Exploring the Forgotten Trails of the Ottoman Era in Athens
The sacred Rock of Acropolis, crowned with the eternal jewel – the Parthenon – radiates an energy so formidable that dwarfs any other historical remnant in the old neighbourhoods of Athens. The compelling impact of the Classical era often leaves little room for the subtle whispers of stories that unfolded in the following centuries. And, yet, the trails of the Hellenistic, the Roman, the Byzantine, and the Ottoman times intertwine elegantly among the narrow alleys, inviting every passerby to a more profound exploration of the city’s adventurous past.
Even though Athens was under Ottoman occupation for almost four centuries (1458 – 1833), the remains of that period can easily be overseen, even by the locals. No minarets are rising to the sky, while many buildings, having been constructed on ancient sites, were destroyed by an archaeological frenzy in the 19th and early 20th century, when the recent history was not considered significant enough to be preserved. Still, a careful observer can distinguish some fragments of that era and, with tenderness and imagination, the pieces can be put together, recreating the aromas and ambience of a time that has left much deeper marks in the Hellenic psyche than what we care to acknowledge.
The Benizelos – Palaiologos family mansion
On the street nearby the present Metropolis Church, there stands one of the oldest remaining houses of Athens: the mansion of the Benizelos – Palaiologos family (both names belonging to the noblemen of the city with roots lost in the Byzantine era and the heart of the once-mighty empire). The residence follows the konaki architectural form – a typical style of the 18th century, common throughout the Ottoman region.
Below the building, we can see today ruins from the city wall of the Later Roman Period (3rdcentury AD), a period that followed the destruction of Athens by the Heruli tribes. The house has two floors: (i) the ground floor (or katoi) with the auxiliary rooms where the agricultural produce was stored (often in big, clay jars – pithoi – half-buried in the ground) or processed; and (ii) the upper floor (or anoi) with the residential rooms – the winter ontas, that is, the room with the fireplace that served as bedroom, sitting room, and reception hall, and the hayiati, that is, the wood-covered, semi-enclosed space that connected the ontas rooms and was used by the family during the summer months. The upper floor is characterised by two rows of windows that allowed the rooms to be bright and warm, and the sahnisi – a protruded construction supported on the outside by beams – which increased the size of the residential areas of the mansion.
The most important characteristic of these wealthy houses of the era was their autonomy: the spacious courtyard which had a fountain and a well, and the presence of wine and olive presses.
The back side of the house with the sahnisi
On the ground floor, remnants of constructions dating to the 16th century have been found and they are probably associated with the life of one of the most prominent women of her time: Rigoula Benizelou who became a nun changing her name to “Philothei” and, shortly after her death, was recognised as a Saint (hence, known ever since as Saint Philothei). She was born into a wealthy family and was forced to marry at a very young age (a common practice back then, used to protect the young girls from ending up in the harems). Her husband, much older than her, died soon, and she refused to marry again. Instead, she became a nun and dedicated her life and fortune to help the poor, Muslim or Christian, especially the women, buying also several of them out of the harems. She founded a monastery close to her house (currently hosting the archdiocese), and the radiance of her work was so strong that, today, the names of three suburbs (Philothei, Kalogreza, and Psychico) are associated with her. Considered as a threat by the Turks, she was arrested and tortured and, in 1588, after a second attack, she died of her wounds.
The Bathhouse (hammam) of the Winds
The Hammam of Abid Efendi (or Bath-House of the Winds, a name that prevailed due to the building’s proximity to the Tower of the Winds) is the only remaining Ottoman public bath in Athens. Initially constructed in the 15th century, serving men and women alternatively, it was significantly altered in the 1870s to be able to accommodate both men and women simultaneously. The present edifice with its neoclassic façade does not remind of the style and ambience of the Turkish baths; hence it is easily missed by the passersby.
Public baths were not an Ottoman invention: they existed since the ancient times and were greatly enhanced by the Romans. However, their previously secular character turned into a more religious one, and it was obligatory for all Muslims to go to the hammam twice per week. The Ottomans preferred their baths to be built in areas with running water – based on the superstition that the stagnant water allows the evil spirits to thrive, while the running water carries them away. Hence, they never used the bath facilities they found in any of the cities they conquered but, instead, constructed their own.
This hammam was one of the three oldest in Athens, and followed the typical architecture: a waiting and relaxation room with fountain, carpets, and decorations, surrounded by smaller, changing rooms; a warm room, where temperature was kept at 20-25o C; and a hot room, where temperature was maintained at 35-40o C. After the alterations, the waiting room is much more minimalistic (for everyone familiar with the original Turkish baths, the ambiance is lost, and even the subtle sound of an oud playing in the background cannot cover the gap), and there are two bath areas: one for women, and one for men.
The heat was built in the furnace and circulated by an underground system (ypokafsta) in all the rooms, where it remained, preserved by the thick lime on the walls, the marble floors, and the lack of any aperture to the outside. The ceilings were decorated with round openings (often called “eyes of the elephant”), which were covered with glass and allowed the sunlight – also carrying healing properties – to enter the dark rooms, without risking the leak of any heat. The baths operated until 1965; today, they have been beautifully restored (in some corners, the illusion of humidity on the walls has been maintained) and are used as a museum or exhibition area.
In the old days, before the alternations of the building, the colour of a towel hanging at the door signalled whether the bath was to be used by men or women. The hammam days were sacred, sometimes having a stronger ritualistic significance like when coming of age, before the marriage, after giving birth, or before going to war. The supply of the bath equipment (clothes and towels, metallic bowls, and pattens) from the husband to the wife was often included in the marital contract, and the days to the hammam were like a small excursion, especially for the women. They would arrive with family and friends bringing baskets with food, and after the bath, they would eat and drink, sing and dance, engaging in gossip and beautification activities. The walls of the hammam have heard some of the most intimate stories of that time, for, in the penumbra and the heat, the heart opens, and the worries are washed away. And, despite the superstitions that prevented the bathers from stepping on any after-bath waters (for, they carried the evil spirits), and inspired the women to leave the hammam carrying bread and salt in their chests (as a shield against the evil eye), the most profound purpose of the hammam – the cleansing and healing of the soul – was always accomplished.
The Upper and Lower Bazaar
The heart of the Ottoman city was beating in the market, which, in Athens, had three essential parts – the Upper Bazaar, the Lower Bazaar and the Wheat Market: all, naturally, located in the areas of the ancient markets.
The Upper and Lower Bazaar were taking place around the ruins of the Library of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. There, on the Pandrosou street that leads to the Monastiraki Square, there are a few marble stairs (known as “the little stairs of Pandrosou”) where, today, one will most probably see numerous cats resting and eating throughout the day. During the Ottoman era, this spot was the starting point of the central market street and marked the separating line between the upper and lower bazaar. The Upper Bazaar extended on the right of the stairs and was famous for its luxurious textiles, the aromas, incenses, and beautification products from the Orient. On the left (towards the Monastiraki Square), one would walk into the Lower Bazaar which surrounded the ruins of the Hadrian Library and extended further down towards the Hephaistos temple and today’s neighbourhoods of Monastiraki and Psirri. The area closer to the Library, shaded with pergolas, was the vegetable market; the region around the Hefaistos temple was known for the blacksmiths’ workshops, while other zones accommodated the tanneries or other factories of an industrial character. The area surrounding the Pandrosou stairs hosted a series of barbershops that operated until the end of the 19th century and acted as small infirmaries and social haunts as well.
The market was mostly frequented by men. Women were rare – maybe only a maid or two occasionally sent on an errand – and were always received with comments that would drive them quickly away. Besides a trading area, it was also the region where political unrests would unfold, or petty criminals would be punished.
Towards the end of the 19th century, though, there was an urgent need for the relocation of the market which could no longer accommodate the increasing number of the city’s inhabitants but, also, prevented any excavation project. The relocation project was delayed continuously, until, in 1884, a massive fire (suspected arson) destroyed the bazaar putting people’s lives at risk. After that incident, the construction of the new bazaar on Athinas street was accelerated, and the market is still hosted there. However, it never acquired the warmth that the old market used to have – it never managed to follow the social heartbeat of the city.
The Lower Bazaar area was dotted with other significant constructions, most of which today have entirely disappeared.
Inside the Hadrian Library, there are the remains of what is believed to be the oldest Christian church in Athens, the Tetraconch. Initially built in the 5th century (probably by the Empress Evdokia, also known as Athinais), it stands out by its distinct architectural style, its location within the administrative centre of the city, and the quality of its materials. The church was destroyed during the Slav invasions and was rebuilt in the 7th century (the four columns and the part of the apse that we see today date to that period). Finally, it was enhanced into a basilica in the 11th century, dedicated to Virgin Mary (the church was called “Megali Panagia” – a name derived by the belief that the oldest icon of Virgin Mary, painted by Saint Luke himself, was kept here). Once Athens came under the sovereignty of the Ottomans, its residents were initially given special privileges in honour of the city’s glorious past. So, in the beginning, the Athenians could continue to use the Parthenon as their metropolis church. These privileges were soon withdrawn after an attempted revolution, and the metropolis was moved to Megali Panagia church.
Near the church, there were also the Kousegio, that is, the building where the elders (dimogerontes) of the city held their meetings, and the school of the monk Grigorios Sotirianos – the first school of Athens – built in 1720.
On the western wall of the Hadrian Library (the one that is still standing, easily recognisable with its Corinthian-style columns), there used to lean a small Byzantine church of the 10th – 11th century called the Church of Agios Asomatos, or the Church on the Stairs. It belonged to the Chalkokondyli family – another famous family of the noblemen of Athens – that restored it in the 16th century. Today, only some faded remains of a mural can be seen on the marble wall, as the rest of the church has disappeared.
Behind the western wall of the Hadrian Library, there was the voevodaliki, that is, the administrative building where the governor (voevodas) was based and lived. It was the tallest building in Athens but, following the fate of many other buildings in the area, was destroyed both by the fire of 1884 and the archaeological excavations that disregarded any civilisation dating after the Roman period.
In the market area, there was also the famous Clock of Elgin – a tower with a mechanical clock (the first in Athens) donated by Lord Elgin as a “thank you” gift for the many monuments he had already seised from the city. The clock was destroyed during the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire; the tower was temporarily used as a prison during the years that followed, and the whole construction was destroyed at the 1884 fire.
Opposite the western wall of the Hadrian Library, there are the remains of the mansion of the Logothetis family. The property of the family significantly increased when they bought – at meagre prices – land from the Athenians that were fleeing the city after the Venetian troops of Morozini left in 1668 and the wrath of the Ottomans was expected to be ferocious. In the 18th century, while Logothetis was the Consul of England, Lord Elgin was hosted in this mansion, and many of the stolen marbles were stored there before finding their way to London.
Next to the Logothetis mansion, there is the little chapel of Agios Elissaios, built during the Ottoman era. It is best known for the fact that one of the greatest Greek writers, Alexandros Papadiamantis, renowned for his devoutness, used to chant there, and many representatives of the Athenian literary circles attended the mass just to listen to him.
The Tzistarakis Mosque
The mosque was built in 1759 by the Ottoman voevoda (governor) of Athens, Mustapha Agha Tzistarakis on the area that is known today as Monastiraki Square. It was also called the Mosque of the Lower Fountain (being next to the second biggest fountain of the city, similarly constructed by Tzistarakis), or the Mosque of the Lower Market.
For the lime required for its construction, the governor ordered the demolition and use of one of the columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus – a decision that would prove to have disastrous consequences. The plague that tormented the city the following year was perceived by the superstitious Athenian society as a punishment for the sacrilege performed as, according to their belief, the removal of the ancient column allowed the evil spirits to escape into the city, bringing sickness and misfortune. The gravity of the situation ultimately led to the dismissal of Tzistarakis from his position.
The building was initially restored in the beginning of the 20th century, and then, again in 1966 to be used as a place for prayer by the deposed King Saoud of KSA who had found refuge in Greece, staying at the luxurious hotel Asteras in Vouliagmeni (it is said that during his stay, he was handing out gold watches in lieu of tips, something that fueled the vivid imagination and gossipy creativity of the Athenians for many years).
The Wheat Market
The wheat market (the third part of the broader bazaar area during the Ottoman era) was taking place within the ruins of the Roman Agora. It was the central market for wheat and olive oil, which were sold mainly in July, while, during the rest of the year, more food products were traded. The ancient gate of Athena Archegetis (the second most prominent remain in the area after the Tower of the Winds) was the entrance to the market and, during the Turkish occupation, was known as Pazaroporta (that is, the Gate to the Bazaar). On one of its columns, the official valorisation (called narti) of the wheat and olive oil was displayed for the use of the merchants.
The Fethiye Mosque
The Fethiye Mosque was the first Islamic temple of the town, built on the ruins of a Byzantine church (just a few meters away from the Wind of Towers), on the occasion of the visit of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1458. The present structure though is much more recent, as the original mosque was demolished and rebuilt in 1668 (at the beginning of the second period of the Ottoman occupancy of the city, after the departure of the Venetian troops that had conquered Athens for a few months). Only a fragment of the original mihrab remains, while the minaret was torn down shortly after the end of the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire.
After the liberation of Athens and the creation of the new Greek state, the mosque was used as a school, later as barracks, military prison, even military bakery, and, finally, as a storeroom for the various antiquities unearthed from the surrounding area. The building deteriorated significantly until its recent restoration, and today it is used as a space for cultural events.
The Tekke (Tower of the Winds)
The Tower of the Winds is a prominent landmark in the neighbourhood, its presence and name having overshadowed the rest of the Roman market (agora). The Greeks refer to it and the surrounding area as “aerides” which means “winds”, and the street leading there (one of the first streets to have been constructed in Athens when it was declared the capital of the newly-founded Greek state) is called “Aeolou” (Aeolos being the ancient god of the winds).
It is an octagonal marble building constructed by Andronikos Kyrrhestes in the 1st century BC to serve as a solar and hydraulic clock, as well as a wind vane. It is considered to be the world’s first meteorological station.
During the Ottoman era, the tower was turned into a tekke, that is, a place of worship for the Sufi, and there are several drawings of that era, showing dervishes twirling inside its limited space.
Kuzuk (kioutsouk) Mosque
A few meters away from the Tower of the Winds, there lie the scarce remnants of a small mosque, known as the Kuzuk Mosque (“kuzuk” meaning “small” in Turkish). Having passed in front of these stones thousands of times almost oblivious to their presence, I was surprised to learn of the mosque’s existence, even though the semicircular shape of the mihrab is still distinguishable. It is said that next to this mosque, there was a hammam (one of the oldest in the city), but no trace of it remains today.
Opposite the Tower of the Winds and the Fethiye Mosque, there used to be the Medresse (the seminary of the Muslims), complementing the neighbourhood which already had three hammams nearby, a mosque, a tekke, and the wheat market (staropazaro). Constructed by Mehmet Fahri in 1721, as per the inscription on its gate, this Medresse was much smaller than similar institutions in other regions of the empire; yet, it was a proof that the Turks of the 18th century, even though they were a minority in the predominantly Christian society of the city, considered Athens their home and were solidifying their future presence.
The school was a rectangular edifice, designed almost like a Greek monastery, with rooms (used by the boarders) surrounding a courtyard where a huge plane tree spread its branches. Under the shade of this tree, the leaders of the Ottoman community gathered to relax in a purely Muslim environment, discussing the latest developments, drinking coffee and probably smoking their hookahs. According to the legend, they were under this tree when they learnt of the 1821 Greek revolution against the empire, and it was there that they decided to kill all the Christian men of the population as a precautionary measure – a decision that, thankfully, was annulled by the kadi (who, nevertheless, when a year later the city fell into the hands of the Greeks, lost his life). During the revolution, the Ottomans turned the Medresse into prison – a use that was maintained by the Greeks too until the beginning of the 20th century. The beautiful plane tree acquired a morbid role since it was from its branches that those sentenced to death were hanged. It is said that the living conditions in this prison were so inhuman, given the small available space and the number of prisoners, that the deep relief of those finally departing from them has remained as an idiom in the Greek language through the expression “farewell to the plane tree”.
Today, the plane tree is long gone – I think it was burnt by a thunderbolt – just like the rest of the building. Even the several chimneys that were rising – like a series of low minarets – have disappeared, preserved only in gravures and drawings of that era. The final demolition was concluded by the archaeology department that dug the plot in search of more important findings from the antiquity; some also talk about potential treasures that the Turks may have hidden in the earth. Nothing exciting has been found so far, and the area today is overcome by weeds, being home only to the neighbourhood cats. Only the main gate – decorated with marble designs that are closer to the ancient Greek tradition than the Muslim one – still stands intact, receiving little attention from the passersby.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise stated)
To explore Athens in more details, complement this article with a visit to Iliou Melathron: one of Athens’ most beautiful mansions, the House of Katakouzenos, the beautiful Mets Neighbourhood, and a tour to my seven favourite churches.