Overview of Monastiraki square - credits: cge2010/Shutterstock.com
Overview of Monastiraki square - credits: cge2010/Shutterstock.com

If you're in Athens for the first time and you're wondering where to start your exploration of the city, wonder no more! Monastiraki Square is the obvious answer to your question!

 

If there’s one place where almost the whole history of Greece -and of Athens- throughout the years is hauntingly present, this is Monastiraki Square. A can’t-miss spot of the city of Athens, Monastiraki Square was -and still is- a boiling cauldron of people, ideas, civilizations, and religions. Perhaps the oldest surviving square of the city, it has faced numerous changes and has surely witnessed the evolution of the city since ancient times. The pivotal importance of Monastiraki Square in the urban development of the city is apparent when looking at the magnificent buildings that flank it on every side, dramatically blending the present with the past. Recently renovated, Monastiraki Square is paved with mosaic blocks of marble, carved stone and cast iron, symbolizing the "flows" and the variegation of Mediterranean people. Follow us on this trip to one of the most central squares of Athens, and get to know Greece's heritage from a single spot!

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Right after the declaration of Athens as the capital of the newly-born state of Greece in 1834, the progressive politicians of the time started a discussion within the Parliament for the construction of an urban railway system that would follow European standards. The immediate need they argued, was the connection of the port of Athens, Piraeus, with the city center. After years of debate and political unrest, the construction of the first urban railway of Greece became a reality in 1867, connecting Piraeus to Thisseion.

Monastiraki Square - credits: anshar/Depositphotos.com

Soon after, the project expanded to the city center and the Station of Monastiraki was inaugurated in 1895. Stefanos Psychas, a wealthy banker of the time, provided the money for the construction of the station, taking the responsibility of the project from the government. The outline of the building and its architectural details were carefully selected to satisfy the aesthetics of the time and to follow the technological standards already available in Europe. Today, the station stands as an example of Neoclassicism, equipped with high-standing arches that allow the sunlight to illuminate the interior of the station’s hall.

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The Tzistarakis Mosque

Tzistarakis Mosque - credits: trabantos/Shutterstock.com

Located on the right of Monastiraki station, the mosque of Tzistarakis Aga stands as a symbol of the Ottoman rule over the city of Athens. Tzistarakis was the appointed voivode (Ottoman ruler) of Athens who decided to erect a mosque in 1759 on the square of the Bazaar, as this square was formerly known. There is a story though, that accompanies the mosque through the years. Legend has it, that Tzistarakis ordered the demolition of an ancient column from the Temple of Zeus (most likely though from the Library of Hadrian) to make plaster to whitewash the walls of his brand new mosque. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the city, a terrible plague the coming year decimated the population of Athens and everyone accused Tzistarakis of that incident. The folk tradition claimed that every piece of ancient material is imbued with spirits and ghosts never to be disturbed. The action of Tzistarakis evoked the anger of the spirits who took revenge by sending the plague to the city. Eventually, Tzistarakis was captured by the order of the Sultan and was sentenced to death by decapitation. Following the establishment of the New Greek State, the Mosque was converted into an armory, a prison, even a storage room. After its restoration, today, the Mosque houses part of the Greek Museum of Folk Arts with really interesting collections vividly painting a picture of an era long gone.

The Library of Hadrian

The Library of Hadrian - credits: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.com

Located right next to the mosque of Tzistarakis, the Library of Hadrian is the most impressive ancient building to be found on the square. Part of the ambitious construction programme of Emperor Hadrian, it was built in 132 CE next to the already existing Roman Agora of Julius Ceasar and Emperor Augustus. When finished, it was one of the most lavishly decorated buildings of ancient Athens and the largest library of Athens. Pausanias, the famous traveler, visited the Library and wrote about it:

“... Hadrian constructed other buildings also for the Athenians: {...} the most famous of all, a hundred pillars of Phrygian marble. The walls too are constructed of the same material as the cloisters. And there are rooms there adorned with a gilded roof and with alabaster stone, as well as with statues and paintings. In them are kept books.” Pausanias I, 18.9

The most impressive part of the building that survives today is its western facade. The variety of the materials used there show the great expense of the project. The wall was made out of Pentelic marble, while the columns of the propylon (entrance) were made out of Phrygian marble, imported from the imperial quarries. The rest of the columns were also provided by the imperial quarries of Karystos and, most likely, they were used to support statues of Nike. The back wall of the library was the location where the precious scrolls and books used to be kept. The whole complex included auditoriums, reading rooms, as well as a long pool in the center, creating a tranquil environment, appropriate for the building’s function. Unfortunately, in 267 CE the invasion of the Herulians destroyed the building and the Athenians never succeeded in restoring it to its former glory. After the domination of Christianity, a church was built where the pool of the Library used to stand.

The Monastery of Pantanassa

The monastery of Pantanassa - credits: Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock.com

On the corner of Monastiraki Square, lies a small church dedicated to Virgin Mary Pantanassa. Scholars debate on the date of the construction of this church, but prevailing theory suggests that it was erected in the 10th century CE. This ancient church used to be the church of a nunnery that took up the whole square, thus the reasoning behind the square's name! During the Ottoman years, the little church used to belong to the powerful monastery of Kaisariani and in the 17th century, an extensive restoration programme changed the Byzantine church drastically. In the recent past, the Church of Pantanassa was restored as closely as possible to its original form and it still operates as one of the most historic, ancient churches of the city of Athens.

If you take a look at the open space located almost at the center of the square, you can actually see one of the ancient rivers of Athens still flowing! Eridanus used to pass through the city of Athens, up until the Roman times, when it was decided to be covered with a tunnel. During the excavations for the Metro system of Athens, the ancient river was discovered alongside a plethora of priceless artifacts from the vast history of the city!

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From ancient rivers and huge libraries to thousand-year-old churches and cursed mosques, Monastiraki square is arguably a place of wonder. Start your exploration of Athens from this Monastiraki Square and trace your own piece of history while choosing your way under the shadow of the Acropolis Hill Dozens of small shops clustered in Ifestou Street (right next to the station) sell furniture, appliances, clothing, and shoes, but also beads, used trays, decorative items, tools and anything else you can imagine. Every Sunday morning at the flea market of Abyssinia Square, you will have the chance to find treasures among hundreds of old objects. Dust off your haggling skills and drive a hard bargain. Don’t be shy, it’s expected!

Take a morning stroll with us and explore the district of Monastiraki in the company of our local, expert guide. If you're after a taste of Athens, why not join us on our Athens for Foodies Tour where, just around the corner from Monastiraki, you will visit the lively Central Athens Market on one of you many tasting stops? To experience Athens by night, join us on our Athens Nightlife Tour, which will take you to the very best bars and eateries that Athens has to offer. Hand-picked by us, you'll be introduced to places the locals love- not a tourist trap in sight! Waste no more time, plan your own trip to Athens or check one of our Greece tours!