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Five historic Ottoman sites to visit in Athens

The Greek government has been refurbishing Ottoman buildings in recent years to attract Middle Eastern tourists
The Tzistarakis mosque, close to Monastiraki metro station, is a popular tourist attraction (Wikimedia)
By Patrick O. Strickland in Athens, Greece

From the Parthenon to the Panathenaic Stadium, the Greek capital has no shortage of spectacular historic sites for visitors. Millions of tourists pass through the city each year, and not just en route to popular islands like Mykonos and Santorini.

The Acropolis, the world-famous citadel that sits atop the city, is amongst the most popular, as is the ancient Agora, once the market and main meeting place for Athenians.

In the narrow streets of the Plaka neighbourhood in the shadow of the Acropolis, tourists pause for selfies in front of monuments dating back two millennia or more.

As for the city's later historic sites that originate from the Ottoman era, until recent years many were neglected and ignored. But that is changing.

Athens was under Ottoman rule from 1458 until 1821, when Greece declared independence (it was briefly under Venetian rule from 1678-88). The long and often violent struggle between the Ottomans and the Greeks during the 19th and early 20th centuries left a bitter legacy, resulting in widespread destruction of Ottoman architecture and symbols. 

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In parts of northwestern Greece, home to the country’s Muslim minority - Turks, Pomaks, and Roma - mosques and other Islamic and Ottoman sites are common. But in many parts of Greece, symbols of the Ottoman times have been destroyed or altered.

Dimitris Loupis, an academic and expert in Ottoman-Greek history, says Ottoman sites have been restored more and more since the 1990s, a trend that reflects a shift in “the state ideology towards the preservation of sites of various eras”.

In northern parts of the country that Greece gained in the decades following its independence, Loupis told Middle East Eye, “a considerable number of Ottoman sacred and secular buildings survived”.

Loupis, who has worked on restoration projects around the country, added: “Unfortunately even today historical sites are in private hands, but these gradually will be purchased by the state. In northern Greece, there is a [large] number of Ottoman buildings that need to be restored.”

Still, travellers can find several such spots in Athens hiding in plain sight, relics that testify to the Greek capital’s historical relationship with the Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire.

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Nicolas Nicolaidis, a historian who specialises in Balkan history and gives tours of Athens’ surviving historic Ottoman monuments, said none of the sites serves their original purpose nowadays.

“They're not all directly connected to Islam but mostly about the Ottoman presence,” he told Middle East Eye.

But many sites no longer exist. “They were intentionally demolished,” Nicolaidis said. “They were not considered as heritage, especially back in the 19th century. The ones that were preserved were preserved for practical reasons.”

Last year, the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) teamed up with the online travel marketplace Wego to help encourage more visitors from the Middle East and North Africa to visit the country. 

According to Wego’s data, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the Middle Eastern countries whose residents are most interested in visiting Greece.

Below Middle East Eye looks at five popular sites related to Athens’ Ottoman past.

Tzistarakis Mosque

Built in 1759, the Tzistarakis Mosque was named after the Ottoman governor Mustapha Agha Tzistarakis, or Mustafa Aga. The mosque still stands in Monastiraki Square, an area frequented by tourists.

Legend has it that Tzistarakis used a pillar of an ancient Greek temple in the mosque’s construction, which violated a Sultanic order to maintain temples and monuments for public use.

After Greek independence in 1821, the mosque was used for other purposes including a military barracks and also a prison (Nick Paleologos)
After Greek independence in 1821, the mosque was used for purposes including as a military barracks and a prison (MEE/Nick Paleologos)

To tamp down on anger amongst locals, the sultan banished Tzistarakis, who was later assassinated.

The mosque remained a house of worship until the start of Greece’s war to separate from the Ottoman Empire. After Greek independence in 1821, the mosque was used as military barracks, a warehouse, and a prison, amongst other purposes. Its minaret is believed to have been destroyed at some point between 1839 and 1843.

During the early 20th century, the mosque became a museum. For a short period in 1966, the building returned to its original purpose as a place of prayer for King Saud during his exile to Greece following his removal from power.

Today, the Tzistarakis Mosque sits across from the Monastiraki metro station, and is a popular attraction for tourists.

Old Madrassa Gate

Built in 1721, the Ottoman-era madrassa, or Islamic school, was a gathering place for important figures within the city’s Muslim community. The school included a spacious courtyard and residential quarters.

In 1821, much of the madrassa was damaged and destroyed during Greece’s war to break away from the Ottoman Empire.

Important figures within the city’s Muslim community would once gather at Old Madrasah Gate (Nick Paleologos)
Important figures within the city’s Muslim community would once gather at Old Madrasah Gate (MEE/Nick Paleologos)

Then, the structure was rebuilt and converted into a prison for a period, and those sentenced to death were hanged from a tree in its courtyard.

The prison was later closed down, and further damage occurred when Roman ruins were excavated from beneath the site of the madrassa.

Today, all that remains standing is the entryway, known as the Old Madrassa Gate. What’s left of the entrance includes a stone arch and a wooden door surrounded by overgrown bushes and trees.

Fethiye Mosque

Located in the ancient Agora of Athens and a short walk from the Tzistarakis Mosque is the Fethiye Mosque, or “The Mosque of Conquest,” which has been open to visitors since 2017.

Built on the ruins of a Christian basilica, the former church was converted into a mosque not long after Ottoman rule began in Athens. The Venetians briefly reconverted the mosque into a church during their hold on Athens in the late 17th Century.

Fethiye Mosque has been open to tourists since 2017 (Nick Paleologos)
Fethiye Mosque has been open to tourists since 2017 (MEE/Nick Paleologos)

The building changed purposes again after Greek independence, when it was used as a school, military barracks, a prison, and a military bakery.

Starting in the early 20th Century, the structure became a storehouse for artefacts found during the excavation of the Agora and the Acropolis.

In 2010, the Greek government decided to restore the site and in 2013, Greece’s Central Archaeological Council signed off on its restoration, which includes significant structural renovations. Since 2017, it has remained open to the public. 

The Bathhouse of the Winds

Situated near the ancient Agora, the Bath House of the Winds was built as a hammam during the Ottoman era and is the only surviving historic bathhouse in the city. Its exact construction date is unknown.

Once known as the Abid Efendi Hammam, the structure operated as a traditional bathhouse and had alternate times for use by men and women.

The historic public bath is now used for exhibitions (Creative Commons)
The historic public bath is now used for exhibitions (Creative Commons)

Its structure was altered several times throughout its existence, but it continued to be used as a bathhouse until 1965, according to the Greek government.

It was later restored, and its oversight was given to the Museum of Modern Greek Culture. Since 1998, it has been used for exhibitions and cultural events.

Venizelos Mansion

Built in the early 1500s, the Venizelos Mansion is often described as the oldest standing house in Athens. The two-story home underwent renovations in the 19th century, and today it serves as a museum.

Surrounded by high walls, the mansion has a small courtyard, a well, and a fountain, amongst other features common to houses built during the Ottoman occupation of Greece. It is located on Adrianou Street, not far from Monastiraki Square.

Venizelos Mansion offers a glimpse into Ottoman life in Athens (Nick Paleologos)
Venizelos Mansion offers a glimpse into Ottoman life in Athens (Nick Paleologos)

“This typology of houses was common [during Ottoman times] regardless of religion,” historian Nicolaides explained.

Originally built by nobleman Angelos Venizelos, the house was a residence of his daughter, Philothei, a Greek Orthodox saint and martyr in the 16th Century.

In 1972, the Greek Ministry of Culture took over its sponsorship, and the home was given to the Holy Archdiocese of Athens in 1999.

Restored and open to the public since 2017, it now serves as a private museum and a window into domestic life in Ottoman-era Athens.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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