21 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
historic sites in Thessaloniki
on a lost ‘lockdown’ Easter
I had planned to be in Greece for Holy Week and Easter, which fell at the weekend in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. But the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has cancelled all my travel plans.
I am still hoping to visit Thessaloniki and Halkidiki at the end of August and the beginning of September. Perhaps I can even plan in a few weeks’ time to visit Crete later this year.
Meanwhile, to mark Easter in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church this weekend, I am offering a series of ‘virtual tours’ of favourite places in Greece, with a ‘virtual tour’ this evening of a dozen sites in Thessaloniki.
This is offered in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen sites in Athens, a dozen churches and chapels in Crete, a dozen churches in Thessaloniki, a dozen monasteries in Crete, a dozen churches in Rethymnon, and a dozen restaurants in Rethymnon.
Most of my visits to Thessaloniki in the past were working visits as a journalist in the 1990s. But I have often returned since then on city breaks and on family occasions, to visit Mount Athos nearby, and to see the area where my grandfather was posted during World War I and where he caught the malaria that eventually led to his death.
1, Arch of Galerius:
The Arch of Galerius (Αψίδα του Γαλερίου) or Kamara (Καμάρα) and the Rotunda (Ροτόντα) are neighbouring early 4th-century AD monuments in Thessaloniki. About two-third of the arch is preserved. It stands on what is now the corner of Egnatia Street and Dimitriou Gounari Street.
The Emperor Galerius commissioned the arch and the Rotunda structures in the fourth century as features on an imperial precinct that provided a link to his palace in Thessaloniki. These three monuments were connected by a road that ran through the arch, and the arch rose above the major east-west road of the city.
The Arch of Galerius was planned to emphasise the power of the emperor. Its marble sculpted panels celebrated his victory over the Persian Empire at the Battle of Satala in 299 AD.
This was originally an eight-pillared gateway forming a triple arch with marble panels and sculptured reliefs. The central arch was 9.7 metres wide, 12.5 metres high, and spanned the portion of the Via Egnatia, the primary Roman road from Dyrrhacium (Durres) to Byzantium that passed through the city as a major east-west street. A road connecting the Rotunda with the Palace complex passed through the arch along the long axis of the arch.
Only the three north-west pillars of the original eight pillars of the arch and parts of the masonry cores survive. Extensive consolidation with modern brick has been carried out on the exposed masonry cores to protect the arch. The two pillars flanking the central arched passageway retain their sculpted marble slabs, and these depict the wars of Galerius against the Persians.
2, The Palace of Galerius:
Substantial remains of the Palace of Galerius have been uncovered to the south-west of the Arch of Galerius. Galerius rose to power as one of the Tetrarchs and after his successful campaign against the Persians in 299 AD, he chose Thessaloniki as one of his capitals and administrative centres. The Palace Complex in the heart of Roman Thessaloniki was overwhelming in size and was connected to the Kamara or Arch on the Via Egnatia, one of the most important trade routes in the Roman region.
The Palace complex originally covered an area of 150,000 square metres. The Atrium was surrounded by a magnificent colonnade and had elaborately decorated mosaic floors, statues and connecting arcades. The Octagon at the south-west side, beside the basilica, may have been the throne room of the Tetrarch and was beautifully decorated.
3, White Tower:
The White Tower (Λευκός Πύργος) on the waterfront has become a symbol of Thessaloniki. A Byzantine was built in the site in the 12th century. The tower may have been rebuilt by the Venetians when they took the city in 1423, and was rebuilt by the Ottomans to fortify the harbour sometime after Sultan Murad II captured Thessaloniki in 1430.
The tower was a notorious prison and the scene of mass executions during Ottoman rule. The White Tower was substantially remodelled and its exterior was white-washed after the city was incorporated into the modern Greek state in 1912, and has become the symbol of the city.
4, Alexander the Great statue and Mount Olympus:
The Nea Paralia area is popular, energetic place in Thessaloniki, dominated by a modern monument of Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great was born in Pella in 356 BC, the son of Phillip II of Macedon and Princess Olympiada who was from Epirus. He was educated by Aristotle and inherited the throne of Macedonia after his father’s assassination in 336 BC. When he died in Babylon in 323 BC, Alexander’s empire stretched from Thrace and Macedonia to Egypt and India, and Greek civilisation spread all over the world, influencing science, art and culture.
The Monument of Alexander the Great at Nea Paralia is the work of the artist Evangelos Moustakas. It is six metres tall and shows Alexander riding his horse Voukefalas (Bucephalus).
5, Old City Walls:
Narrow streets, cobbled alleyways and steep steps 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. It’s a demanding but rewarding climb, for this is picture-postcard Greece, with hanging balconies, houses painted in bright primary colours, and tiny cafés.
The city was fortified from the late fourth century BC, but the present walls date from the early Byzantine period, ca 390.The Walls of Thessaloniki surrounded the city from the Middle Ages until the late 19th century, when large parts of the walls were demolished as part of the Ottoman rebuilding of the city.
At the end of the climb, I have rewarded myself with lunch in one of the cafés or tavernas in the Ana Poli area and a visit to the Monastery of Vlatadon.
6, Aristotle Square:
Aristotelous Square is the main city centre square in Thessaloniki, and faces the waterfront. The 12 buildings that make lining Aristotelous Square have been listed buildings of the Hellenic Republic since 1950. The two quarter-circle sides of the square are occupied by the Electra Palace Hotel, where I have stayed sometimes, and the Olympion Theatre cinema, the venue for the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
After the Great Fire of 1917, the square was designed by the French architect Ernest Hébrard in 1918 as Megalou Alexandrou Square (Alexander the Great Square). Most of the square was not built until the 1950s. Many buildings surrounding the square have since been renovated and its northern parts were largely restored in the 2000s.
Hébrard had a vision for a monumental axis in Thessaloniki that stretched from Aristotelous Square on the seafront to Dikastirion Square and the Roman Forum. His designs drew on Byzantine and Western architecture to emphasis the city’s links with the Byzantine Empire. He also wanted to erect a statue of Alexander the Great in the middle of the square.
Today, Aristotelous Square is almost synonymous with the city of Thessaloniki. The square plays an important role in the life not only of the city, and numerous rallies have taken place here. The square is also the venue for Christmas and carnival celebrations, and for many of the events when Thessaloniki was the European capital of culture in 1997.
7,The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki :
The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is the largest university in Greece. It is named after the philosopher Aristotle, who was born in Stageira, 55 km east of Thessaloniki. The university and its campus cover 230,000 square metres and has a student population of about 40,000.
The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was founded was the second Greek university to be founded after the University of Athens, established in 1837.
After World War I, Eleftherios Venizelos had plans to establish the second Greek university in Smyrni (Izmir) and the third university in Thessaloniki. However, his plans for Smyrni fell apart with the Greco-Turkish War in Asia Minor, and the university at Thessaloniki was founded in 1925.
The university was built on site of the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, which was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. It was renamed the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in 1954.
8, The Roman Forum:
The Roman agora has been excavated in recent years on the site where the French architect Ernest Hébrard planned the city’s Civic Square, with the City Hall on the left, the court houses on the right and a grand triumphant arch leading uphill.
The Roman Forum was uncovered by accident in the 1960s. It is a large, two-terraced forum with two-storey stoas, two Roman baths and a small theatre that was also used for gladiatorial games.
Although the initial complex was not built in Roman times, it was largely refurbished in the 2nd century. The forum and the theatre may have continued to be used until at least the 6th century. The intended name of the square, Courthouse or Dikastirion Square, still survives in popular use, although the official name is the Square of the Ancient Agora.
9, The Bezesteni:
Thessaloniki has several buildings that are part of the city’s rich legacy from the Ottoman era, including mosques, aecades and bathhouses. The Bezesteni is one of the best-known of these treasures.
It was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1455-1459, and is one of the oldest remaining Ottoman buildings in the centre of the city. It was used by the Ottomans for commercial and financial activities, and its name means Fabric Market (ben means fabric in Turkish, hence bezesteni). This was the venue for trading valuable objects and artefacts, safe keeping important documents and controlling the quality of the merchandise and money on a daily basis.
The roof has six well-preserved domes in two rows, while the main structure has four entrances. Inside, seven double arches support the two main pillars of the building.
After the fire of 1917, the building took its final form while new additions were built to house new shops. These small shops sell fabrics, jewels, and flowers, continuing the commercial traditions of the Bezesteni.
10, A mosque and a bathhouse:
The Hamza Bey Mosque is a 15th century Ottoman mosque known to most people in Thessaloniki today as Alkazar because of a cinema that was in the premises for decades.
The mosque was built by order of Hafsa Hatun, the daughter of Isa Bey Evrenosoğlu, but was named after Hamza Bey, the Beylerbey of Rumeli. It was damaged in later earthquakes and fires and was rebuilt in 1620.
After the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the mosque became the property of the National Bank of Greece, and was declared a protected monument in 1926. However, it was sold to private owners in 1928, and for several decades the building was used as a shopping centre and cinema. It was transferred to the Greek Ministry of Culture in 2006, and restoration work has been under way ever since.
The Bey Hamam, also known as the Baths of Paradise, is a Turkish bathhouse on Egnatia Street, close to the Church of Panagia Chalkeon, built in 1444 by Sultan Murad II. It was the first Ottoman bath in Thessaloniki and is the most important one still standing throughout Greece. It is a double bath, with two separate parts for men and women.
The baths remained in use as the ‘Baths of Paradise’ until 1968, when they were leased to the Greek archaeological service for four years. After the 1978 earthquake, the baths were restored, and they are used for cultural events and short-term exhibitions.
Ladadika is an historic and landmark district near the Port, and for centuries this was one of the most important marketplaces in the city. Its name came about from the many olive oil shops in the area. Many Jews of the city also lived here, while the neighbouring ‘Frankish district’ had French and Italian merchants and residents.
In the years before World War I, this became to form the red light district. In 1985, Ladakika was listed as a heritage site by the Ministry of Culture.
The architectural style of Ladadika, with its 19th century buildings, has preserved and protected, and Ladadika underwent gentrification in the 1980s. Today, this is the city’s entertainment district, with bars, nightclubs, restaurants and pubs in former old oil stores and merchant warehouses that spill out into a network of pedestrianised streets and small squares, such as Morichovou Square.
12, The inspiration for a poem:
Thessaloniki has always been a city of protests. At the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street, a monument recalls the murder of Tasos Tousis in 1936. That murder, and the mother’s grief it caused, instantly became the inspiration for one of the most moving poems in modern Greek literature – Epitaphios by Yiannis Ritsos.
On 9 May 1936, thousands of workers, students, shopkeepers and tobacco farmers took to the streets of Thessaloniki. In the clashes with police that followed, 10 to 20 people lay dead on the streets and a further 300 were wounded.
The protests were sparked after a deadlocked general election and a decision by King George II to appointed the Minister of War, General Ioannis Metaxas, as Prime Minister. When Metaxas moved against the trade unions, a general strike was called on 29 April. Thessaloniki had a long history of trade union activism, and 12,000 tobacco workers took to the streets that day.
The strikes and protests reached their peak on 5 May, and on 8 May, 7,000 tobacco workers began marching on the General Directorate of Northern Greece (now the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace) on the hill at the top of Venizelou Street. By Saturday 9 May, the strike had become a general strike.
That morning, Tasos Tousis, who worked as a driver, was shot dead at the junction of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street. He was the first death in the protests. In the chilling moments that followed, a photographer captured the moment when the young man’s mother came across her son’s dead body on the street and fell to her knees.
An angry crowd gathered and placed his body on a makeshift bier made from a door. They began marching on up to the General Directorate, which was defended by a large, well-armed police force. Church bells rang out as more and more people joined the crowd. Some of the police began shooting at random into the crowd, with more casualties. But the crowd refused to scatter. Even a declaration of martial law had little effect.
Later that afternoon, the demonstrators regrouped at 5 p.m. at the street corner where Tousis was murdered, and trade unionists held the streets throughout the night.
Metaxas used the disturbances in Thessaloniki to stir fears of a communist revolt and abolished parliament on 4 August 1936. As Greece entered World War II, it was still ruled by a military dictatorship. The dragon’s teeth sown by Metaxas continued to grow in the bitter civil war that followed World War II and, in the 1960s and 1970s, under the colonels’ junta.
Meanwhile, the left-wing daily newspaper Ritzospastis published a front-page photograph of the grieving mother dressed in black and weeping as she knelt over the body of her slain son, Tasos Tousis. Moved by this Pieta-like image, Yannis Ritsos, then aged 27, locked himself in his attic room and set to work immediately. In two days and two nights of intense creativity, he produced his greatest poem, Epitaphios.
‘Epitaphios’ is the name for the cloth that dresses the funeral bier of Christ in the Good Friday processions in Greek Orthodox churches. In writing his poem, Ritsos was deeply influenced by the Good Friday liturgy, as well as the funeral speeches of Thucydides and Lysias. Ritsos’s poem moves at the end from Crucifixion to Resurrection, and culminates in an abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.
Next: A ‘virtual tour’ of Jewish Thessaloniki.