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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc

A Brief History of Tzistarakis Mosque in Athens

What is Tzistarakis Mosque?

Tzistarakis Mosque is an 18th-century mosque in central Athens that is named after the Ottoman governor who commissioned it.

Tzistarakis Mosque

Tzistarakis Mosque History

The arrival of Christianity meant that Athens, once a great centre of pagan culture and political power, lost its former pre-eminence. By the Medieval Period, the city was seen as a provincial centre of only minor importance. Its residents could still distinguish the ruins of their city’s classical past, and although they understood these were the remains of an ancient pagan civilisation, they weren’t entirely sure how to interpret the many repurposed materials and legacy monuments.

Anything pagan gradually became associated with demons and the devil himself, so these ancient ruins were tainted by superstition. In 1759, the Ottoman governor of Athens, Mustapha Agha Tzistarakis, in contravention of an edict from the Sultan protecting and repurposing most of the city’s ancient buildings, commissioned a mosque, using ruins from the Temple of Olympian Zeus in its construction. (The governor had one of the temple’s enormous marble columns blown up by gunpowder in order to make high-quality lime for stucco.) The locals were terrified that something bad would happen once Tzistarakis unleashed evil spirits upon the city by tampering with the ancient temple. In fact, the 19th-century Irish painter and archaeologist Edward Dodwell claimed that ‘after this column was thrown down, the three nearest to it were heard at night to lament the loss of their sister’. It seems the Athenians (and the remaining columns) were not the only ones annoyed by this, as the Ottoman administration dismissed the governor when they learned of his actions. A year later, the city was struck by a plague and the inhabitants attributed this to Tzistarakis’ sacrilege.

The mosque, now named after its Ottoman founder, was formerly known as the Mosque of the Lower Fountain or Lower Market, given its proximity to the Athenian Agora, the commercial centre of the ancient city. After the 19th-century Greek War of Independence the building was used as a barracks and then a prison. The mosque was renovated in the 1910s and has served as an art museum for the past century – it’s currently an exhibition space for the Museum of Modern Greek Culture. Although the building was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1981, the structure was sympathetically restored and reopened to the public ten years later.

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