Travel: Greece - Trip the light fantastic

Orthodox Easter in Athens is a sight worth seeing. By Jill Dudley
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"MEN OF Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious." So said St Paul nearly 2,000 years ago and, in part, he was right. To spend an Orthodox Easter weekend in Athens is to be reminded that not all Athenians worship the car or the god of Ouzo. For many the spirit of the Greek Orthodox Church still exerts a powerful influence.

Athens is at its best at Easter. The weather is warm, the sky is less polluted, the tourists are few and many of the Athenians leave the city for the islands or villages. The museums and archaeological sites remain open (except on Easter Sunday when a trip to the nearby Hymettos mountains means a day among the wild flowers).

Throughout the Easter weekend the churches are full of these "very religious" people. The services last several hours and the faithful come and go as it suits. The interiors of the domed Byzantine churches are beautiful with their candles of supplication, glistening mosaics, frescoes and icons, and ornate brass chandeliers.

The 12th-century church of Agia Aikaterini, for example, within easy reach of the Acropolis, stands in its own sunken courtyard with two ancient columns. In St Paul's day the annual torchlight procession would have been in October along the Sacred Way to Eleusis. The occasion would have been the Greater Mysteries held in the sanctuary of Demeter, goddess of corn. Then the people mourned the descent of Demeter's daughter to the underworld and looked forward to her return in the spring.

Or there was the annual procession along the Sacred Way at the midsummer Panathenaea festival in honour of Athene, the great goddess and patroness of the city. This wound its way up to the Parthenon, the temple of Athene, which still stands supreme on the Acropolis.

The climax of the Easter weekend is the Resurrection service held late on Saturday night. As midnight approaches there is a feeling of mounting expectation and the lights in the church of Agia Aikaterini, as in all the churches of Greece, are extinguished except for the small icon candles suspended before the iconostasis (the sanctuary screen) whose central "Royal Doors" are closed.

At midnight, the Royal Doors are opened and the figure of the priest is dimly seen before the darkened sanctuary, holding a lighted candle to represent the new "light of the world". As he pronounces the words Christos anestei (Christ is risen), the church bells peel and fireworks and thunderflashes are let off. The faithful in the church surge forward to light their candles.

The whole of Athens becomes one great celebration as each citizen guards his "new light" and carries his candle home with him - if it stays alight, it is seen as good luck in the year ahead. Meanwhile, on the Acropolis, the Parthenon is once again floodlit a gold-white and stands supreme against the night sky.