When buildings speak: Las Incantadas

Rotonda, the Galerian Arch of Kamara or the celebrated White Tower. There are many landmarks worth of sightseeing in Thessaloniki that are intimately connected with its image. But for century a different one has amazed visitors as well as its residents, becoming the most prominent symbol of the city’s identity. Mirroring the multi-cultural, linguistic puzzle that the city was until the early XX century, it bore many names. It was known as Sureth-maleh (Figures of angels) by the Turks, “Idols” by the Greeks. However, the most popular one was by far its jewish name: Las Incantadas, the Enchanted Ones.

Some kind of Magic

Las Incantadas was located in Rogos, the only jewish neighbourhood above Egnatia. It was approximately standing between Panagia Chalkeon’s Church, the “Paradise Baths” of Bey Hammam and the Ancient Market. The place today is the upper part of Aristotelous. Here, Thessalonians could admire a two-storey colonnade, dating back to the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Originally part of a public roman building, it became part of a jewish merchant’s house where the 2-meters-heigh columns stood in the orchard. Each of them had a fine Corinthians capital, on top of which a statue stared at the city below. Amongst them were Dionysus and Ariadne, the Victory and a Maenad, the Dioscuri and the Dawn, as well as Zeus’ lovers Leda and Ganymede. From up there, they witnessed the adventurous history of Thessaloniki while experiencing a pretty exciting life themselves.

It is said that the Enchanted Ones were born out of magic. As the legend goes, when Alexander the Great visited Thessaloniki, he fell in love with the wife of a merchant from Thrace. The two lovers used to meet secretly under the shadows of the colonnade. But the cheated husband discovered them, and asked a wizard to punish his wife. Hence, he casted a spell over her, turning the woman and her escort in the statues that, 2000 years after, still hold magic in their name.

Indeed, this charm persisted until 19th century, when European travellers discovered them. The Antiquities of Athens by English architects Stuart and Revett included sketches of Las Incantadas. While Charles Newton from the British Museum defined them “the most interesting relic of classical antiquity” in town.

Las Incantadas in the Louvre Museum

Thessaloniki’s Elgin

As a matter of fact, back then archeologist didn’t stop themselves to admire and study the relics of the past. More often, they used to ship them to their homeland for the greater glory of their National pride. It happened to Athens by the hand of the infamous Lord Elgin. The same fate awaited Las Incantadas in Thessaloniki. It was 1864 when a dispatch coming straight from Paris ordered the French scholar Emmanuel Miller to bring Las Incantadas to France. Orders were to take not only the statues, but the monument as a whole. Miller started the operation at once but – as usually happens in Thessaloniki – things got complicated and way more adventurous than expected.

First of all, he rushed his way to the city only to discover that the steamboat sent him for the task wouldn’t fit six tonnes of marble. Furthermore, the public opinion wasn’t happy with the idea of someone stealing their precious monument. Even though nobody complained about janissaries practicing their aim on the statues, Miller’s efforts spread outrage thourghout the city. Also because it came with the rumour (an early “fake news”) that the frenchman wanted to take the Arch of Galerio too. Thus, when Miller approached the columns he found a menacing crowd waiting for him. As a result, it was difficult even to approach the site.

Shadows of the past

Under these circumstances, he started to remove the statues having only a funky, half-rotten derrick to do so. Even though the old crane didn’t collapse under the weight of the marble, they still need to drag it all the way to the port. Each of them took 8 buffalos to move. The animals had to go through the narrow alleys of the center and the crowded streets of the bazaar. Every step was a battle with sharp bends and sudden turns to reach the place where the ship was awaiting.

Transporting the columns was even harder. Winter started to hit the city, adding slippery stones and muddy pools to the obstacles the team was facing. When the buffalo drivers refused to show up and a letter from France informed Miller he wouldn’t had another ship, he decided to give up. He delivered the statues to Paris, leaving the scattered pieces of what once was Las Incantadas behind him.

Copies of Las Incantadas as they’re placed in front of the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki

Due to the poorly annotation Miller took during is work, today it’s impossible to know where Las Incantadas exactly were. Their remaining didn’t survived the century, and both raiders and fires wiped out every trace of them. Still, the statues reached France safe and sound and today are part of the Louvre’s collection. They never came back to Thessaloniki. Nevertheless, in 2015 Thessaloniki International Fair funded the manufacturing of four exact copies, made in the Louvre laboratories. After being hosted in the 80 Helexpo, now they stand just outside the Archeological Museum as a shadow – or a memento – of the city’s exciting past.

Post Author: Francesco Cirica

Francesco Cirica
I am a 28 years old Italian guy, who quietly looks at you from the corner of the room. A cinephile from the bottom of my heart, I love stories and all means to share a good tale, from chatting around a campfire to books, video games and Social Media.

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