Athens Monasitiraki and the Ottoman Turks history

Monastiraki of Athens: Remnants of the Ottoman Turks

In the very heart of Athens, beneath the majestic presence of the Acropolis, the distinctive old market district of Athens Monasitiraki offers lots more than souvenir shops, clothing, antiques and street vendors. A walk through Monastiraki is an unforgettable experience rich with historical significance. The Monastiraki area is full of remains from not only ancient times but of the occupation of the Ottoman Turks.

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The newly renovated neo-classical metro station of Monastiraki is one of the oldest -- dating to 1895. Next to the platforms, in a specially formed space encased with stones, is the bed and banks of the Iridanos River dating to antiquity.

There is also an archaeological excavation pit in the centre of the Square where you can view the river.

Ottoman Turks in Greece

Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Turks from 1460 to 1821 and there are still reminders of these oppressive years which the Greeks refer to as sklavia (slavery). When the War of Independence broke out in 1821, the Greeks fought to win back their country and drive the Ottomans out.

There are remnants of those four-hundred years of oppression scattered throughout Athens. Around the Monastiraki area, you can still see reminders although the Greeks prefer not to recognize them as belonging to the Turks.

The narrow criss-crossing streets and small buildings and shops of the Monastiraki market are characteristic of Turkish urban planning and the market really resembles an Oriental bazaar. In the maze of alleyways you'll find shops selling everything you've imagined from beads to military memorabilia and treasures like collectable vinyl records. If you're looking for a bargain, visit there on Sunday when the flea market is in full swing.

Ottoman History

When you've finished shopping and browsing the many varieties of stores and galleries, look around the immediate area where you'll not only see ancient ruins such as Hadrian's Library and the Roman Agora, but other remnants of the Turkish occupation.

Athens was not liberated from the Ottomans until 1833 so there are a number of remarkable buildings still standing from the Ottoman era. The monumental Tzistarakis Mosque, built in 1759 by the Turkish voivod, Moustafa Agas, dominates Monastiraki's newly paved central square. The 17th column of the Temple of Zeus was removed to use in its construction. This is the only mosque open to the public in Athens and it now houses the Museum of Traditional Ceramics.

In all the years I lived in and visited Athens I had never ventured up the mosque steps and had no idea that inside is a treasure-trove of incredible ceramics crafted by Greek artisans from Asia Minor. It's definitely well-worth a visit. When you are inside, look for the striped mirhab located in a niche, indicating the direction of Mecca.

Near the Roman Agora is the little Fetihie Mosque built in 1458 in honour of Mohamed II the Conqueror on the occasion of his visit to Athens. It is now used as an archaeological warehouse. At the crossroads of Aeolou Street and Pelopida Street opposite the Tower of the Winds, are the remains of a building destroyed in a fire in 1911. This was a Muslim Seminary, the medresse, a Turkish school built in 1721. It consisted of a main building which was a school and mosque, a building housing students and teachers (hodjia), a kitchen and hygiene areas as well as a central court.

During the War of Independence it was used as a prison and it is said many Greeks were hung from a tree in its courtyard. The prison was closed in the 1900s and the building torn down.

Over on Kyrristou Street in Plaka and you'll find the Old Baths (Hamam Abit Efendi), built in the 17th century. These were a popular meeting place in the Ottoman era. They've now been renovated and house the Museum of Cleanliness and Body Embellishment as well as hosting artistic and cultural events.

Be sure and visit the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, Ayion Asomaton 22 near the Kerameikos. The museum is in a converted neoclassical mansion and houses Islamic treasures collected by Antonis Benakis, founder of the Benaki Museum. The exhibits are from the seventh century to the nineteenth and include beautiful, intricately decorated objects of art: ceramics, metalwork and wood but also textiles, jewellery, glass and more. On the third floor you step into the Gold Age of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent entering a reconstructed room from an Ottoman mansion with colourful inlaid floor tiles, carved window screens and gorgeous silk wall hangings.

After your shopping spree and look around at the antiquities, you'll probably feel like resting under the awnings of one of the many tavernas and restaurants in Monastiraki. In roaming around the maze of streets I discovered an Irish pub, The James Joyce. It's apparently a popular spot at night. I've only been there during the daytime for lunch and can guarantee they have the best mussels I've ever tasted, and a menu full of excellent Irish and British style foods. Don't forget to have a Guinness too!

You can also check out more traditional foods: the best souvlaki places are in Monastiraki. Have an ouzo and relax while you are entertained by a live band playing old rebetika songs, music brought to Athens by the Greeks of Asia Minor.

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W. Ruth Kozak has been a historical fiction writer since her teens and a travel journalist for more than 15 years. She also instructs classes on travel writing, creative and novel writing and memoirs. She has travelled extensively, often solo and always on a budget. Her travels inspired her to create a travel ezine TravelThruHistory

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 26, 2016

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