One of the main attractions of Thessaloniki — Rotunda — has a rich history and is decorated with magnificent early Christian mosaics. This building is a part of Gallerian palace complex and it is one of the oldest symbols of the city. Rotunda as well as the Arch of Galerius is included into the UNESCO World Heritage list as one of the early Christian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki.
The most important Roman monument in Thessaloniki is a unique construction for Greece — the cylindrical form of Rotunda, due to which the building got its name, corresponds to the style of the Pantheon in Rome.
Rotunda is one of the most remarkable monuments of Roman times in Greece. The structure is almost 30 metres high and its inner diameter is 25 metres. The walls of Rotunda are as many as 6,30 metres thick that helped it to withstand several earthquakes, which had happened during its centuries-long history.
Rotunda was built in 306 by the Romans during the rule of Emperor Galerius. In the III century after several devastating civil wars the empire divided into 4 self-governed areas with their own provinces. Thessaloniki performed as one of the most important administrative and financial centers and also one of the main cities that led Emperor Galerius to the importance of an extensive palace complex construction in this city. The Triumphal Arch (Kamara) and Rotunda were its main elements, which were connected with one another by a street decorated with columns.
The main intended purpose of Rotunda during the Roman rule is not known for a fact, supposedly it was used as a place of worship of Zeus. Presumably, the building was raised by the Emperor as his own mausoleum, which it never happened to become, as Galerius died and was buried far from Thessaloniki.
In 400 Rotunda was transformed into a Christian temple and decorated with unique mosaics portraying saints and martyrs. There is no information about who it was dedicated to, but the links to the Byzantine texts tell about the dedication of the temple to Assumption Forces — Archangels. In view of this, some changes were made in architectural construction of the building. Twelve centuries later, in 1590 during the reign of the Ottoman Empire Suleiman Hortagi Efendi turned Rotunda into a mosque. A minaret that survived till now, was attached to the building. In the eastern part of the monument you can find the sheikh’s grave.
One more of its names — Saint George’s Rotunda (Agios Georgios) the construction got due to the church, standing near it, that is bearing the same name. The church was a courtyard of the Athos monastery Grigoriu. The icons and the relics that were kept in Rotunda at the beginning of the Ottoman rule, were supposed to be brought there.
When Thessaloniki was liberated from the Turks in 1912, the Rotunda became a Christian church again, and since 1920 the collections of the Byzantine and Christian sculptures were placed here. The earthquake of the 1978 caused a severe damage to the centuries-old structure of Rotunda that made it important to do a serious restoration work. When the restoration works were finished, the museum was opened in Rotunda and once a month there is a church-service here.
In unusually thick walls of Rotunda you can see 8 niches with windows, which have a form of an arch and together with semicircular holes in the dome of the building serve as a source of natural light. The structure is covered with a big hemispherical dome where originally there was a ventilation opening, and on the floor in the centre there was a deep dumb well. Initially, the entrance to the building was at its southwestern side.
The hagiography date from the V century and have survived just under the dome of Rotunda, the rest were destroyed at the time when the church was turned into a mosque in 1590. The mosaics in the arch recessions and vaults of dormer windows serve just as decorations. The dome was decorated with a mosaic composition of Epiphany where Jesus Christ was depicted in Glory surrounded by four angels. Some parts of this mosaic have survived until now. The lower zone of this mosaic is preserved better. Here you can distinguish the figures of the Twelve Apostles as well as martyrs and saints. The amazing beauty and manner of working make the mosaic compositions of Rotunda to be unique in range of colors as well as in illustration vivacity.
When Thessaloniki became the center of Turco-Islamic culture, the churches have being transformed into mosques and close to them the minarets were raised. The Rotunda minaret is the only one in Thessaloniki that survived to these days and managed to overcome the period of destroying these structures in 1920s. Its conical roof did not survive after the earthquake and the building itself got sustained damage. The height of the minaret is almost 36 metres and there are 129 stairs steps from its base to the top.
The location of Rotunda in the eastern part of historical centre of Thessaloniki makes this attraction easily accessible for search. The building domineers above the historic road Egnatia, with the help of which the Triumph arch is connected with the Palace Complex that is located downstreet.
You can get here on the city buses No. 16, 17, 24, 37 or 50. You can walk on foot here from the Aristotle square just in 10-15 minutes. For this you need to go up to the Egnatia street and go along it towards the University of Aristotle. It is quite difficult to find a place for car parking in the centre of Thessaloniki, that is why it would be better to leave the car in some less busy place.
There are special days in Greece that happen several times a year and give everyone an opportunity to visit absolutely free all the state museums and archeological sites including Rotunda. These are the days of national and international holidays: