Thessaloniki: A city in search of its past

Alexander the Great had left Thessaloniki by the time I arrived, and the city he knew had long vanished beneath several layers – like one of those Greek pastries called bougatsa. Born just up the road at Pella, where there are notable ruins, nothing remains except conjecture and the local honey he must have known.

Thessaloniki(1)Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BCE by King Cassander of Macedonia. It rapidly became one of the major cities of the kingdom and was sufficiently important to persuade Aristotle to leave Athens in order to tutor the young Alexander.

After the fall of the Kingdom of Macedon in 168 BCE, Thessaloniki became Roman and developed into an important trading centre connecting Europe with Asia along the Via Egnatia. During the first century CE the city became an early Christian hotspot after the Apostle Paul preached there having heard a glowing report from his student Timothy.

During the Byzantine era Thessaloniki became the second most important city of the empire after Constantinople. In 1204 during the Fourth Crusade it fell into the hands of the western invaders and the “Kingdom of Thessalonica” was created. But in 1246 the Byzantines recaptured the city and its surrounding region.

After 1430 the Ottomans took control under the leadership of Sultan Murad II – he who conquered Serbia, Morea, Wallachia, Bosnia and (almost) Venice. During the Ottoman period, the city was home to many different ethnic groups – including a major Jewish community, mainly of Sephardic origin – that promoted art, culture and architecture. Relative peace lasted until the Treaty of Constantinople (1913).

In 1917 the people of Thessaloniki struggled against a fire that burned for one and a half days and destroyed 9,500 houses. Afterwards half the Jewish population emigrated from the city having lost their livelihoods. Ano Poli (literally Upper Town but also called Old Town) is the UNESCO heritage listed district that was not engulfed by the fire. It features narrow stone-paved streets, squares and houses bearing traces of old Greek and Ottoman architecture.

Bey-HamanAfter the Great Fire of 1917, a team of architects and urban planners chose the earlier Byzantine era as the basis for rebuilding, including monumental squares and the restoration of Byzantine churches as well as Ottoman mosques. One structure spared by the fire was the Bey Hamam (photo right), or “Baths of Paradise”, a bathhouse built in 1444 on the orders of Murad II. It stands despite the Great Thessaloniki Earthquake of 1978, which rattled its foundations but left it more or less intact.

Aristotle left more of a mark on the city than Alexander. The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is the largest in Greece, and is named after the philosopher born in Stageira, 55km east of the city. The university stands on what was once the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, obliterated by the Nazis in 1943. Another of those layers that occasionally come to the surface, in March 2013 the city’s Jewish heritage was publicly commemorated for the first time since the Second World War, a turning point that may allow Greece to come to terms with its demons – both ancient and modern.

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