I’ve always associated Athens with Greek history. Classical Greek history, that is, the sort that took place more than two thousand years ago. But as we stood in Monastiraki Square, Vassilios pointed out the layers of history around us. Ancient Athens was there, in the ruins of the Acropolis towering above us, but we could also see Roman columns, a Byzantine church, and an 18th century mosque. And of course we were surrounded by the 21st century, with its subway, modern buildings, and English language signs everywhere.
Hidden Byzantine Churches
I was on a walking tour – “Opulent Orthodoxy: the birth of Christianity in Athens” – organised by Context. Our guide was Vassilios, an archaeologist with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of knowledge about Byzantine history and architecture, early Christianity, and anything else we cared to ask him about.
I’d been tempted on the tour by the description of Byzantine churches hidden “within the central city”, and I was amazed to discover so many historic churches in and around the Acropolis area. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised: as Vassilios explained, St Paul preached to the Athenians here, on top of the Areopagus (the Rock of Mars), and Christianity was established in the city at an early date. Although most of the churches we saw dated from the 11th century, many had been built on the sites of earlier buildings.
As we walked around, Vassilios explained the architectural features of the early churches, from their shape and external features to the iconography within. And he drew the comparison between classical temples (beautiful exteriors but empty inside) and the Byzantine churches (plain outside, with richly decorated interiors), explaining how this symbolised differences in the way the buildings were used and what they represented.
Bringing the History of Athens to Life
I’d been slightly concerned about this tour. Knowing that it would be an in-depth look at Byzantine Athens, led by an expert on the subject, I wondered if it would be aimed at people with more prior knowledge than I had, and whether it would be packed with indigestible facts and figures. I needn’t have worried on either count. Vassilios brought the subject to life and made it relevant to his audience, relating what he told us to modern day Greece, and patiently answering all our questions. He was also happy to stray off the subject, pointing out other items of interest such as the pillar in the Roman Agora where the tax obligations of olive oil sellers were recorded.
It helped that we were a small group. Vassilios tailored the discussion to our knowledge and interests, and made a point of engaging with the one child on the tour, asking her questions and encouraging her to think about how what we saw fitted in with her schoolwork. So we all gained a deeper understanding of Byzantine Athens, no matter how much we had known before. For myself I came away knowing much more about Athens and the Byzantine period, and with the realisation that Greek history didn’t stop two thousand years ago!
I went on the “Opulent Orthodoxy” tour as a guest of Context.