THESSALONIKI, Greece — Under waving Greek and Byzantine flags, three men erected a party tent on the terrace of the 5th-century Osios David Church on a recent Saturday, hoping it would shelter festival-goers from the heat that was already shrouding the view of Mount Olympus across the gulf.
This is Thessaloniki in an instant – a seaside treasure trove of early Christian art and architecture, with echoes of the sacred all around the city, from the mythical mountain home of the ancient Greek gods to the contemporary Orthodox Christian monasticism of Mount Athos.
Pervasive but more hidden traces of Islam and Judaism also persist, although many monuments were destroyed in a fire in 1917.
“People see the (archaeological) ruins next to them, but no one knows the diversity of history,” said Angeliki Ziaka, professor of religion at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “Now is the time to rebuild this knowledge, to rediscover the interbreeding of cultures.”
Each of the past six years I have spent at least a few days in and around Greece’s second largest metropolis, which is bubbling with the energy of a city historically at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, at halfway between Athens and Istanbul.
I find Thessaloniki eminently walkable even in the summer heat, thanks to an endless supply of the iced coffee drink called Frappé and sea breezes from the Thermaic Gulf. Towering above its waters are the iconic White Tower and a beloved mile-long promenade.
Simple meanders lead to landmarks woven into today’s urban fabric: On my way to buy roses at the flower market, I discovered a 500-year-old public bath (hammam) built by the Ottomans in the multi-domed style of Byzantine architecture and named Yahudi Hammam, after the Sephardic Jews who settled there.
The still-functioning hammams and markets were for centuries meeting places for the city’s Jews, Muslims and Christians, who lived in separate quarters, Ziaka said.
For centuries of Muslim Ottoman rule – a legacy perhaps most immediately visible in today’s profusion of bustling cafes – Thessaloniki was home to a thriving Jewish community. His story, told by the Jewish Museum, will be further highlighted in a Holocaust museum and educational center in the works.
Until the early 20th century, most Muslims lived in the Ano Poli, a peaceful maze of walled gardens, wooden-detailed overhanging upper-storey houses, and steeply sloping streets leading to a hilltop fortress. a hill.
But more than a millennium before the Ottoman conquest, it was here that Saint Paul first brought Christianity to the Thessalonians – to whom he later wrote some of Christendom’s most widely read letters.
Churches dating back centuries to when Thessaloniki was a center of the Byzantine Empire still dot the labyrinthine landscape.
In a tiny alley lined with fruit trees that opens to a spectacular view of the sea, little Osios David preserves in its dome a 1,600-year-old mosaic of Christ presiding over heavenly rivers full of fish, with two prophets of the Old Testament gazing in amazement.
Twelfth-century frescoes adorn the walls, although the town’s most notable murals are in Agios Nikolaos Orfanos, another small church in Ano Poli at the bottom of a garden. Their colors still vivid after 700 years, they depict the lives of Jesus, prophets and saints in minute, individual detail, such as a hermit’s flowing beard and matching striped tunic and bonnet.
Just below the church is the Rotunda, a capsule of Thessaloniki’s interconnected religious history.
The vast circular building was built as a Roman temple or mausoleum in the 300s, shortly afterwards became a Christian church, later a mosque – whose tall minaret remains standing – and is now a museum and sanctuary for dozens of swifts that fly chirping around this.
The liturgy is still celebrated a dozen times a year, but most visitors come for the early Byzantine golden mosaics adorning the huge dome, depicting a fusion of Roman architecture and Christian worship with people praying outside the buildings. most luxurious of the empire.
From the distinctive hairstyles of worshipers to the curtains fluttering in the pavilions behind them, it’s a slice of early Christianity that comes to life – the beginning of a religious story that continues uninterrupted to this day, as in the woman kissing icons at the around the corner at Agios Panteleimon, a church built in the late 13th century and still in active use.
Its precise masonry, the exuberance of the domes and rounded windows and niches – and its location in a garden full of oleander bushes surrounded by café terraces – make it quintessential Thessaloniki.
There are many more churches and museums to explore in the city, but I always try to take trips to the countryside.
In the fertile plains to the west are the remains of the city’s founding dynasty – that of Alexander the Great, born in ancient Pella and celebrated in its museum and excavations.
Less than an hour away, the Aigai Royal Tombs Museum takes you underground to a recreation of the burial mounds of Alexander’s father and other members of the Macedonian royal family. In the dark exhibition halls, works of art like a massive wreath of nearly 400 golden oak leaves and acorns shine blindingly.
The same goes for sun on the beaches of Halkidiki, the three-fingered peninsula that stretches into the Aegean Sea southeast of Thessaloniki.
From the pine-topped white rock formations of my favorite, Kavourotrypes Beach, I can see the holy Mount Athos across the bay.
Through the binoculars of the owner of the beach bar, I can even make out several of his Orthodox Christian monasteries, part of a complex dating from Byzantine times where around 2,000 monks live.
Since women aren’t allowed to walk on Mount Athos, although we can get close to it on boat trips, I just sip another hit before plunging into the transparent sea.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.