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 Bank, was 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.
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