Saturday 20 June 2015

The Medresse in Athens

The Medresse

On Aeridon Square in the Plaka, opposite the Tower of the Winds.   Currently open to the skies but not to the public

Behind these wooden doors directly opposite the Tower of the Winds lies a bit of history which Greeks have been quite happy to leave moldering along with the masonry.

Constructed as a seminary in 1721, the Medresse was meant to educate Muslim students in the Qur’an, its companion texts, and with some law thrown in too. This modest temple to learning may have been tiny in comparison to Medressen in other parts of the Ottoman empire, but it is proof positive that in the eighteenth century the Ottomans thought they were in Athens to stay. 

 Its plan was similar to that of a Greek monastery in that it was a square fortress like structure. The original plan looked like this:

Lining the inner walls like so many monk’s cells were small rooms, most  fronted by a colonnade, and all facing a large inner courtyard whose biggest feature was an immense old plane tree instead of a katholikon.

The students living in these rooms were boarders. Many rooms had domed roofs with a chimney poking out the top presumably so that the students could have a fire on some sort of central hearth during the cold winter months.

 This one in the Kasariani monastery gives you the idea


A nineteenth century print showing the chimneys

There are very few images of the Medresse’s interior. This one was drawn in 1860, long after the last Turk had decamped but it does show the colonnades and the plane tree.

Thanks to Lisa Micheli’s Unknown Athens(1)

A small room off the entrance was reserved for the Hodja or teacher. There was a domed room with a mihrab for prayers, a kitchen, and latrines so it was an enclosed, self-contained community right in the center of the city. The perimeter walls were rubble masonry, nothing fancy. 

 Let’s start with entrance because that is all that you will see except the exterior walls and one small dome. An arched wooden doorway is set inside a barrel vaulted porch crowned by a peaked roof.  The overall effect is rather grand.

The Medresse entrance as I saw it on a cloudy day

There is an inscription in a square above the door telling us that its founder was one Mehmet Fakri and giving the date as 1721.

Those ‘target’ or shield-like circular designs appearing several times on the fa├žade are quite attractive and apparently there is a little story about them that the builders did not know:

This motif would have been chosen in accordance with the rules of Islamic art but they appear to be replicating the ancient shallow wine bowls used for pouring out ceremonial offerings to the gods. (The downtown Benaki museum has quite a few examples of these vessels.)  With so much ancient stone lying around Athens, it must have been tempting to choose a motif spotted on a piece of marble from some old temple or plinth and go with it. Who knew? (2) The use of spolia or designs from spolia has produced more than one interesting conjunction in Greece!

From Seminary to Notorious Prison

Before the Greek revolution in 1821, the Medresse became a meeting place for Ottoman dignitaries, a spot in a predominantly Christian city where Muslim movers and shakers could feel at home. In fact, they gathered at the Medresse to discuss the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. (I would love to have the minutes of that meeting!) As the revolution progressed, however, the Ottomans saw fit to change their seminary and meeting place into a jail. It was a convenient spot within the city limits to contain and, in some cases, eliminate enemies of the state. There was even that handy plane tree for hangings. 

 The Medresse was partially destroyed during the revolution. But in 1834, the fledgling Greek government was having a few problems of its own with criminals and political opponents and it decided to reopen the prison. (3) There is plenty of evidence that the change in governance did not improve the facilities. The plane tree continued to come in handy. There was a saying:

The plane tree in the Medresse has two branches;                                        
 One says ‘death’ and the other ‘10 years’

In 1843 a mass jail break occurred. There was an uprising of the Greek army against King Otto who didn’t seem to think that his new kingdom needed a constitution. On the evening of the revolt, Dimitrios Kallergis, the leader of the Athens’ cavalry ordered  all of the doors of the prison left unlocked and the rough and tough Medresse prisoners were thus invited to add a little muscle to the rebels’ cause as they  confronted the king at the Palace.

 In the Museum of the History of Athens, Kallergis confronts the king and queen in a romantic representation after the event! 

 The result? 

Kallergis was declared ‘First Citizen of Athens’ (4), Otto promised a constitution which he delivered in 1844 and the garden in front of the palace would get a new name: Syntagama or Constitution Square. The fate of the ‘extras’ from the Medresse is not recorded. Their ‘release’ suggests that some were political prisoners – or why let them out?

Conditions at the Medresse in 1852

There is an account by Jonas King, (5) an American Protestant missionary, who had the misfortune to be incarcerated there in 1852 and wrote all about it back home in The Missionary Herald. It is an interesting story as much for what it tells us about the Greek Orthodox Church during that period as for what it says about the dreadful conditions in the Medresse.

King describes the tremendous overcrowding. 125 men were squeezed in together no matter if they were hardened criminals, first time offenders, or those awaiting trial and appeals. Bad as it was, he records that days earlier the prison population had numbered 180! 

The sight…is enough to move to pity the heart of anyone who has the least degree of kind feeling towards his fellow man.
If you walk to the south west corner of the Medresse, there is an iron gate through which you can see the perimeters of the wall and just how small an area the prison covered:

King goes on to say that two men slated for execution were being kept in chains.  Hanging, in Greece, as elsewhere at the time, was a very communal affair and that tree must have created a terrible sense of dread for those condemned to live under its shade until their execution.

This picture gains resonance when you know the story!

Jonas King’s ‘Crime’

 In Greece in 1852 it was not a crime to be a Protestant or a Catholic, but it was a crime to proselytize. The exceptional and favoured status of Orthodoxy was legally and constitutionally protected; all other religions were merely ‘allowable’. Therefore, anyone trying to gain recruits for a different Christian sect could be prosecuted as a criminal. King was not unknown to the Orthodox Church. He had been a missionary for years. In fact, the Church had excommunicated him twice in the 1840s although how they thought this would impress a Protestant is a moot point.

Mr. King had been preaching in a private home in the Plaka, something which was allowed as long as he was not recruiting, but many indignant locals thought he was (of course he was!) and called in the authorities. The American flag he had placed outside the door of the house may not have helped either!

He was charged for ‘preaching contrary to Orthodoxy’ and for saying things ‘injurious to religion and morals’ (shades of Socrates).  He was accused of speaking against icons, belittling Mary, and - even more outrageous – suggesting that baptism could be accomplished by a little sprinkling of water instead of full immersion.  He was sentenced to spend 15 days in the Medresse, to pay the expenses of the court, and to be banished from the country when his sentence was served.

The higher court threw the case out and a good many Athenian journalists who had been granted considerably more freedom to criticize the government in King Otto’s 1844 Constitution, expressed their support. 

Jonas King, was quite a personality– a traveler and a linguist, and a long time resident of Athens. He wrote his memoirs, and weathered yet another anathema declared against him by the Orthodox Synod in 1863 (6 ).  It was largely through his efforts that Athens got its first Evangelical Church in 1874.

Jonas’ book

As the 1800s drew to a close, the Medresse and its hanging tree, remained a prison in the heart of the city, hidden from view behind high walls but hardly forgotten. 

The sounds and laments of the prisoners could be heard by all passersby until 1911 when the government demolished most of it in order to conduct archaeological dig, perhaps hoping to find a more attractive layer of Greek history to put on display.

 It appears that they didn’t succeed.

They dug more than two meters below the original level of the Medresse and there is not much to show for it today except a few marble bits and pieces. The infamous plane tree is long gone, having been replaced at this lower level by a rather impressive eucalyptus.

It's just right for puss though…

Knowing the history of a place changes your perspective. Whenever I pass those ruined walls and those blank, implacable doors, I always feel a little chill…


(1) Liza Micheli’s lovely little book Unknown Athens is worth searching out. The illustration she uses and I borrowed is from a book by Stephanos Xenos(1860).

(2) John Mc Gregor knew. He discusses this in his book Athens. Is it true? I can’t be sure but it is an interesting speculation…

(3) Christian Hansen, the famous nineteenth century architect of the old university in the Plaka and the National Library of Greece on Panamistimiou  Street, was hired to make the needed alterations. This was early on in his career and you can be sure that the prison would never have been the showplace his other efforts became!

(4) Kallergis was widely rumoured to be a favourite flirt of King Otto’s wife, Queen Amelia, something that has absolutely nothing to do with churches in Greece, but it is interesting to speculate on her feelings on that particular evening.

(5)  What I love about “Churches in Greece” is that you never know where the journey will take you. I had never heard of Jonas King and didn’t feel the loss, but it turns out he was a veritable  evangelical Lawrence of Arabia, fluent in many languages, and with a romantic portrait to confirm his near eastern credentials.

Not quite what I had expected of an evangelical!

(6) See Anathema under the ABCs of Orthodoxy on this blog.

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