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.

1 comment:

Aaron Taylor said...

This was a lovely read. Having lived in Thessaloniki for two years, I could picture all of these places in my head as you mentioned them. Hope you have a merry Christmas!