By GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO Associated Press
THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Under fluttering strings of Greek and Byzantine flags, three men pitched a party tent on the terrace of the 5th-century Osios David church on a recent Saturday, hoping to shield festivalgoers from the heat. that already enveloped the view of Mount Olympus across the gulf.
That’s Thessaloniki in a snapshot: a seaside treasure trove of Early Christian art and architecture, with echoes of the sacred throughout the city, from the mythical mountain that housed the ancient Greek gods to the contemporary Orthodox Christian monasticism of Mount Athos.
Ubiquitous, if more hidden, vestiges of Islam and Judaism also persist, even though many monuments were destroyed in a 1917 fire.
“People see the (archaeological) ruins next to them, but no one knows the diverse history,” said Angeliki Ziaka, a religion professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “Now is the time to rebuild this knowledge, to find the marriage between cultures.”
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Each of the last six years, I have spent at least a few days in and around Greece’s second largest metropolis, which buzzes with the energy of a city historically at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, roughly halfway between Athens and Istanbul.
I find Thessaloniki eminently walkable even in the heat of summer, thanks to an endless supply of the iced coffee drink called frappe and sea breezes from the Thermaic Gulf. Overlooking its waters are the iconic White Tower and a beloved miles-long boardwalk.
Simple meanders lead to monuments woven into today’s urban fabric: going to buy roses in the flower market, I discovered next to it a 500-year-old bathhouse (hammam) built by the Ottomans in the style of multiple domes of Byzantine architecture and called Yahudi Hammam, in honor of the Sephardic Jews who settled here.
The still-functioning Turkish baths and markets were for centuries the gathering places for the city’s Jews, Muslims and Christians, who lived in separate neighborhoods, Ziaka said.
During centuries of Muslim Ottoman rule, a legacy perhaps most visible in today’s profusion of bustling cafes, Thessaloniki was the haven of a thriving Jewish community. His story, told by the Jewish Museum, will be further highlighted in a Holocaust museum and educational center that is under construction.
Until the early 20th century, most Muslims lived in Ano Poli, a tranquil maze of walled gardens, houses with wooden-detailed overhanging upper floors, and steep streets that climb to a hilltop fortress.
But more than a millennium before the Ottoman conquest, it was here that Saint Paul first brought Christianity to the Thessalonians, to whom he later wrote some of the most widely read letters in Christendom.
Churches dating from the centuries when Thessaloniki was a center of the Byzantine Empire still dot the labyrinthine landscape.
In a small alley lined with fruit trees that opens onto a spectacular view of the sea, tiny Osios David preserves in its dome a 1,600-year-old mosaic of Christ presiding over fish-filled rivers of paradise, with two Old Testament prophets looking on. in amazement
12th-century frescoes adorn the walls, though the city’s most notable wall paintings are in Agios Nikolaos Orfanos, another small Ano Poli church deep in a garden. Their colors still vivid after 700 years, they portray the lives of Jesus, the prophets and the saints in minute and individual details, such as the flowing beard of a hermit and the matching striped robe and cap.
Just downhill from the church is the Rotunda, a capsule of Thessaloniki’s interconnected religious history.
The vast circular building was built as a Roman temple or mausoleum in the 300s, soon after it became a Christian church, later a mosque, whose tall minaret still stands, and is now a museum and shrine to dozens of swifts that fly chirping. it’s.
The liturgy is still celebrated a dozen times a year, but most visitors come for the early Byzantine gilt mosaics that adorn the immense dome, representing a fusion of Roman architecture and Christian worship with people praying in front of the buildings. most luxurious in the empire.
From the distinctive hairstyles of worshipers to the billowing curtains in the pavilions behind them, it is a part of early Christianity brought to life: the beginning of a religious history that continues unbroken to this day, as in the woman who kiss icons around the corner at Agios Panteleimon. , a church built in the late 13th century and still in active use.
Its precise stonework, the exuberance of the domes and rounded windows and niches, and its location in a garden full of flowering oleanders surrounded by terraced cafes, make it the quintessential Thessaloniki.
There are many more churches and museums to explore in the city, but I always try to include a few excursions into the countryside.
In the fertile plains of the west there are vestiges of the founding dynasty of the city: that of Alexander the Great, born in ancient Pella and celebrated in its museum and excavations.
Less than an hour’s drive away, the Royal Tombs Museum in Aigai takes you underground to a reconstruction of the burial mounds of Alexander’s father and other Macedonian royalty. In the darkened exhibit halls, works of art such as a massive wreath of nearly 400 golden oak leaves and acorns gleam blindingly.
So does the sun on the beaches of Halkidiki, the three-fingered peninsula that stretches into the Aegean Sea southeast of Thessaloniki.
From the white pine covered rock formations of my favourite, Kavourotrypes beach, I can see holy Mount Athos across the bay.
Through the kiosk owner’s binoculars, I even make out several of his Orthodox Christian monasteries, part of a complex dating back to Byzantine times where some 2,000 monks live.
As women are prohibited from setting foot on Mount Athos, although we can get closer on boat trips, I settle for having another frappé before diving into the transparent sea.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.
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