If you are out wandering the streets of Athens, you never know what you might come across. Among the many sights you could encounter while strolling through the Plaka neighborhood is the Agios Eleftherios church. This small Byzantine relic can be found on Mitropoleos Square, next to its larger counterpart, the Athens Cathedral. The church is often called the "Little Cathedral", because of its larger neighbor. Whether you stumble on this church by mistake or by intention, it is worth spending some time at, if not just to admire it for a while.
Construction of the Agios Eleftherios church began in
the 12th century, and was built over the site of an old
temple originally dedicated to an ancient goddess named
Eleithya. There is a legend that purports that the
church was actually founded in 787 by an Athens empress
by the name of Irene. Much of what was used in constructing
the Agios Eleftherios church came from existing structures.
Thus, the marble blocks you’ll see were taken from
ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. It is possible
that some building materials came from the ancient agora
and the Roman agora by the Tower
of the Winds. Much of what you see in the way
of friezes and murals also dates back to earlier times,
one of the murals originally from the 4th century BC.
The church of Agios Eleftherios is also known as the church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos, as later Christians dedicated the church to St. Mary. The name, Panagia Gorgoepikoos, translates to "St. Mary, quick to answer prayers". The goddess Eireithya, for whom the original temple was erected, was the goddess of childbirth, and when St. Mary took over the same role in Christian beliefs, the church was re-dedicated to her. It displays a similar belief pattern that had bridged ancient religious traditions with those of the later Christians. It was common for Christian women of the time to pray at the Agios Eleftherios church if they were expecting a child. The hope was that St. Mary would help the soon-to-be-mother experience a quick and painless childbirth.
During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Agios Eleftherios church was integrated into the Episcopal mansion. For that period of time, the church was named "katholikon". In 1863, the church would once again be dedicated after the removal of King Otto. Agios Eleftherios would become the new name, to honor St. Eleftherios, the Saint of Freedom. Standing outside the church, pay special attention to the reliefs that decorate the outside walls. Above the door, you will see a carved relief that is a part of a 2nd century AD calendar marking the ancient Athenian festivals. Some of the Byzantine reliefs are rather ornate, one with Egyptian-like animals with human heads. If you like the Agios Eleftherios, stop and check out the church of Kapnikarea nearby on Ermou Street for another slice of Byzantine excellence.
As you can no doubt miss it, the larger Metropolis Athens
Cathedral deserves a visit since you are nearby.
The cathedral was built between 1839-1863 as the official
church in the new Greek state’s capital, and it
is still often used on certain official occasions.
If you are nearby on Sunday morning and have nothing to
do, you can attend the 8 a.m. mass and listen to the ornate
Byzantine music as you experience a Greek Orthodox ceremony.
Other days, you might consider walking inside and dropping
a coin in the donations box. You can grab a candle
to light and put it in the candelabra, even say a little
prayer if you would like. The Athens Cathedral is
not too highly acclaimed for its architecture and overall
presence, but since you are in the Plaka,
you can easily include it along your Athens
tour while on the way to another attraction.
The Acropolis is nearby in
one direction, and Syntagma
Square a hop, skip and a jump away in the other.