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July 27, 2017

Church of Saint Panteleimon at Acharnanon in Athens: The Fascinating History Behind One of the Largest Orthodox Churches in the World

The Church of Saint Panteleimon at Acharnanon is a Greek Orthodox basilica in the center of Athens on Acharnon Avenue. It is the largest church in Athens, the third largest in Greece, and the eighth largest Orthodox church in the world, with a capacity of 10,000 people. The dome is only two meters smaller than the dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, occupying an area of 1600 m. The thickness of the masonry of the temple reaches two meters.

The church was built over the location of a former smaller church dedicated also to Saint Panteleimon, and contains a relic of the Saint. The foundations of the church were laid on 12 September 1910 by King George I of Greece and it was consecrated on 22 June 1930 by Archbishop Chrysostomos I Papadopoulos. Building began in 1939 and was completed in 1980. The church's interior iconography was created by the painter Iannis Karoussos who began in 1984. Today it is one of the most active parishes in Athens.
Historical Background
During the liberation from the Turks in the early 19th century, the Phanariot investor, doctor, politician, diplomat and one of the first prefects of the Greek state Konstantinos Zographos (1796-1856), among the parcels of land he took care to buy, taking advantage of the circumstances, was also the area we now call the neighborhood of Agios Panteleimona.
Then the land became the property of Demetrios Bernardakis (1833-1907), a native of Crete, who was a versatile and still young scholar and writer and later university professor. The latter had rented his garden with a small farmhouse to Anastasios Eulampios.
A woman with a dramatic history was to connect her presence with this region and become the reason for the construction of Saint Panteleimon. A a young age, Nezo (Anna) Petsotou had married Pantelis Dousas from Spetses, where they lived. According to the official version, the couple had a boy in 1836 and a few years later (1842) they moved to Crete. There Nezo divorced her husband and married an Ottoman. However, 1848 was the beginning of her adventures, after the only child she had with her first husband, who also bore the name Pantelis, passed away at the age of just 12. Then "either due to a sick imagination, or for the sake of charlatanism and extortion" she dug up the bones of her child "alleging they were sanctified and miraculous", as the official church documents state. 
In 1849, after wearing religious clothes and changing her name to Eupraxia, she passed through Syros and Spetses to finally arrive in Athens, holding the box with the bones. After actions by the Church, gendarmes removed the box, considering that it scandalized the faithful. In order to avoid further scandal, it was ordered that she be confined as a nun in the women's Monastery of Pepelenitsa in Aegialeia.  
But Nezo, now nun Eupraxia, did not abandon her thoughts in order to spend a quiet life in the monastery, instead she continued her former activity. She was found in one of the cells still owned by Saint George in Karytsis, causing an uproar with her presence. A court order was even issued to give her the bones, but they were not returned to her.  

The Foundation of the Temple 
However, the reactions were increasing and many complaints were published. It was then that the tenant Anastasios Eulampios took pity on her by establishing a "chapel in the name of Saint Panteleimon" in the garden, as Philemon wrote. He notes that "he gathered Nezon in this, where she performed her various and varied ascetic works."
We are informed of the exact time by a document dated January 1855, which states that there had "been built a short while ago, without the permission of the Holy Synod and the political authority, a chapel in the name of Saint Panteleimon." But it wasn't long before there was a rift between Eulampios and Nezo, for reasons we don't know.  
But we know that he expelled her from the garden and the chapel and, if we believe the press of the time, the expulsion was violent and accompanied by caning! A little later, Eulampios and his wife suffered much from a large group of robbers. The press of the time connected the two events, namely the expulsion of the nun and the robbery. However, this connection has not been established. Besides, researchers also directly connect it with the activities of the famous bandit Christos Davelis, whose life has also not seriously concerned the researchers.
In any case, Nezo, after being expelled from Agios Panteleimona, continued her activity for many years until about ten years later (1865), managing to publish the "Service of Praise to the Holy Neomartyr Panteleimon," which was composed by the monk Iakovos of New Skete! The reaction of the Church was immediate and particularly severe. By decision of the Holy Synod, which took the form of an encyclical, the pamphlet was repudiated, the government was asked to confiscate it and pursue the publisher, now directly speaking of a false canonization. However, the temple remained, which was located where the roads of Acharnon and Agorakritou meet today and was surrounded by vineyards and vegetable gardens. 

For a panoramic view of the interior of the church, see here.

The building of the church

Iannis Karoussos