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The church of Panagia Ekatontapyliani

The church of Panaghia Ekatontapyliani, dedicated to Virgin Mary, is one of the most ancient monuments of the religious architecture of Byzantine times that exist in Greece. The church is situated in the town of Paros (Paroikia), close to the port. It is an imposing building seizing the eye, as soon as the visitor gets ashore. The church is commonly called “Katapoliani”, a false pronunciation of the expression “kata tin polin", meaning “by the ancient town”. The official name “Ekatontapyliani”of the church is found for the first time in documents of the 16th century. Ekatontapyliani means in Greek “with 100 gates” and in fact, according to tradition the church is said to have 100 gates. The church attracts a lot of visitors both for pilgrimage and for sight seeing and the celebration of the Assumption of Virgin Mary on the 15th of August is equally glorious with that of Tinos.

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Local tradition states that the church had been constructed by the first Byzantine emperor Constantinos the Great, who in that way would keep his solemn promise to his mother St Helen, who had prayed at this place when she was obliged to stay for some time on the island, on her way to the Holy Land in 326. According to another tradition, in the 6th century, the emperor Justinian had ordered Ignatius, the master builder of Aghia Sofia to construct a new, bigger and more grandiose church at the place of the previous one.

The church preserved today is a three-aisled basilica of cross shape with a vault. Archaeological surveys have shown that it is built on the foundations of a gymnasium of the Roman period, the mosaic floor of which has survived and is displayed in the archaeological museum of the town of Paros. Today, what have survived from the church of the Early Christian period (of Constantinos the Great) are the pulpit, parts of the icon screen, made of marble, the altar and the throne of the bishops. The wall paintings of both of the main church and of the chapels are really impressive. The frescoes of the chapel of Aghios Nicolaos go back to the 7th and the 8th century. Numerous icons embellish the church, among which that of Jesus Christ and of the Assumption of Virgin Mary placed on the icon screen are silver plated, a donation of the Greek noble Nicolaos Mavrogenis, the prince of Moldavia and Vallachia, whose origin was from Paros.

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Several chapels are found both around the main church and in its interior; the oldest of all is the chapel of Aghios Nicolaos constructed very early in the 4th century, just after the Edict of Mediolanum. A chapel with a built cross shaped font made of marble, which served as Baptistery, is unique in Greece.

During the wars between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans pillaged the church and took all the precious objects of it. Throughout its history, Ekatontapyliani had undergone several modifications and interventions. After 1960s’ a large scale restorations had been carried out which resulted to give to the church the form it had in the 6th century.

In 1992, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece has declared Ekatontapyliani as a Panhellenic place of pilgrimage, for the archaeological, historic and religious value it has. Ever since, the church is no more a parish church but a place of pilgrimage attracting thousands of faithful people and of other visitors, who come here to admire this outstanding building and see the Byzantine Museum housed here.
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