Thessaloniki is easy to describe. Even in a year of economic instability and rising prices, visiting it remains the quickest, easiest and undeniably the most pleasurable way of buying new clothes and overeating on excellent fish or meat. For centuries the busy port city has been one of the most cosmopolitan places in the Balkans; and where there is a diverse population, many and various stories invariably arise. We offer you some of them, as we believe that they reveal Thessaloniki's true nature better than an exhaustive recital of landmarks, the dates of battles and wars, and the building of various structures and fortresses.
A HECTIC PAST
When the Macedonian King Cassander founded Thessaloniki in 305 BC he did nothing revolutionary. A settlement had existed nearby since the 7th Century BC. Its name was Termi – an unequivocal warning of the malaria carried by the mosquitoes from the nearby swamps.
Cassander's decision does not seem to have been especially wise, but that may be only a knee-jerk reaction. The old Macedonian capital Pella had been on the shore of a lake that was connected to the sea by a strait. With time the narrow link started to get narrower, and the king decided that it would be more expedient to build a new city than to maintain the water connection. Pella today is landlocked.
The rich collection of Thessaloniki's Archaeology Museum is a good way to acquaint yourself with the Macedonian kingdom. If you are looking for more immediate impressions, search for St Paul's Hospital in the southeastern quarter of Phinikia. There, amid a busy intersection, are a tomb and a burial mound – the last remains of an ancient necropolis. The façade of the 4th Century BC tomb is untouched, and inside there is an exhibition of monuments from the Macedonian kingdom found in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area.
THE CHANGING PORT
For many centuries Thessaloniki prospered because of its crucial position on international land and sea trading routes
The port of Thessaloniki has its own history. Roman-built, it was in use until the 18th Century, when, due to poor maintenance, it silted up and the Ottoman authorities decided to build a new port.
The promenade appeared some hundred years later. The city continued to live within the corset of the Byzantine fortress walls until 1869, when the sultan sent a new governor, Sabri Pasha. He was a follower of the European practice of open cities and had already proved his abilities by modernising the port at Smirna, today's Izmir.
Thessaloniki's fortress walls were torn down, their remains were used as the foundations of the future port, and a promenade where trams ran appeared alongside the shore.
Change led to more change. Europeanstyle hotels were built in Thessaloniki, and the young middle class enjoyed the cafés, casinos and beer halls near the promenade, just as their modern-day counterparts do.
THE THESSALONIKI BABEL
Over the centuries Thessaloniki has been a home town, a commercial opportunity and, for many, a desirable acquisition. In the Middle Ages the Slavs and the Bulgarians were the most determined. In the 5th and the 6th Centuries the Slav sieges were a threat that the city's residents overcame only through the assistance of the local saint, Dimitar – or at least that is what his hagiology says. Later, the Bulgarian rulers carried out a series of campaigns against the Byzantines at Thessaloniki, with varying success.
In the early 20th Century the city had a thriving and diverse population of Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians and Muslims. The wars that followed turned Thessaloniki into a homogenous, Greek-dominated city with limited Gypsy, Pomak and Georgian minorities. Nowadays the picture is changing again with the influx of Asian and African immigrants
If we start looking for the time when Thessaloniki became a cosmopolitan city, we can find it in the 15th Century. In 1430 the Ottomans conquered the city and settled in the deserted territories – a sad indicator of the depopulation brought about by the wars and plagues of the 14th and 15th Centuries. Most of the churches were turned into mosques, and the Muslims built their houses in the best part of the city, on the slope leading up to the fortress, today's Ano Poli quarter.
At the end of the century Sephardic Jews, banished from Spain in 1492, arrived. There had been a Jewish colony dating back at least to the 1st Century AD, and St Paul himself had preached to its members. The 15th Century influx was so massive that it changed the demographics of the city, and for a brief period the newcomers were in the majority. By 1890, out of a population of 118,000, there were 55,000 Jews, making the city the largest Jewish settlement in the world.
THE UNEXPECTED MOVE OF THE EXPECTED MESSIAH
In 1666, Thessaloniki's mixed religious landscape was about to change once again. Messianism was in vogue around Europe, and some of the Jews in the city had already started to believe that the Sabbatai Zevi, who lived in Smirna but had studied in Thessaloniki, was the long-awaited Messiah.
The White Tower is turned into a multimedia museum of Thessaloniki history
Zevi announced that he was embarking on a march towards Constantinople to overthrow the sultan and introduce God's Kingdom. Religious frenzy took hold in Thessaloniki and those who believed Zevi's words started selling off their property, self-flagellating on public marches and lying in their own graves; some starved themselves to death. Zevi never reached the capital, or at least not in the way he had planned to. He was arrested and brought before the sultan.
The padishah gave him a choice: to die as a messiah or convert to Islam. Zevi chose the latter option, and called on his followers to do the same. Many did. This was the beginning of a new Muslim sect, most of whom were Jews from Thessaloniki. To other Muslims they were dönmeh, a scornful word for renegade, but they called themselves ma'aminim, or believers. At the start of the 20th Century some 10,000 of them lived in Thessaloniki and, as they were more liberal, frequently joined reformist movements, such as that of the Young Turks. This behaviour resulted in a conspiracy theory that claims the demise of the Ottoman Empire was the result of a centuries-old secret plot conceived by Zevi in 1666 and carried out by his followers.
IN THE TEETH OF PROGRESS
When you are shopping along Tsimiski Street or are dodging the pedlars of fake Rolexes on Aristotle Square, you are walking through a new city. It was created after the devastation caused by the Great Fire of 1917, but Thessaloniki had started to change much earlier, under the influence of people like Sabri Pasha, and the desire of the local middle class to see their city with a European face.
After the Great Fire of 1917 the city centre was rebuilt in a distinct Art Deco style. Some of the buildings were renovated but most are in various stages of decay
One of the biggest obstacles before the modernisation turned out to be the names of the streets and the quarters. This chaotic jumble of alleys, streets, slopes, neighbourhoods, yards, fences, mosques, synagogues, churches and shops was impossible to map. Besides, no one actually needed any maps. Foreigners used to move around the labyrinth with a guide and some guards, and the residents of quarters such as the Three Eggs Neighbourhood or the Old Quarantine knew the terrain like the back of their hands.
It is easy to see why the city council found it hard to grasp the idea of naming the streets. When in 1898 the first name plates were put up in Thessaloniki, those who could read the Turkish words written in Arabic learnt that they were on the "Street that leads to the Miltiades's Cafe" or the "Street of Konstantin the Greengrocer."
THESSALONIKI OF THE PERSECUTED
After the Balkan War of 1912 Thessaloniki became part of Greece, and this resulted in a massive change in its demographics. The Muslims and Bulgarians left and were replaced by desperate and impoverished Greek settlers from the rest of the Balkans, as well as Asia Minor. Jews now had to compete with Greek refugees in a limited labour market.
An old furnace door at the local flea market. It was built in the 1920s to for impoverished Greeks who had arrived in their thousands from Asia Minor after the population exchanges with Turkey
Fed by an increasingly aggressive nationalism, the tension between the two groups started to rise, culminating in 1931, when the extremist newspaper Macedonia published an article that "revealed" that the leaders of the Zionist sports organisation Makavei had "met with Bulgarian insurgents in Sofia" with a view to "the overthrow of Greek authority in Thessaloniki." On 29 June a mob of Greek settlers stormed the temporary settlement of some 200 Jewish families who had been left homeless after the Great Fire. The settlement was burned down and that was the first pogrom in the history of Greece.
In 1941 Nazi Germany occupied the city and this made things much worse. In 1943 the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki – 58,000 souls – was shipped to the extermination camps. Only 2 percent of them survived the Holocaust.
In the interwar period Thessaloniki provided a refuge for the originators of Rembetiko, a style of music born at the beginning of the 20th Century in illegal joints where hashish was smoked. This music was a mix of melodies from continental Greece, Constantinople and Asia Minor. The lyrics reflected the drug-abusing proclivities of the songwriters and thus fell foul of censorship under the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (1936-1941).
Possession of genre-specific musical instruments such as the baglama was made an offence, and the police closed down every place where hashish was smoked, as well as rounding up anyone who dared to sing Rembetiko. Dedicated musicians had but one option: to flee to Thessaloniki. The city's then chief of police was an avid fan of this music and looked the other way, provided it was not performed in public. Today Rembetiko is considered one of the most "Greek" types of music, and you can hear it in every more or less authentic Greek tavern.
An excellent book on the subject: Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (HarperCollins, 2004) by the British historian Mark Mazower