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Mosaic of the Basillica of Ilissos

Churches in Athens

Basilica of Ilissos & Martyrium
of Saint Leonides

The Basilica of the river Ilissos is one of the most important early Christian monuments in Athens, located south-east of the Olympeion where the branches of the river form an islet. The site is accessible via Ardittou Street. The church was founded in the first half of the 5th century and is related to the many activities of the Empress Athinaïs-Eudokia.

The building was a three aisled basilica which originally had a timber saddle roof. Only the sanctuary was covered by a vault or a dome as can be deducted from the four large pillars at the ends of the semi-circular apses. The floors of the basilica and the atrium were laid with good quality mosaics depicting birds and plants. Parts of those mosaics have been preserved and are now kept in the Christian and Byzantine Museum in Athens.

The only reference to the church can be found in a speech by Michael Choniates, Bishop of Athens, in honor of Leonides, who was martyred in Corinth alongside seven women in AD 250 during the reign of Emperor Decius. From the speech it is clear that by the time of the bishop’s episcopacy (end of 12th beginning 13th century) the Corinthian martyr’s relics had been transferred to a tomb in Athens.

Michael Choniates (ca. 1138-1222)

Michael ChoniatesMichael Choniates was a writer and Bishop of Athens (1182-1204) and was later canonized. Well educated and with great respect for the classical legacy of Athens, he frequently complained in his writing about the city’s cultural decline.

As Bishop of Athens he relieved the population of its heavy taxes and led the resistance against the siege raised by Leo Sgouros in 1203. Following the occupation of Athens by the Franks in 1204, Choniates refused to accept the new situation and sought refuge, first on the island of Kea, then in Euboea. From 1233-34, many depictions of Choniates appeared in churches throughout Athens which suggests that he was canonized soon after his dead.

Bishop Choniates also mentions a church dedicated to the martyr, already in a bad state. The church can be identified as that of the Basilica of Ilissos since underneath its north-western side, there is a crypt with tombs where the remains of Leonides and his fellow-martyrs probable rest. There also is archaeological evidence connecting this basilica with another dedicate to Leonides, in Lechaio, near the place where the martyr died. Later documents give no information about the monument.

The church’s final demise may have been caused by the flooding of the river Illissos but it may equally have been the work of Ali Haseki, the Ottoman governor of Athens who, in order to build a new defensive wall for the city in 1778, destroyed the ancient and medieval monuments in the area. Archaeological excavation has uncovered the church’s ground plan.


Leonides was Bishop of Athens in the 3rd century; he became a martyr in Corinth together with seven women-deacons who accompanied him. His remains were brought to Athens in the mid-4th century. A martyrium was built to keep his remains and a basilica was added to it later.

Location map South-east of the Olympeion
Nearest metro station Acropoli
For typical words, please consult our Greek glossary Top of the page


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