Should you find yourself in Thessaloniki on Oct 26, consider yourself doubly lucky. Not only because you are there during the day of St Demetrius, but also because presumably you’ve found a bed for the night. This is not just any day, because Demetrius is a homeboy: the city’s patron, whose grave has been revered by the faithful through the centuries.
Demetrius was a Roman officer who born in Salonika ca. 280AD and died in 303 or 305AD. He was quite ‘out’ as a Christian, so he was jailed pretty young at 23. It was there that he blessed a Christian gladiator, Nestor, who, against the odds, defeated Emperor Galerius‘ favourite, pagan Lyaios. Nestor was beheaded, while Demetrius died ‘by the sword’.
The first church on the spot where he was supposedly buried wasn’t built until 413AD and soon myrrh (aromatic oil) started flowing from his sarcophagus which accounts for his Greek epithet Μυροβλήτης, the Myrrh-streamer. Notably, there were no relics for four centuries after the building of the church, but his remains were at some point ‘repatriated’ from Italy, and it is those that are today venerated in the golden ossuary under the shrine in the north transept.
Demetrius was supposed to have saved the city from Slavic raids, though he didn’t prevent the Saracens (904), Normans (1185) or Turks (1430) from conquering and sacking the city. (Maybe he only had it in for the Slavs.) Nor did he prevent his own church burning down in 1917, in Salonika’s Great Fire where three-quarters of the old city was destroyed. The current church dates from 1948 but still has some 7th and 8th century frescoes on the western walls that survived the blaze.
Excavations further showed that it is built above a huge network of Roman Baths which you can access from the crypt. If there was a St Demetrius, he was martyred in the jail, which we now know is in the north-eastern corner of Galerius’ Palace complex at Navarino Square. No wonder the sarcophagus had been empty.
Still, I put my dead father’s name in a chitty, rolled it and placed it into the prayer basket – along with a donation of one euro – so that his name would be specially invoked during Sunday’s mass. It is what he would have wanted and what generations of Thessalonians – Muslim, Hebrew or Christian – have been doing for sixteen centuries.
Somehow, it seemed the right thing to do.