12 October 2011

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-r5kKPnx4A or follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DrRV4JkBPY

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