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Athens must visit site: St Marina A church resting on a pre-Christian grotto

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

On the Hill of the Nymphs, near the National Observatory of Athens, stands a large, cream-coloured church dedicated to Saint Marina, a young woman who is also known as the Vanquisher of Demons.

Imposing in appearance, with domed tiled roofs and marble steps that sparkle in the sunlight, the church was built between 1924 and 1927 n the Byzantine style. The four-aisled basilica stands in memory of a 15-year-old maiden of incredible beauty who suffered inconceivable torture and disfigurement at the hands of a man who wanted her as his bride. She told him he could never have her because the only man she had love for was Christ and challenged him to torture her in any way he wished to test her devotion, and so he did, in a multitude of gruesome ways. He even sent a demon to devour her in her prison cell, but she demolished it using a hammer.

The church is imposing but unremarkable, unlike its history. It was actually built on the grounds of a much smaller, post-Byzantine church dedicated to the same saint; the elaborately carved main altar and several icons came from that original church. And there is the most intriguing surprise of all - an ancient grotto with a domed roof through which natural light streams, nestled in the south eastern corner of the church. With an intensely tranquil and mystical ambience ideally suited to sacred liturgies, the "cave" dates back to the pre-Christian era when it was used as a place of worship. Centuries later it functioned as an aqueduct, while in the present day it is used for baptisms. Interestingly, Marina is also the saint of pregnant women and children.

Archaeological excavations in the cave during the 1980s unearthed seven layers of walls from the 13th, 17th. 18th and 19th centuries, and frescoes from those walls are exhibited, together with other religious relics, in the northern part of the present-day-church.

Address: Aghias Marinas 1, Thissio, Athens, 11851

Getting there: Metro to Thissio (M1)

Hours: 10am-1pm

Good to know: Return to the present and blend into the neighbourhood's vibrant coffee culture by bagging a perfect people-watching post at Athenaion Politeia Cafe restaurant.

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