Friday, June 19, 2009

Chronicles of the Visit of Dwight and Sylvia, Part 4

Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Touring Thessaloniki Day

The new kitchen was at long last installed today! Demetrios stayed home to supervise the workers while Sylvia and Dwight and I set out for a tour of Thessaloniki.

We started with the triumphal arch of Galerius Maximianus Caesar, simply because there’s a bus stop right there. Some of the stone carving on it is fairly well preserved. You can’t touch it as you could a couple of years ago, as it is roped off, but you can get very close and you can walk under the arch. Sylvia got some good pictures.

Next, we saw the Rotunda of St. George. It was built in 306 A.D. by the Emperor Galerius Maximianus, then only a tetrach, who moved the capital of his province to Thessaloniki. Galerius intended the Rotunda to be his tomb. I don’t know why it isn’t. Maybe he changed his mind when he became Emperor, and thought Rome would be a more appropriate location for his gravesite.

It is a round structure, 75 feet in diameter, with walls more than 13 feet thick, and is crowned with a dome more than 90 feet tall at its height. The early Christians converted the Rotunda into a church named for St. George. The Turks converted it into a mosque, building a minaret beside it. When this city was liberated from the Turks, on the feast her patron saint, St. Demetrios, 1912, the process began of restoring the building to a church.

It has magnificent mosaics with lots of gold and azure tiling. They are in the process of being restored to their original bright, shiny condition.

If you stand in the center of the Rotunda and tap your foot, the tap echoes around the room: tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

Today there was scaffolding in place that blunted the effect; you heard only one or two echoes instead of a whole volley.

The great earthquake of 1978 did a lot of damage to the Rotunda, most of which has now been repaired.

From there, we went to the late Byzantine Church of St. Panteleimon. It was built in the 1200s and, like most Byzantine churches here, was a mosque during the Turkish reign and is now again a church.

There we met two Greek women who appeared to have been tending to the beautiful garden and potted plants. Maria and Margarita were very kind to us and recommended we should go next to the church “Theotokos, Made Without Hands,” which was visible a couple of blocks away. “Made Without Hands” has a double meaning. It refers to an icon of the Theotokos which simply appeared one day, not seeming to have been made by anybody. But more importantly, it refers to the Theotokos herself, who became a temple of God made without hands.

The church “Theotokos Made Without Hands” dates from circa 450. It is the first church built in Thessaloniki. In 1430 it became a mosque, and in 1930 it re-opened for Christian worship.

One of the columns still has a Turkish inscription on it: “The Sultan Murad Han captured Thessaloniki in the hegira year 833.” (That’s 1430 on our calendar.) Some of the original mosaic work is visible, and splendid. Again, the mosaic workers seem to have been fond of turquoise and gold.

In 1345, some members of a political movement known as “Zealots” were slaughtered in this church.

Our next stop was the White Tower, which Thessalonians flatter themselves is to their city what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. That is, it is the emblem of the city. It is part of the ancient fortifications, which stretched from the mountains behind the city all the way down to the sea. The White tower is at what used to be the intersection of the sea wall with the east wall. It is 34 meters high, so something over 112 feet, and 22 meters in diameter, making it somewhere around 70 feet wide.

Inside is a broad, stone staircase you can climb to about six different levels. Did I mention Sylvia always makes me climb high places? And did I mention it’s all part of – yes, I did.

The inside is a museum of the history of the city, with sound and light shows, most of which we did not understand.

Sylvia climbed into the bay of one window and noticed a pigeon’s nest containing one egg. Later she saw the pigeon sitting on the egg. She took a picture, which I will post when I get it, if it turned out well.

There are wonderful views of the city, naturally, from the top of the tower. There is also a little cafĂ© where you can get a cold drink. You’ll need it.

By now, it was already after 7:00 in the evening, and we had agreed to meet Demetrios at 7:30 in front of St. Sophia, considered the most important church in town, probably because it is a Byzantine Church and partly because it is (I believe) the largest of them – and partly because of its central location. In fact, it used to be the cathedral church in ancient times, until its conversion to a mosque in 1524. For a while before that, it was even used as a Roman Catholic Cathedral during the Frankish occupation (1204-1224), a.k.a. Crusade. It became an Orthodox Church once again in 1912.

So to St. Sophia we headed next. It’s actually Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia), a reference to Christ, the Wisdom from on High. It is supposedly a copy of the great Agia Sophia in Constantinople, but on a smaller scale. I haven’t been there, so I can’t personally tell you how good a copy it may be.

It has, above the apse, the most beautiful icon of the Theotokos I have ever seen, although in the evening light it wasn’t clearly visible.

It was built probably somewhere between 714-741 on the ruins of an earlier church of St. Mark which was probably destroyed in the great earthquake of 620. (It seems this town is always having great earthquakes. What are we DOING here?)

Next we walked over to the Church of St. Demetrios, this city’s patron saint. You shouldn’t visit Thessaloniki without going there!

Holy myrrh (scented, oily stuff) used to flow from the body of the Saint, for hundreds of years, until the relics were stolen by the Catholics. (What’s this? How did they manage to feel comfortable with their stolen booty for several centuries? Did they think of it as “Holy Loot”???) When the relics were returned in the 1980s, if memory serves, they were no longer putting forth the myrrh. That should have told the Catholics a lot.

The myrrh used to flow from the sepulcher through a pipe constructed for the purpose to a pool also specially constructed for the purpose, and from there to two side pools, where people used to help themselves to it. From there, through channels, it flowed out of the church and down to the sea. Today the sea is a mile and a half from the church, but it was considerably closer then.

All these things are in the crypt of the church, although what we today call the “crypt” was originally the ground floor. Anyway, it wasn’t open. Only the main church was, because a vespers service had just concluded when we arrived. We had just time enough for a look around the nave and to venerate the holy relics of the Saint.

Our next stop was the ruins of the palace of Galerius, that same Roman tetrarch, eventually Emperor, who built the triumphal arch and the Rotunda. His palace (circa 300 AD), occupied now by feral cats, is an outdoor archaeological site about a city block square, it being understood that this is a very large city block. It’s of brick and during the daytime (but it was nearly dark by now), you can walk around inside the ruins. It has a throne room and storage rooms and baths and I don’t know what all, very complex. You can see remains of floor mosaics and catch a glimpse of the splendor that once was here.

Near here, but unexcavated, lies the ancient hippodrome (race track, as in horse races). It’s under modern buildings which cannot be destroyed. Someone once told us that some test digging had been done at the hippodrome but the partial excavation showed nothing of interest or of value, so the dig was filled in again. Nothing of interest? Here is where St. Nestor, with the blessing of his teacher, St. Demetrios, fought the anti-Christian giant, Lyaeus, in a gladiatorial contest, and won! That infuriated the Emperor, who had backed Lyaeus, and who promptly had both Nestor and Demetrios executed.

We also saw the ancient agora, market, also dating from Roman times. It’s another big city block full of ruins, including an amphitheatre, rows of shops, a public square, a mint, archives, etc.

Sometime in the midst of all this touring, we also had supper, but I no longer even remember when or where.

I do remember coming home, late, to admire my new kitchen! It looks very much as it originally did, except it is no longer a place for midgets. It’s a couple inches taller than it was, much more comfortable for me. And there are about 6 more inches of counter space than there used to be, and there’s one more drawer.

Sylvia and I thought of putting things back into the drawers, but decided it could wait until morning. We settled for just bringing in our laundry and hanging out the next load before falling into our beds, dog tired but happy.