Monday, 8 December 2008

Elegant Thessaloniki holds memories of war and occupation

Thessaloniki: the Paralia or seafront promenade is lined with cafes and shops

Patrick Comerford

Ninety years ago, on 14 December 1918, less than five weeks after the end of World War I, my father was born in Rathmines. He was the youngest son and last child born to my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, and my grandmother, Bridget (née Lynders, of Portrane).

Within a few years, my grandfather died on 21 January 1921, in hospital, a sad and lonely man, suffering the terrible consequences of the malaria he had picked up in Thessaloniki at the height of World War I. He had been shipped to the Balkans in 1915 along with thousands of other men from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. But the hardships they suffered, and the incompetent bungling at the Gallipoli landings, meant death for many of those men.

After taking part in the wars and the battles in the Balkans, my grandfather was hit with malaria. He was shipped back to Ireland from Thessaloniki and was discharged on 3 May 1916, only three days after the Easter Rising ended in Dublin.

Malaria saved him from further action in World War I and probably saved his life, albeit briefly. His early homecoming was fortuitous for the Comerford family and for me … otherwise, my father would never have been born.

At the end of World War I, my grandfather was decorated with the three standard medals handed out to most soldiers. After his death, even those medals were lost, and his story was never told again in the family until I uncovered the details – accidentally and to my surprise – last year. I am sad that I never knew that story during my many working visits to Thessaloniki and during many holidays in Greece and Turkey. But then the stories of many Irish soldiers who fought in World War I have gone untold for the past 90 years.

Greece’s second capital

It is coincidental then that Thessaloniki has long been one of my favourite Greek cities. Like Milan, Cork, Kyoto, and many other cities, Thessaloniki exudes the casual but elegant confidence associated with second cities. It is a pleasant, relaxed but cultured city, with fine museums, universities and a rich architectural and historical heritage, and I have always enjoyed staying there.

Thessaloniki, also known as Thessalonica or Salonica, and as Selânik in Turkish, is the second city of Greece. Greeks often refer to it as the co-capital – it is traditional for Greek Prime Ministers to set out the government’s policies for the coming year at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair. But even in Byzantine times, from the reign of Justinian, the city was known as the co-queen of the Byzantine Empire.

Thessaloniki is rimmed around the Thermaic Gulf, and spreads along a distance of 17 km, with a population of about one million people. This is Greece’s second major economic, industrial, commercial and political centre, and its port is a key hub for the rest of the Balkans and south-east Europe.

Legend says Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by King Kassander of Macedon on the site of the ancient town of Thermai, and he named it after his wife Thessaloniki, a half-sister of Alexander the Great – Thessaloniki means the “victory of Thessalians.”

After falling to the Romans in 168 BC, Thessaloniki became an important hub on the Via Egnatia and the trade route between Europe and Asia. The Apostle Paul visited the city, and addressed his two Letters to the Thessalonians to the Church in Thessaloniki. When the Eastern and Western Empires were divided in 379, Thessaloniki assumed new importance on frontiers threatened by the invading Goths, and faced sieges, attacks and assaults by Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Saracen pirates and Normans.

Turkish and Jewish arrivals

Thessaloniki passed out of Byzantine hands in 1204 when Constantinople was captured in the Fourth Crusade and became the capital of a Latin kingdom in which the Orthodox bishops, priests and liturgies were replaced by Catholic and Latin rites. The city was recovered by the Byzantines in 1224, but in 1423 they sold it to the Venetians, who continued to hold Thessaloniki until it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1430.

The Turks turned the churches into mosques, and drove the city into sharp decline, but the city’s Muslim and Jewish population grew. In 1478, the city had 4,000 Muslims, 6,000 Greek Orthodox, a handful of Catholics, and a tiny, ancient Greek-speaking or Romaniote Jewish community. But Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella were warmly welcomed in Thessaloniki. The Jewish community grew rapidly, and by 1519 numbered over 15,500 or almost 55% of the city’s residents.

For at least two centuries, Thessaloniki was the largest Jewish city in the world, and was known as the “Mother of Israel.” Many non-Jewish people in Thessaloniki also spoke Ladino, the Romance language of the Sephardic community, and the city virtually ground to a stop on Saturdays. The city even had its own unique sect of Jews, Sabbateans or followers of Sabbatai Zvi, who converted to Islam and built their mosques in the style of synagogues.

With rapid economic growth from 1870, the population rose by 70% to 135,000 in 1917. New banks, hotels, theatres, warehouses and factories were built, the western districts, near the factories and industry, became the working class section, while the middle and upper classes gradually moved to the eastern suburbs. Members of the Jewish community in particular built elegant Renaissance-style and neo-classical villas and mansions that line Vassilis Olga Avenue.

War-time turmoil

During the First Balkan War, on 26 October (Greek style) 1912 – the feast-day of the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios – the Ottoman general, Hassan Taxin Pasha, surrendered Thessaloniki to the Greek Army without resistance.

During World War I, a large allied force landed in Thessaloniki in 1915, making it the base for operations against pro-German Bulgaria. In 1916, pro-democracy Greek army officers loyal to the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, set up a pro-Allied government in Thessaloniki, controlling northern Greece and the Aegean and opposing the pro-German royalist regime in Athens. Since then, Thessaloniki has been known as the “co-capital” of Greece.

About 300,000 allied soldiers were based in camps in the Thessaloniki area, including men like my grandfather and other members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. A year after my grandfather was sent home, on 18 August 1917, tragedy struck Thessaloniki when most of the old town was destroyed in a devastating fire that started accidentally in a French camp, and swept mercilessly and uncontrollably through the city for 32 hours.

The great fire destroyed the historic centre and a large part of the city’s architectural heritage. It also dealt a heavy blow to the Jewish community and many Jews left for other parts of Europe, Turkey, the US and Alexandria in Egypt, where there was large Jewish and Greek-speaking communities.

After the fire, a new city was built on plans that included diagonal streets and monumental squares, and a street grid to channel traffic. The plan is impressive even by today’s standards. During this work, important Byzantine churches and landmarks were restored, as were the Ottoman mosques. The old Upper City became a heritage site, contemporary urban planning was balanced with tradition and history, and this vision plan continue to influence and shape planning decisions.

Refugees and deportations

Meanwhile, in the 1920s, 100,000 Greek refugees arrived in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area in 1923 after the Asia Minor catastrophe caused by the war between Greece and Turkey.

In the inter-war years, the Jewish population fell of Thessaloniki fell to 20%. Those Jews who remained saw themselves as both Greek and Jewish, and in 1926, the Greek Government re-emphasised that all citizens of Greece enjoyed equal rights. The historian Misha Glenny says these Greek Jews had not encountered “anti-Semitism in its North European form … The 20th century had witnessed the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks ... but it attracted an insignificant minority.”

When the city was captured by German Nazis on 22 April 1941, the threat of deportation was repeatedly met with disbelief. But by the time the occupation ended on 30 October 1944, over 95% of the city’s Jewish population had been exterminated by the Nazis. Today, there are fewer than 1,000 Jews in Thessaloniki.

After World War II, Thessaloniki was quickly rebuilt. But 30 years ago, on 20 June 1978, the city was hit by a powerful earthquake, measuring 6.5. Several buildings were severely damaged, including important Byzantine monuments, and 40 people were crushed to death in one apartment block.

Spanning the centuries

Thessaloniki remains a beautiful and elegant city. Nikis Avenue, an attractive waterfront promenade, is lined with cafés, restaurants and shops. Aristotelous Square, leading up from Nikis Avenue on the waterfront, is bottle-shaped, funnelling into an avenue lined with tall archondika or former mansions that have been converted into shops and hotels. The old Modiano Market and the Jewish Museum are just a block away.

Despite sieges, fires and earthquakes, many Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish buildings and monuments have survived, and the symbol of the city is White Tower, built by the Venetians and once used as an Ottomans prison. The Arch of Galerius is ornately decorated with reliefs representing the victories of Galerius over the Persians in 298.

The largest church in Greece, Aghios Dimitrios, stands above the Roman agora and forum. It has a labyrinthine crypt with catacombs and the cell where the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios, was imprisoned. Aghia Sophia, the city’s cathedral until the 16th century, was modelled on the great Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. Aghios Georgios is an enormous circular church with a majestic dome and eight barrel-vaulted niches, built first as the mausoleum of Galerius.

The Upper Town or Ano Poli retains much of the city’s Ottoman heritage, with beautiful wooden houses with overhanging balconies and winding, stepped streets and alleys leading up to the Seven Tower Castle (Eptapyrgio) at the top of the city. Ano Poli has some old and important churches and monasteries in the city, including Vlatadon Monastery with its great library and frescoes, as well as the house where Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in 1880.

In the past few weeks, the 300,000 Irish men who fought and died in Greece, Turkey and elsewhere during World War I have been remembered with dignity in commemorative ceremonies and services, public debates, special programmes on RTÉ and at the launch of new books marking the ninetieth anniversary of the end that war. Up to 30,000 of those men died during the war. Many more, like my grandfather, died in the years that followed. His memory means Thessaloniki, the elegant second city of Greece, will have a new and deeper significance for me, when I return.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was published in the December 2008 editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe)

To listen to one of my favourite songs about Thessaloniki click on this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-r5kKPnx4A or follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DrRV4JkBPY