The palace of Galerius is one of Thessaloniki’s most important late antique monuments, and the only one of this period in Europe which is preserved in nearly its original form to such an extent.
Archaeological investigation to identify the Tetrarchic complex was begun in 1917 during World War I by the French architect Ernest Hébrard (1881-1933), who led a scientific expedition of the French L’Armée d’Orient. The excavation trenches opened during this period in the Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius confirmed the monument’s Roman character.
In 1935, the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin carried out new excavations under the German scholars H. von Schοnebeck, an archaeologist, H. Johannes, an architect, and A. Alföldi, a Hungarian historian. Their investigations identified the city’s hippodrome and suggested that the palace was located north of the Arch of Galerius in the Rotunda area.
In the spring of 1939, further investigation was delegated to the Danish archaeologist and architect E. Dyggve (1887-1960), who carried out piecemeal excavations in the southeastern part of the city to a length of around 400 meters, extending from the Rotunda as far as the Nea Panagia church.
The results of Dyggve’s investigations, though not published in detail, were of great importance. According to the excavator, the palace was situated south of the Arch and west of the Hippodrome, and the Rotunda lay within a temenos (a sacred space protected by a built enclosure). His views were confirmed by the Greek Archaeological Service’s excavations after World War II (1950-1970), which have continued only intermittently down to the present, given that the palace’s ruins lie buried in the city’s densely-populated historic center.
Today, a significant though limited (in terms of extent) part of the palace complex is visible and open to the public; its ruins are preserved in the archaeological site in Navarinou Square and the pedestrian walkway along Demetriou Gounari Street and between Alexandrou Svolou and Ioanni Michael streets.
Urban planning in this area occurred in 1917 after fire destroyed most of Thessaloniki’s historic center. Following a decision by the government of E. Venizelos, preparation of the plan for rebuilding the city was assumed by E. Hébrard, as Chair of the International Commission for a New City Plan for Thessaloniki created specifically for this purpose.
One of the main decisions the architect took was to highlight and enhance the city’s significant monuments, which assumed a leading role in the design of open urban spaces and the opening of new streets.
Hébrard’s views about the arrangement of the Galerian palace buildings were reflected in the layout of modern-day D. Gounari Street, the monumental linear axis linking the Rotunda with the Arch and the sea, in the preservation of the old Hippodromiou Square where the city’s Hippodrome was believed to lie, and in the planning for an open space at the site of today’s Navarinou Square where a covered market (which in the end was not built) was foreseen.
The first excavation trenches for implementing Hébrard’s study began in 1950 under the supervision of Director of Antiquities C. Makaronas, who uncovered the Octagon, one of the complex’s main buildings. During the Ottoman period, this site was one of the centers of the city’s Ottoman culture, with a madrasa (religious school), school, tekke, student residences etc., preserved until World War II. The complex’s mosque Akçe Mescid, recognizable in a photograph taken during this era was built over the ruins of the Octagon.
Systematic excavation of this area started in 1962, when the Municipality of Thessaloniki decided to reconfigure the area and tear down its refugee housing. Investigation was gradually completed during the 1960s under the supervision of successive Directors of Antiquities C. Makaronas, Ph. Petsas, A. Vavritsas and the curator archaeologists M. Siganidou and F. Papadopoulou. Excavations revealed the ruins of important buildings.
During the same period (1968), another important structure belonging to the palace, the “Apsidal Hall” came to light with the opening of D. Gounari Street.
From the time of initial excavations, the Galerian complex was a subject of study by Greek and foreign researchers, who attempted to answer questions ranging from the total area encompassed by the complex and uses of individual buildings to the date of its final abandonment and chronological succession of its various structures.
There has been significant progress in our understanding of this monumental complex during the past two decades, prompted by the restoration of the remains preserved in Navarinou Square and along D. Gounari Street. Archaeological investigation by the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities during this period was instrumental in overturning established but erroneous theories of preceding decades. In addition, scientific documentation of the buildings during the 1990s within the framework of studies for the monument’s restoration documented repairs to individual spaces and wall masonry and floors and confirmed the complex’s long period of use (4th-7th c. A.D.). However, there remain many unanswered questions to which scholarly research is called upon to respond through future excavation.