While ambling in the narrow streets of Athens, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the ancient temples and ruins of the Classical and Roman era, often neglecting the churches that grace the historical trail leading back to the Byzantine and Ottoman period. Some of these shrines are too small to notice, perched on rocks, camouflaged with trees, or obscured by neighboring buildings; others remain sealed for most of the year and linger in idle darkness, livening up only on the commemoration day of the saint to whom they are dedicated; most might be mistaken for just another worship haven in a typical Orthodox Christian society. They all serve though as mystic guides, navigating the voyager, through their structure and occult legends, into the secrets of an enigmatic and magical chapter of the city’s tale.
Selecting only a few churches is not doing justice to the rich Byzantine inheritance that bespeckles the city and blends – by coincidence or design – with marble remnants, houses, rocks, and courtyards, adding to the kaleidoscope that epitomizes the essence of Athens today. Still, there is an intense emotional familiarity with some of them, and my steps frequently lead me to this personal pilgrimage route penciled on the map of my hometown.
- Agia Dynami (Holy Power) Church
Next to the entrance of Electra Metropolis Hotel (the building that, till a few years ago, was the headquarters of the Ministry of Education and Religion), crammed among walls and pillars, stands Agia Dynami Church: a small, single-aisle, arched basilica, dating back to the 16th century and the Ottoman period. According to the legend, it was built on top of the ruins of an ancient temple – possibly dedicated to Hercules. During the Greek War of Independence (1821), a large part of the ammunition prepared for the Turkish army inside the temple was smuggled in garbage bags towards the Greek revolutionaries. Today, it commemorates the Birth of Virgin Mary and, as such, serves as a shrine for prayer and protection for women in labor.
For decades, the Athenians have been embracing this tiny church, often visiting its humble chamber in the morning on their way to work, lighting a candle and whispering a quick prayer. So, when in the 1950s, the construction of the building that was to host the Ministry began, its concrete pillars were erected around the temple, respecting its presence and history.
- Panagia Kapnikarea (Virgin Mary – Kapnikarea)
Impossible to miss as it stands in the middle of Ermou str (a preeminent touristic and commercial street of Athens), Panagia Kapnikarea – or, just “Kapnikarea” as it is usually referred to – is one of the oldest and most significant Byzantine monuments of the city. Originally built at the beginning of the 11thc (possibly in 1050), on ruins – as it was customary – of an old temple (dedicated to Goddess Athena or Demetra), the church follows a tetrastyle, cross-in-square pattern with a dome of a typical Athenian style. Being such a landmark, it is frequently seen and passed by, but rarely visited, and, hence, the traveler is deprived of the opportunity to admire the interior marble screen – a copy of the one found in the Monastery of Kaisariani – and the paintings on the walls crafted in the 20th c by Fotis Kontoglou, a prominent icon painter, and his team.
There are many stories about the origin of the name “Kapnikarea”, which, in Greek, reminds of the word “kapnos,” meaning “smoke.” According to the most prevailing opinions, it relates to the hearth tax (in Greek “Kapnikon”) imposed on properties by the Byzantine state, or to the respective tax collector who sponsored or protected the church.
Abandoned and unwanted, the monument was almost destroyed twice during the reconstruction frenzy that hit Athens after 1834. Its undeniably crummy appearance back then has survived in the Greek language as an idiom, and we still use the word “kapnikarea” to describe a timeworn, ugly woman. Today, the church is a jewel in the heart of the city, and the eyes constantly look for its solid presence as a point of reference not just for the orientation of the steps but, mainly, for the soothing of the heart.
- Little Mitropolis Church (Panagia Gorgoepikoos – Agios Eleftherios)
Dwarfed by the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens (the Metropolis) that stands tall next to it, this petite precious monument is easily overlooked. However, its style is unique, being one of the few churches that have preserved over the centuries their original shape and structure, and is covered with sculptural decorations that cannot but fascinate any observer. The church, dedicated initially to Virgin Mary and, later, to Agios Eleftherios, dates back to the 12thc, though, legend has it that it was originally founded in 787 by Eirini the Athenian, Empress of the Byzantine Empire. The dome, a typical example of the so-called Athenian style and the only part of the church in which bricks and stones have been used, is very well preserved, and, as such, is particularly important. The rest of the church is made entirely out of marble: the plaques closer to the ground are undecorated, but the upper ones have been sourced from ancient Greek, Roman, or early Byzantine monuments and walled-in reliefs, and are positioned in a frieze-style to preserve some of their original use. Together, they offer an exciting combination of representations ranging from athletic games of the Ancient Greek civilization and Roman triumphs to animals, plants, and trees of oriental origin, or sphinxes and geometric designs of the early Byzantine years. The effort to Christianize the ancient representations by adding a carved cross among the figures is intriguing and charming at the same time.
- Agios Nikolaos Ragavas (St Nikolas Ragavas) Church
Originally built in the 11th c by the Ragavis family (hence the nickname), this church is still operational on a regular basis and big enough, at the foothill of Acropolis, in Plaka, not to be missed by the passersby. Additions and repairs during the 18thc and, later, in the 1970s, have altered the initial shape of the building. The outer walls incorporate pieces of ancient columns and marble ruins – a typical characteristic of churches and monasteries constructed in the 10th, 11th and 12th c that blended, in a unique way, the ancient past with the present. Entering the church, once the eyes adjust to the penumbra and get acquainted with the saints who observe with austere compassion from the sooty walls, we come face to face with a rather small, laurel-crowned bell unexpectedly hanging from the ceiling. It is the first bell brought to Athens after the city’s liberation from the Ottomans in 1833, and the first to chime on October 12, 1944, after the release from the German occupation.
- Agios Georgios tou Vrachou (St George of the Cliff)
This tiny 17th-century church is built at the north-eastern foot of the Acropolis Rock, practically resting against the cliff (hence the explanatory addition to its name). It often acts as a landmark for the beginning of the Anafiotika neighborhood: a cluster of houses built in the 1850s by builders coming from Anafi island, who transferred the aroma of their homeplace in the tiny alleys and the white-and-blue houses that stretch under the Acropolis. Still, the temple is easy to miss, as it lies perched at a higher level than the alley, concealed by trees. Only its modest steeple, a single arch with a bell rising above the entrance, silhouettes against the sky and welcomes the gaze of the seekers.
The church is single-naved, barrel-vaulted with blind arches on the longer sides (typical architecture of the Ottoman period). Surprisingly, on the northern side, tangent to Agios Georgios, there is another tiny church, Agios Konstantinos and Agia Eleni, built in 1964 by Evangelia Halari in commemoration of her son Konstantinos.
- Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris (St. Dimitrios Loumbardiaris) church
The Acropolis Hill usually monopolizes the interest of all visitors and only few sidetrack to the three hills on the west side, despite their historical value and the welcoming, pine-covered paths. At the root of one of these hills, the Nymph hill, close to the junction of the two pedestrian roads, Dionisiou Areopagitou and Apostolou Pavlou, stands a small chapel dedicated to Agios Dimitrios. It dates back to the Ottoman period, with paintings since the early 1700s. Simple and humble, it stands surrounded by pine trees, olive trees, and cypresses. It carries an interesting story based on which its nickname “loumpardiadis” (practically translating as the “gunner,” since “loumbarda” is another word for “cannon”) was inspired. According to the legend, an Ottoman officer wanted to demolish the church, so he prepared the cannons on the Acropolis Hill to fire against the shrine. Agios Dimitrios, the protecting Saint, prevented the catastrophe by sending a lightening in the night (some say it was the eve of the day the Saint is commemorated), destroying the cannons and killing the officer and his family.
- Agios Ioannis stin Kolona (St John around the Column) Church
This precious jewel is so well hidden in the maze of the old neighborhoods that few, if any, tourists ever see it and even locals are oblivious to its existence. In the alternative – and not so well-developed yet – neighborhood of Psirri, down the narrow Evripidou Str, hidden within a yard that transcends the visitor back in time, lies a humble, single-aisle shrine dedicated to Agios Ioannis (St John). When looking closely, one can see the top of an ancient, Corinthian-style column protruding through the roof – hence the addition to the name of the temple. It is perceived that this column is the remnant of an old sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, and that, till today, it has healing powers. The ancient temple also included a monument in honor of the Athenian doctor Taxaris known for his curing methods against high fever. According to an old legend, St John (who was also believed to be a healer of high fever), just before he died, took several threads of various colors, each color representing a different ailment, and buried them in the ground. On top, he raised a column and instructed the people: “whenever you are sick, come and leave a thread with the color of your disease on this column, tie three knots and ask, three times respectively, for the sickness to be taken away.” Clearly, this story dates to the pre-Christian period (given the age of the column) but also indicates how civilizations and beliefs blend over time and survive to this day with the same vigor they had centuries ago.
The high fever due to malaria that troubled the Athenian society till the beginning of the 20thc, made the little shrine popular back then and, it is said, there are still colorful threads tied around the ancient pillar, remnants of individual stories and prayers we will never learn.
The essence and mystery of the above monuments cannot be expressed in words. Their importance, after all, does not lie merely in their history and legends. There is an energetic cocoon embracing each one of them, and it needs to be inhaled through the smoke of a candle, the scent of the melting wax, the coolness of the painted walls, and the humidity of the thousand kisses bestowed on the wooden icons. I invite you not to just read about them, but, instead, join me on tour to my favorite seven churches in Athens.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)