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Paleochora the Old Town of Aegina

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Paleochora, or "old town", is the name of a hill near the Monastery of Agia Triada (Agios Nektatios) dotted by a scattering of old chapels and remains of a Byzantine city. It is also known as an "island Mystras," alluding to the fortified town in the Peloponnese.

Archaeologists have identified it as the location of the ancient city of Aegina, called Oii, or Oea, where the gods, particularly wooden idols of Demeter and Persephone, were worshiped. This is evidenced by a number of ancient inscriptions scattered around the area or embedded in church walls, along with numerous ancient architectural remains. Those that were not incorporated into the churches have been taken elsewhere for safekeeping and some are at the Archaeological Museum of Aegina.

The Aeginetans settled there around 896 AD to flee from the Saracen pirates and stayed there until 1800 AD, when they returned to the harbour where the town of Aegina stands today.

The houses in this medieval town covered the entire southwestern side of the hill and rose amphitheatrically to the top. The inhabitants were involved in trade and shipping and cultivated the small farms and gardens around the area. But Paleochora was not always successful in evading destruction. From the 9th century to the 12th century, there is little available information about Aegina, but it is known that it was plagued by pirates and the island's history is closely connected to periods of occupation by the Franks, Venetians and Ottomans. In 1537, it was seized by Barbarosa who looted most of the churches. That is why few of the churches that remain were built before the mid-15th century. Since that time, invaders included the Venetians and Ottomans until the 18th century. By that time, only a half-ruined village remained with 300-400 houses, according to accounts by European travellers. When the inhabitants finally left Paleochora and moved to the current location of Aegina town, the houses were abandoned and gradually deteriorated. There are about 38 churches now, most of which feature wall paintings from the periods between the 13th to the 18th century.

The church of Stavros (Holy Cross) is at the entrance to Paleochora and is celebrated on 14 September. The traditional Easter dance is also held there every year. Higher up to the left is the basilica of St George the Catholic, which was later renamed Panagia Foritissa and was the central square of Paleochora. Further on is the cathedral of the Bishopric of Agios Dionysios (he was the bishop of the island from 1576 to 1579). This is a domed basilica built into the rocks. The saint lived in a cell near the church which has been preserved. From this cell, a path leads around the hill to the monastery of Agia Kyriaki, which was the centre of Paleochora from the 17th century to 1830. Agia Kyriaki is a double basilica with marvelous murals.

Leading down from Agia Kyriaki, the path comes to the cross-shaped church of Agios Ioannis the Theologian with a blue bell tower, the basilica of Agioi Anargyroi, the church of Agios Dimitrios, the chapel of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the church of Metamorfosi, where all of the sanctuary's wall paintings remain intact.

A fort at the top of Paleochora hill was built by the Venetians in 1654. Its walls enclosed six cisterns, 60 houses and two large interconnected churches, Agios Dimitrios and Agios Georgios of the Castle. The first was for Roman Catholics and the other for the Greek Catholics.

A total of 38 churches remain now; these are in the basilica style and fall into three architectural types:

  • One-room, running bond, including Stavros, Agios Georgios the Catholic, Agia Varvara, Agios Nikolaos, the bishopric of Agios Dionysios, Agia Anna, Agioi Theodoroi, Agios Minas, Agios Eleftherios, Agia Makrina, Archangel Michail, Agioi Anargyroi, Agia Ekaterini, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Metamorphosis, Agios Efthimios, Agios Ioannis Prodromos, Agios Kyrikos, Agios Stylianos, Agios Zacharias, Agia Kyfti and Agios Spyridon (or Sotiros the Saviour). There is also an abandoned church, a hermitage and a smaller chapel in the same style.
  • Cross-shaped basilica with a cupola, such as Agios Nikolaos Mavrikas, Agios Ioannis Theologian and Taxiarchis.
  • Twin basilica with two altars-entrances, including Agios Charalmbos, Panagia (Virgin Mary) of Giannouli, Agia Kyriaki and Agios Georgios of the Castle.

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