October 26 is the biggest celebration for Thessaloniki, as it marks the Feast Day of Agios Dimitrios, the protector and Patron Saint of Macedonia’s largest city, along with the Liberation of Thessaloniki by the Greek Army in 1912.
It was on this day in 1912 when freedom bells rang in Thessaloniki, as the Greek army liberated the city from Ottoman rule and the city was united to Greece after five centuries of Turkish occupation.
Dimitrios was the son of a wealthy military commander of Thessaloniki and received a good education as a child. He also joined the army and became an officer. When he was young, he decided to secretly become baptised as a Christian, something forbidden in those years, when idolatric gods were still worshiped. When his father died, the Roman emperor Maximian ordered him to chase and kill the Christians of Thessaloniki.
Dimitrios refused to do so and revealed his faith. He was asked to change his religious beliefs but refused once again and expressed his disgust for idolatry. Therefore, he was sent to prison, was tortured and died for God. Before he died, he donated all his wealth to the poor. His bravery and sacrifice made him an Orthodox Saint. When the emperor Constantine the Great ended the prosecution of the Christians (324 A.D.) and made Christianity the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, people built a small church on the place of the martyrdom of Agios Dimitrios, close to the Roman baths. His grave was said to be miraculous and thousands of pilgrims were coming every year to pay their honours.
In 413 AD, a bigger three-aisled basilica was founded by the eparch (provincial governor) Leontios, which was burnt down two centuries later, in 634 A.D. Shortly afterward, an even bigger five-aisled basilica was built, which remains till today and constitutes the largest church of Greece. In 1493, during the Turkish occupation, the church was converted into a mosque and in 1912, when the city was deliberated, it became a Christian church again.
In 1917, it was once again destroyed by a fire and rebuilt according to the original plans. It started to function again in 1949. This church houses some spectacular Byzantine mosaics that have been restored and depicts Agios Dimitrios and the children of the city. The crypt of the saint, accessed by a staircase behind the sanctuary, is said to be the site where the saint was killed by the Roman soldiers and buried. His crypt was converted into an exhibition area in 1988, hosting articles that survived the 5th-century fire, like sculptures, vessels, and other decorative items.
Agios Dimitrios became the Patron Saint of the city in 1912, during the First Balkan War, when the Greek army entered the city of Thessaloniki on his name day (October 26th) and delivered the city from the Turks.
Today, his memory is celebrated every year, along with the deliberation of the city.
Xronia Polla Thessaloniki!