Veria in Greece is a town with a rich and layered history spanning over 2,500 years. But despite its heritage – and being just 45 minutes drive from Thessaloniki – it is often overlooked by even the most discerning tourists.
Most of us no doubt have heard of Alexander The Great of Macedon and his conquest of the mighty Persian Empire. What many don’t know is that he hailed from Aigai, the royal capital of the Macedonian empire which today is the modest town of Vergina, just 8 kilometres from the centre of modern Veria.
As well as its Macedonian history, Veria is also rich in Byzantine architecture, so much so that it’s earned the nickname ‘Little Jerusalem’.
Here are 6 of the key historic sites to visit in Veria.
1. Old Cathedral of Veria
Veria’s rich Byzantine history is visible all around, with more than 40 churches from the mid and late Byzantine periods scattered around the city. The Old Cathedral of Veria is one of the most beautiful surviving temples of the middle Byzantine period, which the Bishop of Veria built between 1070 and 1080 AD. It is an architectural masterpiece of three-aisled basilicas and has many similarities in the shape with the early Christian temple of St. Dimitrios in Thessaloniki.
The Old Cathedral incorporates early Christian architecture and artwork as well glorious paintings from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. As late as 2007, it remained in a half-ruined state, without proper maintenance or restoration work being undertaken. It was even used as a stable during the German Occupation of Greece in World War Two.
2. Byzantine Museum of Veria
Byzantine monuments abound in Veria and the surrounding area, and many Byzantine artefacts have been collated in the city’s Byzantine Museum. Located in an old industrial building dating to 1911, the Byzantine Museum is home to countless Byzantine relics.
Visitors to the museum can expect to witness frescoes, mosaics, sculptures and various other artefacts. In the yard of the museum, visitors can see examples of two Ottoman houses dating back to the 18th century. These were unique secular architectural monuments built on top of the ancient Roman walls and defensive towers of the city.
No visit to Veria is complete without stopping off in the Jewish neighbourhood of Barbouta. Veria was home to a significant Jewish population which played an important role in the cultural and commercial life of the city from the Ottoman years.
In Barbouta, visit the synagogue which was restored and opened to the public around 2002. Romaniote Jews lived here since the early years of the Roman Empire. They were removed by the Ottomans to repopulate Constantinople, and their place was taken by Sephardi Jews less than half a century later.
Sephardi Jews’ connection with Veria came to a sudden and violent stop during the Nazi occupation of Greece. On 1 May 1943, many of Veria’s Jewish citizens were deported first to Thessaloniki then to concentration camps. From the 660 people before the war, 460 died in the Holocaust and many others fled to the US or Israel. Virtually no Jewish people returned to Veria in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.
4. Aigai, Vergina
Just outside of Veria is the ancient settlement of Aigai, in modern Vergina. It was there that archaeologist Manolis Andronikos discovered the Royal Tombs of Philip II in 1977. Philip II was the father of Alexander the Great and also supreme organiser of the Macedonian army.
The Tombs now are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are fairly well known and visited. As of late Spring 2022, a new museum in the area will offer visitors access to 4 heritage sites: The Royal Tombs, The Palace, The Necropolis and the Museum.
5. Palace of Aigai
Recently re-excavated and freshly presented, the Palace of Aigai was constructed during the reign of Philip II (359-336 BC) and is thought to be one of the largest structures of classical Greece. Utterly revolutionary and avant-garde for its time, the Palace of Aigai was designed for Philip by an ingenious architect, probably Pytheos, known for his contribution to the construction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. It became an archetype for many of the palaces in the Hellenistic world and beyond.
Built on a raised outcrop of the hill, this huge building – larger even that the Parthenon – was visible from the whole Macedonian basin. It is a remarkable landmark and a lasting symbol of power and beauty. In a large, glass-roofed atrium at the site, visitors can witness a 30m long and 7m tall reconstruction of the palace’s upper floor, revealing all the elements of the palace’s intricate architecture.
6. Necropolis of Aigai
The city of Aigai was destroyed after the defeat by the Romans in 168 BC and then fell into decline and was gradually forgotten. The relics of the city’s former role as the Macedonian capital are preserved in its Necropolis, though. There, standing monuments commemorate those that lived and died in the region.
The Necropolis contains more than 500 ancient tumuli (mounds erected over graves) and covers a vast area, stretching between Palatitsia and Vergina. It’s a vital archaeological site, where countless historic artefacts have been uncovered over the years.