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A typical Byzantine icon depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary. (Photograph by James Conaway)

Iconic Greece: Thessaloniki

Icons are, for the uninitiated (that means most of us), an encounter with the unknown: religious paintings on wooden panels of great antiquity. For others, they take on great spiritual significance. And there’s no better place to see them than Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

This often neglected city (despite being Greece’s second largest) should be visited by anyone planning a trip to the country — not just for its incredible store of Byzantine art but also for its beaches, tavernas, fortified city, and friendly if exotic ambience.

After all, this was once the gateway — depending on which direction you were headed — to Asia, the Balkans, and Athens and the Peloponnesus to the south. And you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the painting and the mosaics that often adorn the walls of churches, basilicas, and monasteries. They’re made more potent by their very survival and by intricacies of craft so exacting and time consuming that they are almost unfathomable today.

Two-dimensional, austere, alien, these masterpieces are also intensely mysterious, even frightening. Faces of apostles, Jesus, Mary, and assorted saints and angels appear as deer caught in the headlights of now. The problem that arises from staring into their big, soulful eyes is that you, too, become exposed to the passions of a complicated, often violent past — and to a spirituality palpable even if you believe in nothing at all.

This is the lost world of Constantinople (now Istanbul), much of which was lost to invasion and physical destruction but is here preserved — at least in part. These gilded or kaleidoscopic surfaces, like the minds of artists and saints behind them, may seem impenetrable, but look at them for a couple of days running, as I just did, and an entirely different impression emerges. These gorgeous relics of a vital past tell a real story about the survival of the Greco-Roman tradition that essentially defines what we think of as “the West.”

At a time when history could have taken a very different turn, the Byzantine civilization so well represented in Thessaloniki forestalled the Muslim invasion of Europe from the east by a millennium. In the process it strengthened the Greco-Roman tradition and helped define institutions — that we now take for granted — as far away as America.

Many such treasures from Thessaloniki, Athens, and elsewhere in Greece never before seen outside that country are coming to Washington, D.C. this October. They’re part of a unique exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, not just icons and mosaics but also rare glass work, jewelry, implements, sacred objects, frescoes and more.

James Conaway is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel and writes for other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog and check out his latest book, Nose.