Persisting in the RuinsA Walk Through Thessaloniki’s History
Mike Stuchbery returns with his tours through history – on this occasion through a city that has been an axis of trade, faith and conflict
The first thing that you notice about Thessaloniki is the low, flat apartment blocks that make up much of the city, constructed in such a way to avoid the worst of the summer heat. The second thing is what manages to poke through – here an ancient church heavy with incense, there a Roman ruin, bleached by the sun.
This is a city with layers. More than most.
I didn’t mean to come to Thessaloniki. I had come to northern Greece with my girlfriend while she took some time out in a community on Mount Pelion. However, from the moment I emerged from our hostel to walk through the heart of the modern city, I knew that I had found one of those hidden axes upon which the world turns.
“I knew that I had found one of those hidden axes upon which the world turns.”
An Axis of Trade
If you make your way along the seafront, not so far from the White Tower that acts as the city’s symbol, you will find the (pictured above). It was a decade after his death – 313 BCE to be exact – that the city was founded by King Cassander of Macedon, and named after his wife, a half-sister of Alexander.
The ancient Hellenic city flourished over the next two centuries, but it was when it became a Roman possession in 168 BCE that it truly began to thrive. The city’s infrastructure bloomed – aqueducts, roads, public buildings and a bustling forum appeared, visible today in the heart of the city.
Many artefacts of life in the Hellenic and Roman city can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. What is immediately evident is the thoroughly cosmopolitan nature of the city from the very beginning – trade goods and belief in exotic gods flowed in through the port, creating a noisy, cacophonous metropolis.
Roman Thessalonica, as the city was known, would endure for the next half a millennia.
An Axis of Faith
Those of us who grew up in the church will dimly remember references to the Letters to the Thessalonians. It was to the city that the Apostle Peter came around 50 CE to preach, and upon leaving, he would write letters to the fledgling church there, helping it take hold.
Throughout the long years of persecutions, believers would gather in ruined temples, sewers and catacombs to meet, and some of these places are visible today, such as the Catacombs of St John the Baptist. Meanwhile, as the Eastern Roman Empire arose and expanded, imposing monuments such as the Rotonda and Arch of Galerius appeared.
Shortly afterwards, the city’s military consul, Dimitrios, was martyred for his faith on the orders of Emperor Maximian. The site of his spearing by soldiers, a bathhouse, would later become the crypt of a church, Agios Dimitrios (pictured above) dedicated to the city’s very own patron saint.
As the EmpireS slowly became Christian, the city would become one of the centres of Byzantine influence. Churches appeared in great numbers, and the homes of the city’s merchants and influential citizens glittered with mosaics – some of which you can see in the city’s astonishing Museum of Byzantine Culture.
An Axis of Conflict
As a shining jewel of Byzantine influence, with a bustling port, Thessaloniki provided an irresistible temptation to raiders. Pirates, nomadic tribesmen and neighbouring cities all took a shot at taking the city, and for the most part, the city would remain unconquered for any significant period of time for the next thousand years. Strong walls came to encircle the city, and the waters of the Thermaic Gulf were regularly patrolled for interlopers.
It was at this time that the city would gain its uniquely Jewish character. Refugees from persecutions in England, Germany, Italy and most significantly Spain arrived, bringing their learning, trading acumen and culture to the mix. Indeed, ladinos, Sephardic, Spanish-speaking Jews, would be a powerful local force in scholarship, trade and medicine right up to the nineteenth century.
The city couldn’t remain unconquered forever, however. It fell to the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad II in 1430 and remained in their hands for the next five hundred years. Many of the city’s churches, such as the Hagia Sophia, became mosques. The eagle-eyed visitor can still spot traces of Ottoman decoration in many churches to this day. The city’s 15th century Ottoman baths, the Bey Hammam, are still extant too, and the interior decoration gives some idea of its former glory.
Despite revolution and unrest, the city grew under the Ottoman Empire into the 19th and 20th centuries and only became part of modern Greece in 1913, after the First Balkan War. This was a time of great sorrow and upheaval, As entire populations were moved and, in 1917, most of the city burned down. Today’s cityscape is a direct consequence of this fire – many neighbourhoods and buildings were razed to fit a new plan, considered appropriate for a modern city.
The Second World War was devastating for the city. First, the Nazi invaders deported and murdered much of the city’s Jewish population. Today’s Jewish population is only a shadow of what it had once been. Second, the city was heavily bombed by the Allies, further damaging homes, businesses, industry and ancient monuments. It would take decades to fully recover.
So passes the glory of the world…
21st century Thessaloniki is a thriving city: It is Greece’s second-largest city, a centre of tourism, culture and business, as well as the most significant port in the Balkans. Walking through the streets of the city, however, one can’t help but almost see the wheel of fate turning. Sitting in the afternoon sunshine, sipping the customary icy freddo cappuccino between a Byzantine church, a Roman palace and apartment blocks covered with graffiti, I felt as if I could see the layers of the centuries settle and shift atop of one another, grinding and crackling.
In a time of great upheaval and change for us all, I found this comforting. Time never stands still, everything passes, and yet we persist, among the ruins.