Being a Christian in late-Roman Thessaloniki was extremely dangerous. Galerius (AD 250-311) made practising the new religion punishable by death – a stark reality that drove worshippers literally underground. One day in about the year AD 303, a young soldier named Dimitrios was caught preaching in a subterranean portico in the city agora (market). Dragged off to the baths, Dimitrios was speared to death as an example to others.
After the Eastern Roman Empire officially adopted Orthodox Christianity under Emperor Constantine the Great, Dimitrios became venerated as Thessaloniki’s patron saint. Numerous miracles were credited to him, including sudden appearances to save the city whenever it fell under barbarian siege. Miraculous healing of the sick was especially associated with the crypt where Dimitrios was martyred, which lies beneath the enormous 5th-century church named after him.
During the Turkish occupation, however, the crypt was filled in and forgotten, only to be recovered after the Greek capture of Thessaloniki in 1912. The devastating fire of 1917 caused extensive damage to both church and crypt, necessitating much conservation work.
Open regularly to the public, the stone-and-brick crypt is mazelike and hauntingly lit, and displays archaeological finds from the ancient church. For a truly unearthly and uniquely Thessaloniki experience, descend into this other world of pungent incense and prayer at the special liturgy held here every Friday from 9pm to 11pm. People file in silently in ones and twos, heads down like members of some secret society, and take up places, freeform, in crumbling corners or in the darkness under stone archways that are soon reverberating with the deep intonations of Byzantine chants.
Observing a service in the underground crypt, one of the holiest places in Greece, also gives travellers the chance to experience, in some small way, religion as Thessaloniki’s first Christians did, at a time when one’s faith was constantly being tested by the all-too-real fear of being discovered and killed by the state. When the priest gathers parishioners around the site of the saint’s martyrdom and speaks in soft tones of moral edification, this past reality really hits home.
The crypt liturgy also allows female travellers who wish they could visit Mt Athos a chance to experience modern Greece’s unbroken tradition of ancient Orthodox spirituality first-hand. You don’t have to be particularly religious to attend, so long as you dress and act quietly and respectfully (turn off your phone).
-Text by Chris Deliso. Published in Lonely Planet Greece 2008 & 2010.