At the Crossroads of Faith
A small tourist guide for a place with vast religious history
At an altitude of 703 meters above sea level in Western Macedonia, lies the beautiful city of Kastoria. A tourist destination of great religious interest, a city whose history begins at the dawn of time, a city that nature has gifted generously and in combination with its special architecture is recognized as one of the most beautiful of Greece.
The religious history of Kastoria is unique on a European level. Christians, Jews and Muslims have gone by, bringing with them their gods and cultures, leaving their indelible marks and creating a multicultural character that is constantly felt as you walk through the streets of the city. That is why it is an important station to be visited by any scholar, historian or theologian, but also by each one of us who want to understand the current culture of this place.
Ancient Greek Religion
Although the wider region has been inhabited since the Neolithic era (the settlements of Avgi and Dispilio are dated around 5500 BC), there are no surviving places of worship of the Hellenistic period. Archaeological excavations have confirmed the existence of a temple dedicated to Zeus and Hera on top of the Psalida region, while it is possible other such places to exist around the ancient city of Orestida (outside present day Argos Orestikon), where Diocletianopolis was later built by the Romans.
During the Byzantine era, the modern city of Kastoria was founded (in the area where the ancient Keletron was) by Emperor Justinian, leaving as heritage the numerous Byzantine churches. Since then, the Christian element has remained ubiquitous despite the almost constant changes in the city's administration. Taking a stroll in Kastoria, one finds scattered Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches, ornaments that emerge through alleys and courtyards like long-lost treasures. These churches narrate a religious journey from the second half of the 10th century all the way to the 19th century.
In the 10th century the first Jewish merchants were installed in Kastoria. In the 12th century the Jewish population already counted 2500-3000 souls, while in the 16th century Sephardi Jews (who were being persecuted at that time in the rest of Europe) arrive. At the peak of their community there were four synagogues in the city. Two of them were destroyed by fire, while the other two were destroyed after the war. The synagogue of the Jewish quarter was the last standing and was demolished in the mid-20th century. It should be noted here that there is also a Christian church named Panagia Evraida, the popular name of the church of Zoodohos Pigi in the parish of the Jewish quarter.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Kastoria had one of the most thriving Jewish communities in Macedonia that counted about 900 people, but its dissolution was swift when during the Second World War its members were gathered and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Monument to the Jewish Martyrs of Kastoria is on the 15th Division Street, the place that marked the beginning of the end.
After the Ottoman conquest in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the first Muslims settled in the city, building imposing mosques in a prominent position, usually on the ruins of Christian temples. It is worth noting, however, that small Christian churches have been built outside the city's castle even during that time.
During the Ottoman period there were seven mosques with minarets, open places of worship, Dervish monasteries (in Psaradika area and Doblitsa) as well as a theological school. After the removal of the Muslim element (with the population exchange of 1924) the mosques were left unmaintained and eventually fell over the years. The only exception is the Kursum mosque (in the area where the IKA is today) that was the Muslim cathedral and is still preserved.
Every walk in the narrow streets of Kastoria is like a journey in time, full of emotions and unique images. More than 70 churches are scattered throughout the urban fabric, a real challenge for the visitor who wants to discover them all. Below we have gathered some of the most remarkable monuments, those that we think whoever comes to Kastoria for only a few days or even for a one-day excursion should see:
Panagia Koumbelidiki is located at the Byzantine citadel, above Omonia square. It is the most characteristic religious attraction since it is the only Byzantine church with a dome in Kastoria and probably the only monument in the entire world that depicts the Holy Trinity personified.
The Monastery of Panagia Mavriotissa is located at a small distance from the Dragon's Cave and preserves exceptional art frescoes both inside and outside the Monastery. The construction was commissioned by Emperor Alexios Komninos and is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The blemished wall paintings highlight the successive changes in power and religion in the area.
The Byzantine church of Agios Stefanos is one of the oldest temples in the Balkans, erected in the middle of the 9th century and probably constituted a catholic of a monastery complex.
In Doltso, the historical center of the old town of Kastoria and a short distance from Orologopoulos mansion, there is the church of Agios Nikolaos Karibi, which portrays a relatively unknown aspect of the religious history of Greece: the destruction of the ancient Greek temples by the Christians (this particular fresco depicts Agios Minas to hammer down a pre-Christian temple).
Even outside the narrow limits of the city there are also small treasures of pilgrimage worth visiting:
In Melissotopos you will find the most famous monastery of the prefecture of Kastoria, the Holy Monastery of Agioi Anargyroi. It is the oldest preserved monastery, built in 1080 AD.
Just outside the village of Ambelokipi is Agios Nikolaos Kremastos. It is a small temple built in a steep natural cave accessed by stairs built by the rock. Both the monument itself and the surrounding area promise a pleasant afternoon walk.
In Agia Anna, near Nestorio, there is the Holy Monastery of Panmegiston Taxiarchon Tsoukas, a monastery with a huge history, built near 1254 AD. Right above it is the post-Byzantine church of Zoodohos Pigi, while the landscape is complemented by the adjacent waterfall.
Last but certainly not least is Agios Georgios of Omorfokklisia, where there is a wooden statue of Saint George, a cult object perhaps unique to the Orthodox Christianity. According to tradition, the towering carved wood was brought by two nuns from Ioannina in the 13th century. The woodwork is missing its feet and is considered miraculous. Inside the temple is also kept the relic of the Saint in a special case.
To visit the Byzantine temples of Kastoria it’s best to first contact the guards of the Byzantine Museum of Kastoria. The museum operates every day from 8:30 am to 15:30 pm and is closed every Monday. Phone nr.: (+30) 24670 88200 (+30) 24670 26781.
Sources / more info:
Byzantine Museum of Kastoria https://www.bmk.gr/
Istorika Kastorias blog http://istorikakastorias.blogspot.gr/