Thessaloniki metro construction reveals Byzantine treasures

Hellenistic era building foundations, found at Agia Sophia Station, Thessaloniki CREDIT: GREEK MINISTRY OF CULTURE

The construction of a metro network beneath the Greek city of Thessaloniki has unearthed an extraordinary treasure trove of ancient artefacts, from gold wreaths and rings to statues of the goddess Aphrodite. The progress of the metro system has been delayed because of the sheer number of items that have been found beneath the streets of Greece’s second city.

By Nick Squires

First published in the Telegraph.

Archeologists have dug up more than 300,000 artefacts, from coins and jewellery to marble statues, amphorae, oil lamps and perfume vases.

They were found in what would have been the thriving commercial centre of the ancient city, which was the second most important conurbation in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople.

During the construction of the metro network, archeologists found a stone-paved road, the Decumanus Maximus, which would have run through the heart of Thessaloniki in the sixth century AD, as well as the remains of villas, shops, workshops and an early Christian church.

More than 5,000 tombs and graves were uncovered, some of them containing exquisite golden wreaths.

“The excavations are the biggest archaeological project of recent years in Greece,” Yannis Mylopoulos, the chairman of Attiko Metro, the company building the network, told The Telegraph.

“The quality and the quantity of the findings is really impressive. They reveal the continuity of the history of Thessaloniki and Macedonia.”

Gold crown from a burial dating to the late 4th – early 3rd century. BC found at Syntrivani Station, Thessaloniki CREDIT: GREEK MINISTRY OF CULTURE

Several statues of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, were discovered, and she was also depicted in mosaics, with one showing her lying back on a couch in front of Eros. “A large number of statues depicting Aphrodite have been found in the city centre, while several more came to light in the area around the Church of the Acheiropoietos (a fifth century AD Byzantine church),” Dr Polyxeni Adam-Veleni, the head of the antiquities department in Thessaloniki, told a recent conference on the discoveries.

The fact that statues of Aphrodite dating from as late as the fourth century AD were found shows that “Thessaloniki served as a powerful bastion of the old religions until late antiquity,” said Prof Adam-Veleni.

Thessaloniki was established in the fourth century BC and became an important trading and military hub of the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire.

It remained a powerful city into the medieval era, with a population of more than 100,000 in the 14th century – greater than that of London.

Work on the new metro system, which is designed to ease traffic congestion and reduce air pollution in the city, began in 2006.

The network of 18 stations was supposed to have been finished in 2012, but progress was stalled by the discovery of so many antiquities. It is now due to be operational next year.

The 100 yard-long paved road – the Decumanus Maximus – will remain in situ and will be incorporated into one of the network’s stations, Eleftherios Venizelos, named after a prominent politician and national hero from the early 20th century.

“People will be able to see it when they enter and exit the metro station and can even go down and walk on it if they want,” said Prof Mylopoulos.

The station of Hagia Sophia, named after the city’s Byzantine church, will also feature a permanent exhibition of archeological discoveries, including funerary monuments. Incorporating ancient archeological sites into an underground rail network was a huge challenge in terms of both engineering and expense – the cost of the archeological excavations ran to 130 million.

Rome unveiled a similar initiative two years ago – a brand new metro station in the city centre in which ancient artefacts found during its construction are on display in glass cases.

The items on display at San Giovanni metro station include bronze fish hooks from an ancient Roman fish farm, iron spearheads, gold coins decorated with emperors’ heads and marble statues of scantily-clad nymphs.

As passengers descend the station’s escalators, they travel back in time, from the Middle Ages to Imperial Rome and right back to Republican Rome. The deeper they go, the further back in history they find themselves.

The rest of the findings from the metro excavation will be displayed in various museums in Thessaloniki.

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The Seljuks: Nomads Who Built an Empire and Took On Byzantine Power

Malik-Shah I, ruler of the Seljuks, seated on his throne.

I thought this an interesting little piece about the Seljuks who I could do with knowing more about. It was they who defeated the Romans at the Battle of Manzikert, capturing Byzantine emperor, Romanos IV. It was a defeat that the empire really never recovered from.

First published in Ancient Origins.

The Seljuk Empire was a medieval empire that existed between the 11th and 12th centuries. They are most famous for their invasions and battles against the Byzantine Empire and later their role in the First Crusade. Although the Seljuks were originally a Turkic people, they intermarried with the Persians and adopted much of their culture and language.

At its most extent, the Seljuk (Seljuq) Empire stretched from Central Asia in the east all the way to Anatolia in the west. By the end of the 12th century, however, the Seljuk Empire had fragmented into a number of smaller states which were ruled by other dynasties. Nevertheless, the Seljuks continued to rule over Anatolia as the Sultanate of Rum.

The Seljuks were originally Turkic nomads who inhabited the steppes of Central Asia and Southeast Russia. The name of this people is taken from their traditional ancestor, Seljuk, who was a chief of the Qinik, a branch of the Oghuz Turks . Around 950 AD, Seljuk migrated to Khwarezm while serving in the Khazar army. Later on, around 985, Seljuk led a confederation of nine Turkic tribes to Persia, where they settled down and converted to Sunni Islam .

The Seljuks allied themselves with the Persian Samanid Empire and intermarried with the local Persian population. As a result, many aspects of Persian culture and language were adopted by the newcomers. The alliance with the Samanids did not last for long, however, as they were destroyed by the Qarakhanids in 999. The Samanids were replaced by the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks were at war with them.

It was two of Seljuk’s grandsons, Tughril Beg and Chaghri Beg, who fought against the Ghaznavids. Although the Ghaznavids had the upper hand initially, they were decisively defeated by the Seljuks in 1039 at the Battle of Dandanaqan. As a consequence, most of the western territories of the Ghaznavids were handed over to the Seljuks. This marked the establishment of the Seljuk Empire, and the two grandsons of Seljuk are credited with its foundation.

Tughril died in 1063 and was succeeded by his nephew, Alp Arslan, who continued the expansion of the empire. It was during the reign of Alp Arslan and his successor, Malik Shah I, that the Seljuk Empire reached its height of power. Alp Arslan expanded into Armenia and Georgia and fought against the Byzantine Empire .

In 1071, Alp Arslan won a decisive victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert . The Byzantine emperor, Romanos IV, was taken prisoner by the Seljuks and Byzantine control over Anatolia weakened considerably. Nevertheless, Alp Arslan did not live long enough to conquer Anatolia, as he died in the following year.

Alp Arslan was succeeded by his son, Malik Shah I, who continued his father’s military campaigns. It was during his reign that Anatolia was conquered by the Seljuks. In the east, the Seljuks fought against the Qarakhanids and were able to expand into Central Asia all the way to the western borders of China.

When Malik Shah died in 1092, the Seljuk Empire lost its unity, as his brother and four sons fought for power. Although Malik Shah’s son, Mahmud I became the new ruler of the Seljuk Empire, he was not able to hold the empire together.

His claim to the throne was contested by his three brothers, Barkiyaruq, Muhammad I, and Ahmad Sanjar, who had established themselves in Iraq, Baghdad, and Khorasan respectively. Additionally, a distant relative, Kilij Arslan I, had founded the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia, while Syria came under the rule of Tutush I, one of Kilij Arslan’s brothers.

While this fragmentation was going on, the Seljuks faced a new enemy from the west in the form of the First Crusade . The Seljuks were unable to unite against the Crusaders and the various Seljuk rulers allied themselves with or fought against the invaders as they saw fit. Although the Seljuk rulers dreamt of reunifying their empire, this was never achieved.

The Seljuk Empire continued its existence in the century that followed, though it no longer wielded the power it once enjoyed under Alp Arslan and Malik Shah I. In 1194, the Seljuk Empire lost much of its eastern territories to the Khwarazmians and the last Seljuk ruler of Iran, Tughril III, was killed in a battle against them. Seljuk power survived in Anatolia as the Sultanate of Rum , until it was vassalized by the Mongols following the Battle of Kose Dag in 1243.

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Ancient Garbage Heaps Show Fading Byzantine Empire Was ‘Plagued’ By Disease and Climate Change

About a century before the fall of the Byzantine Empire — the eastern portion of the vast Roman Empire — signs of its impending doom were written in garbage. Reports Mindy Weisberger in Live Science.

Archaeologists recently investigated accumulated refuse in trash mounds at a Byzantine settlement called Elusa in Israel’s Negev Desert. They found that the age of the trash introduced an intriguing new timeline for the Byzantine decline, scientists reported in a new study. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

The researchers discovered that trash disposal — once a well-organized and reliable service in outpost cities like Elusa — ceased around the middle of the sixth century, about 100 years prior to the empire’s collapse. At that time, a climate event known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age was taking hold in the Northern Hemisphere, and an epidemic known as the Justinian plague raged through the Roman Empire, eventually killing over 100 million people.

Together, disease and climate change took a devastating economic toll and loosened Rome’s grip on its lands to the east a century earlier than once thought, according to the study.

Elusa was already partly excavated, but the new investigation was the first to explore the site’s long-ignored trash heaps, lead study author Guy Bar-Oz, a professor of archaeology at the University of Haifa in Israel, told Live Science in an email.

Unlike the architecture of an ancient city, which could be repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, landfills steadily accumulated over time, creating continuous records of human activity. Clues found in preserved garbage dumps could thereby reveal if a city was thriving or in trouble.

“For me, it was clear that the true gold mine of data about daily life and what urban existence in the past really looked like was in the garbage,” Bar-Oz said.

In the dump sites, the scientists found a variety of objects: ceramic pot sherds, seeds, olive pits, charcoal from burned wood and even evidence of discarded “gourmet foods” imported from the Red Sea and the Nile, the study authors reported.

The scientists carbon-dated organic material such as seeds and charcoal in layers of trash mounds located near the city. They found that trash had built up in that location over a period of about 150 years and that the accumulation terminated in the middle of the sixth century. This suggested there was a failure of infrastructure, which happens when a city is about to collapse, the researchers noted.

Based on the new evidence, researchers concluded that Elusa’s decline began at least a century before Islamic rule wrested control of the region from the Romans. In fact, Elusa was struggling during a period that was relatively peaceful and stable; it was during this time that the Roman Emperor Justinian was expanding the empire’s boundaries across Europe, Africa and Asia, Bar-Oz said.

With the empire enjoying “a period of glorious success,” it would seem logical to expect that its outposts would be financially secure, Bar-Oz said. Yet the data the researchers collected suggested the opposite.

“Instead, we are seeing a signal for what was really going on at that time and which has long been nearly invisible to most archaeologists — that the empire was being plagued by climatic disaster and disease,” Bar-Oz explained.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Museum Of Russian Icons Announces Partnership With The British Museum

It is a great shame that the British Museum has so few icons in its collection, but those that it does have are of major significance, and can now be viewed in the online catalogue of the Museum of Russian Icons in collaboration with the British Museum and curated by the world renowned Professor Robin Cormack with Professor Maria Vassilaki.

You can view the British Museum contribution here.

The Museum of Russian Icons (MoRI) has been selected by The British Museum to host their online catalogue for Byzantine and Greek icons, featuring 32 historically significant works created between the 13th and 19th centuries. The catalogue ( features photos and object entries generated directly from the collection database, reflecting the most current research and study of these important works.

The only museum in the U.S. dedicated to Russian icons, MoRI holds the largest collection of icons outside of Russia; and serves as a leading international centre for research and scholarship through the Center for Icon Studies (CIS). This partnership is the result of a long-term relationship which started in 2010 with the collaborative exhibition Saints and Dragons: Icons from Byzantium to Russia, that featured works from the British Museum’s and MoRI’s collections.

According to MoRI CEO and Curator Kent Russell, “The Museum of Russian Icons, while only a decade old, has forged this amazing partnership with the renowned British Museum in record time. We have secured our own international reputation as a research center for the study of icons-representing the Russian, Slavonic, Greek and Byzantine cultures-with this cataloguing joint venture.”

The British Museum’s entire collection of icons, numbering just over 100 items, constitutes the largest public collection of icons in the United Kingdom. The collection falls into three discrete areas: Byzantine icons, dating from between the mid-13th to the late 14th century and Greek (mainly Cretan) icons, ranging in date from the 14th through to the 19th century; and Russian icons. Their subjects show the narratives of the Christian story, of the saints and predominantly of the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Well represented in the collections is art created in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 AD); and important icons produced by the artists of the island of Crete, distinctive for their synthesis of traditional Byzantine forms with the new ideas of painting in Renaissance Italy, which was under Venetian control from the early 13th century up to 1669.

The majority of the icons in the British Museum are gifts or bequests, and in this respect, they reflect the tastes and interests of the various donors. One, the icon with St. Jerome, has a fascinating modern history. It was acquired by the famous Victorian connoisseur John Ruskin (1819-1900) in the 19th century, was later donated to the National Gallery in 1922, and subsequently was transferred to the British Museum in 1994. It has only recently been identified as a work by a 15th-century Cretan-trained artist, who may have painted it in Venice.

The curators of the web catalogue are Professor Robin Cormack; Professor Maria Vassilaki; Dr. Eleni Dimitriadou; and (in one entry) Dr. Dimitra Kotoula; with contributions from Christopher Entwistle, and special thanks to Professor Wendy Salmond (editor, Journal of Icons Studies, Chapman University).

Learn more about Museum of Russian Icons here.

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Celebrating Orthodox Christmas with Cappella Romana

Dear Friends,

Another year has passed, and another year when I was too distracted to post much on here for which I apologise. I could not let Orthodox Christmas pass without wishing you all the very best wishes and a happy Christmas, with wishes for good health in 2019.

Please enjoy some splendid music by Cappella Romana who never disappoint!


“Secretly you were born in a cave, but heaven proclaimed you to all, using the star as its mouth, O Saviour. It brought you Magi, who worshipped you in faith. Have mercy on them and on us.”

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The Laconian plain viewed fron the fortress of Villehardouin

The city of Mystras, the historic place where the last Byzantine emperor was crowned, now sits abandoned on the steep slopes of the Taygetus Mountains that tower over the Laconian plain. The ruins that remain transport visitors through a breathtaking, finely preserved medieval Byzantine city.

The imposing fortress of Villehardouin crowns the highest point of the city and possesses the most fabulous views of the site. Its namesake, William II of Villehardouin, was Prince of Achaea, one of the anemic Latin crusader states established after France, Venice, and the Holy Roman Empire carved up the Byzantine Empire after the tragic Fourth Crusade of 1204.

After the territory was reclaimed by the Byzantines in 1262, the site on which Villehardouin had built the fortress became the city of Mystras. Its strategic mountain location was increasingly more useful to the Byzantines, who were besieged on all sides by treacherous western adventurers and the seemingly unstoppable Ottoman Turks.

Connected to the fortress through a descending series of narrow staircases and decaying arches are seven medieval churches in various states of preservation. The Peribleptos Monastery contains rare, colorful frescoes which depict Gospel scenes as well as a gruesome illustration of the damned in hell. The Pantanassa Monastery is the only still-occupied building in the city—here lives a small group of nuns, who tend to the garden and feed a bustling local colony of feral cats.

Elsewhere on a steep rock face sits the magnificent Palace of the Despots, named for the peculiar title of the Byzantine royals who ruled the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. Located below the palace, the Metropolitan Church of St. Demetrius contains the colorful frescoes and a marble engraving of the crowned two-headed eagle of the coat of arms of the final emperors, the Palaiologos.

In addition to its role in the political world of medieval Greece, Mystras was a center of a late-Byzantine cultural and artistic flowering that influenced the Renaissance. Its most famous resident was the philosopher Gemistus Pletho, an iconoclastic scholar who studied Aristotle, Zoroastrianism, and Jewish Kabbalah under the Turks in Edirne. Plethon advocated (to a horrified Orthodox clergy) for a Byzantine revival of the Greek pantheon ruled by Zeus, and his 15th-century voyage to Florence reintroduced the works of Plato to the West.

Mystras fell to the Ottomans in 1460 and was inhabited until the 19th-century Greek War of Independence, after which it was abandoned. Travelers of that era ironically mistook its ruins for those of Sparta, another abandoned Peloponnesian city located just below Mystras on the Laconian plain.

Because Mystras is located on a mountainside, a visit to the city involves moderately strenuous hiking. The site has two entrances: one at the base of the site and another at the top (near the fortress). If arriving by taxi from Sparta, it is highly advised to be driven to the upper entrance and walk down, rather than entering below and climbing up. Public buses travel to the site from Sparta daily. Open year-round.

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Albania’s Voskopoja churches make it to Europe’s 7 most endangered heritage sites

Voskopoja church

Voskopoja church

Continuing the focus on endangered churches in Albania, there is good and bad news. The post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq, southeastern Albania, have made it to Europe’s seven most endangered heritage sites for 2018, in a ranking that helps mobilise support for one of Albania’s landmark heritage sites. However, how that support may materialise, and what can be done to prevent further damage and theft whilst conservation efforts are mobilised, is another question altogether. We can all help by visiting these 12 churches and joining groups that can help the protection and restoration.

From the Tirana Times

The post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq, southeastern Albania, have made it to Europe’s seven most endangered heritage sites for 2018, in a ranking that helps mobilize support for one of Albania’s landmark heritage sites.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Gjirokastra, southern Albania, was also shortlisted among the 12 most endangered sites but did not make it to the top seven.

Albania’s 17th and 18th century post-Byzantine churches made the list because of “war, plundering and natural disasters having seriously damaged this group of 12 churches,” says Netherlands-based Europa Nostra, a leading European heritage organization.

“The listed Church of Saint George in Voskopoja, which won a Europa Nostra Award in 2011 for its outstanding conservation, now faces the threat of theft and highlights the urgency with which these remarkable churches need to be protected,” the watchdog says.

The historic centre of Vienna, the Constanta Casino in Romania, the Prinkipo Greek orphanage on Princes’ Islands in Turkey, and the Grimsby ice factory in the United Kingdom were among the other sites to make it to the seven most endangered list.

The multidisciplinary Europa Nostra-led teams visiting the endangered sites are expected to provide technical advice, identify possible sources of funding and mobilise wide support to save these heritage landmarks as well as formulate feasible action plans for the listed sites by the end of the year.

“This newest list of 7 Most Endangered comprises rare treasures of Europe’s cultural heritage that are in danger of being lost. The local communities are deeply committed to preserving these important examples of our shared heritage but need broader European support. I therefore call on local, regional, national and European stakeholders, both public and private, to join forces to secure a viable future for these sites,” said Plácido Domingo, the President of Europa Nostra.

Architect Kliti Kallamata, the managing director of the Korça-based “Past for the Future” foundation that submitted the nomination for the Voskopoja and Vithkuq post-Byzantine churches, southeastern Albania, has blamed decades-long neglect that the public administration has shown toward the monuments by carrying out only emergency interventions with no strategic multidisciplinary restoration project.

“These monuments face a lot of problems starting with moisture, the degradation of mural paintings, the static stabilization of complicated structures, the approach toward degraded and ruined architectural elements, lack of lighting and protection against theft and lots of other stuff,” Kallamata has earlier said, adding that the last interventions date back to the mid-1960s under communist just before Albania banned religion.

“If the post-Byzantine Voskopoja and Vithkuq churches are included in Europe’s 2018 seven most endangered programme, we will have the right assistance to conserve and restore them under contemporary professionalism and later introduce them to the public,” he said as the Voskopoja churches made it to the 12 most endangered sites last Janaury.

Back in 2013, the landmark ancient Roman amphitheater of Durres also made it to the Europa Nosta Seven Most Endangered List, mobilizing a rehabilitation project that involved the demolition of several residential structures and the complete uncovering of its arena.

Post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq

A number of Post-Byzantine churches in Voskopoja and Vithkuq, situated in southeastern Albania, are the most representative monuments of 17th-18th century ecclesiastical art in the Balkans and are masterpieces of the post-Byzantine style. War, plundering and natural disasters have seriously damaged this group of 12 churches. The surrounding Christian population has greatly declined and a subsequent lack of clergy has resulted in the majority of the churches remaining unused for most of the year. The main threat now is the total negligence by those administratively responsible for the churches at the national level, namely the Institute of Cultural Monuments. The listed Church of Saint George in Voskopoja, which won a Europa Nostra Award in 2011 for its outstanding conservation, faces the threat of theft and highlights the urgency with which these remarkable churches need to be protected. The nomination for the 7 Most Endangered programme 2018 was submitted by “The Past for the Future” Foundation. (Description made on Europa Nostra list).

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