Osios David

for Egonne

I am vacationing in Thessaloniki, which in all honesty can hardly be described as a tourist destination. A friend of mine was back visiting his family, and he wrote to me to offer a few days’ respite in the Balkans. Airline miles are a wonderful thing, and so here I am, in an ugly city with a fascinating history.

A few art deco structures are left, though largely overshadowed by hideous apartment buildings with exposed wiring dating from the 1950s post-war housing crisis. Ottoman neoclassical mansions and administrative buildings are around, their gardens unkept and paint peeling. What few buildings are left from either the Roman or Byzantine administrations are largely in ruins, or remarkably austere in the successive changing of hands between religious groups. The Rotunda of Galerius feels like a mausoleum, yet has the seeming emptiness of a mosque, as well as echoes of its use as a church as exercises in the removal of plaster reveal stunning fragments of frescoes. (But alas, only fragments.)

Situated halfway between Venice and Constantinople, the city has a logistical convenience that has repeatedly been its downfall. Sacked by the Venetians, then the Ottomans, destroyed by fire, decimated by the Nazis, the city is successively built on its own ruins. The walls of Theodosius look like the painted desert in the American Southwest, where successive periods of history can be seen in the materials used to refortify the center of the town. Marble from antiquity supports disorganized layers of stone and brick, the inconsistencies leaving crevices where fig branches emerge.

And so, what few artifacts that remain intact appear all the more astonishing. Walking into the Church of Osios David, my friend showed me a mosaic of the Vision of Ezekiel. The mosaic is famously in the shape of an eye, with the Christ Emmanuel sat in the Iris. He is neither child nor priest, but an adult, though notably without a beard. He’s hard to recognize as first as he’s sitting on a rainbow, hand raised in salutation. Habakkuk looks on thoughtfully and Ezekiel astonished, dichotomizing the rational and emotive responses to the sight of the Christ. The Iris is supported by Cherubim in guise of peacock feathers, from which emerge the four creatures described in Ezekiel’s vision: a lion, a cow, an eagle and an angel, each bearing a red book, studded with jewels. The ends of their bodies can be seen in the Iris, though in a lighter shade and out of focus. The rainbow is not a symbol of covenant, but rather an indicator that Christ is encased in a piece of glass – that “terrible crystal” through which light refracts. And yet there is none of Ezekiel’s fire or cataclysm: no spinning orbs, no aura of terror. Ezekiel seems to sit in a rock before a quarry (latomio), with a city in the background – perhaps that of the neighborhood of Ano Poli, where the Monastery of Latoumou sits up the hill from Osios David. Habbakuk sits alone on a mountain, foreshadowing the arrival of Byzantine monasticism. Emmanuel is not in linen, but plain, imperial clothes.

Down the hill, the museums of archaeology and Byzantine Culture exhibit other fluid passages from Ptolemaic inheritance into Christian practice. The cults of Isis and Osiris hover in the tombs of the early Christians, who continued to be buried with coins on their eyes and ornaments on their ears, beckoning their prayers to be heeded by the guards of the afterlife.

Religion remains an economy here. Driving from Thessaloniki out to the beaches of Halkidiki and onto Mount Athos, one can buy an ikon at a supermarket while waiting for a coffee. Further up the road, one can purchase a small prefab chapel while shopping for a clay bbq pit. (They’re made by the same guy.) And yet there are almost no mosques, and virtually no trace the Jewish community that formed the city’s majority until the 20th century. It has become emblematic of the modern nation state, an institution at odds with the Mediterranean’s characteristic diversity seen in its port cities.

I’m a bookworm, but there is no substitution for seeing a different place up close and in person. For all I’ve learned, I feel all the more ignorant and am itching to return to the region as soon as possible.

And yet, travel is now a part of my life as I’m entering a new period of itinerancy and over the next year or so. I’ve started picking up travel journals which I’ve neglected to read, in hopes that it might remind me to keep my eyes peeled when I’m on the road. This week, I finally started with Goethe’s account of his travels to Italy, in which time he wrote about things other people seemingly cared little about and visited places and sites overlooked.

And, of course, his first fellow traveler (albeit for a brief period) is none other than a harpist and his daughter.

“We shared another cheerful prospect as well : she assured me we would have fair weather, because she carried a barometer with her- her harp. When the treble string went sharp it was a sign of good weather, and this had happened today. I accepted the good omen and we parted gaily, hoping to meet again soon.”

1 thought on “Osios David”

  1. For each of us beauty and place are bound together in different ways – for me Thessaloniki is found in small backstreet cafes where melancholy accordion players sing about what is lost while we enjoy thick mutton stew – not gourmet but home. The art gallery in the old harbour with its biennial art or photo exhibitions. The corner café in the shadow of old trees behind an even older city wall that serves meze and ice cold beer. Next time we shall
    Meet you there


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