Tuesday 26 November 2013

Athens: Ag Ioannis Around the Column, Άγιος Ιωάννης στην Κολωνα

Evripidou Street, just past Diplari street, opposite number 67. Open 8:30 -1:00 (Closed Sundays and sometimes Thursdays) tel: 210 324 3813

 A walk west down Athens’ famous spice street will soon take you to a small plain whitewashed single-celled church recessed behind modest railings and  almost lost among the drab squat buildings which characterize the area.

 It really doesn’t matter when today’s church was built. It is just a shell, one of many built over the years, created to enclose the large column which emerges incongruously from the sanctuary roof. It is a Corinthian affair that was probably once part of an ancient temple to Asclepios. Traces of mosaic floors and six wells were found the area. Water was important to cures at all ancient Asclepeions.
 The site of the temple was appropriated by the Christians in 565 AD when a one-aisled basilica was built to perpetuate cures, this time under the Aegis of John the Baptist.

My effort to photograph the column in June was high-jacked by the dense greenery surrounding the church – great on a hot day, but even with the help of a priest to hoist me up to a higher spot in the garden, the column remained veiled in green. Then I came across this one in a newspaper:

This church had a specialty. Up until the twentieth century in Athens fevers were common, frightening, and often fatal. The custom developed to tie the fever to the column and get rid of it that way. Each fever had its own colour. Malaria was white, measles was red, and yellow did the trick if you weren’t sure.  Various descriptions of this expulsion ritual are extant; the details changed over time. Some said a thread had to be placed under the bed of the sick person, some that the thread had to come from the victim’s clothes. At one point a thread would be rubbed on the icon of Saint John, worn around the waist for three days,  and then passed three times around the column and ‘fixed’  to it with Holy wax which would then take the fever, and presumably hang on to it or send it elsewhere.  One supplicant’s prayer has survived: Take this accursed illness; take it to the high mountains, to the boulders at the root of the mountain, where no cock crows.
The column had oracular powers too. A sufferer would attach a silver drachma to the column. If it held fast he would be cured; if not...
This church was important enough to citizens in Turkish times that it was included -just- inside the farthest northern reach of the city’s walls built by Ali Hadji Haseki. One suspects that Christians and Ottomans both had a strong faith in the efficacy of the cure. The blend of old superstitions with Orthodoxy, even today, is one of the, to me anyway, delights of a church like this one
The column has been tidied up now, more’s the pity, but many threads could still be seen just few years ago if you moved aside the curtain of the sanctuary. You can still twitch the curtain to see the column. Don’t touch though. According to William Miller (1905) locals firmly believed that the column acts like a lightening rod and that all the fevers are still there, buried deep beneath the column.  

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