THESSALONIKI, Greece (TBEN) — Under fluttering strings of Greek and Byzantine flags, three men set up a marquee on the terrace of the 5th-century Osios David church on a recent Saturday, hoping it would protect festival-goers from the heat that the view already enveloped Mount Olympus across the gulf.
That’s Thessaloniki in a snapshot – a treasure trove of early Christian art and architecture by the sea, with echoes of the sacred all over the city, from the mythical mountain home of the ancient Greek gods to the contemporary Orthodox Christian monasticism of Mount Athos.
There are also pervasive, if more hidden, traces of Islam and Judaism, even though many monuments were destroyed in a fire in 1917.
“People see the (archaeological) ruins next door, but nobody knows the diverse history,” said Angeliki Ziaka, professor of religion at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “Now is the time to rebuild this knowledge, to find the mixed marriage of cultures.”
Each of the past six years, I’ve spent at least a few days in and around Greece’s second-largest metropolis, buzzing with the energy of a city historically at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, about halfway between Athens and Istanbul.
I find Thessaloniki eminently walkable, even in the summer heat, thanks to an inexhaustible supply of iced coffee, called frappé, and the sea breeze of the Thermaic Gulf. The iconic White Tower and a much-loved mile-long promenade overlook the water.
Simple meandering leads to monuments intertwined with the contemporary urban fabric: when I went to buy roses at the flower market, I discovered next to it a 500-year-old bathhouse (hammam) built by the Ottomans in the multi-domed style of Byzantine architecture and named Yahudi Hammam, after the Sephardic Jews who settled here.
For centuries, the hammams and still-functioning markets were the meeting places for the city’s Jews, Muslims and Christians, who lived in separate neighborhoods, Ziaka said.
For centuries of Islamic Ottoman rule—a legacy perhaps most immediately apparent in today’s plethora of bustling coffee shops—Thessaloniki was the refuge of a thriving Jewish community. The history, told by the Jewish Museum, will be further illuminated in a Holocaust museum and educational center that is under construction.
Until the early 1900s, most Muslims lived in the Ano Poli, a tranquil tangle of walled gardens, houses with overhanging upper floors detailed in wood, and steeply sloping streets that climbed to a hilltop fortress.
But more than a millennium before the Ottoman conquest, it was here that St. Paul first brought Christianity to the Thessalonians—to whom he later wrote some of Christendom’s most widely read letters.
Churches dating back to the centuries when Thessaloniki was a center of the Byzantine Empire can still be found in the labyrinthine landscape.
Down a small, fruit-lined alley that opens out to a spectacular sea view, tiny Osios David preserves in its dome a 1,600-year-old mosaic of Christ presiding over fish-filled rivers of paradise, with two Old Testament prophets watching in surprise.
Frescoes from the 12th century adorn the walls, although the city’s most notable murals can be found in Agios Nikolaos Orfanos, another small Ano Poli church set deep in a garden. With their colors still vibrant after 700 years, they portray the lives of Jesus, prophets and saints in meticulous and individual detail, such as a hermit’s wavy beard and matching striped tunic and cap.
Just downhill from the church is the Rotunda, a capsule of Thessaloniki’s interconnected religious history.
The huge circular building was built in the 300s as a Roman temple or mausoleum, shortly after it became a Christian church, later a mosque – whose tall minaret still stands – and is now a museum and sanctuary to dozens of swifts flying around the.
Liturgy is still celebrated a dozen times a year, but most visitors come for the early Byzantine gold mosaics that adorn the immense dome, depicting a fusion of Roman architecture and Christian worship with people praying in front of the most luxurious buildings of the Empire.
From the worshipers’ signature hairstyles to the billowing curtains in the pavilions behind them, it’s a slice of early Christianity coming to life – the beginning of a religious story that continues uninterrupted to this day, as in the woman who icons seafront around the corner at Agios Panteleimon, a church built in the late 13th century and still in active use.
The precise masonry, the exuberance of domes and round windows and niches – and the location in a garden full of flowering oleander bushes surrounded by cafe terraces – makes it quintessentially Thessaloniki.
There are many more churches and museums to discover in the city, but I always try to fit in some excursions to the countryside.
In the fertile plains to the west are remains of the dynasty that founded the city – that of Alexander the Great, born in ancient Pella and celebrated in its museum and excavations.
Less than an hour’s drive away, the Museum of the Royal Tombs in Aigai takes you underground in a reconstruction of the burial mounds of Alexander’s father and other Macedonian monarchs. In the dark exhibition halls, works of art shine like a massive crown of nearly 400 golden oak leaves and acorns.
So is the sun on the beaches of Chalkidiki, the three-fingered peninsula that extends into the Aegean Sea southeast of Thessaloniki.
From the pine-covered white rock formations of my favorite, Kavourotrypes Beach, I can see the sacred Mount Athos across the bay.
In fact, through the binoculars of the beach bar owner, I can see several of the Orthodox Christian monasteries, which are part of a complex dating back to the Byzantine era that is home to around 2,000 monks.
Since women are not allowed to set foot on Mount Athos, although we can approach them on boat trips, I settle for another frappe before diving into the transparent sea.
The Bharat Express News religious coverage is supported by the TBEN’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The TBEN is solely responsible for this content.