Thessaloniki, the capital of Macedonia in Greece, on 12 June was at the forefront of innovative events regarding the celebration of architectural heritage. Yedi Kule Conquest, the 1st Monuments Run in the city, combined sports and culture all in one exciting day! The objective of the event was to highlight the rich built heritage of Ano Poli (Upper Town), the oldest part of Thessaloniki, via a 6 km run through its picturesque narrow streets, connecting eight significant monuments from the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. 210 athletes, 100 volunteers and more than 1500 visitors – among them being architects, archaeologists, politicians, writers, university professors and teachers – spread the event’s message: “The country’s monuments should be open to the public and host cultural events.”
Worth mentioning is the truly touching way a 67 year old runner described his impressions of the race. He enthused over the people’s applause, the athletes motivating each other and his friends waiting to cheer for him outside the local cafe he hangs out. He was moved by the residents who were welcoming the passing runners asking them to do it again next year and were interested in learning more about the event.
Apart from watching the race, people were invited to take part in parallel events and learn more about the monuments’ history while having fun. As soon as one arrived at the venue, it would be easy to distinguish the excited children participating in the treasure hunt. How impressive and endearing was their anxiety to find the hidden object that may be the key of the castle which would be delivered to the winner of the race! Moreover, while the athletes were preparing to race, Friends of Nature, a cultural club consisting of teachers, performed traditional Greek dances.
Later, maybe the most engaging performance of all took place: twenty teenagers composing the high school drama group named G, explored the eight monuments’ history through comic events, emotions, poems and songs and presented it to the viewers via their play “The spirit of the monument”. The festivities ended late at night with a musical performance by The Performers Quartet.
The venue of all the festivities as well as the starting and finishing point of the race was the UNESCO World Heritage Monument Heptapyrgion, also popularly known by its Ottoman name as Yedi Kule. It is a Byzantine and Ottoman-era fortress situated on the acropolis of Thessaloniki in Ano Poli and was probably named after the Yedikule Fortress in Constantinople. It served as the major redoubt of the city’s acropolis, as well as the seat of its garrison commander in Ottoman times, until the late 19th century. It was then converted to a prison, which remained open until 1989. Restoration and archaeological work began in the 1970s and continues to this day.
The route of the race also gave to the runners the opportunity to pass through the picturesque narrow streets of Ano Poli (Upper Town). The Upper Town is the highest part of the city and the most traditional one, as it preserves the Ottoman-era city fabric, otherwise destroyed in the great fire of 1917. Therefore, it features small stone-paved streets, old squares and houses in traditional Greek and Ottoman architecture. It is also home to important Byzantine monuments as Thessaloniki was the second city of the Byzantine Empire (330 – 1453 AD) after Constantinople. The Yedi Kule Conquest route connected eight monumens, six of them belonging to the Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, namely: Church of Hosios David (Latomou Monastery), Church of Aghios Nikolaos Orphanos, Moni Vlatadon , Byzantine Bath, Trigonion Tower or Alysseos Tower, Heptapyrgion, Islahhane and The Gardens of the Pasha. It is noteworthy that Moni Vlatadon opened its large wooden doors by special permission of the Patriarchate, in order for the runners to pass through the monastery!
In case you are intrigued enough to learn more about the Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, here is a useful guide: https://issuu.com/d-thess/docs/thessaloniki_unesco_monuments_map_w
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The realization of the Yedi Kule Conquest wasn’t an easy task. Anastasios Orfanidis, member of one of the organizing parties named ”Friends of Heptapyrgion”, admits in his blog that at first it seemed like an impossible dream:
”Nobody had believed at this new endeavor except for a small group of people who endured to the end, without skirmishes but with altruistic attitude, good planning and determination. It has been a long time since we had the desire to draw attention to the monuments of our region. Our particular concern was that most of them remained closed even though much money has been spent on their restoration. Visitors have repeatedly expressed their disappointment on arriving at the Acropolis and not being able to enter in several of the monuments. Initially, we wanted to approach the Ephorate of Antiquities to ensure their opening. However, due to reasons concerning their lack of staff we got discouraged. So, after that, we came up with the idea to connect the monuments with a route, a concept to which the monuments run was added later.”
Thankfully, their vision slowly started to acquire supporters, either people from the neighborhoods of Ano Poli or others who simply recognized the historical value of the monuments. Eventually, the Yedi Kule Conquest came to life due to the synergy of Sfendami, ΚΑΜΕ (in Greek, standing for ”Movement for the Opening of Greek Monuments”), Friends of Heptapyrgion and the support of Health Runners Club of Thessaloniki, Cafe Aithrio at Yedikule, Ephorate of Antiquities of Thessaloniki City and the Municipality of Thessaloniki.