Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

This modern museum, built probably in the past 10 years, contains some interesting artefacts from the Byzantine era. Like many Greek museums it is very well laid out and excellently labelled in Greek and English.

It covers the history of the eastern empire as it affected Thessaloniki through early Christian tombs through it icons, old printed books and every day items, such as this tableware:

Byzantine tableware

 

One of the most interesting aspects are the early Christian tombs. Initially the tombs are internally decorated with scenes from nature, depicting animals, fish and plants. Unfortunately, the lighting in the museum is too dark for me to get any acceptable pictures of them. But as time goes on they become simpler and then suddenly they start to depict the Cross.

Stele with cross

There are some interesting medieval icons:

Byzantine icon-3

Byzantine icon-2

Byzantine icon

But after the 15th century there is a definite fall off in quality with a heavy Italian influence that just does not look right.

One display focuses on the mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs which set off from this city and was the focus of one of my earlier blogs entries in the Fire and Ice series.

From Georgian drinking song to ‘Long live the Emperor!’

 

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos - last Emperor of Byzantium

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos – last Emperor of Byzantium

The leader of our local community choir is very keen on Georgian music and we have over the years performed some astonishing songs from that part of the world. The soundscape of this music is initially a bit alien to western ears: the bass part is often just a drone, the individual parts on their own sound a bit odd and the harmonies frequently clash in a completely unexpected way.

Also it often calls for singing in a calling voice, imagining that you are trying to make yourself heard across fields or on the other side of a valley. That takes a bit of practice as, at least to begin with, it feels like being asked to shout. But there is an energy and vitality to it that completely carries you away.

This week we really enjoyed a piece called Mravaljamieri which we thought was a Georgian drinking song. It was such an exciting and uplifting piece that I started to look for more information about it – and it turns out to have an interesting origin.

Mravaljamieri ‘ means ‘many years’ and is the Georgian version of the Greek Orthodox Polychronion. This is a chant sometimes performed at the end of the Divine Liturgy in honour of a bishop, priest or a member of the laity or just as a celebration of an event.

It reminded me of the time when I used to sing in a Russian Orthodox Church choir and we would sometimes break into this at the end of the service. In Russian it is called the Mnogaya leta.

In the Greek Orthodox Church it is used in a similar way, with the cantor or priest saying the name of the person to be commemorated and then the choir responding by chanting 3 times. It originated in Byzantium when the Polychronion was used as a chant to greet the Byzantine Emperor when he entered Haghia Sofia through the Imperial Doors and at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

In fact it is an adaptation of the Latin acclamation Ad multos annos (Many Years) used by the people to acclaim the Roman Emperor. It is remarkable that through singing and celebration we have this living link with such a remote past.

Arch of Galerius and Rotunda in Thessaloniki

Arch of Galerius

The Arch of Galerius was built in 298-299 AD to commemorate Galerius’s victory over the Persians and is in remarkable condition. The pillars are decorated with friezes celebrating the victory.

Arch of Galerius-2
Arch of Galerius-4The central arch spanned the old Via Egnatia, the road built by the Romans in 2nd century BC to connect Dyrrachium (now the city of Durres in modern Albania) on the Adriatic coast to Byzantium. Dyrrachium was a Roman colony and opposite the Roman ports of Bari and Brindisi on the other side of the Adriatic.

The Arch formed part of the road that connected the Palace of Galerius and the Rotunda. The Rotunda itself is a very impressive circular red brick structure built by Galerius in 306 AD. It’s not clear whether it was intended to be a mausoleum for Galerius himself or as a Temple to Zeus.

Rotounda-10It is one of the few intact Roman buildings in Greece. In the Christian area it was turned into a church (Agios Georgios) and later still a mosque after the city fell to the Turks in 1427 – a single minaret is still standing.

Arch of Galerius-5

Inside it is vast, with 6m thick walls and domed roof (originally with an opening or oculus in the centre) which is an impressive engineering achievement.. In the Christian era the dome would probably have depicted Christ Pantocrator, but this is no longer visible – possibly removed when it was turned into a mosque.One of the few figures that can be made out is the head and tops of the wings of an archangel.

Rotounda-4

In the dome there are some wonderful scenes of buildings and peacocks.

Rotounda

Rotounda-5

Rotounda-8

I managed to take the shot below of Christ appearing to the disciples, but most of the faces have been obliterated. This was a frequent occurrence when churches were turned into mosques, in accordance with the Islamic injunction against depicting the human form.

Rotounda-6

The inside of the building was undergoing a lot of restoration work, so it is hard to convey the interior through photographs (apart from the fact that it is also very dark).

Interestingly I saw this cross on one of the entrance arches into the Rotunda. During the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium  (8th century) there was a major theological dispute in the eastern church over whether it was acceptable to depict Christ and the saints. Opponents of images (the Iconoclasts) quoted the 2nd commandment to support their case and pointed to Muslim successes in battle against them as evidence that the prohibition of images would enable them to stem the Muslim advance. Wall mosaics and frescoes depicting figures were replaced by this simple form of cross.

Rotounda-7

Finally as I left the building I noticed a feature which seems to sum up the history of this ancient city. Over one of the entrance doors, carved into the stone lintel, was Arabic calligraphy (presumably a quotation from the Quran) – and above that an icon of St George and the date 1912, the year when Thessaloniki became part of Greece again.

Rotunda with Arabic calligraphy and icon

Palace of Galerius in Thessaloniki

Palace of Galerius

Parts of the Palace of Galerius can still be seen and visited for free in a square in modern Thessaloniki, though much if it is covered over  by the surrounding blocks of flats.

Galerius was one of the four tetrarchs, (one of two junior emperors, the other being Constantius) appointed by Diocletian in 293 AD to rule a quarter of the Roman Empire alongside his co-emperor, Augustus. As well as building the Palace and part of the city walls, he also built a hippodrome, triumphal arches and the Rotunda.

On the ground it is difficult to get a sense of what the different parts of the ruins relate to the Palace as a whole, though as with many sites in Greece it is well signed and the information boards are written in excellent English.

Much of the lower part of the city of Thessaloniki was destroyed in the fire of 1917 and had to be re-built. It is interesting to note that the lower storey buildings (3rd from the right in the top right hand corner of the above photograph) are typical of the housing that was re-built after the fire. Much of this old style of building was however destroyed in the German bombardment of the city during the Second World War or replaced in the building boom from the 1950s onwards.