Saturday 28 November 2015

Tzisdarakis Mosque, Athens

The Tzisdarakis Mosque (Τζαμί Τζισδαράκη)
In Monastiraki Square, Athens

The Mosque 

Like so many places in the Greek capital, a walk into Monastiraki Square is a walk into Greek History. Deep underground are ancient ruins while sunken just below street level is the katholikon of the Byzantine Pantanassa Monastery which gives the square its present name. It is all alone now with the exception of a 19th century bell tower but it was once surrounded by out buildings whose disappearance explains the openness of the square today. Pantanassa once owned most of this neighbourhood and was the hub of the area’s commercial activity. During the Ottoman period, the square was a busy market place complete with a large fountain which was the water source for the surrounding community.

Like so many places in Greece, the square has had multiple names over its long history:  Ambadtzidika (Αμπατζήδικα) was one because the production of a cloth called Ambades was centered in the monastery and its surrounds. The Market of the Lower Fountain was another.

 But the Tzisdarakis Mosque which has dominated the square for over 250 years will never get the nod.  It is one of the few remnants of Ottoman Athens and Ottoman Athens has been pretty much erased from the city’s landscape. Greeks do not really want to be reminded of this era of foreign occupation.

In 1759, The Ottoman voivode (governor) of Athens, Mustapha Agha Tzisdarakis, built this imposing building. Of course he would have dated its inauguration differently. As far as he was concerned, he built it in 1172 AH, (year of the Hegira). (1) 

The mosque was also known as the "Mosque of the Lower Fountain" (Τζαμί του Κάτω Σιντριβανιού) or "Mosque of the Lower Market" (Τζαμί του Κάτω Παζαριού) because of its proximity to both or simply as the  Pasha Dzami’ (the Pasha Mosque).

The mosque in 1835 without its minaret but with the fountain

When he built it, he had no idea that 60 years or so later his mosque would be taken over by ‘infidels’ who had no real interest in preserving it for posterity.  So he built it with the best materials he had at hand. The story goes that he chose a pillar from the ancient temple of Olympian Zeus and had his men blow it to smithereens in order to make high quality plaster for his mosque. That desecration of an ancient column led to his dismissal. According to Ottoman law, ancient monuments were the exclusive property of the sultan and Tzisdarakis had not got the proper permission through the pasha in Chalkis to which Athens was administratively dependent at the time; he was fined and exiled from Athens.

As it once was…You can just see the minaret peeking out over the porch. 
(Thanks again to Irini Kakoulidou’s excellent blog

The more popular explanation for his dismissal goes like this: the Turkish population considered it a sacrilege to destroy an ancient column because they believed its destruction would free evil spirits trapped under it allowing them to escape and plague the city. Greek Athenians shared this very same belief; they held very similar feelings about the Corinthian column incorporated into their own church of  Agios Ioannis Around the Column in Psyrri (see Churches in Athens on this blog) (2). Their worst fears were confirmed when Athens suffered a plague later in 1759. So it was the popular belief that this plague not only proved the legend true but that it caused Tzisdarakis’ dismissal!  

The Architecture
The mosque is simplicity itself:

Square in plan, it had two levels with the lower level opening directly onto the square. The upper level contained a lofty rectangular prayer hall covered by a large hemispherical dome sitting on an octagonal base. 

The dome as it appears today

On the western side an open colonnaded porch with three arches and three domes fronted the prayer hall. Because it looks slightly out of proportion to the building, some speculate that it was added on at a slightly later date.

 A minaret once stood right at the southwestern corner of the mosque describes the interior more succinctly than I could so I quote: The building, now two levels, was originally unified. Two rows of windows around the sides of the mosque, and smaller circular windows at the base of the dome, provide light for the prayer hall. 

The prayer hall as it is today after renovations in the 1980s. According to my source, the gallery is a Greek addition, not original to the building.

A many-faceted mihrab is still embedded in the eastern wall. It is set within a rectangle with two inscriptions and painted panels of decoration. 

 The exterior entrance to the hall was from the western façade facing the square. Above its central door the founder's inscription can still be seen and small mihrabs were incised to the left and right of this door to give directional cues to those who preferred to remain outdoors while praying.

You can see the outdoor mihrabs in this photo

During the prolonged Greek War of Independence, the building was used, (whenever the Greeks managed to hold it) as an assembly hall for the town elders. Sometime during this period, the minaret was torn down.

After Greek independence, the mosque was used in various ways. It had to be. Athens was not a large town before the revolution and by 1834, when Athens was tagged to become the capital of Greece, most of it had been reduced to rubble.(3) Not even this overt symbol of Ottoman domination could be spurned.

 In 1834, because of its generous size, and simply because it was still there, the ‘mosque’ hosted a ball in honour of King Otto of Greece.

As Athens grew and acquired its own neoclassical public monuments, the mosque remained intact but languished, - first as a barracks, then as a prison, and then as a storehouse.  Its lower level was both invaded and surrounded by a rabbit warren of small shops either built into the building at ground level or sheltering under awnings hard against it – just as they do today. 

Around the turn of the last century, the area under the porch was turned into a small “oinomageireio.”  (oινομαγειρείο) whose specialty was grilled animal innards for the hungry market clientele. This became quite a local ‘hot spot’, so much so that the locals began to call the area Τζιερτζίδικα. Τζιερτζίδικα means a place that sells liver and spleen (τζιέρι) and such, quite a delicacy then as now! (4)  I imagine this is one of the few times, that the name for lamb guts has trumped the name of an imposing church!



The mosque as a “Τζιερτζίδικα circa 1910 (

In 1915 the prayer hall was renovated under the supervision of architect Anastasios Orlando and became the Museum of Greek Handwork (now called the Museum of Greek Folk Art). The commercial stalls on the ground floor stayed.

There seems to be a strong connection between Ottoman religious monuments and ‘cultural centers’ as if, while being rigorously secularized, the buildings are still somehow being treated with a modicum of respect. Agia Sophia in Istanbul is a museum for pretty much the same reason. It makes you wonder if at some time in a Utopian future there will be a mutual exchange of ‘cultural centers’ between Turks and Greeks.

The prayer hall had a small moment of glory again as a mosque in 1966 when it was offered for a time to the deposed King Saud of Arabia during his exile in Athens. Even in 1966, the lack of a mosque for Muslim visitors to Athens was a problem. I wonder what the quid pro quo was in this case.  Saud was deposed because of his prolific spending habits so one hopes that he at least paid the Ministry of Culture for any necessary alterations! 

In 1973 the Museum of Greek Folk Art moved to Kydathinaion Street but the mosque remained an annex of the museum. In 1981 it was severely damaged by an earthquake, repaired, and re-opened to the public in 1991 to house the The V. Kyriazopoulos ceramic collection.

Every once in a while an Athenian journalist(5) writes a moan about the mosque having been taken over by shops and makes noises about it being treated as a cultural monument.
As I write, the mosque has been closed to the public for yet another renovation and is slated to be reopened in 2017.

You can be sure this alteration will not include a minaret and it is highly unlikely that the building will ever again function as a mosque. (6) So far, the shops under it remain and I rather like them. They evoke the spirit of those long gone days when the market square was filled with vendors, and Ottoman worthies sat placidly smoking their nargiles before being called to prayer. 

(1) The Hijri year (AH anno hegirae is the year-numbering system used in the Islamic calendar. It begins from the first day of the year of the Hijra or emigration of Muhammud and his followers to Medina in 622 CE.

(2) I have run across this superstition before in Evrostina in Corinthia when I was writing a text on Agios Giorgios there. This time the ‘column’ was a tree and the villagers were convinced that the tree held the power to kill anyone who tried to cut it down. My source for the columns in Agios Ioannis is William Miller.

(3)  Athens had 3,000 buildings in 1821, but only 300 were still standing in 1834. As Thomas-Gasset who visited Greece in 1834 said: “ Athens, in fact, no longer exists”.

 (4) The term oinomageireio is a bit hard to explain. It literally means wine and cooked food. These plain fast food restaurants were once very popular – and just a few tables and benches away from being street food stalls. They flourished in markets everywhere in Greece. Until very recently you could have the experience at Diporto directly behind the produce market on Athena Street. From its tiny basement it served from early morning until after lunch for the stall vendors. 

Diporto as it was: just to give you the idea (www.in2life,gr)


You can try your luck at the restaurant inside the central meat market on Athinas Street or the trendier places like the Karamanlidika on Evripidou Street. The atmosphere is similar!  gives the story of the oiomageireio.

(5)See Kathimerini: 29, 08, 2009:Το τζαμί στο Μοναστηράκι είναι παζάρι και όχι μνημείο

(6) Even the new mosque currently being built by the Greek government will not have a minaret.


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