A Brief History of Thessaloniki

I was tempted to write a short history of Athens here as well, given that we had stopped over in the ancient Greek capital for the Feminist Researchers Against Borders workshop.  However, given that we were only in the city a couple of days this felt somehow inappropriate so will try and focus my general ramblings onto Thessaloniki.  We arrivedin the city on a delayed overnight flight from Athens in order to attend the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) conference in the University of Macadeonia.

As with so many of the cities in Greece, Thessaloniki has a long, rich cultural history.  Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece after the capital, Athens. Originally founded  by the Macedonian King Kassandros in 315 BC, who named the city after his wife (and Alexander the Great’s step sister).  Thessaloniki soon became one of the key cities of the region due to its strategic positioning and was conquered on several occassions, first by the Romans in the 2nd Century BC and later by the Ottoman Empire in 1432, remaining part of the Empire for nearly five centuries.  During the Roman occupation, Thessaloniki became central to the rule of the Emperor Galerius, (see the Rotunda and Arch below), and later under Byzantine Empire of Constance the Great, Thessaloniki became the co-capital of the Empire.

From a refugee history and migration perspective, it is interesting to read that over the course of the City’s history, it became a refuge for a large Jewish population due to the migration of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and northern Europe.  Thessaloniki was also to play an important role in th Greek-Turkey Population Exchange between 1922 and 1924, as a result of the Treat of Lausanne.  This resulted in the resettlement of refugees in Thessaloniki from Asia Minor and the Black Sea region (Pontos).  “Their large influxes created refugee districts, such as Kalamaria, while the Muslims of the city were deemed as “exchangeables” and forced to move to Turkey.” (Thessaloniki Free Map, GreekGuide.com).

Given our conference commitments, we ere not able to do as much of th etourist scene as we would have liked, but at least having a late-night red-eye flight back to to London Stansted meant that we had an almost full day on the Saturday to explore the city.

The first stop on our whistelstop tour was the Arch of Galerius, situated only a coupleof minutes ealk from our hotrl on Egnatia street. The Arch was originally constructed in honour of the Roman Emperor Galerius, after his successful wars against the Persian Empire.  Galerius returned to Thessaloniki in around 306 AD and the Arch was constructed during this time as the western part of a covered portico.  The Arch is certainly a magnificent site and the engraving on the pillars testiment to the skilled workmen of the time.  Almost adjacent tot he Arch of Galerius is the RotundaSaint George’s Rotunda, to give the its full name, is located on Agiou Georgiou Street and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site resembling the Pantheon in Rome as a domed circular building.  Originally constructed in the 4th Century AD at the same time as the Arch, the Rotunda was originally to be the mausoleum for the Emperor Galerius.  However, the Emperor’s death in 311 AD necessitated an alternative plan and the Rorunda was left vacant until being repurposed as a Christian church dedicated to Saint George.

Churches are key to the cultural heritage of Thessaloniki, and there are many historical examples situated around the city.  Agia Sofia is one of the jewels of Thessaloniki’s crown, a Byzantine ere chruch constructed in the 7th Century AD and dedicated to the wisdom of God.  From the outside, the church is very impressive, whilst inside it contains murals and mosiics dating from the 11th Century.  Another example is the Panagia Acheiropiitos, located on Agias Sofias Street.  Panagia Acheiropiitos was initally constructed in the mid-5th Century AD as an early Chirstian church before subsequent restorations in the 7th Century AD.  According to the guide-map, “This is one of the best preserved examples of a typical aisle basilica with wooden galleries.” (Thessaloniki Free Map, GreekGuide.com).

No trip to Thessaloniki would be complete without visiting the White Tower, perhaps the most iconic momument of Thessaloniki. Located on the sea-front, the White Tower is an easily recognisable momument, with its cylindrical stone structure standing 33.90 metres high and 22.7 metres in diameter.  Whilst no clear date survives for its construction, the general consenus is that it dates to the late 15th Century AD and the Ottomon Empire’s conquest of Thessaloniki. The Tower has gone by many names during its history from the “Fortress of Kalamaria” in the 18th Century to the “Tower of Yenitsari”; “Tower of Blood”; or “Bloody Tower” in the 19th Century.  The Tower has a total of seven floors in total and today hosts the Museum of Byzantine Culture which documents and narrates the History of Thessaloniki. The White Tower is located right on the seafront at Nikas Avenue, Palaria, 2310 267832).

This is only a whistlestop tour I know (and an excuse to share some of my photos, okay I’ll admit to that one lol).  I would definately want to return to spend more time exploring the lovely city of Thessaloniki and experiencing the wonderful Greek food and hospitality.  And there is so much left to explore …. from the museums including the Archeological Museum; the Jewish Museum; the Macedonian Museum of Contempory Art; to the various markets including the Modiano Market (Thessaloniki’s largest food market) and the Bit Bazaar and the many square and places of interest including Aristotelous Square; Ladadika; Tsimiski Street; Valaoritou Street and Nea Paralia.