Revoula Benizelos was born in Turkish-occupied Greece in 1522 and, as the daughter of Angelos Benizelos and Sirigi Palaiologina, belonged to one of the wealthiest and most influential families of Byzantium. However, she chose a path much different to that of the coveted bride she was meant to be. Defying the authority of Suleiman the Magnificent, she took the name Philothei and pursued a combination of an ascetic life with intense social activity aimed at educating women, liberating slaves and helping anyone in need, regardless of race or religion. Her life was dedicated to these causes until 1589, when, under the reign of Murad III, she was tortured and left to die by the Ottomans (and certain Christians who wanted to stay in their good graces).
Philothei was sainted after a life so fascinating that centuries later it inspired a film. “Philothei the Athenian – The Revolution of a Woman” premiered at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in 2019. It is a dramatized documentary written, directed and produced by Maria Hatzimichali-Papaliou. With a filmography that has covered topics such as disability (“The Struggle of the Blind”) and gender politics (“Female Portraits”) and the history of places like Lycia in Asia Minor, Delos and Mykonos, the filmmaker traveled to Istanbul, Venice and the Greek islands to add color to and shed light on as many facets as possible of Saint Philothei’s good works.
The documentary chronicles how she put her family’s fortune to the cause of buying men and women from slave auctions and then helping them escape to a better life or allowing them to live off her land. She founded what is likely to have been the first school for women in Greece and Europe that provided its pupils with vocational training that would allow them to make a living. She took in abused or unmarried pregnant women and helped them escape to the islands through a series of underground tunnels that ran beneath Athens and she also built a hospital that provided free care to Greeks, Turks and Franks. None of these institutions survives today and the only brick-and-mortar edifice we have to remind us of the saint is her family home in Plaka, known as the Benizelos Mansion. However, the area where her family estate was located and where she did so many of her good works is very familiar today: It is the leafy northern Athens suburb of Filothei and also includes part of Psychiko.
On her feast day today, the Municipality of Filothei will be screening “Philothei the Athenian – The Revolution of a Woman” on its YouTube channel, starting at 7 p.m. and available through Sunday.