August 2, 2023

The Hidden Secrets Below the Church of Saint Stephen in Arnaia of Halkidiki

The Metropolitan Church of Saint Stephen in Arnaia of Halkidiki has something unusual: it is a fully functional church and at the same time an important archaeological site.

Excavations carried out after the devastating fire of September 2005 revealed four more building phases, which are now visible to the public through the glass floor, which covers a large part of the temple.

The Ephorate of Antiquities of Halkidiki and Mount Athos highlighted the history of the site, which starts from the early Christian years and reaches to the present post-Byzantine church, through a series of educational visits in August 2022 with archaeologist Eleni Stoumbou-Katsamouris as a guide.

In the place where the Church of Saint Stephen is today, in the 5th century a large early Christian three-aisled basilica was built, while in the 10th century a small Byzantine church was erected in the eastern part of the central aisle. This small temple was destroyed by an earthquake or other cause and in the 14th century another was erected which also seems to have been destroyed without much information as to when and why.

According to the inscription at the entrance, the current church was built in 1812 in the form of a three-aisled basilica and the bell tower dates back to 1889, and in its previous phase, specifically in 1775, Saint Kosmas the Aitolos passed through and taught.

In the area there was once a metochion of the Konstamonitou Monastery of Mount Athos, whose katholicon was dedicated to Saint Stephen and thus the church honors his memory.

During the Revolution of 1821, the metochion burned to the ground, as did the entire village, whose inhabitants abandoned it and dispersed to the surrounding area. Later they returned, rebuilt the village and the church, in which they installed a wooden iconostasis and an elaborate bishop's throne, made by the few wood carvers in the area. The technically unique iconostasis was a donation from the Konstamonitou Monastery and included 70 smaller wooden icons and 14 large ones covered with silver.

On the evening of September 5, 2005, a large fire reduced the Church of Saint Stephen to ashes. The fire started from the interior and the destruction was total. The roof collapsed and the fiery conflagration turned to ashes the precious icons, books, relics and objects of inestimable historical and artistic value, including the technichally unique silvered and gilded wooden iconostasis. Only some metal utensils, icons and books that were in the attic were saved and removed in time.

The Ministry of Culture, through the competent Ephorate (then the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities), but also all the agencies of Arnaia participated in the herculean task of restoration.

And then the big reveal happened. During the work, the archaeological spade stumbled upon older building phases and brought to light part of a three-aisled Early Christian basilica dating from around 400 AD, a small single-roomed Byzantine church of the 10th-11th century in the eastern part of the central nave, mural decoration and a large rectangular post-Byzantine building without a niche of the 16th-17th century.

It is unknown when, perhaps the end of the 17th century, the temple was destroyed to be built in larger dimensions (its eastern part), while in 1812 the western part was added.

15 tombs were also found, which date back from the early Christian era to the 16th century, along with coins, clay and glass vessels, wall paintings, objects used for worship, covering all aspects of worship from the early Christian era to the Turkish rule.

What was found was preserved unchanged in its place, and in the concrete floor of the temple, large gaps are inserted, covered with durable glass, so that the earlier phases are visible. On top of these special transparent panels, visitors can stand, walk or worship, while observing the illuminated and specially designed archaeological site and the findings discovered under the temple.

Thus, the Metropolitan Church of Saint Stephen in Arnaia has the uniqueness of being a place of religious worship and at the same time a place of historic and archaeological interest.

In the guided tours of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Halkidiki and Mount Athos, the archaeologist Eleni Stoubou-Katsamouris described the history of the temple, all its historical phases, the archaeological investigations and what they brought to light and demonstrated how the history of the monument coexists with its modern use.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.



Become a Patreon or Paypal Supporter:

Recurring Gifts

Contact Form


Email *

Message *