Wednesday 20 November 2013

Athens’ Churches, a Map, and Enough History to Go On

Athens' Churches (an Introduction) and a Map to Go On

Ali Haseki’s Defensive Wall Superimposed on Modern Athens

 All of the Churches are within the three meter high defensive wall built by the Voivode Hadji Ali "Haseki" in 1778 (see map). This perimeter graphically illustrates how small Athens was before Independence. In 1810, Hobhouse, Byron’s travelling companion, wrote that he had walked the entire perimeter of the wall in forty seven minutes. Therefore all of the churches described are within walking distance of each other no matter where you start. Not all are Byzantine; some are grand, some tiny, but all have a tale to tell. After several tries I decided not to describe the churches as if on a walking tour, - too exhausting and too much at once. I will, however, put them in an order at the end of the text that suggests a rather meandering walk through the old city. Only Ag Apostoli Solaki in the Agora stubbornly refuses to cooperate with this scheme. Luckily it is worth a small detour. The map plus the descriptions provided for each church should be enough to allow you to enter at the spot or the church which strikes your fancy or the time available. But first, a little history…

During the Byzantine era Athens was a small agricultural town that had one or two moments of prosperity but was otherwise more famous for being famous than a prime mover and shaker of medieval history. A lot of what is known is known indirectly, by later accounts or by ruins. It had a flurry of prosperity in the eighth century when Athens produced two empresses of note who endowed the city, and then it pretty much snoozed until the 11th century when the Macedonian Dynasty managed to consolidate the empire and Athens underwent the renaissance that has produced the Byzantine churches still standing in the city. During this time many monasteries in Attica including the one in Daphni, a product of direct imperial largess, were built. Athens did have a civil, military, and ecclesiastical administration throughout its medieval history and there was even a kind of local aristocracy. But any administrators sent from Constantinople did not regard Athens as a plum position, including Michael Acominatos, archbishop of Athens from 1182 to 1205.  His rant both against his flock and the Byzantine tax collectors makes good reading. The citadel of the Acropolis provided protection, but not enough: in 1205 the Franks took over here as they had in Constantinople a year earlier.  Franks was the term for all Europeans at the time and they ruled in Athens until 1456 when the Ottoman Turks took over.  The first Franks really were French and Athens became a Dukedom under the Duke of Athens, some Orthodox churches were converted to the Catholic rite, and the fleur-de-lis got carved here and there on several churches; some were even repaired. Duke Nerio 1 (1387-95) created a Florentine palace in the Acropolis propylaia – a renovation the Turkish leader would come to enjoy as well.  About the only thing that has lasted from this era in Athens are one or two ruined windows with pointed arches, partly because no one in the 19th century really wanted to remember this period of non Orthodox rule.
 Athens was tiny then. During the Frankish period it was huddled on the lower slopes of the Acropolis inside the defensive wall created by the Romans after they had conquered the city. It was about half the size of today’s Plaka.
More is known about the Ottoman period. The town grew under the Ottomans, - enough by 1778 to fill in the inside the Ali Haseki’s wall although there was still farmland and gardens around the houses. Hobhouse estimated that there were 12-1300 houses and of those perhaps one third were Turkish the rest Greek or Albanian.  For our purposes it is enough to know that by the 1700s Athens was divided into 36 parishes, each one centered on a parish church. These churches were the core of each neighbourhood. Then, as now, in small villages each area was popularly identified with the name of its Parish church. Most likely the nicknames (usually donor’s name) given to the churches were to distinguish them from other churches in town dedicated to the same saint. There were a lot of churches: rich ones, poor ones, some dependencies of monasteries and some private.

 And today, almost two hundred years after Independence, Athens is a mega city, but the tendency of Athenians to build churches has never waned, nor their affection for them once they have been erected. This is evident when walking inside the area once closed by Ali Haseki’s walls. Their number in such a small area is still amazing.

The Churches in the Order Suitable for a Meandering Walk

1.     Ag Georgios on the Rock and Ag Symeon (in Anafiotika)
2.     Church of the Metamorphosis  
3.     Panagia Chryssokastriotissa  
4.     Agioi. Anargyri
5.     Ag. Ioannis  (Saint John)
6.     Agios  Nikolaos Rangavas
7.     Ag Aikaterini
8.     Agia Sotira tou Kottakis
9.     Sotira Lykodemou
10.                         Ag. Dynami
11.                        The Mitropolis
12.                        Panagia Gorgoepikoos
13.                        Panagia Kapnikaria
14.                        Ag Asomatos on the Steps
15.                        Megali Panagia inside Hadrian’s Library
16.                         Pantanassa,  Monastiraki     
17.                        Ag  Ioannis  Around  the  Column
18.                        Agioi Anargyroi, Psirri
19.                         Agioi Theodoroi, Klafthmonos Square  

And in the Agora Archaeological Site: Agioi  Apostoli  Solaki (The Holy Apostles)

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