A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A triumphal gate to Asia in Roman times; the garden of Constantinople in the Middle Ages; a bastion of Ottoman imperialism in the modern era; and the scene of much hardship for Greeks, Turks, and Bulgarians caused by European political maneuvering from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, Thrace has always been a contested land. Straddling northeastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and the European coast of Turkey, and bounded by the Balkan Mountains, the Black Sea, and the Aegean coast, Thrace exemplifies the spirit of survival, and there is no better place to witness that spirit than at Synaxis, a coastal site bearing the ruins of a Late Roman basilica later rebuilt as a Byzantine monastery. Located on the coastline directly north of the island of Samothrace, both the site and the surrounding region are steeped in myth and frozen in time. Here one can still see, shortly before Lent, carnival scenes, including fire walkers and senior citizens wielding leather phalli, that harken back to the cult of Dionysos, said in myth to have come from Thrace. Homer tells us that Odysseus drugged the Cyclops with stupefying wine, the gift of Maron, keeper of Apollo's sanctuary at Ismaros, the remains of which may well be on the crest of the Hagios Georgios (St. George) Mountain, which looms over Synaxis.
Archaeological evidence, as well as an obscure reference from Strabo preserved by a twelfth-century Byzantine bishop, seem to confirm that the mountain remains are the remains of Homer's city of Ismaros. This theory was recently endorsed by Diamantis Triandaphyllos, director of classical antiquities for the region. The citadel's huge walls and megalithic gate resemble those at Mycenae and date some three to four centuries before the Persian invasions of the fifth century B.C. On this site, a heroon, or hero shrine, dedicated to Maron appears to have been established at some time prior to the Roman conquest. We know that Hadrian (ruled A.D. 117-138) visited Thrace and may have expressed his own religious piety by building a temple to Maron on the coast, thereby shifting cult activity from the relatively inaccessible mountaintop. The increase in pilgrim traffic during Roman times would have prompted construction of a more accessible site. Ancient authors also tell us that the island of Samothrace was a popular cult center in antiquity and included Maron among its deities and heroes. The ruins of a Roman complex at the water's edge might have been a way station for pilgrims traveling from the Maron shrine at Synaxis to the sanctuary on Samothrace.
As a Byzantinist, I had long known of Synaxis' excavator, Charalambos Bakirtzis, director of Byzantine antiquities for eastern Macedonia and Thrace, who has excavated the region's major sites such as Abdera, Maroneia, and Didymoteichon. He has also restored important Ottoman buildings, such as a fourteenth-century guest house in the Thracian provincial capital of Komotini. Bakirtzis, who studied at Thessaloniki University and has taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed the problems of caring for Thrace's ancient sites during a hot June day's drive to Synaxis. He tensed as we passed the town of Maroneia (named after Maron). A newly widened road had provoked his ire. The sides of the old dirt track had been rudely gashed, exposing naked rock and uprooting trees. He told me that despite this being a protected archaeological area, with a sign-posted track for hikers developed as part of a European Union project, the local municipality and developers were pushing to build a road straight to the site. The Greek Archaeological Service has temporarily halted construction, but Bakirtzis remains fearful. "Look at the landscape!" he says. "Odysseus knew this place! An easy, modern road was never meant here. Today, it will take us a good half hour by car to come to a point where we shall have to stop, then another ten minutes by foot. That very distance, that very difficulty is a real and integral part of the site. Without it, its soul would vanish. One can't make pilgrimages in an air-conditioned bus!"
As with many ancient sites, Synaxis changed rapidly when Constantine (A.D. 324-337) Christianized the Roman Empire. In the fifth century A.D., the coastal shrine to Maron, whose configuration remains unknown, was replaced with a splendid three-aisled basilica, measuring 178 by 66 feet and including a forecourt, with galleries on an upper story. Before Constantine basilicas had been used for a variety of secular purposes, from marketplaces to reception halls for the emperor. The Church gladly took over the buildings as Christian converts became more numerous after the fourth century. The new basilica type consisted of a spacious forecourt, or atrium, leading into the narthex, a transverse antechamber with doorways opening into the main church. This area consisted of a broad middle section, or nave, with one or two aisles on either side, and a semicircular apse, where an altar was set up behind a low chancel screen known as the templon. In Byzantine symbolism the basilica represented an ark sailing for Jerusalem.
The church at Synaxis belongs to a type usually found in northwestern Greece and Albania: a cruciform basilica with a transverse aisle terminating in a shallow apse at each end. It is possible that the building intentionally copied the design of a Roman shrine to Maron. Presumably the huge, finely fashioned curved blocks used to build the church came from the original temple.
Christianity brought profound changes in manner of worship. While the laity was excluded from the pagan temple, their sacrifices performed outside the sanctuary, the Christian faithful were allowed to enter the church with the priests, often jostling in a procession where peasants were as much in evidence as aristocrats. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 354-407), the bishop of Constantinople, claims that on one occasion about A.D. 400 his pulpit in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia nearly collapsed because of the crush of congregants listening to his homilies.
Many architectural blocks of the fifth-century basilica at Synaxis were sturdy enough to withstand damage, possibly caused by an earthquake, at the end of the sixth century and were used in the reconstruction of the sanctuary. These included fine marble relief panels, some of them broken, from the old templon. Such panels were distinctive features of early Byzantine art and were often decorated with intricate geometric motifs or animals, such as griffins and eagles, ultimately drawn from Mesopotamian mythology.
The restored basilica seems to have been smaller than the original. Building material from the older church was used to construct a small side chapel off the narthex; both chapel and narthex were decorated with mosaic floors depicting geometric and foliate motifs. In the seventh century the structure was completely destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned. In the ninth and tenth century, monks built a monastery on the ruins. In reusing the site, they were embracing the memory of Constantine and Justinian, of the early Church and saints and martyrs.
The monastery was an unassuming structure and seems to have copied on a small scale the elongated simplicity of the basilica. A refectory occupied the south apse, opposite the entrance to the monastery's main church, or katholikon. A kitchen and serving areas adjoined it. The old narthex became a gateway to an open courtyard that had been the nave of the old basilica, flanked by monks' cells in what were once side aisles. At the west end of the courtyard, a semicircular base may mark the location of a semantron, a resonant plank struck to call the monks to prayer. The monastery's main church, or katholikon, measuring 52 by 18 feet, was nestled in the northern half of the the older basilica's sanctuary.
Orthodox monasticism has an ancient tradition stretching back to the third-century. When the Eastern Orthodox church father Saint Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) established guidelines for communal monastic practice, he condoned the practice of hermitage. In addition to housing a small resident staff of monks, mid-Byzantine monasteries often acted as gathering places for dispersed hermits, who would congregate at the monastery on Sundays and feast days to celebrate mass. In Greek the word for meeting is syn-axis, or con-gregation, hence the site's name.
Investigation of the nooks and crannies in the nearby rocky landscape uncovered evidence, mostly pottery, of hermit dwellings. Our monastery, then, was a haven where hermits joined a small permanent community for religious services. Monastic life was simple. Bakirtzis pointed out that the tiny side-chapel of the second basilica, with its beautiful mosaic floor, was never rebuilt, apparently an extravagance the monks could do without. The Byzantines, however, eschewed such austerity when decorating their churches. At Synaxis, intricate marble reliefs depicting geometric and foliate motifs were found. A great amount of decorated glazed dinnerware was uncovered in the central courtyard, evidence of eating habits that must have contrasted with a frugal diet. The site seems to have been deserted after 1204 in the wake of the Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople. Only scant habitation, attested by the odd sherd or coin, took place after the thirteenth century.
A place of pilgrimage and worship for 2,500 years, Synaxis has yielded some of its mystical secrets to Bakirtzis. He, in turn, has left behind signs of his devotion. The excavation team gathered large stones from site debris and built two cube-shaped structures, artistic creations that blend into the olive grove around the site. Six feet tall perhaps twice as long, they resemble squat stone houses. For Bakirtzis, they are a modern excavation's contribution to the site's continuity, a sign of "archaeology's discerning intervention into nature."
David Turner is a Byzantinist and member of the British School of Archaeology at Athens. He teaches Byzantine history and orthodox theology to American students on the Study in Greece program of Beaver College, Pennsylvania, and the on-site Greece and Turkey program of Lake Forest College, Illinois. He has also done biographical work on Heinrich Schliemann.