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Saint Stephen, Arnaia


A monument in operation, which visibly encapsulates its history. The post-Byzantine church of St. Stephen in Arnaia reveals its earlier phases, starting from the early Christian period, through its glass floor.

The St. Stephen Metropolitan Church in Arnaia, seat of the Metropolis of Ierissos, Mount Athos and Ardamerion, was destroyed by fire on September 5, 2005. The wooden parts, precious heirlooms, icons, liturgical books and sacred vessels were destroyed, except for what could be recovered from the balcony at the time of the fire.

The church is a post-Byzantine three-aisled timber-roofed basilica with dimensions 40.9×19.58, with an oriel window on the west side which is common in Chalkidiki. The inscription, recounts its erection in 1812, but the visible joints in the masonry were an indication that the church was older and was expanded at a later date, which was also confirmed by the excavation.

The earliest documented evidence of the settlement and of St. Stephen church can be traced to a 14th century document of the Kastamonitou monastery, where it is mentioned as its dependency (metochi). During the 18th century, it was one of the twelve communities collectively known as “Mantemochoria” and, towards the end of the century, the most important of them. During the “great destruction” in the Revolution of Chalkidiki, the settlement was burned down – along with the church of St. Stephen; it flourished again in the mid-19th century as evidenced by the construction of the old school (current Town Hall) west of the church in 1871 and the distinctive six-sided, stone-built belfry next to it (1882). Nowadays, together with the church of St. Stephen, they constitute a wonderful ensemble of traditional architecture.

Research excavation on the grounds of the church, in order to check the foundation and proceed with the restoration of the monument following the fire of 2005, revealed at least four earlier phases: a) a three-aisled Early Christian basilica with a wide central nave and a semicircular conch that was destroyed at the end of 5th century, b) a small single-nave Byzantine church with a three-sided conch, which was inscribed within the conch and the central aisle of the basilica between the 10th and 11th century, c) an extension of the Byzantine church to the north and west with the Byzantine conch preserved and its repair in a second phase, and lastly d) a first phase of the current post-Byzantine church with the same width, but shorter in length.

A total of fifteen tombs were found on the grounds of the church, from the Early Christian period to the years of the Ottoman rule. A lot of ceramics, jewels, and liturgical utensils were revealed which provide us with information regarding the life of the inhabitants of mountainous Chalkidiki over a long period of time. In the architectural remains, which are preserved up to 1.5 m above ground level in some places, fragments of frescoes were found fixed in their places, the most characteristic being the representation of the concelebrating hierarchs in the conch of the Byzantine church and part of the floor during Ottoman rule with six-sided clay tablets. In the excavated soil from the destruction of the third phase, probably due to an earthquake, fragments of wall paintings were found that belong to at least two phases and which could be associated with the Athonite tradition.

The restoration of the church with glass panels on the floor, which enable visual contact with the architectural remains, created a unique monument, which, while in operation, preserves its history like a palimpsest.

Eleni Stoumbou-Katsamouri,

archaeologist at the Ephorate of Antiquities of Chalkidiki and Mount Athos.

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