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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Athens

What is the Church of the Holy Apostles?

The Church of the Holy Apostles, also called Holy Apostles of Solaki, is a 10th-century Orthodox church built over an ancient nymphaeum.

Church of the Holy Apostles History

Surveying the ruins of the ancient Agora, you’ll notice only three complete structures. The Stoa of Attalos was entirely reconstructed in the 1950s. Only the Temple of Hephaestus, which dates back to the 5th century BC, and the Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles have survived intact from their construction until today.

Situated here in the south-east corner of the ancient Agora, the Church of the Holy Apostles was built some time towards the end of the 10th century AD, which makes it one of the oldest surviving churches in Athens. Unsurprisingly, given its location at the heart of one of the city’s most significant ancient sites, it was built on top of an earlier place of worship, a 2nd-century nymphaeum – where the ancient Greeks worshipped the nymphs, female lesser deities that were perceived as personifications of nature.

The building’s design is typical of Byzantine architecture of the period, with a cross-in-square plan, decorative brick construction and typical eight-sided Athenian Dome. Like several other churches in Athens, the structure’s outer walls bear decorations that imitate Kufic script, one of the earliest styles of Arabic script that dates back to 7th-century Iraq. This was a common feature of Byzantine architecture, pottery and textiles.

Although the church still stands intact, it has undergone renovation and reconstruction on at least four separate occasions. One theory about where its full name, Agioi Apostoli Solaki, came from is that Solakis was the surname of the sponsor who paid for one of the church’s historic reconstructions. Byzantine tradition gives sponsors the right to be buried inside the church alongside their relatives, and some archaeologists believe the sarcophagi found in the church belong to Solakis and his family. However, others believe that this title comes from an old name for the neighbourhood that once surrounded the church, home to Athens’ rich and powerful during the 19th century.

But the form the church takes today can largely be credited to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens who restored it to its original Byzantine form in the 1950s, during their excavations of the ancient Agora. Later structural additions were removed and the church was stripped back to its original Byzantine brickwork, which was found to be in great condition under layers of superimposed masonry. To return the church as closely as possible to its original Byzantine form, the restorers brought frescoes from the Churches of Agios Spyridon and Agios Georgios to install in the reconstructed narthex. The restoration was unveiled in 1956, together with the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos.

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