Thessaloniki was an important centre of Early Christianity and later for centuries the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. A number of Late Roman structures can still be found here, together with buildings (mostly churches) from the Early, Middle and Late Byzantine periods.
The earlier layers are relatively well preserved, including the decorative aspects of the buildings, for example, in case of the Arch and Rotunda of Galerius and the 5th-century churches of Panagia Acheiropoietos and Hosios David. The most important churches of the city – the Church of Saint Demetrius and Hagia Sophia – received their current form in the first half of the 7th and the second half of the 8th century, respectively.
In comparison to Constantinople or Athens, where the majority of the remaining Byzantine churches are from the Macedonian or Komnenian period, there is just one such church in Thessaloniki (the Panagia Chalkeon). The city is, however, very rich in Palaiologan (14th-century) churches. These generally have a number of common features (such as an ambulatory and a special style of the domes), and it can be talked about a separate Thessalonian school of Late Byzantine architecture.
My portfolio contains all the 15 buildings of Thessaloniki that have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It also includes some less-known and less-researched structures. The portfolio could be expanded with some more photos of details of the buildings (such as the painted decoration of the Church of Saint Nicholas Orphanos), but it is already quite complete. I took the photos in July and August 2018 and in January 2019. In the compilation of the texts I resorted heavily to the Byzantine Legacy and Palace of Galerius websites.
You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below:
1. Palace of Galerius
Late 3rd or early 4th century
This huge archaeological site in the middle of the modern city is a palace built by Galerius, one of the Tetrarchs that ruled the Roman Empire at the turn of the 4th century, first as the Caesar of the East (293-305) and then as the Augustus of the East (305-311). Later on the emperors occasionally stayed here, due to the significance of Thessaloniki, provided by its location between Rome and Constantinople. The palace consists of multiple parts, which were built in different phases and were modified in the subsequent centuries.
The basilica is located along the Dimitriou Gounari Street. Its longitudinal axis originally ran parallel to the Hippodrome. It had a semicircular apse on its south side and a long rectangular nave in the north. (Further north was a peristyle courtyard that the basilica shared with the apsidal hall.) Its floors were decorated with mosaics, and its walls had marble revetments. The basilica functioned as a reception and audience hall. Today, only parts of its west wall and apse remain.
1.2. Central building complex
West of the basilica stood the central building complex. It is known that this area was inhabited before the construction of the Galerian Complex, as remains of luxurious houses from the 2nd and 3rd centuries have been discovered here. Its central part was formed by a square peristyle courtyard. On the west, south and east side of the courtyard stood 11 rooms. These, and the north side of the courtyard, were surrounded by wide covered corridors with mosaic floors. From the middle of the south corridor opened a monumental marble staircase that led to another corridor, which, in its turn, led to the palace’s main entrance toward the sea.
South of the central building complex and west of the apse of the basilica were the baths of the palace. These were accessed through a square vestibule with a mosaic floor. From here one proceeded to a large rectangular room (apodyterium). The room had shallow niches in its north wall and a cold room (frigidarium) in the east, with a semicircular fountain in its center. Its floor and walls were adorned with coloured marbles, and it must have had wall mosaics.
South of the reception room was an octagonal room with a hexagonal warm-water bath (tepidarium). On its west side was a rectangular space with an apse, in the middle of which could have been a marble basin for producing steam. The rooms with hot-water baths (caldarium) must have occupied the southern part of the building (under the modern buildings today). The walls in these rooms had marble revetments in their lower part, while the upper part was decorated with wall paintings.
The toilet was near the entrance to the baths, south of the vestibule. In the east, next to the apse of the bbasilica, stood the original cistern of the baths, while in the north, adjacent to the southern corridor of the central building complex are remains of a later vaulted cistern.
1.4. Two-storey structure
Between the central building complex and the basilica stood a two-storey structure. Its lower floor had a barrel vault and four rooms. The upper floor functioned as a cistern, collecting rainwater from the roofs of the basilica and the east corridor of the central building complex. The surplus water was channeled into the cistern north of the baths through clay pipes. This structure possibly dates from the 7th century.
1.5. Apsidal Hall
The Apsidal Hall was probably the last building in the north belonging to the Palace proper. It may have been used for banquets and other ceremonies (triclinium). It consisted of two rooms: a rectangular vestibule, and a large hall with two niches on its south side and a raised apse in the north. Both the rooms were richly decorated, with the floors being covered in marble laid in the opus sectile technique and the walls having white and coloured marble revetments.
In a later building phase, probably in the 6th century, another hall was added south of the vestibule, opposite the Basilica across the peristyle courtyard. This hall was luxuriously decorated, showing a mosaic floor, mural paintings depicting wavy tendrils and red florets, as well as wall mosaics with an inscription in Latin.
Some remains of the heating system of the Apsidal Hall remain to this day.
The most impressive structure of the Galerian Complex is probably the Octagon. Located south-west of the central building complex, it probably functioned as an audience hall or the throne room of the palace. Later it was turned into a church.
The centerpiece of this part of the palace is an octagonal hall, covered by a dome of 23 m in diameter. In the middle of seven of its sides, at the base of the walls, are semicircular niches. The niche in the north (opposite the entrance) is larger than the others, and its masonry differs from that of the rest of the building. Beneath its floor is a rectangular vaulted tomb with wall paintings (the second half of the 5th century). Two small annexes on the both sides of the north side of the octagonal hall were added later. These may have been necessary for the operational requirements of the church.
South of the Octagon was a monumental vestibule, which originally may have been rectangular, but now shows two semicircular niches on its east and west ends. From here two winding staircases led up to the dome.
South of the vestibule was a large peristyle courtyard, with which it communicated through a tribelon, whose remains are preserved beneath the building on Isavron 3. The east portico of the courtyard led to the marble staircase of the south corridor of the complex. At its north end was a marble arch supported pilasters, known as the Small Arch of Galerius (on display in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki).
The Octagon was, like many other structures of the city, destroyed by an earthquake in the 7th century. Its vestibule was later converted to a cistern, which operated until the 14th century.
Between the Galerian Complex and the eastern walls of the city stood the Hippodrome of Thessaloniki. It functioned both as a place for chariot races as well as a political space. It dates from around the same time as the Palace.
The Hippodrome was approximately 450 m long and 95 m wide. Its northern end almost reached to Via Regia, the main street of the city on the east-west axis (today’s Egnatia). Here was the parking area and the starting point for the chariots. Spaces for the circus factions were here as well. Some remains of this part of the Hippodrome survive somewhere around Agapinou Street.
Another entrance for the spectators was the sphendone, a semi-circular part in the south, near today’s Mitropoleos Street. The location of the Hippodrome in an isolated corner of the city close to the sea is highly evocative.
The east side of the Hippodrome, adjacent to the city walls, can be seen on Filikis Etaireias Street. A small part of the west side is visible east of the Nea Panagia Church. Ruins of the Hippodrome are also said to be in the basements of the modern buildings in the area.
In the middle of the Hippodrome stood the spina, dividing the track lengthwise into two. It was adorned with obelisks, statues, pools and other elements. Unlike its counterpart in Constantinople, it was slightly tilted, not parallel to the stands. The location of the spina is identified with a section of the median on today’s Ippodromiou Square.
The seats for the public were separated from the track by a 2-meter-high podium in marble revetment. The imperial viewing box, or the kathisma, was located between the Apsidal Hall and the basilica of the palace, slightly east.
The Hippodrome was the site of the Massacre of Thessaloniki in 390. Butheric, a Gothic magister militum had had a popular charioteer arrested for a homosexual offence. The local inhabitants demanded the charioteer’s release but Butheric refused. A general revolt ensued in which Butheric was killed, together with several other Roman authorities. Emperor Theodosius I sent his troops to quell the revolt, during which around 7,000 citizens of Thessaloniki were killed.
The Hippodrome continued in operation until at least the 6th century.
Galerius also had an arch and a rotunda built near his palace.
2. Arch of Galerius / Kamara
Egnatia & Dimitriou Gounari
The Arch of Galerius is a triumphal arch that was built to celebrate the victory of Galerius over the Sassanid Persians led by Shah Narseh at the Battle of Satala in 298.
The arch stood at the junction of two major axes of the city. It spanned the Via Regia – the decumanus maximus of the city and a portion of the much larger Via Egnatia, which connected Dyrrachium (today Durrës in Albania) with Byzantium (later Constantinople). The crossing axis was the processional way connecting the Palace of Galerius in the south with the Rotunda in the north. There were porticoes to the north, east and west of the arch.
The arch consisted of eight piers arranged in two parallel rows, with four piers in each row and three arched openings between them. The four central piers were larger than the outer one, and the central opening was wider than the ones on the sides. The central piers were connected by semicircular arches that supported a dome. Today, only three northwestern piers survive, with parts of the masonry of the arches above.
The importance of the arch comes from the rich relief decoration in marble on the central piers. These depict scenes from the victorious campaigns of the Romans against the Persians. The reliefs are divided in four levels, with elaborate moldings separating one level from another. They are brimmed with figures, motifs and symbolism.
South pillar, east and north sides, upper three levels
In the below picture, on the first level, Galerius’s departure and arrival in a city and reception by its residents can be seen. The scene is flanked by two figures of Nikai on both sides.
The second level shows a battle between the Romans and the Persians. It is dominated by the majestic figure of Galerius on horseback, with the image of the Capitoline Wolf on his breast plate. His bearded opponent may be Shah Narseh.
The third level shows a triumphal representation of the Tetrarchs. The two Augusti, Diocletian and Maximian, are seated, while the two Caesars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, stand beside them. The female figures kneeling before Galerius represent the conquered provinces. The rulers extend their hands toward them, indicating their favour.
South pillar, north side, upper three levels
In the pictures below, on the first level, Galerius’s address to his soldiers is depicted.
On he second level, Galerius, surrounded by soldiers, is shown with five Persians kneeling before him.
On the right side of the scene, there is an amazon-looking figure (personification of Rome) leading four crowned women (personifications of countries, provinces or cities), with another female figure at their feet (personification of Persia).
South pillar, east side, upper two levels
On the third level, Diocletian and Galerius are shown at an altar, with Galerius performing a libation (cf. Ara Pacis in Rome). Such a division of roles shows the importance of Galerius in the victory and in the Tetrarchy in general. Between them behind the altar are two female figures: Oikumene (World) and Omonoia (Harmony). The figure behind Galerius is interpreted as Eirene (Peace).
South pillar, east side, middle two levels
In the below picture, on the first level, a battle between the Romans and Persians is depicted. Galerius is in the centre, with dead and wounded Persian soldiers on the ground. On the right, four figures mounted on elephants draw a two-wheeled chariot. This ensemble together represents Persia.
On the second level, Persian war prisoners, accompanied by Roman guards, are shown.
On the third level, the peaceful arrival of Galerius in a city is illustrated.
North pillar, south side, upper three levels
Plateia Agiou Georgiou Rotonta
306; conversion to church – late 4th century
The Rotunda stands northeast of the Arch of Galerius. It was built by Galerius, either as his mausoleum or as a temple dedicated to Zeus or the Cabeiri, a group of chthonic deities.
The Rotunda is a huge building, with a diameter of 24.5 m and height of 29.8 m. Its walls are more than 6 m thick and made of rubble masonry, with wide zones of brickwork appearing at intervals. That is why the building has survived the numerous earthquakes of Thessaloniki. A flat dome covers the structure. It originally had an oculus, like the Pantheon in Rome.
There are eight big rectangular niches with barrel vaults in the thickness of the wall. The south niche, facing the processional road that lead through the Arch of Galerius to the imperial palace, was originally the main entrance. In the walls on its sides are staircases leading up to the roof. There may have been tribela in front of the niches.
Between the big niches are smaller niches. Their façades were formed of small columns standing on consoles and supporting an arch or a triangular pediment. These were meant for the placement of statues.
Above the big niches are eight large windows, and higher up still are eight lunettes. The dome and the arches are built solely of brick.
After his death in 311, Galerius was buried in Felix Romuliana (Gamzigrad in today’s Serbia). The Rotunda stood empty for several decades until Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) had it converted into a church. That makes it the oldest church in Thessaloniki. It is considered to be the most important surviving church from the Early Christian period of the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire. The church was probably dedicated to the Incorporeal Saints (Asomatoi). According to another theory, the rotunda became a church some time later, up to the 6th century.
During the transformation some structural changes were carried out on the building. The outer wall of the east niche was demolished to accommodate the sanctuary, a rectangular area with an apse at the end. This modification caused a number of problems, such as the collapse of the section of the dome above it. Later, the apse was strengthened by the addition of two buttresses.
Another important addition was the construction of a closed ambulatory around the main structure (now destroyed). This ambulatory communicated with the central area through the big niches, which were pierced. Another entrance was created in the west niche, together with a narthex. To the south entrance, a propylon was added with two chapels, a circular one to the east and an octagonal one to the west.
The building is decorated with mosaics of extremely high quality. The dates proposed for these range from the early decades of the 4th century to the mid-6th century. If the earlier dating is true, then it can be said that mosaics of the Rotunda of Thessaloniki constitute the earliest mural mosaics in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
The large mosaic that covers the dome consists of three zones.
In the lower zone, luxurious buildings, which remind one of Roman structures such as the Library of Celsus in Ephesus or a theatre scenae frons, are shown in a golden background. Men in an attitude of prayer are shown at each of the buildings. These are martyrs of Christian faith. They include military saints, bishops, prelates, doctors, a courtier and a servant, as shown by inscriptions at them. Their faces are especially vivid. The eastern part of this zone has been replaced by a painted imitation of a mosaic.
Not much is left of the middle zone. One can see the sandaled feet on grass of around 36 males dressed in white. They probably include apostles, prophets and angels.
In the upper zone, the four archangels are seen holding the celestial sphere, in which Christ must have been. Here was also depicted the phoenix, the symbol of eternal renewal and immortality.
The mosaic decoration of the vaults of some of the big niches has also survived.
Mosaic on the vault of the west niche
Intersecting circles forming quatrefoils is a common motif in the Greco-Roman art.
Mosaic on the vault of the south-east niche
These images show the beauty and prosperity of the earthly world.
Mosaic on the vault of the south niche
The position of the cross in the direction of the Palace of Galerius is not insignificant.
It probably dates from a different period than the rest of the mosaics.
There are also mosaics on the arches above the lunettes. In contrast with the vivid colours of the mosaics above the ground-floor niches, which were lit indirectly, the colours of the tessarae here are softer.
Around the end of the 9th century, the semidome over the sanctuary apse was painted with a scene of the Ascension. Christ in a glory held by angels is shown in its upper part, while the Virgin, angels and the apostles are in the lower zone. It has been proposed that the painting was made by the same workshop who created the dome mosaic of the same theme of Hagia Sophia.
The inner wall was originally covered with marble revetments up to the base of the dome. Nothing of it survives today.
The rotunda was used as a church until the city fell to the Ottomans. In 1590-1591, it was converted to a mosque and a minaret was added to it (built inside the destroyed ambulatory). The church is now dedicated to Saint George.
4. Walls of Thessaloniki
Mid-3rd century; around 390 to mid-5th century; numerous Byzantine and Ottoman modifications
Thessaloniki was fortified since its foundation by Cassander, the King of Macedonia, in around 315 BC. The original fortifications were abandoned after Macedonia became a Roman province in 168 BC. A new wall was constructed in 253-254 AD, hastily, to protect the city from the attacks by Goths. It was a single wall with square towers. It was built of slate and brick, and it was bound with a yellowish mortar. Materials from older structures were also used in its construction. This wall was reinforced later in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Remains of a square tower of the east wall from the mid-3rd century
(note the re-use of gravestones)
Since 390 until the mid-5th century, a second wall was built outside the former wall. On the eastern and western sides of the city, this new wall was in contact with the old one, using it as a buttress. The year 390 is suggested by an inscription in bricks on a tower of the east wall. According to the inscription, ‘with unbreachable walls Hormisdas fortified this great city, having clean hands’. Hormisdas may have been a commander of a Balkan detachment, and the expression ‘having clean hands’ is thought to be a reference to his non-participation at the Massacre of Thessaloniki in 390.
The new walls had the shape of a trapezium. They were about 8 km long, and they protected the city from attacks originating from both the land and the sea.
The walls were made of ashlar masonry alternating with bands of brick, typical of the late-Roman period (cf. the contemporary Theodosian Walls in Constantinople). They were decorated in parts with Christian crosses, lozenges and depictions of the Sun.
The walls were 10-12 m high. They were strengthened by towers, mostly rectangular in shape, and by sharp triangular bulwarks. The walls of the east and west enclosure wall in the lowland were further reinforced by the proteichisma, or the outwork. The remains of these structures can be seen on Filikis Etaireias Street and Sintrivani Square.
The fortification system also included two sea walls. The inner sea wall, which ran along today’s Mitropoleos Street was from the Roman period, while the outer wall, on the line of Proxenou Koromila Street, dates from the 7th century. At the west end of the sea wall was a large artificial harbour, constructed in 322-323 by Constantine the Great. A breakwater protected it.
The Acropolis in the north was a separate area of fortification, forming an enclosure. It followed the general arrangement of the fortifications in the lower city, with alternating rectangular towers and triangular bulwarks at the most vulnerable points. It may have been a later addition to the fortification system, however, as shown by the outside orientation of the towers of the dividing wall.
In the northeastern corner of the Acropolis lies another fortress, the Heptapyrgion (the Seven Towers), better known by its Ottoman name, Yedikule (cf. the fortress of the same name in Istanbul). It actually consists of ten towers. The five northern towers and the wall between them, which form the northern corner of the Acropolis, have been variously dated, some to as late as the 9th century. The wall is crenellated and, inside the fortress, forms a passageway to facilitate communication between the towers. The five southern towers may be from the 12th century.
The main gates in the walls were located at the east and west ends of the two most important streets of the city, corresponding to today’s Egnatia (Roman Via Regia; Byzantine Leoforos or Mese) and Agiou Dimitriou streets. At the western end of the former street was the Golden Gate, while in the east it terminated with the Cassandreia Gate (the later Kalamaria Gate). The western end of the latter street was marked by the Letaia Gate, while in its eastern end stood the New Golden Gate. There were a number of other gates in the walls, both in the lowland and on the Acropolis, including some in the dividing wall of the latter (such as the Portara).
The Walls of Thessaloniki were repaired frequently in the Byzantine era, because of earthquakes and enemy attacks. Notable reinforcements took place during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641), to provide further protection against the threat posed by Avars and Slavs. (Heraclius also strengthened the walls in Constantinople in that time.) The sea walls were reinforced in the aftermath of the attack by the Saracens in 904. None of these works, however, altered the original layout or form of the fortifications.
Traces of the repairs can be seen here and there in the masonry and inscriptions.
One of the two gates created by Empress Anna Palaiologina during the repair of the Acropolis walls in 1355-1356
A marble pilaster of the western gate has the following inscription: ‘The present gate was erected at the orders of the almighty and holy mistress and lady, Mistress Anna Palaiologina, when Ioannis Chamaetos, quaestor, was guardian of the fortress, in the year 6864, of indiction 9th.’
There is also an inscription on a tower at the north edge of the wall referring to Manuel II Palaiologos (possibly from 1369-1373): ‘By the strength of Manuel, our mighty Despot, this tower was erected from the foundations in this wall by duke Georgios Apokaukos. By the strength of Manuel the mighty.’
After the conquest of Thessaloniki by the Ottomans in 1430, the fortification system of the city underwent major changes. The Heptapyrgion was remodeled significantly in 1431. Around the same time the White Tower was built on the site of a Byzantine tower at the junction of the east wall and the sea walls. At the north end of the east wall, a Byzantine wall known as the Trigonion Tower was replaced by an Ottoman one some time in the 15th century.
Later, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) had the Vardari Fort constructed to the south-west edge of the walls, to protect the west side of the harbour. The sea walls and parts of the east wall were demolished in the last third of the 19th century.
In the Ottoman era, the Heptapyrgion functioned as the seat of the governor. It was converted into a prison in the 1890s, a function that it retained almost for a century. References to the infamous Yedikule prison abound in Greek rebetiko and Sephardic music.
5. Cemetery Basilica
3is Septemvriou & Stratou
Between 380 and 450
Under a heavily trafficked road south of the grounds of the Thessaloniki International Fair, the ruins of the eastern portion of an Early Christian church can be seen. It was a three-aisled basilica, possibly from between 380 and 450, as shown by the coins that have been found here. South of the basilica stood the cruciform Martyrion of Saint Alexander of Pydna, to which the church was connected through a subterranean corridor (kyklion). The church was part of a cemetery, as testified by a number of graves that have been excavated around here. It survived intact until the 6th or 7th century.
6. Cemetery Basilica
First half of 5th century
Lagkada & Agiou Dimitriou
The remains of this Early Christian basilica are located under a bridge near a park notorious for drug trafficking. I know nothing of its history except for the fact that it was a cemetery basilica dating from the first half of the 5th century. Ruins of another Early Christian basilica are supposed to be under a building near Vardaris Square.
7. Cemetery Basilica
Dimitriou Margaropoulou 20
This cemetery basilica, located behind the railway station in the Xirokrini district, is from the 6th century. It may have been dedicated to Saint Nestor, a companion of Saint Demetrius, who was possibly sentenced to death in the area in the late 3rd or the early 4th century. Others dedicate the church to Saints Agape, Chionia and Eirene, whose martyrdom took place here in the early 4th century.
8. Church of Panagia Acheiropoietos
Agias Sofias, Dionisiou Patriarchou, Acheiropoietou & Kathigitou Panagioti Papageorgiou
The Church of Panagia Acheiropoietos, located north of Hagia Sophia, is the earliest surviving church in Thessaloniki. In the Byzantine times it was known as the Church of Panagia Theotokos. Its current name, meaning an ‘icon made without hands’, was first attested in 1320. It presumably refers to a miraculous icon of the Virgin Hodegetria that was housed here.
The church stands above a large Roman bath. Remains of the bathhouse are preserved beneath the church, such as its floor, which has been exposed in the north aisle. A large room with a niche survives north of the church.
The Church of the Acheiropoietos is a three-aisled basilica with a semicircular apse, narthex and a wooden roof. The nave is separated from the aisles by 12 columns of Proconnesian marble on each side. The entrance from the narthex to the nave is through a tribelon formed by two columns of green Thessalian marble. The narthex communicates with the aisles by means of two arched openings.
The sanctuary apse has a synthronon and the bishop’s throne. On the outside, under its three-light window are preserved the remains of four marble consoles. These supported the bases of the mullions of the original five-light window.
The aisles have galleries above them. There is a stairway at the north-east corner of the basilica, which led to these galleries. It dates from the first half of the 7th century, when extensive repairs were carried out on the church after an earthquake. The west gallery is now missing.
There are some ruins west of the church, in front of the narthex. These may be the exonarthex, or the east portico of the atrium of the basilica. Some have speculated that the atrium was located in the southern part of the temple, and not in the west, as was common. A monumental porch is visible here now, together with a small adjoining building, which has been identified as the baptistery. The porch probably connected the church with the Leoforos, the main avenue of the city.
The building was originally higher than it is now, thanks to the elevated section of the nave (destroyed).
At the east end of the north aisle is the Chapel of Hagia Eirene from the Middle Byzantine period.
The church has a rich interior decoration. Remarkable are the column capitals, the mosaics on the intrados of the arches and the frescoes in the south aisle.
The column capitals are from the 5th century. These are of composite order and are very similar to the sculptural decoration of the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople, which was established around the same time.
Mosaics can be found on the intrados of the arcades on the ground floor, in the south gallery, on the tribelon, on the two large transverse arches in the narthex, and on the window in the west wall. The decorative motifs, which are symmetrically arranged, include the cross, geometric patterns, and elements of paradisal character such as birds, fruits, fish and vases with water.
The donor of the mosaics is a priest named Andreas, as indicated on the intrados of the central and south arch of the tribelon. That priest had participated in the Council of Chalcedon (451) as the representative of the Archbishop of Thessaloniki.
In the south aisle there are fine, but damaged 13th-century frescoes depicting the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Only 18 figures of martyrs are preserved, all arranged in a linear fashion, full-length figures alternating with busts. At both ends of the row of martyrs is a candlestick with a lit candle, a symbolical element common in scenes of a funerary character.
The Church of the Acheiropoietos was the first church to be converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Thessaloniki in 1430. It was the city’s principal mosque under the name Eski Camii (‘Old Mosque’) throughout the Ottoman era. There is an inscription by Sultan Murad II (1421-1444 and 1446-1451) on the eighth column from the east in the north colonnade.
9. Church of Hosios David / Latomos Monastery
Behind Epimenidou 19
Late 5th century
According to the tradition, the church was founded by Theodora, the daughter of Emperor Maximian (286-305). She supposedly founded the church as a bathhouse to dispel her mother’s suspicions of her conversion to Christianity. The current church is from the 5th century. It may have originally been dedicated to Prophet Zechariach. In the 9th century it functioned as the katholikon of the Monastery of Christ the Saviour of Latomos. The current name of the church is modern.
The plan of the church shows a square space in which the Greek cross is inscribed. There are four corner bays in the spaces between the arms of the cross and the outer walls. The arms of the cross are vaulted, the central bay is roofed with a low dome without windows, and the corner bays are covered by a type of cross vault. There are two-light windows at the ends of the arms of the cross, and a two-light window in the sanctuary apse.
The most important parts of the church are its apse mosaic and frescoes.
The apse mosaic is generally dated to the last quarter of the 5th century. It depicts the Theophany. In its centre, Christ is seated on a rainbow in a large circular glory. He holds a scroll in his hand, with the text, ‘Behold our God, in whom we hope and we rejoice in our salvation, that he may grant rest to this home’. Around the glory is a tetramorph: an angle, an eagle, a lion and a calf with books, symbolising the Four Evangelists. The Theophany is witnessed by two figures: on the left is Ezekiel and on the right is Habakkuk.
The four rivers of paradise are depicted in the lower part of the composition, with the River Jordan spreading over the bottom. There are fish in the water as well as a figure identified as the personification of the river. The mosaic is outstanding for its rich colours, naturalism and combination of spirituality and realism, making it one of the most important works of art that have survived from this period.
The wall paintings on the south vault are from the 1160s or 1170s. The surviving scenes include the Nativity, the Presentation, the Baptism and the Transfiguration of Christ. There are, unusually, no borders between the scenes. The painting ensemble conveys a rare sense of landscape and atmosphere, constituting a particularly fine work of art of the Middle Byzantine period.
Some paintings of the church date from the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
The western part of the original church was probably destroyed during the conversion of the church into a mosque in the Ottoman times.
Before proceeding to the later churches, take a look at some mosaic floors from the 5th and 6th centuries (displayed at the Museum of Byzantine Culture).
Mosaic floor from a triclinium of a Roman house on Aiolou 21
(first half of the 5th century; Museum of Byzantine Culture)
Mosaic floors from a triclinium of a Roman house in Thessaloniki
(second half of the 6th century; Museum of Byzantine Culture)
Mosaic floor from a basilica north of the Church of the Taxiarches
(6th century; Museum of Byzantine Culture)