Thessalonica: The Community of Faith Lives On
text and photos by Margot Granitsas
Every morning I come to light a candle, said Chrysoula Paraskeva, a young woman, obviously pregnant, as she emerged with her mother-in-law from the church of Profitis Elias. Outside the large edifice, her husband Georgios awaited the two women. The young couple had come to Thessalonica from Sitia, their village on the nearby Chalkidiki peninsula. Here the young woman will give birth.
Thousands of women have done as Chrysoula Paraskeva has, asking for a blessing for their unborn child. For half a millenium they have also come to pray for the sick, to worship, and to seek strength. The church of Profitis Elias has stood on the hill high up in the upper town of Thessalonica since the time when the Paleolgii ruled in Byzantium. The church was then, it is now generally believed, the catholicon of a monastery.
The living faith of Thessalonica, Greeces northern capital, is intimately linked with the earliest days of Christianity. In the first century Paul taught there. After being expelled from the city, he wrote two letters to the Thessalonians, believed to be the first epistles. From Thessalonica also traveled the brothers Cyril and Methodius, ninth-century monks, to christianize the Slavs.
Between those centuries, during both Roman and Byzantine rule, Thessalonica was a second city to Rome and Constantinople. This modern Greek city today is secondary to Athens. The number of Byzantine churches in the midst of a bustling modern city testifies to the eminent position it held in those long-gone times. Churches such as the Rotunda, St. Demetrios, the Church of Acheiropoietus, Panaghia Chalkeon, and St. Nicholas Orphanos are not the only surviving Byzantine structures still in use. Small chapels throughout the city are dwarfed by surrounding apartment houses.
These churches have seen grim and sad times since the years of their glory in an empire where church and state were often synonymous. When the Byzantine empire collapsed, the Dark Ages that engulfed much of the Christian countries in the East descended upon once glorious and prosperous communities. During the four centuries of Ottoman rule over Greece and its northern neighbors, many of the churches were converted into mosques.
The Rotunda, Thessalonicas most famous church, is unusual in its circular shape. Originally it was built as a mausoleum, part of the palace complex erected by Galerius Caesar around 300 A.D., when he made Thessalonica his seat of government. It was never used as a tomb, however, since he died far away from the city. During the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) it became a Christian church and served as the citys cathedral until its conversion into the Suleyman Efendi Mosque in 1590. Only in 1912, when Thessalonica finally joined the modern Greek state, did it revert to a Christian house of worship.
Visible even to the most casual observer is a more important aspect of Thessalonicas churches: They are an integral part of community life to this day. They are used daily for worship. Rarely is one alone in them. Men come in on their way to work; women before they go to market. On Sundays, church services are conducted for those who live in the neighborhoods.
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Tags: Christianity Greece Architecture Revival/restoration