Tuesday 26 November 2013

Athens: Ag Asomatos on the Steps (Άγιος Ασώματος "στα Σκαλιά")

Just off Monasteraki square at the entrance to Hadrian’s library. It is visible from the street.

On the western side of Hadrian’s library is a church that isn’t there.  And yet, in the palimpsest that is Athens what has disappeared can almost be as interesting as what has remained. Dedicated to the Archangel Michael it was built as early as the 11th century on the steps of Hadrian’s library (2nd century AD). It was a typical Athenian  cross-in-square church with Athenian dome only in this case the design was squeezed and distorted so that the church could fit into the narrow space between the marble walls of the library and  a column of the library’s porch (propylaea).

  Such eccentric placement speaks volumes about how crowded Athens was during the 1000s and reminds us too that archaeological ruins, as always, were fair game for ecclesiastical builders.  Nothing is known about the builders but it was repaired by the Chalkokondyles family in 1557 and used as a family graveyard.  Eleven barrel-vaulted tombs were found under its nave and narthex.
Only a remnant of the east wall remains and some 16th century frescoes. Judas’ Betrayal, the Prayer in Gethsemane as well as saints on medallions on the lower zone are still visible on the façade of the library


During the Turkish occupation this long gone church was of great psychological importance to exiled Athenians. Just as Jews are wont to say “next year in Jerusalem”, Athenians far from home would promise fellow exiles that when times were better they would surely meet again “on the steps”. It became a symbol of hope among those exiled
In 1759, the Turkish Voivode needed marble dust to make a fine plaster for the Tzisdarakis Mosque (still standing next door – see black and white picture above) and wanted to dismantle and pulverize the column; its incorporation into the church saved it and he ransacked the more distant Temple of Olympian Zeus instead.  In 1842, after independence, archaeologists who were far more interested in classical than medieval Athens, demolished the church to lay bare the Library of Hadrian, so the column stands alone once more.
A drawing from 1835 of the church as seen from the Tsisdarakis Mosque
Thanks to http://ottomanmonuments.blogspot.gr 
This is the perfect opportunity to enter the archaeological site and visit  the ruins of Athens' very first Cathedral church, the  Megali Panagia, which was built inside Hadrian’s Library.


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