Many forget that for centuries, while Athens had been reduced to a small hamlet under the Akropolis, Salonika was the biggest and most important city in the Byzantine (and later Ottoman) Empire after Constantinople/Istanbul. There is a continuity in the city’s history, which one can not find in Athens, whose sights flip-flop between ancient and modern. Nowhere is this continuity more prominent than in the city’s four unmissable Byzantine churches. (Click on images to enlarge).
Maybe the most important one is the Rotunda of St George. It was built in AD 306 as the Emperor Galerius mausoleum (It leads to the triumphal arch and the palace to the south) but it has been converted to a Christian church (to St George for whom a sanctuary was built in the east), a mosque (1591) and now a museum.
It is a rare round building only comparable to the Pantheon in Rome, with walls an astounding 6.3m thick and a massive dome 20m high. Its 4th century golden leaf mosaics have survived and are some of the oldest in existence.
The second unmissable church is Παναγια Αχειροποιητος (Panagia Acheiropíitos=Virgin Mary Made not by Human Hands) which refers to an icon, long lost. The building though is there, the biggest PaleoChristian basilica in the Balkans, built in mid-5th century AD. It was built on top of a set of Roman baths, as the multiple mosaic floors indicate. It was the first of the city’s churches to be converted to a mosque.
My third unmissable suggestion is Aghia Sophia, a building much smaller than its namesake in Istanbul, but a seminal one, nevertheless. It was built around 700AD and was the city’s metropolitan church until about 1500 when it was converted to a mosque. Its significance lies in the fact that is the bridge between a basilica and the new, Byzantine-style church (Dome on a cross) that will dominate Greek Orthodox architecture for more than twelve centuries.
The dome mosaic is a stunner. It is not, as usual, Christ the Pantokrator, but instead the Transfiguration of Christ, dating from the 9th century AD and depicting Christ blessing the twelve Apostles, Virgin Mary and the two Archangels, who inhabit a mountainous, rocky place (possibly the Mount of Olives).
The fourth in the list of unmissable Byzantine churches in Salonika is the current church of St Demetrius dates from 1948, although it imitates the scale and style of its predecessor that was burnt in 1917. I have dealt with it, in an earlier article.
Finally, not unmissable, but a favourite of mine: is the tiny 15C church of St Saviour’s (Sotirakis) . It lies well below the current surface of the Egnatia road (showing how low the ground was when it was built) and it is small, dark, without even an iconostasis – but still perfectly formed. And it has a leaning dome stands at an angle to the horizontal, like the Tower of Pisa.