Byzantine Athens

Byzantine and Ottoman Athens 1000-1821


While late Roman Athens was already very modest in size, Byzantine and Ottoman Athens was still just a mini-town dotted with ruins, but of no importance. In Byzantine times, Corinth and Thessaloniki were the only two true cities of Greece, and in the Ottoman era, only Thessaloniki remained. Yet Athens still had several Byzantine churches and monasteries (the famous Monastiraki square in the center of Athens is a remnant of the monastery (Monastiraki) that once stood there.
Sultan Mehmet allowed the Athenians a degree of self-government: the demogeres (councilors) always came from the 12 most important families and ruled the Christian congregation. Among them were the nykokyriakoi (householders), the pazarites (traders) and the xotarides (strangers), each dressed in distinctive attire. Probably these classes already existed among the Byzantines. : Life was hard for non-Muslims at times: every non-Muslim had to pay a “head tax” in exchange for the privilege of keeping the head himself; in addition, in the years 1543, 1547, 1553, 1555, 1559 and 1566, the children were taken from Athens, the boys to serve in the Janissary corps of the Sultan (after being brought up as Muslim), the girls for the Harem of the Sultan. To escape this child tax monasticism grew explosively in these years. Finally, non-Muslims were not allowed to own houses larger than those of Muslims, they were not allowed to ride horses, carry weapons or enter the acropolis, and church bells were prohibited.
In 1665, a French Capuchin monk mentions that in his days it was possible to enter the city without passing through a gate. There were some gates, but they were always open, because there were no walls anyway. The narrow, unpaved streets looked like village streets to him, while most (modest) houses were made of stone, built using ancient ruins and decorated with parts of columns. He was surprised to find that there were almost 300 small churches in the city and only 8 or 9 mosques, which were equipped with minarets.

Vieuw on the Acropolis end 18th century. Source: Daniël Koster, To the wonderful Greece, imagination! Take me there! Groningen 1993 p. 34

Vieuw on the temple of Zeus in 1791. Source: Daniël Koster,  To wonderful Greece, imagination! Take me there! Groningen 1993 p. 43

Parthenon and Propylaiën in the Middle-Ages

Ali Pasha

Byzantine churches in Athens

A large number of beautiful icons and other objects from the Byzantine time you can find in the Byzantine Museum in Athens.

When the Turkish attack on Vienna failed in 1668 (after a long series of successes against, among others, the Johannieter order in Rhodes and the Venetians in Crete), the Western powers decided to attack the Turks under the leadership of Venice and Austria. They took the Peloponnese and besieged Athens. The Turks retreated to the Acropolis, where they put their wives and children and a large supply of gunpowder in the Parthenon, convinced that the Venetians would never shoot at that. Wrong! On September 26, 1688, General Morosini bombed the Parthenon, which had remained unharmed until then. The subsequent explosion was so powerful that the Parthenon was utterly destroyed, the Venetians on Philopappos Hill were rained with debris and 300 men, women and children died. The Turks surrendered the city and Morosini entered in triumph, to leave it a few months later, taking the entire population with him. Athens remaind uninhabited for a number of years, until the Turks succeeded in luring back the population which had migrated to the Peloponnese by offering them amnesty and tax freedom for 3 years.
After the departure of the Venetians, only about 1/10 of the population was Muslim. Around 1750, Athens was ruled by Hadji Ali Haseki, the worst ruler at that moment. After buying the privilege to rule Athens for a lot of money, he squeezed the population to get his money back. He destroyed many ancient temples and Byzantine churches to obtain building materials, allowing the Athenians to build a defensive wall around the city. Then he demanded the sum of 30,000 piastres for “advice” on the construction of the wall. He was deposed and beheaded towards the end of the century, with his head on display in Constantinople as a warning to anyone wishing to abuse their power.
A similar fate eventually was met by Ali Pasha, the Albanian tyrant who ruled from Ioannina in the service of the Sultan Epirus. His dream of eventually gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire was actively promoted by Napoleon and later by the English. In 1798 he managed to wrest the city of Preveza from the French and was offered Parga as a reward from the English, who wanted to use it against the Ottomans. Even Lord Byron visited Ali Pasha, as described by him in the romantic poem “Childe Harold” and recently by Tessa de Loo in “A Pig in the Palace”. Ultimately, Sultan Mahmut lost his temper with Ali Pasha and sent a 20.000-strong force to besiege Ali Pasha, instead of using the same troops against the rebellious Greeks.

In addition to churches and monasteries, there are still some remains of the mosques that once stood there, and of baths and fountains. Most mosques, however, were either demolished or stripped of their minarets after the war of liberation in 1821.