on the anniversary of its patron Saint – Dimitrios: 26th of October 1912. 

 

Find the Church of St. Dimitrios Here . . .

Where is this Hippodrome Already?

Thessaloniki Short Stories

Where is this Hippodrome Already?

By The Honest Explorer

The Hippodrome of Thessaloniki

Today i’m going to share one of my favourite stories from Thessaloniki. There is drama, action, politics, religion and revenge. This is a story that put the legend of an emperor on the line and one that puts the honorary title Great to shame. 

Let’s start with the basics. Where is the hippodrome? Is it still intact or was it destroyed? Unfortunately, the Hippodrome is no more and that’s why you cannot find it anywhere. However,  if you stay over for a minute and will learn a very interesting story that justifies the hippodrome’s absence. 

The Triggering Event

Our story begins in the late 4th century A.C.E. The most popular event in the city was the chariot races and the most popular athlete a guy by the name Jason – not the one from Greek mythology (Dah …).  During the same period, in Thessaloniki we find a number of Gothic soldiers. They have two main functions: a) Be the guards of the city and b) collect taxes . . .

You can easily imagine that these fellas were not popular in Thessaloniki.  I mean, seriously . . . Jokes aside . . . The locals despised them . . . 

In the glorious year 390 A.C.E., the scene was set. Great celebrations were prepared in the Hippodrome and everybody was excited to see their favorite champion competing. However, 2 minutes before the beginning of the games, Jason was accused of homosexuality and for that reason he was banned from the games. The winner of the race was Butheric, He was the Gothic champion and magister militum (top level military officer) of Illiricum, which included Thessaloniki.

The spectators went into a frenzy . . .  Like modern day hooligans, they jumped in the stadium, they beat the guards and they killed a dozen of them including Butheric himself.

The Aftermath

The response of the emperor was brutal. New games were organized but before they had a change to begin, the gates of the hippodrome were blocked, the army took over the building and in a matter of hours they butchered about 7,000 locals. Men, women and children. People involved in the previous rebellion and innocents were all killed alike.  

To be fair, Theodosios (later known as the Great – as in the Great Christian), immediately regretted his decision. He gave a second order to NOT go through with the massacre but it was already too late. The did was done. . . In my opinion, and I want to clarify this as much as possible – this is only an opinion – this massacre was, also, a political message. A political statement to the non-Christian populations (who were the great majority by about 90%) to convert to Christianity or else. Afterall, Christians did not attend spectacles such as the hippodrome races. The 7000 victims of Theodosios’ revenge were pagan.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read through these line. For more stories check out more of my posts here. If you enjoy this blog and you want to help us continue writing interesting stories to help you explore the city like a local, a small donation would be a great way to show us your support. In the meantime, stay curious and keep exploring!

*For a 3D representation of the Hippodrome click here

Find the 3D representation of the Galerian Complex Here . . .​

The Round Beauty – Rotonda

Thessaloniki Short Stories

The Round Beauty

By The Honest Explorer

The Pantheon of Thessaloniki

The Rotonda – meaning round in Latin – is a building with striking similarities to the Pantheon of Rome and, for as far as I was able to find during my research, like the Pantheon, the Rotonda also had an oculus (empty ceiling), originally. 

In my opinion, this is the most important building in Thessaloniki. Originally, the Rotonda was constructed to become the mausoleum of either Galerius or Constantine the Great. However, the Rotonda was never used as a mausoleum but instead it was used as a place of spirituality. Within its premises, three different religions were practiced over the 17 centuries of its existence. 

The First religion to be practiced here was the pagan. The Olympian Pantheon, Zeus himself, along with the protector of the city Kaveiros (before St. Dimitrios took over this “responsibility”) was worshiped within the temple.

Every time I walk past the Rotonda, I can’t help but to imagine the high priestesses dancing around in circles within the round building. Euphoric and in ecstasy, praying to the Gods. The round construction working as a loud speaker, amplifying the sounds, sending the prayers straight to the sky. The throne of Zeus in perfect alignment to the imperial entrance of the temple, as if he was directly observing the mysteries. Fascinating . . . 

The Rotonda becomes a church

Now, soon after its original conception, the Rotonda was converted into a Christian church. During the conversion, the architects of the time were faced with a small issue: The Rotonda is a round building . . .  Where are we going to place the altar?

Hence, the first conversion of the Rotonda took place and an extra square part was added on the east side to house the Christian altar. This addition, however, threatened the stability of the entire building, hence, two minor semi-arches were adding to support the altar and stabilize the building. 

It should be noted, that the Rotonda is one of the oldest churches in the world. For reference the Nativity church in Bethlehem, in the West Bankwas built in 330. The Rotonda was probably converted by Constantine the Great in 322. On top of it, the Rotonda is in its original form – not a copy, not a restoration. WOW  . . . 

 

Sadly, though, the fantastic acoustics of the round construction were, at least slightly, corrupted.

 

The Rotonda as a Mosque

About a millennium later, the Ottoman Turk conquered Thessaloniki. One after another the churches of the city were converted into mosques. In 1591, it was the time of the Rotonda to follow this trend. In the yard surrounding the Rotonda, a minaret was added along with a fountain for the Muslim to wash themselves before prayer.

This minaret is the last one currently standing in Thessaloniki today. In 1912, Thessaloniki was liberated by the Greek army and soon afterwards the mosques of the city were re-converted to churches once more. In the meantime, two dozen minarets were destroyed giving a heavy blow to the city’s Ottoman tradition.

The main reason as to why this minaret survived, my conclusion is that it was due to the usage of the premises of the Rotonda by the French army during WWI. 

Let me explain. During WWI, more than 100.000 allied troops were camped in Thessaloniki. Along the soldier, a number of academic personnel was established in Thessaloniki and the French were using the premises of the Rotonda to collect antiquities. In fear of losing these treasures, the Greek proclaimed the Rotonda into an archeological site and kept the French from stealing the antiquities. 

To this conclusion, I’m aided by the fact that during the same period of time, the British were using the White tower as a center to collect antiquities. The White Tower, however, was not proclaimed into an archeological site in time and now, if you visit the British museum, next to the antiquities that were stolen by the British you will find the antiquities of Thessaloniki.

One of the sad side effects, however, of all these conversions and reconstructions, is that the beautiful decoration from the pagan and Christian time are no more. During the Ottoman era, the decorations were either transferred to the city’s hamams or they were covered by a thick layer of plaster because the representation of the divine is not allowed in Muslim religion. When the time came to reveal the decorations centuries later, the frescoes and mosaics were destroyed along with the plaster.

 

Conclusion

In any case, I strongly advise you to visit the Rotonda. The entrance, last time I checked, was 2 euro for adults and free for anyone less than 25 years old. If you visit Thessaloniki, make sure if there are any events like concerts or performances taking place at the Rotonda. The spectacle is ALWAYS amazing.

As always, I strongly advice that you make your own research before agreeing or disagreeing with my conclusions and/or hire a local licensed guide to fill in the gaps.

Thank you for taking the time to read through these line. For more stories check out more of my posts here. If you enjoy this blog and you want to help us continue writing interesting stories to help you explore the city like a local, a small donation would be a great way to show us your support. In the meantime, stay curious and keep exploring!

For a 3D representation of the Rotonda click here

Find the Rotonda Here . . .

Galerius Who?

Thessaloniki Short Stories

Galerius.., Who?

By The Honest Explorer

The Arch of Galerius

The Arch of Galerius, or otherwise known as Kamara, is one of the most common meeting spots in Thessaloniki today. It was built in the era of the emperor Galerius as part of his four building complex known today as the Galerian complex: The Rotonda, the Arch, the Hippodrome and the Palace.

Galerius is a very interesting guy. He was born in modern day Serbia by a poor family in the early 3rd century A.C.E. Galerius was an ambitious man. Despite his lowborn origin, he pursuit greatness in life. First, he joined the Roman military where he excelled and found great success to rise through the ranks. However, his greatest political maneuver, might, have been, his marriage to the daughter of the emperor Diocletian – Valeria – which made him one of four co-emperors in the Roman empire.

His greatest achievement in life is, perhaps, his victory over the Persian Sassanid King Narseh. Following his victory, Galerius returned to his provisional capital – Thessaloniki – with lots of wealth and a determination to make Thessaloniki a proper Roman capital. His accomplishments in Persia are celebrated in the glyphs of the arch.  

The arch itself, today, is half of what it used to be in the era of Galerius. In the eyes of a great observer, the two square footprints on the floor 5 meters parallel to the main “legs” of the arch, tell a story of destruction. In the remaining two legs one can see the propaganda laid down by Galerius. 

 

Let’s take a closer look at the arch: 

Here we see the battle between the Roman and the Sassanid Persians. In the middle you can see the two leaders on their horses. The left one is Galerius and the right one is Narseh. 

The Roman soldiers stand tall and brave while the Persian are represented small and fearful. Galerius with an eagle on top of his head – a symbol to imply divine power and wisdom. Galerius goes even as far as to compare himself to Alexander the Great. 

When you take – and you should – a long walk by the seaside, you will inevitably go by the statue of Alexander the Great. Note the stance of his body; his battle position; his armor and clothing. Now go back to the arch and see the same representation on the gate but this time you won’t see Alexander but Galerius imitating Alexander.

Damnatio Memoriae

Another interesting thing about the arch is the “celebration” part. All four rulers came together to celebrate the victory of Galerius but the faces of the emperors are way too damaged as if someone intentionally tried to erase their memory. The answer to this might be: Damnatio memoriae. This Latin phrase means: to erase the memory, to condemn it. It is an indicator to tell us about an effort to delete someone for public records, to make one’s memory less.

So, what is the story here? Well, if you read so far good for you. You have the main info you need already, but for you who want to know a little bit more, let’s shed some light to things: First off, what is the tetrarchy, who are the main characters and what’s with the damnation thingy. . .  

 

Well, let’s make a long story short . . .

In the 3rd century A.C.E. the Roman empire suffered from civil war. To exaggerate a little, every Roman general wanted to become the ONE emperor. Throughput the century more than 28 people claimed the status of the emperor. 

In 286, Diocletian came on top of everyone and became the sole emperor of the Roman empire. However, he soon made a bitter realization . . . The Roman empire was soooo large . . From the UK to the West all the way to modern day Syria to the East. Well . . , with no flights and no internet you can imagine that running the empire efficiently was a little bit too much for one person alone. Diocletian, however, had a plan: Why not divide the empire to smaller geographical regions and appoint “small” emperors (rulers) to each one to help me govern? 

Thus, the tetrarchy was born and at the beginning, at least, it was fairly successful. Galerius defeated the Persians in the East, Constantius crushed the British userper Allectus in the West, Maximian put the Gauls in order and Diocletian put down the revolt of Domitianus in Egypt and for a while everything was in order.

Peaceful times, though, don’t last long and soon (in 306) Diocletian retired to Split (Croatia) and build his empirial building there. Galerius was promoted from Ceasar (small emperor for simplicity) to Augustus (big emperor) and competed with Diocletian to build bigger, taller and more luxurius empirial nuildings in Thessaloniki using the wealth he brought from Persia. 

On the other side of the empire, Constantine, (the later great) succeeded his father and self-proclaimed himself Augustus. In the years to come, Constantine had to fight a number of battles against his political opponents but eventually he became the rulers of the Western provinces of the Roman empire. In 311, Galerius died a gruesome death (probably bowel cancer) and by 324 he deafeated Licinius (who in the meantime had become the sole emperor of the East) and became the ONE and Only emperor until his death in 337.

Now . . , what do all this have to do with the missing faces in the arch of Thessaloniki? Well . . , perhaps, Everything . . .  Let me explain . . .

Diocletian realized that the empire was falling apart. To unite the empire, he needed a common denominator; a value followed by everyone; an idea to bring people together; a god to be universally worshipped . . . in other words he needed someone to be a role model . . . 

That role model became HIMSELF! To this end, an era of persecutions took place. Diocletian and Galerius were openly antichristian and the persecution of the latter picked during their era.  Two decades later, however, with Diocletian and Galerius both out of the picture and with Constantine gaining momentum another god came forth to become this uniting factor

– The Christian God!

Whether Constantine was truly a Christian in his heart or whether Christianity was part of a political campaign to unite the empire is a debate for another day. For now, let’s focus on the gate. You can imagine, by now, that the faces of four pagan, Christian-persecution-emperors celebrating a successful Roman empire would be a little too much for the Christian emperor. 

In the light of this information, it stands to reason that Constantine (who stayed in Thessaloniki for one to 12 months depending what historian you believe) ordered the damnation of the memory of his pagan predecessors (even that of his father) from the gate.

Now whether this is a conspiracy theory or an actual historical fact, it’s up to you to decide. Make your own research or hire a local licensed guide to fill in the gaps.

Thank you for taking the time to read through these line. For more stories check out more of my posts here. If you enjoy this blog and you want to help us continue writing interesting stories to help you explore the city like a local, a small donation would be a great way to show us your support. In the meantime, stay curious and keep exploring!

*  For a 3D representation of the Arch click here

 

Find the Arch of Galerius Here . . .