Right in the heart of Thessaloniki, next to high-rise buildings, a busy road and sidewalks for pedestrians, you can find a real oasis — having stopped at the railing on Makenzi King street, look down. A little below the level of the street you will see an unusually beautiful courtyard decorated with trees and pots with plants. A small staircase leads down, as if inviting to escape from busy and dynamic modern life and enjoy the silence in a cozy blissful garden. It is here where the hidden from prying eyes Saint John the Baptist temple is located and under it one will find the mysterious catacombs.
At the intersection of Iktinou, Makenzi King and Paul Mela streets, near the church of Saint Sophia, there is a small temple of Saint John the Baptist. The building has an unusual shape, and the whole area harmoniously combines elements of glass, stone and greenery. This place is remarkable not only for its extraordinary beauty — under the modern temple, which was built in the middle of the XX century, there is a network of underground passages, the purpose of which is still the subject of debate for many scientists.
The discovery of fragments of catacombs in different parts of Thessaloniki gives reasons to suggest that the major part of the most important buildings, as well as the first Christian temples of the city were connected by underground tunnels, many of which were built as early as in the III century BC. At various times they were used for the concealed movement of important officials, as hiding places during persecution, as well as for secret meetings and religious cults.
Marble steps inside the temple lead to the catacombs with Holy water, around which many legends and tales exist. The baptistery found in this place is considered to be the oldest early Christian baptistery and belongs to the complex of buildings of the five-aisled episcopal basilica of the V century.
Among the many beliefs passed from mouth to mouth by Thessalonians, there is a legend that after the terrible fire of 1917, which destroyed most of Thessaloniki, the area where the church of St. John is located, remained completely untouched by fire. The image of St. John that was found in the underground church was completely unhurt. The proximity to the church of St. Sophia has led scholars to believe that the catacombs were connecting the early Christian basilica that existed in its place with the baptistery located in the church of St. John.
Right inside the temple, you can see the steps leading down — under the ground, to the catacombs, where the Holy water is flowing to this day.
In 1892, landowners discovered on their site the catacombs — right under the courtyard of the temple, there are corridors and three arched rooms with dormer windows. In one of the rooms, a stream of healing sacred water rushes out, creating a feeling of high humidity around. At the same time, underground passages and crypts have are very well-kept and do not go to ruin under the influence of humidity due to a well-arranged drainage system. In the year of the discovery of the catacombs, brief archaeological excavations were carried out, confirming the fact of pilgrimage in these places in the X century.
According to the architect Petros Devolis’ opinion, these catacombs were built in the Roman period. They had been a part of the heating system of the city, and later they were used by the first Christians as a religious sanctuary. Although many evidence found around indicate an even earlier use of the site as a pagan temple dedicated to ancient deities.
When in 1932 the owners of the site decided to erect a building on it and began the excavation works, the most important archaeological findings were discovered — a baptistery, a column with an engraved image of a cross on it and fragments of marble slabs.
In the 1940-ies a small church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist was built on the site of the discovery of the catacombs with sacred water and baptistery. In 1990, it became necessary to expand the church. To do this, the old temple was demolished, with the permission of the Ephorate of European values, and afterwards it took the form that appears to the eyes of visitors today. Inside it, a 44-seat platform was installed.
In the courtyard of the temple of St. John there is a nymphaeum of Roman times.
In the era of Ancient Rome, such structures were built near the water source and had the form of semicircular buildings with columns, and sometimes were natural or artificial grottoes. In early Christian times, the nymphaeums served as baptisteries.
Along with the baptistery, various marble slabs and a column were discovered during archaeological works. All these findings you can see in the courtyard of the temple.
The baptistery has a hexagonal shape. According to scientists, it belonged to the church of Saint Sophia and probably emperor Theodosius was christianized there. Other representatives of science believe that the discovered nympheum and column were parts of Roman baths. But there are also adherents of the opinion that there was an ancient temple on this place, and the hexagonal building had originally been a baptistery and at the same time served as a cenotaph, where there were beads with the dried blood of St. Demetrius. The latter opinion is also not unfounded — the architect Petros Devolis, who is a specialist in the field of illustrations and valuable works on the restoration of the monasteries of mount Athos, believes that it was in the catacombs of the church of St. John where actually could have been executed patron Saint of Thessaloniki Demetrius Solunsky. Perhaps, long ago underground passages led from here to the temple of St. Demetrius.
Moving along the laterals of the tunnels, you can get into small rooms with old icons. The age of some of them is so great that the images on them are hardly recognizable.
Having descended the steps from Makenzi King street, enjoy the peace and beauty of the courtyard of the church of Saint John the Baptist and then look inside. It is always quiet in the temple, the candles are lit. Inside, in the eastern side of the building, next to the "Templon" there are steps leading to the underground tunnels and the crypt with Holy water.
The temple of Saint John the Baptist is located near the church of Saint Sophia, towards the southeast of it. At the intersection of Makenzi, Iktinou and P.Mela streets, don’t be in a hurry and carefully look around. Being located in the heart of the city, the place is hidden from prying eyes, because it is situated at a level below the road. A sign indicating the location of the temple of St. John the Baptist is barely visible and is located near the candy store.
The main landmark for the search of the St. John temple is the thurch of St. Sophia — the "little paradise in the center of the city" is close at hand from it. You need to go down from the church of Saint Sophia, bypassing it on the right. The buses No. 16, 24 and 50 run to this place. But if you decide to combine a visit to the church with a walk through the city center, it is better to walk here on foot — from the Aristotelous square you will reach the temple of St. John the Baptist just in 15-20 minutes.