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Byzantium in Greece today
Must-see monuments and sights
By Giorgos Panagiotakis

The co-reigning city
Thessaloniki was the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire, after Constantinople. This glamour is reflected in the imposing castle and the towering regional walls emerging through the residential fabric. One of the oldest monuments is the Rotunda. The circular structure was built in 306 AD as a temple to Zeus and was soon turned into a Christian church. A few centuries later, the foundations for St. Demetrius were laid, a Christian Orthodox church which was destroyed in the 1917 fire, but was restored and is still running. Other very significant Byzantine monuments and temples are Acheropoietos (5th century), Agia Sophia (7th century) and Panagia Chalkeon (11th century). The latter is located in a central quarter of the city where the copper workshops have been situated since the Byzantine period.

A point of reference
In Athens, Byzantine revelations begin from its most commercial street, Ermou Street, which is literally cut in the middle by Kapnikarea, a thousand year old church which is a favourite meeting point for Athenians. In the shadow of the Acropolis, there is a multitude of small Byzantine churches scattered among the alleys. One is the Old Metropolitan Cathedral (Agios Eleftherios), a miniature church of the 12th century located next to the – comparatively enormous – New Metropolitan Cathedral, which was built with ancient reliefs. In the wider region of Athens there are two authentic Byzantine monasteries, those of Kaisariani and Daphni. The latter was founded in the 6th century, on the site of an ancient temple of Apollo.


The castle of ghosts
In the Peloponnese, just below the imposing mass of Mount Taygetos, there is a Byzantine town unique in the world. The first fortifications were made by the Franks in 1248 AD. A few years later, the castle fell into Byzantine hands and was developed into a thriving city. The end of the Byzantine era came for Mystras in 1460, seven years after the fall of Constantinople. Nowadays, visitors can wander around its neighbourhoods, peek through the deserted houses and enter the churches that seem to ignore the passage of time. The palace is of particular interest, as Constantine Palaiologos used to live there, before travelling to Constantinople to become the last and most tragic of Byzantine Emperors.

Mount Athos
The garden of the Virgin Mary
In the easternmost “finger” of Chalkidiki, in the autonomous monastic community of Mount Athos, time seems to have been at a standstill since the era of the Byzantine Empire. The oldest fortified monasteries (those of Zographou and Megiste Lavra) were built in the early 10th century AD. Twenty monasteries operate on the verdant slopes of Mount Athos today, all full of precious artefacts and rare books. It is accessible only by sea, while most distances are covered on foot. The guest can be accommodated in one of the monasteries and live for a few days like a true Byzantine monk. Beware though: while Mount Athos is dedicated to the mother of Jesus, an old law strictly prohibits entry to women.


The town of 72 churches
There are various reasons to visit this beautiful town of Macedonia: the lake, the lakeside Neolithic settlement of Dispilio, the art of fur processing that has been thriving for the past five centuries or more... But we must not forget the historical 72 churches which, in a way, turn the whole town into a huge Byzantine museum. They all include stunning wall paintings alongside some of the rarest portable icons of the Early Cretan School, as it is known (15th century). Kastoria’s landmark is the temple of Virgin Kastriotissa, built in 1020 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Basil the Second, so as to celebrate the liberation of the city from the Bulgarians.

Aegean Islands
A sea of traces
The Aegean islands are home to countless little churches, Byzantine monasteries and windswept castles. In Patmos, within an imposing Byzantine fortress, we find the monastery of St. John the Theologian (11th century AD). The Nea Moni of Chios was established in the same century (1042) and is renowned for the mosaics. Crete is dotted with Byzantine churches and monasteries, while Byzantine memory is still alive in Santorini, thanks mainly to Panagia Episkopi, which was built during the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). That same emperor founded the legendary monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, which operates even now, perched on to an eerie fortified cave on the island of Amorgos.



Connecting the civilizations
The immediate connection between the Byzantine and the Greco-Roman civilization is clearly evident in the town of Philippi. The story begins in the 4th century BC, when Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) builds defences and names this Macedonian city after him. In Roman times it flourishes. In 49 AD it is visited by the Apostle Paul, which contributes to the city’s reputation in Byzantine times. The city walls, the citadel, the Roman forum, the theatre and the remarkably large Byzantine churches are still preserved today. There are three basilicas (5th-6th century) and an even older octagonal temple founded on the site of an ancient heroon.

Mani & Monemvasia
Byzantium alive
Mani, found in the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese, is famous for its tower houses and the proud character of its inhabitants. But it is also known for the numerous Byzantine churches that pop up in the rugged landscape, housing beautiful wall paintings. Such are the tiny Agios Panteleimon in Boularioi (991 AD), the Diocese in Mezapos (12th century) and the Trouloti in Kita (12th century).
In the South of the Peloponnese lies Monemvasia, an enchanting castle which is still populated and is one of the most well known tourist destinations in Greece. The fortifications, churches, restored houses and guesthouses, transport enraptured visitors back to the times of Byzantine and Venetian rule.