07 October 1997

The new Byzantium in the Balkans

Patrick Comerford

The seafront in Thessaloniki is like that of many other Greek resorts and cities. At the weekend the cafes and bars in the warren of streets leading off Nikis, all the way from the Port on the west end to the White Tower on the east, are the focus of pulsating night life.

But the city differs in two essential ways from the popular beachfront resorts beloved of tourists. This is basically a city for Greeks, not tourists. The bars, tavernas and discos are usually full of young Greeks, for Thessaloniki is one of the major university cities of the Balkans. And there are few tourists on the waterfront. There is no beach here, and the bay, anywhere near the town, is pretty much a sump.

But because you’re never far from the sea, and because of the cool northern breeze that takes any air pollution out into the Thermaikos Gulf, a fresh, clean atmosphere pervades the Second City of Greece.

Last week the seafront was crowded with political and civic figures from throughout Greece to welcome the arrival of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This year Thessaloniki is being visited by hundreds of thousands of people savouring the exhibitions being staged and the museums established as part of the city’s programme for the Cultural Capital of Europe 1997.

But the arrival of Patriarch Bartholomeos was less of a cultural event and more of a state visit, with his retinue of Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, metropolitans, archbishops and bishops from Russia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine and, of course, the city of Istanbul, which is still Constantinople or Byzantium in the popular Greek consciousness.

But if the old Byzantium is Istanbul, Thessaloniki sees itself as the new Byzantium. First founded by Cassander, the brother-in-law of Alexander the Great, it became the main staging post on the Via Egnatia, the road between Rome and Constantinople, the two capitals of the Empire. For centuries it was the second city of the Empire until it fell to the Turks in 1430.

Under them, the many Byzantine churches were converted to mosques and their frescoes and mosaics whitewashed. Today many of those churches are being restored, and the finest must be Ayios Dhimitrios, the largest church in Greece, where the Patriarch was the guest of honour at the liturgy last week. Here the treasures include a mosaic of Ayios Dhimitrios (Saint Demetrios), once described by Osbert Lancaster as “the greatest remaining masterpiece of pictorial art of the pre-iconoclastic era in Greece.”

As an important crossroads between East and West, Thessaloniki was the twin capital of Byzantium, the Selanik of the Turks, the Second Jerusalem of the Jews, the mother city of Macedonia, the cosmopolitan centre of the Balkans.

As this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Thessaloniki is taking the opportunity to underline its position as both the new Byzantium and the capital of Macedonia.

Among the dozens of public museums, pride of place goes to the Archaeological Museum, with its display of finds from the Macedonian royal tombs in nearby Vergina, including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Close by, the Museum of Byzantine Culture is devoted to the research, preservation and study of Byzantine culture throughout Macedonia. The citizens of Thessaloniki could never entertain the rival claims to being a capital city being made by Skopje in neighbouring FYROM (the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”).

The city is also home to the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. The provinces of Macedonia and Thrace were not freed from Turkish rule and incorporated in the modern Hellenic state until 1912.

As if to emphasise the Byzantine and Macedonian identity of Thessaloniki, last week President Konstaninos Stefanopoulos of Greece visited the city’s exhibition on “Alexander the Great in European Art”, while the Ecumenical Patriarch made a point of visiting the Museum of Byzantine Culture, with its exhibition of treasures from Mount Athos, the nearby monastic mountain which is at the heart of Greek Orthodox spirituality.

The Patriarch arrived in Thessaloniki on board the ANEK line’s Eleftherios Venizelos, named appropriately after the Greek prime minister who made his home at the Villa Ahmet Kapantzi Villa in the city earlier this century. The liner was carrying delegates to an international symposium on “Religion and the Environment - the Black Sea in Danger.”

The symposium's findings were presented at a final session in the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki by Metropolitan John Zizzioulis of Pergamon, widely tipped as a possible successor to the Patriarch.

Thessaloniki might appear a peculiar choice for the conclusion of the symposium: Greece has no Black Sea coastline and the city is a Mediterranean port. But Thessaloniki sees itself as the modern capital of the Balkans.

A new Balkan Centre is under construction in the port, close to the site of last month's U2 concert. The city is the main location for a new Black Sea Trade and Development Bank; earlier this summer, Thessaloniki hosted meetings of both Balkan and Black Sea foreign ministers.

The city should provide a natural venue for Balkan and Black Sea co-operation. After all, this was home once not only to the largest expatriate Armenian community and the largest Jewish community in Europe: Thessaloniki was also the birthplace of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

His childhood home still stands beside the Turkish consulate, close to the Byzantine ramparts, a symbol of past conflicts and, perhaps, of future co-operation.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 7 October 1997

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