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December 12, 2007

Hagios Demetrios

Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonika
Church of Agios Dimitrios
*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Church of Hagios Demetrios.
State Party Flag of Greece Greece
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iv
Reference 456
Region Europe and North America
Coordinates 40°38′N 22°57′E / 40.633, 22.95
Inscription History
Inscription 1988 (12th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
Region as classified by UNESCO.

The Church of Saint Demetrius, or Hagios Demetrios (Greek: Άγιος Δημήτριος), is the main sanctuary dedicated to Saint Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessaloniki, dating from a time when it was the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire. It is part of the site Palaeochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki on the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 1988.

History

St Demetrios with children: one of very few Byzantine mosaics that escaped destruction from the hands of the Iconoclasts.
St Demetrios with children: one of very few Byzantine mosaics that escaped destruction from the hands of the Iconoclasts.

The first church on the spot was constructed in the early 4th century AD, replacing a Roman bath that used to stand there before. A century later, a prefect called Leontios had this small oratory replaced with a larger, three-aisled basilica. The church was repeatedly gutted by fires, and eventually was reconstructed as a five-aisled basilica in 629-634. This was the church much as it is today. It was the most important shrine in the city, probably larger that the local cathedral, whose very location is now unknown.

The church had an unusual shrine to the saint called the ciborium, a hexagonal roofed structure at one side of the nave, made of, or covered with, silver. This had doors, and inside a couch or bed. Also unusually, there were no physical relics of the saint, and the ciborium seems to have operated as a symbolic tomb. It was rebuilt at least once.[1]

The basilica is famous for six extant mosaic panels, dated to the period between the latest reconstruction and the inauguration of the Iconoclastic policies in 730. These mosaics, depicting St Demetrius with the officials responsible for the restoration (called the founders) or children, represent a rare example of this art surviving from the Dark Age that followed Justinian's death. An inscription below one of the images glorifies heavens for saving the people of Saloniki from a pagan Slavic raid in 612.

Other magnificent mosaics that used to cover the church interior perished either during four centuries when it functioned as a mosque (1493-1912) or in a great fire that in 1917 destroyed much of the city, including the roof and upper walls of the church. Black-and-white photographs and good watercolour copies give an idea of what a priceless monument of early Byzantine craftsmanship was lost during the fire.

It took decades to restore the church following the 1917 catastrophe. The excavations, conducted in the 1930s and 1940s, brought to life some interesting items that may be seen in a museum situated inside the church's crypt. The excavations uncovered the ruins of a Roman bath where St. Demetrius had supposedly been held prisoner and later executed. A Roman well was discovered too and it is believed that it's the same well that the soldiers who executed St. Demetrius dropped his body later.

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