When Megan Coates sets off in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki, it's as though she’s moving through an extra dimension that activates all of its historical layers at once, with an especially brilliant Byzantine one. Coates spent summer 2023 in Greece, first to participate in the Mount Menoikeon Seminar held by the Seeger Center, next for an intensive modern Greek language course at the Princeton Athens Center (to compliment the Ancient Greek she has already mastered), and finally, settling in Thessaloniki to further her research on iconoclasm and monastic influence.
Thessaloniki changed the course of Coates’ life six years ago when she visited for the first time, an experience she recently shared in Princeton’s #TellUsTigers series.
She discovered her passion for Byzantine history and art here as well as the knowledge and confidence that travel affords. As a result, she not only switched her field of study to continue exploring this newly discovered world but found a way to invite in other students unlikely to discover it on their own. She created the OpenGate Scholarship which funds study abroad trips to Greece for minority students. In 2022, at the invitation of Greece’s Minister of Education Nikki Kerameus, Coates met with Ambassador Tsunis and President Sakellaropoulou in an effort to strengthen educational ties between Greece and the U.S. With the ultimate goal of offering this opportunity in every U.S. university, Coates has already created life-changing moments for several students from her alma mater, Stockton University. “The first step,” she emphasizes, “is getting the student on the plane.”
“You see the ancient and the modern hand in hand with one another....It’s that continuity that’s so amazing.” – Megan Coates
A special atmosphere sets Thessaloniki apart for Coates. “It’s like a palimpsest,” she explains, “It's so layered in a way that’s still really visible and accessible. Don’t get me wrong, Athens also has its layers of history that are also visible but here because I'm a Byzantinist …I mean just across from my apartment is a church from the 11th century – I can just look out the window and there it is!” Monuments from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods are peppered between shops, cafes, and skateboarding haunts. “You see the ancient and the modern hand in hand with one another. Because the structures are still here – and the way they’re here - you can sit and imagine without doing much work,” she said. “It's that continuity that’s so amazing.”
This candid embrace of its history not only makes Thessaloniki a compelling place of study, but also an inviting, open, and accepting place to live. Down the block from Thessaloniki’s Roman Forum, enjoying the local bougatsa pastry with her morning coffee and drying her laundry on a balcony overlooking the 11th-century Church of Panagia Chalkeon, Coates spent the summer blissfully investigating the rare iconography of the tree-dwelling saint David of Thessaloniki, or David the Dendrite, and translating his biography from medieval Greek to English.
Triangulating David’s influence and portraiture in Thessaloniki requires traversing altitudes and eras. The almond tree in which David nested for three years, and in which he is usually depicted, grew in the courtyard of Osios David Monastery, which remains perched high on a hillside offering a sweeping view of Thessaloniki and Mount Athos across the sea.
Coates studied the mosaics here, including one considered to be a miracle. “Throughout the making of the image the mosaicist saw what he intended to make – he saw a mother of god,” explained Coates, “but when he put in the last stone, it changed to an image of Christ. So even though it was made by human hands, it wasn’t made by human hands.” “I could go on about this mosaic forever,” she adds, “The first time I came here I had so many chills.”
"I could go on about this mosaic forever. The first time I came here I had so many chills.” – Megan Coates
The works in the Osios David Monastery are also exceptional by sheer virtue of being intact. The visual representation of people was considered a form of idolatry by the Ottomans and few faces gracing the walls of Byzantine churches were spared under their rule. More representative examples of the condition of icons in Thessaloniki are housed at the Church of Prophet Elijah, a steep 5-minute walk down the hillside. Here icons cover the walls but all are missing their facial features, including David’s. Coates is particularly interested in the impact of this iconoclastic practice on both the preservation and destruction of memory.
Farthest removed from David’s monastery and built most recently, in 1938, a modern monastery dedicated to Saint Theodora now houses David’s relics just two blocks from the sea. Coates calls this “interesting and convenient but also strange because there’s a monastery that’s dedicated to him so why are his relics here?” The question resurfaces, “that’s the thing about preserving memory – why make that choice?” She points out that this act of curation, moving David’s relics downhill, affects people’s movement on various scales, including pilgrimage.
Thessaloniki is full of ancient sites that have been reshaped by a succession of hands – and each left fingerprints. The identification process takes a deep well of knowledge. “For art historians, it can sometimes be challenging because it’s so braided together,” said Coates, “but that’s our job right, to sort of unbraid it and see what comes of it. And then you get new eyes that make the unbraiding even more fun.”
She points out that the trans-cultural, collaborative product is also worth examining in its own right. “Sometimes it’s the braid itself that you need to study,” she said, “rather than unbraiding it. Can we look at how amazing these things are in and of themselves? The cultural ambiguity can really make something beautiful – at least to me.”
"Can we look at how amazing these things are in and of themselves? The cultural ambiguity can really make something beautiful." – Megan Coates