Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Why this city is part of my life and part of my story too

Looking down on the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf ... and recalling my grandfather’s days here during World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying in the centre of Thessaloniki, just off Egantia, one of the main parallel, east-west thoroughfares running through the city.

All round, there are signs of the economic troubles that are besetting Greece at the moment, and the storm of protest and anger that is building up over the cuts in public spending that have become a necessary part of the Government’s response to its present fiscal dilemmas.

Rubbish is building up around the bins on many sidewalks, where there has been no collection for days. All public museums, including the Roman Agora, the Rotunda, the Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine Museum and their shops, are closed by a public service strike today and tomorrow. Many kiosks or peripteros, the uniquely Greek convenience stores, are closed too, along with the small shops selling bus tickets or providing tourism information.

Unemptied bins spilling over onto the streets of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

But the temperature had risen to the low-to-mid 20s by mid-morning today. Greeks say they are beginning to feel the autumn bite, and some are even wearing their overcoats when they head out. But by any Irish standards – and especially after the weather we’ve had in Ireland for the last four or five months – this is still summer, and I was determined to make the most of the day.

I headed first to the Roman Agora on Egnatia and Platia Dastirion, north of Aristotelous. The site was closed off, and the only sign of life inside the perimeter was a lone and lame dog. This place was at the heart of commercial, financial and cultural life in Classical Macedonia, and the centre of public affairs, with public services, shops and a debating area, and with a small theatre on the eastern rim.

It was still possible to see most of the site, including the theatre, and even to catch a glimpse of the remnants of the mosaic floors this morning.

The sliver reliquary containing the relics of Saint Dimitirios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,2011)

From there, I headed a little uphill to Aghios Dimitrios, the largest and the grandest of all churches in Greece. Despite being used as a mosque for almost five centuries under Ottoman Turkish rule, the church was restored in 1912, and some of the Byzantine mosaics that were recovered survived the great fire of 1917 and are on display.

The church was packed with pilgrims this morning, and a small group of them clustered together for a short service at the silver reliquary that holds the relics of Saint Dimitrios, which were returned from Italy to Greece in 1980.

A set of steps on the south-east side of the sanctuary area leads down to the crypt, where Thessaloniki’s patron saint was martyred in the year 303. However, even this crypt was closed by the two-day strike, and a paper notice pinned to the door told visitors and pilgrims alike to come back on Friday if we wanted to go down and see it.

From there, I worked my way up through the narrow streets, cobbled alleyways and steep steps that lead to the old city, or Ano Poli (Upper City) and the Kastra or Castle and the Byzantine Walls that mark out the top of the hills overlooking the city.

There is a look of picture-postcard Greece to the steep streets leading up to Ano Poli above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

It’s a demanding climb for those who walk it rather than taking the easy option of a taxi. But it’s a climb that is worth it, for this is truly picture-postcard Greece, with hanging balconies, houses painted in bright primary colours, and tiny cafés.

As the city fell away beneath my gaze, and the view of the Thermaic Gulf spread out below, I thought of my grandfather, who had been brought here with his regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, in the aftermath of the disasters at Gallipoli and Suvla Bay in 1915. Was he housed in a makeshift camp on these slopes and hills I was climbing today?

He must have prayed so often that bitter winter for his wife, Bridget (Lynders), my grandmother, and his sons and daughters left at home in Ireland. Did he imagine he would ever see them again?

As he watched his comrades die from the wounds they had received in Balkan battles, from the bitter cold of winter and from frostbite, many of them young enough to be his sons, how could he imagine he would ever have another son?

Were his wife and children praying in Ranelagh for his safe homecoming?

His parents were long dead. But were my grandmother’s parents, Patrick and Margaret Lynders, praying in Portrane for their son-in-law’s safe homecoming?

On my way up, I was conscious of his presence here, and conscious of his prayers as I stopped at a church here or a monastery there.

The first of these was the 14th century Byzantine Church of the Prophet Ilias (the Prophet Elijah), but this too was closed by the two-day strike.

The next stop was the Church of Aghioi Taxiarches (the Holy Archangels), also built in the 14th century as part of an unknown monastery.

The Monastery of Vlatadon ... a quiet and undisturbed corner in the hills above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From there, there were more steep steps to climb before reaching the street called Akropoleos, for this is the acropolis of the classical city. We were at the ancient walls, and had reached my favourite part of the city, the Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Vlatadon, which dates back to the 14th century, and the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, founded in 1963.

The church is said to stand on the point where the Apostle Paul preached to the people of Thessaloniki. There are beautiful views across the city, and there are dozens of friendly peacocks – bred by the monks because the peacock was traditionally seen as a sign of the resurrection.

Once again, I prayed in thanks that my grandfather had returned alive from this city, and then we had lunch in ‘Toicho Toicho,’ one of the many delightful cafés, restaurants and bars inside the Old City, enclosed by the Byzantine walls of the Seven Towers of Ano Poli. This was once the old Turkish quarter of Thessaloniki, but today it is a fashionable part of the city.

On the way back down, rather than retracing my pathway up, I took another set of steep steps and alleyways back down, stopping to look back up at the new buildings in Vlatadon, and then stopping at the Monastery of Ossios David, with its quiet courtyard and a church that has 12th century frescoes depicting the Baptism of Christ.

I finally ended up back at the Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius, still thinking of my grandfather’s time in Thessaloniki almost a century ago. Had he not survived his time here, my father would never have been born. I have a lot to be thankful for in this city. The malaria he contracted here eventually killed him. But it was because of this malaria that he was sent back to Dublin, and because of that I am alive today.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the commander of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli in 1915, was born in Thessaloniki in a house beneath the walls of the old city in 1881. In a tribute to the allied soldiers killed at Gallipoli, he wrote in 1934:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side-by-side now here in this country of ours ... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

I can hardly imagine the tears my grandmother, my uncles and my aunts shed as my grandfather was sent off to Gallipoli, or the fear they had when they heard he had been moved to Thessaloniki. Had he died here, and been buried in Greek soil, surely he too would have become a son of Greece, a son of Thessaloniki.

In a roundabout way, this city is part of my life and part of my story, and this is my Thessaloniki too.

A reacquaintance with the second city of Greece

Sunset on the Thermaic Gulf in Thessaloniki last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,2011)

Patrick Comerford

As the sun set on the Thermaic Gulf, I went for a long walk on the promenade along the seafront in Thessaloniki last night. I am here on a short, four-day stay retracing my grandfather’s footsteps almost a century ago in the second city of Greece, also known as Thessalonica or Salonica, and as Selânik in Turkish. To Greeks this is not only the second city, but also the co-capital (Συμπρωτεύουσα ). Greek Prime Ministers traditionally set out the government 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 over 350,000 people. This is Greece’s second major economic, industrial, commercial and political centre, and looking out at the seafaring traffic on the horizon as the sun set last night it was easy to realise how this 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.

The Arch of Galerius is ornately decorated with reliefs representing the victories of Galerius over the Persians in 298. When the Eastern and Western Empires were divided in 379, Thessaloniki assumed new importance on frontiers threatened by the invading Goths, and faced sieges and attacks by Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Saracen pirates and Normans.

Thessaloniki passed out of Byzantine hands in 1204 when Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders. 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 symbol of the city is the White Tower, built on the seafront at the end of the harbour by the Venetians and was once used as an Ottomans prison.

The ‘White Tower’ ... the symbol of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In 1826, Sultan Mahmud II ordered the massacre of janissaries – elite troops made up of Christian boys who had been forcefully removed from their families and converted to Islam – because he deemed them to be disloyal during the Greek War of Independence.

Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in this city in the second half of the 19th century. Rapid economic growth from 1870 on saw the population of Thessaloniki grow by 70% to 135,000 in 1917. New banks, hotels, theatres, warehouses and factories were built, the western districts became the working class section, while the middle and upper classes gradually moved to the eastern suburbs.

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, and the city was incorporated into the modern Greek state. In the months that followed, the White Tower was repainted and whitewashed to remove the stains of its grisly past.

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.

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.

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.

After World War II, Thessaloniki was quickly rebuilt. But in 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.

Despite wars and sieges, earthquakes and fires, and the present economic woes in Greece, Thessaloniki remains a beautiful and elegant city. Nikis Avenue, an attractive waterfront promenade, is lined with cafés, restaurants and shops. Close to the Egnatia Hotel, where I am staying, Aristotelous Square leads up to Egnatia Avenue from Nikis Avenue on the waterfront. The square 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, and many Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish buildings and monuments have survived throughout the city.

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.

Greeks see this as a romantic city, and Thessaloniki is commonly featured in Greek poems and songs, with many famous songs going by the name Thessaloniki or including the name in their title.

The whitewash applied to the White Tower almost 100 years ago has faded in the century that has passed since. But the tower retains its name, Λευκός Πύργος, and the White Tower remains the symbol of this elegant, modern yet historical Greek city which I am exploring over the next few days.

To listen to one of my favourite songs about Thessaloniki click on this link: or follow this link:

The Johannine Letters (2): I John 2: 1-11

The entrance to the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus: local tradition says Saint John the Divine lived on this site after his exile on Patmos ended, and wrote his Gospel and Epistles here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008).

Patrick Comerford

I John 2: 1-11

1 Τεκνία μου, ταῦτα γράφω ὑμῖν ἵνα μὴ ἁμάρτητε. καὶ ἐάν τις ἁμάρτῃ, παράκλητον ἔχομεν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα, Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν δίκαιον: 2 καὶ αὐτὸς ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν, οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων δὲ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσμου.

3 Καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐγνώκαμεν αὐτόν, ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν. 4 ὁ λέγων ὅτι Ἔγνωκα αὐτόν, καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ μὴ τηρῶν, ψεύστης ἐστίν, καὶ ἐν τούτῳ ἡ ἀλήθεια οὐκ ἔστιν: 5 ὃς δ' ἂν τηρῇ αὐτοῦ τὸν λόγον, ἀληθῶς ἐν τούτῳ ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ τετελείωται. ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐσμεν: 6 ὁ λέγων ἐν αὐτῷ μένειν ὀφείλει καθὼς ἐκεῖνος περιεπάτησεν καὶ αὐτὸς [οὕτως] περιπατεῖν.

7 Ἀγαπητοί, οὐκ ἐντολὴν καινὴν γράφω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐντολὴν παλαιὰν ἣν εἴχετε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς: ἡ ἐντολὴ ἡ παλαιά ἐστιν ὁ λόγος ὃν ἠκούσατε. 8 πάλιν ἐντολὴν καινὴν γράφω ὑμῖν, ὅ ἐστιν ἀληθὲς ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία παράγεται καὶ τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινὸν ἤδη φαίνει. 9 ὁ λέγων ἐν τῷ φωτὶ εἶναι καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῶν ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν ἕως ἄρτι. 10 ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φωτὶ μένει, καὶ σκάνδαλον ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν: 11 ὁ δὲ μισῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν καὶ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ περιπατεῖ, καὶ οὐκ οἶδεν ποῦ ὑπάγει, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία ἐτύφλωσεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

A shift of focus

This section contains three claims to intimate knowledge of God, expressed by the three Greek participles ho legon (ὁ λέγων , “the one who says”) at the beginning of verse 4, 6, and 9. As with the three conditional clauses beginning with ean eipomen (ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, “if we say”) in the previous section (1: 6, 1: 8, 1: 10), these participles indirectly reflect the claims of the opponents. They are followed by the author’s evaluation of these claims and their implications.

While the subject matter generally continues from the preceding section, the focus shifts from awareness and acknowledgment of sin to obedience to God’s commandments. It is through obedience that we may have assurance of the genuineness of our relationship with God. In this section, the writer is talking about discipline.

In the section, I John specifically emphasises the theme of keeping the commandments in order to know God. In this we need to remember that knowledge implies intimacy.

We can see here a virtual repetition of the first part of the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel.

The concept of “light” (contrasted with “darkness”) introduced in 1: 5 appears again (for the last time in 1 John) in 2: 8-11. The concept of “fellowship,” introduced in the prologue (1: 4) and discussed in 1: 8 to 2: 2, no longer appears in this section, but is replaced by an emphasis on “knowing” and “loving” God along with loving fellow believers (2:3, 4, 5, 10).

There are three claims to intimate knowledge of God. These are found in verses 4, 6 and 9. Each claim begins with the phrase “the one who says…” or “whoever says” and each of these claims reflect the position of the secessionist opponents.

Love of God, which is a two-way relationship involving the love of God for us and the love of God that we have, is perfected by keeping the commandments.

Verse 1:

“That you may not sin … this is the ultimate goal of Christian living (see Romans 6: 11).

“Advocate” (paraclete) ... one who pleads the cause of another. But compare the application of paraclete or Advocate here to Christ and its use in the Fourth Gospel for the Holy Spirit.

Verses 3-5:

These verses talk about obedience to God’s commandments. This obedience tests whether we know God, and measures the perfection of completeness of our love of God (see John 14: 15, 21, 23; John 15: 10).

Verse 3:

The significance of the word kai (καὶ, “and” or “now”) at the beginning of verse 3 is important for understanding the argument, because a similar use of the conjunction kai occurs at the beginning of 1: 5. Here it is looking back to the previous use in 1: 5.

The author, after discussing three claims of the opponents in 1: 6, 8, and 10 and putting forward three counter-claims of his own in 1: 7, 1: 9, and 2: 1, is now returning to the theme of God as light, which he introduced in 1: 5.

The author will now discuss how a Christian may have assurance that he or she has come to know the God who is light, against the opponents who make the same profession of knowing God, but who lack the reality of such knowledge, as their behaviour makes clear.

There is some problem determining whether the pronouns in verse 3 – αὐτόν, αὐτοῦ (afton, aftou), which are translated as “him” and “his” in the NRSV but as God in other translations – refer to God the Father or to Jesus Christ. It is more likely the author of I John is referring to God the Father here. When John wants to specify a reference to Jesus, he uses the expression “that one” (ἐκεῖνος, ekeinos) in verse 6. This is translated in some versions as Jesus, but this is not to be found in the original Greek text.

The author’s point in this verse is that obedience to God’s commandments gives us assurance that we have come to know God.

The author does not explicitly state what the “commandments” are which believers are supposed to obey. One might immediately assume that he is referring to the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments.

However, there is no indication anywhere else in I John (except, perhaps, in 5: 21, with its prohibition of idolatry) that the author is concerned about the Mosaic law. God’s commands are spelled out later in the letter, in 3: 23: “Now this is his commandment: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he gave us the commandment.”

The phrase “love one another” is found as the “new commandment” of John 13: 34, and is a major Johannine theme.

Verse 6:

Jesus is the pattern of obedience.

In this verse, there is no distinction between God (the Father – “abide in him”) and Christ (“as he walked/lived”). This ambiguity may be explained, perhaps, by the conviction that Jesus and the Father are one.

Verses 7-11:

This section emphasises love for one another.

Verse 7:

The thoughts of love and of commandments introduce the great commandment of the Last Supper (see John 13: 34).

Verse 8:

The commandment to love, though old, is never obsolete or out-of-date. Instead, it is always new, being the law of the new age and overcoming the darkness of evil (see I John 1: 5; John 13: 34; John 15: 12). The reference to the “true light” reminds us of the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel.

Verses 9-11:

Hatred of a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, is incompatible with Christ’s light (see John 8: 12; John 11: 9-10; John 12: 35-36). The failure to keep the great commandment of love removes one from the sphere of the light of Jesus.

Next week: John 2: 12-14.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 12 October 2011.