The Anastasi Mass on Holy Saturday is one of the most pivotal and reverential moments of Greek Orthodox Easter. In a service that starts late in the evening, candle-holding crowds gather outside the church to hear the priest announce at midnight that Christ Has Risen (“Christos Anesti”) in a mystical chant. The feeling of anticipation and adoration intensifies throughout the crowd, as smiling faces are illuminated by the ritual of lambada candles being lit with the holy light from person to person. The echoing liturgy by the priests, peppered by fireworks that whizz and crackle through the air (in some places to the point of sounding like all-out warfare and posing serious dangers – you have been warned!), all contribute to a sensorily and spiritually lavish Greek Easter experience.
Here we propose six of Athens’ most charming churches to visit on the night of Holy Saturday, where you can experience the religious service, exemplary architecture and scenic surroundings.
1. Agia Sophia Acropolis
This small church, just a few minutes’ walk from the Acropolis Museum on the pedestrian street of Dionysiou Aeropagitou, is under the aegis of the non-profit Meropeion Charitable Foundation and stands under the beautifully lit Acropolis. It is said that during the church’s construction (inaugurated in 1926), a ancient sanctuary of Athena including a statue of the goddess and other relics was found on the site. Perhaps this is why the atmosphere here on the night of Anastasi is particularly charged with a sense of deep devotion and tranquility, and without a single explosive to be heard.
2. Agios George in Lycabettus
Offering some of the most dazzling panoramic views of the Greek capital, and especially at night when the city glitters with lights, this is a fantastic spot to experience Easter night. Reachable by foot, the cable car (on Aristippou street) or car, the late 18th century whitewashed church with its tall belfry (bestowed to the Athenians by Queen Olga in the late 1800s) and the Greek flag is visible from numerous points around Athens. It has a spacious courtyard from where one can see all directions of the city. At midnight, it provides the best vantage point to watch the fireworks that are set off in celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
3. Asomaton-Petrakis Monastery
Surrounded by lush, well-manicured gardens is the catholicon of the Asomatoi Taxiarches Monastery, also named Moni Petraki, a picturesque 10th century church that many Athenians enjoy visiting for the night of the Anastasi. The Byzantine church was first purchased and restored by the monk Parthenios Petrakis in 1673. Enjoy a stroll through the monastery’s sprawling gardens and courtyard.
4. Agia Irini on Aeolou Street
Once the holy Metropolis of Athens, Aghia Irini church is known for its highly accomplished Greek Byzantine choir, which makes its religious services particularly enchanting. The walls of the aisled basilica have murals from 1884-1888 by Ludwig Thiersch’s student Spyridon Xatzigiannopoulos, as well as an imposing dome and two belfries. Some believe that it was constructed using the architectural ruins of more than 70 older Byzantine churches, as well as some ancient building material from the Acropolis.
5. Agios Nikolaos Ragavas
First built in the 11th century and then reconstructed in the 18th century after being partially destroyed by a Venetian cannonball in the 1600s, this characteristic Athenian church in scenic Plaka is particularly atmospheric on Holy Saturday. Said to be the first church in Athens to ring its bells at the conclusion of the Greek War of Independence (1821) as well as at the end of Germany’s Occupation in 1944, it is steeped in history. With the Acropolis rising above it and on a quiet pedestrian street, the church offers an especially poignant experience of the Anastasi mass.
6. Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris
Near the ancient Pnyx Hill and the Hill of the Nymphs and surrounded by trees and greenery, this peaceful and highly picturesque 12th century church has a lovely courtyard where the Anastasi mass takes place. The courtyard was restored in 1955 by acclaimed architect Dimitris Pikionis, who added marble and ceramic decorative themes to the monument. During the time of restoration, some beautiful frescoes dating to the 1800s were revealed.