Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Greece | Thessaloniki | Galerius | Rotunda

After three months of semi-occultation in Zaisan Tolgoi, Mongolia, I flew from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul. The plane left sixteen hours late because of a huge snow storm that hit Ulaanbaatar the night before. I was almost in a wreck on the way to the airport. The roads were horrific; cars were flying around like hockey pucks. Finally at one o’clock in the morning the plane took off. The flight to Istanbul took eleven grueling hours. Oddly enough for this flight, we encountered no turbulence,  not even over the Tian Shan. Because of the Recent Visa Flap I did not go through Immigration in Istanbul, but continued directly on to Athens. As soon as the plane began its descent into the city we hit severe turbulence. For the first time in years I was overcome by motion sickness on an airplane. I would have hurled that there been anything in my stomach to hurl, but there wasn’t. Luckily I had skipped the in-flight breakfast. That would have been really gross.

 I spent the night in Athens at my Favorite Hotel, located literally in the shadow of the Acropolis. The next morning I took the train north to Thessaloniki, where I intend to resume the Role of Flâneur that I was enjoying last summer. I am staying at the same hotel, in fact the exact same room I stayed in on three previous stays in Thessaloniki. The room is on the top floor, at the very end of the hall. It has to be the most remote room in the hotel. I figure the receptionist correctly pegged me as an incorrigible misanthrope who just wanted to be left alone. It is indeed quiet, and having checked in, I move in and out of the hotel like a ghost. The receptionist does not even see me coming or going, or pretends not to. 

From the hotel it is about a twenty minute walk east on Egnatia, the main drag through the city, to the huge monument now generally referred to as the Rotunda. I am particularly eager to see the Rotunda since it was built by the Roman ruler Galerius (c. 260 – c. 311). Galerius first came to my attention when I was in Venice and saw the statue of the Four Tetrarchs embedded in the southeast corner of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was then that I decided I had to further investigate his career in Thessaloniki. 
The Four Tetrarchs, embedded in the wall of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is not clear which one is Galerius (click on photos for  enlargements).
The Four Tetrarchs were the four emperors who ruled the Roman Empire from 293 to 313. The emperor Diocletian, sensing that he could not govern the vast Roman Empire by himself, had in 286 appointed his general Maximian as co-emperor, with himself in charge of the eastern part of the empire, and Maximian in charge of the west. Both assumed the title of Augustus. In 293 he delegated even more power by naming two Caesars or junior emperors, each of whom reported to an Augustus. The two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. The four made up a Tetrarchy, or rule by four. The statues of the Tetrarchs has originally stood in the Philadelphion, a square in Constantinople (Istanbul). During the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians and Frankish crusaders the statues were seized as war booty and taken to Venice, where they can still be seen today.
The Domains of the Four Tetrarch
Galerius erected several monumental structures in Thessaloniki, including a palace, the ruins of which can still be seen, a huge ceremonial arch, sections of which still exist, and the Rotunda. Construction of the Rotunda began in 306. The round structure is eighty feet in diameter and ninety feet high, with walls almost twenty feet thick. Although damaged by the many earthquakes that have plagued Thessaloniki over the centuries it has never been destroyed. Historians are not quite sure why Galerius built the Rotunda. He certainly did not intend it to be a Christian church, since at the time the Rotunda was built he was violently anti-Christian. He may have intended the building to be used as his mausoleum, but he ended up being interred in Gamzigard, in what is now Serbia. Or he may have intended the structure to be temple to one of the Roman gods; if so, he never said which one. 

After Galerius’s death the building stood empty until 326, when Constantine, founder of Constantinople and defender of Christianity, ordered that it be turned into a church. Some Greek historians have claimed that is the oldest surviving church in the world. This seems unlikely. There are probably older Christian churches in Asia and Africa (the dating of old churches is a contentious issue). It may be the second oldest church in Europe, after the Cathedral of Saint Domnius in Croatia. It is certainly the oldest church in Thessaloniki. In the late fourth century a bema, or sanctuary, was added on the the east side of the building and a propylon and chapels were constructed on the north side. The interior of the dome was decorated with the mosaics for which the Byzantines are famous..

The building continued to be used as a church until Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1590 it was converted into a mosque and renamed Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi. A minaret was added at this time. After the Ottomans were ejected from Thessaloniki in 1912 the structure was reconsecrated as a church. It now serves as a museum, although the East Sanctuary is occasionally used for religious services.

According to an informant in the USA, drone footage of the Rotunda recently appeared, very briefly, in the TV show “The Black List”, starring James Spader. I have not seen the show myself. 
The Rotunda
The Rotunda
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary

Another view of The Rotunda
Interior of the Rotunda
Eastern Sanctuary in the Rotunda
Remnants of  Byzantine mosaics on the dome of the Rotunda

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