The Russian church of Athens December 17 2015
The imposing Russian church is not only one of the oldest churches in Athens, but also one of the most fascinating. This historic Christian temple has many secrets, from an ancient crypt to a very unusual painting of St. Paul depicting Greece’s first King Otto I, tiles decorated with Arabic letters, and the tomb of the richest person in the world.
Rising from a small square, just opposite the entrance to the National Garden, this was once the largest church in the city. Built in 1031 by the aristocratic Lykodemou family, it was initially dedicated to Panagia Soteira (Our Lady the Savior), and used to be the main church (Catholicon) of a convent. A large cruciform building, its most unusual feature is a wide dome, 10 m (33 ft.) in diameter, while the cloisonné masonry with blocks of limestone framed by thin bricks follows the Byzantine style of the day.
A remarkable feature on the external walls is a frieze of small tiles decorated with pseudo-kufic decorative patterns, imitating the old Arabic writing in which the Koran was first written in the city of Kufa, in present-day Iraq. While most of the interior decoration was lost some original mural paintings still remain on the southern wall, depicting Jesus, Saint Stephen and Saint John the Apostle.
In the following centuries, historical events sealed the fate of Soteira Lykodemou. During the Frankish period (1204-1669) the convent was converted into a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery but, following the Ottoman conquests, it was handed over once again to the Orthodox Church. In 1780 the Turkish voivode (governor) Hadji Ali Haseki, demolished all the additional monastery buildings to use its materials for the defensive wall that he built around the city.
The church received more damage from Greek shells fired from the Acropolis in 1827 during the siege of the city by the Ottoman army in the events that followed the 1821 Greek Declaration of Independence. It remained half-ruined and derelict until it was purchased by the Russian government 20 years later. By 1850, the building had been restored and the interior has been remodeled in the fashion of nineteenth century Russian church interiors. It was then consecrated as the church of the Holy Trinity.
Its interior was decorated by the Bavarian painter Ludwig Thiersch, who in a fresco of St. Paul portrayed actually King Otto of Greece. The original low marble Byzantine screen (iconostasis) was replaced by a taller one according to the Russian tradition. The separate belltower also dates from the 19th century, its bell a gift from Czar Alexander II. During restoration the builders of the church used marble originating from the Choragic Monument of Thrassylus (a pedestal dating back to 319 BC that formed the display base for a prize won at an ancient drama festival), much to the dismay of the Archaeological Society.
The restoration has led to the discovery of an ancient crypt. it was soon realized that the church was built on the site of an early Christian basilica which in its turn had been built over a Roman bath. A small iron trap door on the garden of the church leads to the crypt where the hypocaust (underfloor heating system) of the roman baths can still be seen. The archaeological exploration of the bath was supervised by the first Russian priest at the Church of the Savior, Archimandrite Antonin Kapustin, who later founded the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem.
Athens’ Russian community grew in size as many White Russian émigrés who were able to escape Russia during the 1918 Revolution came to Athens to settle there temporary or permanently. The majority of these refugees had left Russia by way of the Southern borders. Many people traveled via Constantinople and hesitated to go to the West, because they kept hoping that the Revolution would end soon, so that they could return to their homeland. Among them was Count Elim Pavlovich Demidov, Russian Empire’s last ambassador to the Greek court, and his wife Countess Sophia Ilaryonovna. They lived in Athens for the rest of their lives and were both interred in the church’s garden.
The church is still in use by the Russian community. Services are held on Sundays at 7.30am (Greek) and 9am (Greek and Russian).
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Written by: Nicolas Nicolaides