When we think of Greece, we think of Greco-Roman ruins. But the country also has a rich Byzantine tradition – courtesy of St. Paul and the Eastern Roman Empire.
That story must begin with Paul, for without him Christianity, and its Byzantine interpretation, might have made slower progress in Greece. A Jewish tentmaker in Tarsus, Paul was an early persecutor of Christians until he had a vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, which led to his conversion and put him on the path to becoming a founding father — if not the founding father — of the Christian Church. Paul’s ministry was primarily to the Gentiles at such Western sites as Philippi, considered the first Christian community in Europe.
Philippi has, however, layers of historical and archaeological significance. Conquered and renamed by Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, Philippi would become the site of a decisive battle between the victorious successors of Julius Caesar, Octavian and Mark Antony, and Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius. At the Archaeological Site of Philippi, which we visited as part of Times Journeys’ “The Alexander the Great Legacy Tour,” you can see the remains of a Greek amphitheater, a Roman forum and a stone jail where Paul was reportedly imprisoned.
Though Christian tradition says Paul was beheaded in Rome, his ministry and his almost literary epistles to such groups as the Philippians, the Corinthians, the Thessalonians and others had by then helped to plant the seeds of the faith in the Roman Empire. When Constantine the Great re-established the capital of the empire in Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 330, Christianity became the official religion. As the West fell to Germanic tribes, the Eastern Empire flourished, developing a new kind of art that was stylized and symbolic, with large-eyed, static figures of jeweled mosaics amid gilded backdrops. It lasted until the empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Byzantine churches and their art thread Greece, particularly in cities such as Veria, which also has a proud Jewish tradition. Paul preached in Veria in 49 to 50, 56 and 57, a modern marble bema decorated with mosaic scenes from his life now commemorating the site. Veria also contains the restored late 11th-early 12th century Church of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Now a museum, the structure is also noteworthy for its Roman columns.
Farther north in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city after Athens, we visited three Byzantine churches that have played a crucial early role in the region.
Roughly 400 feet from the elaborately carved Arch of Galerius stands another monument created by this 4th-century Roman emperor — The Rotunda, intended perhaps as his mausoleum but more likely as a temple. This distinctive structure is characterized by a flat brick dome, eight rectangular bays and, originally, a Pantheon-like oculus. Becoming a church in 326, The Rotunda was soon ornamented with mosaics of the saints, some of which can still be seen today. A minaret also still stands as sentinel to a time when the church was mosque (1590-1912). Today the restored Rotunda is a monument, though the Greek Orthodox Church has access to it for events — a good thing since, judging from our visit, The Rotunda has superb acoustics for liturgical and concert music.
Thessaloniki’s 8th-century Hagia Sophia is based on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and, like that more famous structure, was a church that became a mosque. While the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is a museum today, Thessaloniki’s Hagia Sophia remains a church, as dark and mysterious, when we visited it, as a tomb.
Its gilded moodiness stands in stark contrast to the lucent, lively Hagios Demetrios — named for Thessaloniki’s martyred patron saint. The basilica is well known for six mosaics depicting St. Demetrios with church restorers and children as well as a silver-covered hexagonal shrine called a ciborium that functioned as a symbolic tomb.
Demetrios was a pious young man run through with Roman spears at the time of the Christian persecutions under the emperors Diocletian and Galerius. But because prayers to Demetrios are credited with saving Thessaloniki from its marauding Balkan neighbors, he is often depicted as a Roman soldier on a red horse, just as the Greek-born St. George is a Roman soldier on a white horse. Both were, not surprisingly, popular with Crusaders.
Demetrios’ death took place in a Roman bath, remnants of which stand where the lower level of the church is today.
In the world of Byzantine art, the sacred is never far removed from the profane.