The Byzantine Churches of Athens (PHOTOS)

Church of Agioi Apostoloi Solaki (Ancient Agora) Byzantine Athens

Although Athens is known for its classical history, a fact clearly visible by the countless ancient monuments and sites found across the Greek capital, what is often overlooked is the city's medieval Byzantine (Eastern Roman) history and legacy.

Travelers to the Greek capital can immerse themselves in the stunning architecture of Byzantine Churches steeped in the rich and mystagogical history of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The 11th and 12th centuries are considered the golden ages of Athenian Byzantine art, many which can be seen at the Byzantine and Christian Museum.

Almost all popular and remarkable Byzantine churches in the city were built during these two centuries and owe their existence to the Christian restoration that followed the crusade of Emperor Vassilios the Second in the Balkans.

One of the city’s most famous Byzantine structures is that of Panagia Kapnikarea (Virgin Mary Church) located on Ermou Street in downtown Athens.

The bustling streets of the historic city and the incredible fusion of the neoclassical buildings with the ancient structures of classical Athens and the more modern edifices, is the perfect backdrop for a leisurely walk to discover Byzantine Athens.

One of the easiest, and most affordable ways to get to know “Athens of Byzantium” is to book a walking tour. So put on your shoes and get ready to be immersed in a hidden era of the Middle Ages.

Church of Panagia Kapnikarea – Ermou Street

Byzantine Churches Athens Panagia Kapnikarea
The church of Panagia Kapnikarea, constructed in 1050AD, is located in the middle of the main mercantile street in Athens. Photograph: SS/L.Andronov.

Panagia Kapnikarea, is one of the oldest churches in Athens found in the heart of Ermou Street, built around 1050AD, over the ruins of an ancient temple that honoured the goddess Athena or Dimitra.

This Byzantine church is dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin and belongs to the University of Athens.

Rare icons including the icon of Platytera or Our Lady of the Sign that depicts the Virgin Mary with Jesus Christ as a child, by one of Greece’s most celebrated hagiographers, Fotis Kontoglou.

The church’s name is linked with the family name “Kapnikares” and refers to the official charged with collecting tax on tobacco during the Byzantine period.

It was formerly known as “Kamoucharea” from the word “kamoucha”, which means fabrics that are interwoven with gold, referencing the many textile workshops in the area.

Byzantine Churches Athens Panagia Kapnikarea
The church of Panagia Kapnikarea. Photograph: Why Athens.

In 1834, after Greece had regained its independence and Athens, as the new capital, was in the midst of rebuilding, town planners of the day had resolved to either demolish or relocate the church to ensure a thoroughfare for horse and carriages.

The church had caught the eye of King Louis of Bavaria (father of the newly appointed King Otto of Greece) as an important landmark and together with Neophytos Metaxas, the Metropolitan Bishop of Athens, ensured the street was designed with the church in place.

The church celebrates its saints name day on 15 August.

Church of Panagia Pantanassa – Monastiraki Square

Byzantine Churches Athens Panagia Pantanassa
The Panagia Pantanassa pictured here on the lower left side of Monastirki Square. Photograph: Why Athens.

Panagia Pantanassa is one of the oldest churches in Athens (circa 10th century) located in Monastiraki Square.

“Monastiraki” meaning small monastery refers to its origins as a monastery which was once annexed to the Monastery of Kaisariani and used by monks during the Frankish occupation and later as a nunnery.

The monastery cells were located in what we see today as the public square.

Approximately 1/3 of the church is below ground level.

The church is a barrel-vaulted basilica denoting the transition from late antiquity to the Byzantine and Medieval World, although its bell tower along with the frescoes and iconography are more recent additions.

The church celebrates its saints name day on 15 August.

The Church of Agios (Saint) Dimitrios Loumbardiaris – Acropolis Area

Byzantine Churches Athens Dimitrios Loumbardiaris
The church of St Dimitrios Loumbardiaris is nestled in the foothills of the western side of the Acropolis. Photograph: Why Athens.

Much of the preserved frescos date to 1732, as noted in the building inscription.

According to folklore, during Turkish occupation, a miracle saved this place of worship from total destruction in 1648, when the Turkish commander of the Acropolis, Yusuf, attempted to bomb the church with a large cannon ball or “loumbarda” from the Propylaea above.

The next day he and his family were struck by lightning. The church therefore became known as Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris (the Canoneer).

Byzantine Churches Athens Dimitrios Loumbardiaris
The cavernous single aisle church with its early 18th century frescos holds regular services. Photograph: Why Athens.

Significant restoration works were carried out in 1955 by the renowned 20th century Greek architect and city planner, Dimitris Pikionis whose work included the pedestrian walkways around Philopappos Hill and the two theatres, Odeon of Herodes Atticus and Theatre of Dionysos, utilising paving blocks and reused marble from neoclassical buildings around Athens.

The church celebrates its saints name day on 26 October.

Church of Agioi (Saint) Apostoloi Solaki – Holy Apostles Ancient Agora

Byzantine Churches Athens Holy Apostles Agora
The Church of the Holy Apostles in the Ancient Agora. Photograph: Why Athens.

Located in the southeast corner of the Ancient Agora, the parish was named “Solakis”, likely from the name of the family to which it belonged during Turkish occupation.

The church of the Holy Apostles was built towards the end of the 10th century partly over an ancient sanctuary and is the only medieval monument in the Ancient Agora to have survived the last few centuries of history.

It is a unique architectural example of middle Byzantine architecture; a cross-in-square church with a typical Athenian dome of eight sides, supported by small columns with marble arched cornices over the windows.

The outer walls of the church are decorated in Kufic script, the earliest form of the Arabic alphabet, dating from 7th century Iraq.

Over the centuries, the church has been distinctly modified on four separate occasions, with wall paintings dating back to the 17th century that were revealed beneath whitewashed walls of its last incarnation.

This small chapel was restored to its current Byzantine form in 1954-1956 by the American Archaeological School, which has undertaken the excavations at the site of the Ancient Agora.

The church celebrates its saints name day on 30 June.

The Church of Agios (Saint) Nikolaos Rangavas – Anafiotika

Byzantine Churches Athens Nikolaos Rangavas
The Athenian Dome and Kufic script are distinctive on the church of Saint Nikoloas Rangavas in Plaka. Photograph: Why Athens.

Located in Anafiotika beneath the slopes of the Acropolis, parts of the exterior of this 11th century church is decorated with Arabic calligraphy and “kufic” ornamentation.

It most likely took its name from the prominent family from Constantinople whose famous member was Byzantine Emperor Michail I Ragave (811-813).

The church is built over the remains of a 9th century temple of which two capitals have survived; one visible on the northeast side of the church and the other, a Corinthian capital, is seen supporting the altar.

When the Ottoman forces surrendered the fortress of the Acropolis on 24 May 1833, the church of St Nicholas was the first to ring its bell.

It rang again during the liberation of Athens from the German army on 12 October 1944, when the Greek flag flew once again over the Acropolis.

The church celebrates its saints name day on 6th December.

The Church of Agios (Saint) Eleftherios – Little Metropolis

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The Little Metropolis with its larger and younger cousin, the Metropolitan Cathedral in the background. Photograph: Why Athens.

Affectionately known as Little Metropolis, this tiny church is located next to the grand Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens or “The Great Metropolis” and was originally dedicated to Panagia Gorgoepikoos, after the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary that once laid here.

It is unclear when its construction took place exactly, but is generally attributed to the turn of the 13th century, led by the Archbishop of Athens Michael Acominatus Choniates (1180-1204).

The church is built over the ruins of the ancient temple of Eileithyia that honoured the goddess of childbirth. Its current name Saint Eleftherios, is the protector of pregnant women in Greek Orthodox Christianity.

Although it features a typical Byzantine layout of a cross-in-square, with an octagonal Athenian dome, it differs considerably from other Byzantine churches in Athens.

Its walls are built of reused marble rather than the typical cloisonné brick system of masonry and a frieze of 90 sculptural panels wrap the façade of the building to resemble an ancient temple, although the carved crosses clearly indicate messages of Christianity.

Byzantine Churches Athens Little Metropolis
Ornate inscriptions at the marble entrance to the Little Metropolis. Photograph: Why Athens.

More than a church, St Eleftherios has become a monument that links the glory of ancient Athens with Byzantine Athens, something which is credited to the progressive archbishop of the time who was well versed in Ancient Greek history and who admired rather than expelled its aesthetic values and mythological themes.

Its total restoration took place in 1856.

The church celebrates its saints name day on the 15th December.

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