Hundreds of people gathered on Tuesday at Thessaloniki’s fifth-century Church of Saint Demetrios, on the annual feast day of the patron saint of the city.
This day also marks the liberation of the venerable Greek city by the Greek Army in 1912 during the Ottoman Wars after five centuries of occupation by its Turkish overlords.
Pilgrims waited patiently in long lines to give their respects to the saint at the iconic church of Thessaloniki, which was one of the most important cities during the early years of Christianity, and where the Apostle Paul once preached.
The 7th-century mosaic of the martyr, located in the church dedicated to him, is one of the earliest images of Saint Demetrios. According to the early accounts of his life, including the “Miracles of St. Demetrius,” the martyr was born to Christian parents in Thessaloniki, in what was then called the region of Illyricum, in the year 270.
The earliest written accounts of his life were compiled in the 9th century, although there are earlier images of him, and the 7th-century Miracles of Saint Demetrius collection.
According to the hagiographies, Demetrius was a young man of senatorial family who became proconsul of the Thessalonica district. He was run through with spears in around 306 AD in Thessaloniki, during the Christian persecutions of Galerian, which matches his depiction in the 7th century mosaics.
Saint Demetrios credited with miracles in Thessaloniki
After the growth of his veneration as saint, the city of Thessaloniki suffered repeated attacks and sieges from the Slavic peoples who moved into the Balkans, and Demetrios was credited with many miraculous interventions to defend the city. Hence later traditions about Demetrios regard him as a soldier in the Roman army, and he came to be regarded as an important military martyr.
Unsurprisingly, he was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. Disputes between Bohemond I of Antioch and Alexios I Komnenos appear to have resulted in Demetrios being appropriated as patron saint of crusading.
Demetrios was also venerated as patron of agriculture, peasants and shepherds in the Greek countryside during the Middle Ages. According to historian Hans Kloft, he had inherited this role from the pagan goddess Demeter.
After the demise of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter’s cult, in the 4th century, the Greek rural population had gradually transferred her rites and roles onto the Christian saint Demetrios.