Home to three quarters of a million people, Greece’s second city, THESSALONÍKI – or Salonica, as it is was once known – stands apart from the rest of the country. Situated at the head of the Gulf of Thessaloník, it seems open to the rest of the world, with a wide ethnic mix and an air of general prosperity, stimulated by a major university and a famously avant-garde live music and entertainment scene. The food is better here too and there are some very sophisticated restaurants, but also wholesome traditional food on offer in a great number of old-fashioned Turkish-influenced ouzerís and tavernas.
The city has enough to offer the visitor for two or three days, at least. There are substantial Roman remains and the many churches constitute a showcase of Orthodox architecture through the ages, while you can catch glimpses of the Turkish city both in the walled Upper City and in the modern grid of streets below: isolated pockets of Ottoman buildings, many of them Islamic monuments, which miraculously survived the 1917 fire (see Brief history). Modern Greek architecture is exemplified by Art Deco piles dating from the city’s twentieth-century heyday, around the time of the first International Trade Fair in 1926, an event that continues to this day. Thessaloníki’s many and often excellent museums cover subjects as varied as Byzantine culture, the city’s Jewish heritage, folklife, musical instruments, Atatürk (who was born here) and, more recently, modern art and photography.
Brief history of Thessaloníki
When King Cassander of Macedonia founded the city in 315 BC, he named it after his wife Thessalonike, Alexander the Great’s half-sister, whose name in turn derived from the Macedons’ decisive victory (nike) over the Thessalians. It soon became the region’s cultural and trading centre, issuing its own coins, and when Rome conquered Macedonia in 146 BC, the city (under the name Salonica) became the natural and immediate choice of capital. Its fortunes and significance were boosted by the building of the Via Egnatia, the great road linking Rome (via Brindisi) with Byzantium and the East.
Christianity had slow beginnings in the city. St Paul visited twice, and on the second occasion, in 56 AD, he stayed long enough to found a church, later writing the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, his congregation there. It was another three centuries, however, before the new religion took full root. Galerius, who acceded as eastern emperor upon Byzantium’s break with Rome, provided the city with virtually all its surviving late Roman monuments. The first resident Christian emperor was Theodosius (reigned 379–95), who after his conversion issued the Edict of Salonica, officially ending paganism.
Under Justinian’s rule (527–65) Salonica became the second city of Byzantium after Constantinople, which it remained – under constant pressure from Goths and Slavs – until its sacking by Saracens in 904. The storming and sacking continued under the Normans of Sicily (1185) and with the Fourth Crusade (1204), when the city became for a time capital of the Latin Kingdom of Salonica. It was, however, restored to the Byzantine Empire of Nicea in 1246, reaching a cultural “golden age” until Turkish conquest and occupation in 1430.
Thessaloníki was the premier Ottoman Balkan city when Athens was still a backwater. Its population was as varied as any in the region, with Greek Orthodox Christians in a distinct minority. Besides Ottoman Muslims, who called the city “Selanik”, there were Slavs (who still know it as “Solun”), Albanians, Armenians and, following the Iberian expulsions after 1492, the largest European Jewish community of the age.
The modern quality of Thessaloníki is due largely to a disastrous fire in 1917 which levelled most of the old plaster houses along a labyrinth of Ottoman lanes, including the entire Jewish quarter. The city was rebuilt, often in a special form of Art Deco style, over the following eight years on a grid plan prepared under the supervision of French architect Ernest Hébrard, with long central avenues running parallel to the seafront and cross-streets densely planted with trees. During World War II the city was occupied by the Nazis, who decimated the Jewish community. After the war more reconstruction was necessary to repair bomb damage, though this was interrupted in 1978 by a severe earthquake that damaged many older buildings.
Thessaloníki’s opulence has traditionally been epitomized by the locals’ sartorial elegance, but the boom of the 1990s is long gone and an increasing number of boarded-up shops indicate that Greece’s economic malaise has taken hold here. A permanent underclass lives in shantytowns near the port, consisting of Pontic or Black Sea Greeks, Albanians and eastern European refugees, as well as a growing community of Afghans and Africans.
Despite years of neglect, the 1917 fire and the 1978 quake, Thessaloníki has quite a number of vestiges of Ottoman architecture to show, mostly within walking distance of Platía Dhikastiríon. At the eastern corner of the square itself stands the disused but well-preserved Bey Hammam or Parádhisos Baths (Mon–Fri 9am–9pm, Sat & Sun 8.30am–3pm; free), the oldest Turkish bathhouse in the city (1444) and in use until 1968. The doorway is surmounted by elaborate ornamentation, while inside art exhibitions – often paradoxically with Byzantine themes – are held from time to time.
To the south of Platía Dhikastiríon lies the main Turkish bazaar area, bounded roughly by Egnatía, Dhragoúmi, Ayías Sofías and Tsimiskí. Much the most interesting bit, and a quiet midtown oasis, is a grid of lanes between Ayías Sofías and Aristotélous, devoted to selling animals, crafts and cane furniture. Nearby Ottoman monuments include the six-domed Bezesténi or covered valuables market at the corner of Venizélou and Egnatía, now housing jewellery and other shops. Directly opposite, on the north side of Egnatía, rather more modest stores occupy a prominent mosque, the fifteenth-century purpose-built Hamza Bey Tzamí (most mosques in Ottoman Thessaloníki were converted churches), now looking decidedly ramshackle.
Well to the north of Platía Dhikastiríon, beyond Áyios Dhimítrios basilica, is the seventeenth-century Yeni Hammam, now a summer cinema and music venue serving basic food, and better known as the Aigli; the fifteenth-century Altaza Imaret, tucked away in a quiet square diagonally opposite, sports a handsome portico and multiple domes.
The Archeological Museum
The refurbished archeological museum is undoubtedly the city’s leading museum. Star billing goes to the marvellous Gold of Macedon exhibition in the south hall, which displays – and clearly labels in both English and Greek – many of the finds from the royal tombs of Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) and others at the ancient Macedonian capital of Aegae, in Vergina. They include startling amounts of gold and silver – masks, crowns, necklaces, earrings and bracelets – all of extraordinarily imaginative craftsmanship, both beautiful and practical, as well as pieces in ivory and bronze. Other highlights include the central gallery (opposite as you enter), which is devoted to rich grave finds from ancient Sindos, a few kilometres north of the modern city, while the left-hand wing is taken up by Hellenistic and Roman art, in particular some exquisite blown-glass birds, found in the tumuli or toúmbes which stud the plain around Thessaloníki.
Almost all the Byzantine churches in Thessaloníki are located in the central districts or on the slopes heading up towards the Upper Town. Under the Turks most of the buildings were converted for use as mosques, a process that obscured many of their original features and destroyed the majority of their frescoes and mosaics. Further damage came with the 1917 fire and, more recently, with the 1978 earthquake. Restoration seems a glacially slow process, meaning that many sanctuaries remain locked. Nevertheless, those below are all worth a visit and free to enter.
One of the most central is the eleventh-century Panayía Halkéon church (daily 7.30am–noon), a classic though rather unimaginative example of the “cross-in-square” form, nestling at the lush southwestern corner of Platía Dhikastiríon. Its interior contains fragmentary frescoes in the cupola and some fine icons.
Several blocks east, and tucked away just out of sight north of Egnatía, the restored, fifth-century, three-aisled basilica of Panayía Ahiropíitos (daily 7am–noon & 4.30–6.30pm) is the oldest in the city. It features arcades, monolithic columns and highly elaborate capitals – a popular development begun under Theodosius. Only the mosaics inside the arches survive, depicting birds, fruits and vegetation in a rich Alexandrian style.
Around Áyios Dhimítrios are several more churches, utterly different in feel. To the west along Ayíou Dhimitríou is the church of Dhódheka Apóstoli (daily 8.30am–noon & 4–6pm), built in the twelfth century with the bold Renaissance influence of Mystra. Its five domes rise in perfect symmetry above walls of fine brickwork, while inside are glorious fourteenth-century mosaics, among the last executed in the Byzantine empire. High up in the arches to the south, west and north of the dome respectively are a Nativity, an Entry into Jerusalem, a Resurrection and a Transfiguration.
A short climb up Ayías Sofías is Ósios Dhavíd (Mon–Sat 9am–noon & 4–6pm), a tiny fifth-century church on Odhós Timothéou. It doesn’t really fit into any architectural progression, since the Ottomans demolished much of the building when converting it to a mosque. However, it has arguably the finest mosaic in the city, depicting a clean-shaven Christ Emmanuel appearing in a vision, with the four Rivers of Paradise, replete with fish, flowing beneath and lapping the feet of the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk.
Farther east in Kástra, on Irodhótou, fourteenth-century Áyios Nikólaos Orfanós (Tues–Sun 8.30am–2.45pm) is a diminutive, much-altered basilica; the imaginative and well-preserved frescoes inside are the most accessible and expressive in the city. It also houses the unusual Áyion Mandílion, an image of Christ’s head superimposed on a legendary Turin-style veil sent to an ancient king of Anatolian Edessa. Around the apse is a wonderful Niptir (Christ Washing the Disciple’s Feet), in which the image top right of a man riding a horse is thought to be the painter himself.
The museum of Byzantine culture
The prize-winning Museum of Byzantine Culture, in a handsome brick structure just east of the Archeological Museum, does a fine job of displaying the early Christian tombs and graves excavated in the city, featuring rescued wall paintings depicting, among others, Susannah and the Elders, and a naked rower surrounded by sea creatures. Despite this and the faultless lighting and display techniques, most of the displays will appeal more to specialists than to lay visitors.
The Jews of Thessaloníki
In the early sixteenth century, after virtually all the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, nearly half of the inhabitants of Thessaloníki, over 80,000 people, were Jewish. For them “Salonik” or “Salonicco” ranked as a “Mother of Israel” and the community dominated the city’s commercial, social and cultural life for some four hundred years, mostly tolerated by the Ottoman authorities but often resented by the Greeks. The first waves of Jewish emigration to Palestine, western Europe and the United States began after World War I. Numbers had dropped to fewer than 60,000 at the onset of World War II, during which all but a tiny fraction were deported from Platía Eleftherías to the concentration camps and immediate gassing. The vast Jewish cemeteries east of the city centre, among the world’s largest, were desecrated in 1944; to add insult to injury, the area was later covered over by the new university and expanded trade-fair grounds in 1948. Thessaloníki’s only surviving pre-Holocaust synagogue is the Monastiriótou at Syngroú 35, with an imposing, if austere, facade; it’s usually open for Friday-evening and Saturday-morning worship. At the very heart of the former Jewish district sprawls the Modhiáno, the still-functioning central meat, fish and produce market, named after the wealthy Jewish Modiano family which long owned it.
The White Tower
Dominating the seafront promenade, the White Tower (Lefkós Pýrgos) is the city’s graceful symbol. Originally known as the Lions’ Tower and the Fortress of Kalamariá, it formed a corner of the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman defences before most of the walls were demolished late in the nineteenth century. In 1890 a Jewish prisoner was given the task of whitewashing the tower, in exchange for his freedom, hence the new name, which stuck, even though it is now more of a buff colour. It was restored in 1985 for the city’s 2300th birthday celebrations and has since been converted into a moderately interesting historical museum.
The fire-walkers of Langadhás
On May 21, the feast day of SS Constantine and Helen, villagers at LANGADHÁS, 20km north of Thessaloníki, perform a ritual barefoot dance across a bed of burning coals known as the anastenária. While it has been suggested that they are remnants of a Dionysiac cult, devotees fiercely assert a purely Christian tradition. This seems to relate to a fire, around 1250, in the Thracian village of Kostí (now in Bulgaria), from where many of the inhabitants of Langadhás originate. Holy icons were heard groaning from the flames and were rescued by villagers, who emerged miraculously unburnt from the blazing church. The icons, passed down by their families, are believed to ensure protection during the fire walking. Equally important is piety and purity of heart: it is said that no one with any harboured grudges or unconfessed sins can pass through the coals unscathed.
Whatever the origin, the rite is still performed most years – lately as something of a tourist attraction, with an admission charge and repeat performances over the next two days. It is nevertheless eerie and impressive, beginning around 7pm with the lighting of a cone of hardwood logs. A couple of hours later their embers are raked into a circle and, just before complete darkness, a traditional Macedonian daoúli drummer and two lyra players precede a group of about sixteen women and men into the arena. These anastenáridhes (literally “groaners”), in partial trance, then shuffle across the coals for about a quarter of an hour, somehow without requiring a trip to hospital at the end.
The Arch of Galerius dominates a pedestrianized square just off the eastern end of Egnatía. Along with the nearby Rotónda, it originally formed part of a larger Roman complex which included palaces and a hippodrome. The mighty arch is the surviving span of a dome-surmounted arcade that once led towards the palaces. Built to commemorate the emperor’s victories over the Persians in 297 AD, its piers contain weathered reliefs of the battle scenes interspersed with glorified poses of Galerius himself. The well-displayed remains of Galerius’s palace can be viewed, below the modern street level, along pedestrianized Dhimitríou Goúnari towards its southern extension, Platía Navarínou.
Rotónda (Áyios Yeóryios)
North of the great arch, the Rotónda, later converted into the church of Áyios Yeóryios, is the most striking single Roman monument in the city. It was designed, but never used, as an imperial mausoleum, possibly for Galerius himself. Consecrated for Christian use in the late fourth century, by the addition of a sanctuary, an apse, a narthex and rich mosaics, it later became one of the city’s major mosques, from which period the minaret remains. The cavernous interior is stark but some of the stunning mosaics remain in place.
Just north of leafy Platía Dhikastiríon, the Roman Forum has been undergoing gradual excavation for over a decade so access is limited. In many ways, its layout is best observed from the road behind, where the shape of the stoa, with several remaining columns, is clear. The restored amphitheatre is used for occasional summer performances.
In Kástra, as the lower fringes of the Upper Town are known, stands a pink nineteenth-century building in which Kemal Atatürk, creator and first president of the modern secular state of Turkey, was born in 1881. The consulate maintains the house as a small museum, with its original fixtures and an interesting selection of Atatürk memorabilia. Due to tight security, you must apply for admission with your passport to the Turkish consulate, next door.
The heavily restored eighth-century church of Ayía Sofía is the finest of its kind in the city. Modelled on its more illustrious namesake in Constantinople, it replaced an older basilica, the only trace of which remains a few paces south: the below-street-level holy well of John the Baptist, originally a Roman nymphaeum (sacred fountain). Ayía Sofía’s dome, 10m in diameter, bears a splendid mosaic of the Ascension, for which you’ll need binoculars. Christ, borne up to the heavens by two angels, sits resplendent on a rainbow throne, right hand extended in blessing; below, a wry inscription quotes Acts 1:11: “Ye men of galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” The whole is ringed by fifteen figures: the Virgin attended by two angels, and the twelve Apostles reacting to the miracle. The dome was restored late in the 1980s; the rest of the interior decoration was plastered over after the 1917 fire.
Áno Póli (Upper Town)
Above Odhós Kassándhrou, the street parallel to Ayíou Dhimitríou, rises the Upper Town or Áno Póli, the main surviving quarter of Ottoman Thessaloníki. Although the streets here have long been swamped by new apartment buildings, they remain ramshackle and atmospheric, a labyrinth of timber-framed houses and winding steps. In the past few years many of the older houses have been bought up and restored and it is justifiably one of the city’s favourite after-dark destinations. Sections of the fourteenth-century Byzantine ramparts, constructed with brick and rubble on top of old Roman foundations, crop up all around the northern part of town.
The best-preserved portion begins at a large circular keep, the Trigónion or Chain Tower (so called for its encircling ornamental moulding), in the northeast angle where the easterly city walls veer west. A much smaller circuit of walls rambles around the district of Eptapýrgio (Seven Towers), enclosing the old eponymous acropolis at the top end. For centuries it served as the city’s prison until abandoned as too inhumane in 1989; it is described as a sort of Greek Devil’s Island in a number of plaintive old songs entitled Yedi Küle, the Turkish name for Eptapýrgio.
PELLA, 40km west of Thessaloníki, was the capital of Macedonia throughout its greatest period and the first capital of Greece after Philip II forcibly unified the country around 338 BC. It was founded some sixty years earlier by King Archelaos, who transferred the royal Macedonian court here from Aegae. At that time it lay at the head of a broad lake, connected to the Thermaïkós gulf by a navigable river. The royal palace was decorated by the painter Zeuxis and was said to be the greatest artistic showplace since the time of Classical Athens. Euripides wrote and produced his last plays at the court, and here, too, Aristotle was to tutor the young Alexander the Great – born, like his father Philip II, in the city.
The site today is a worthwhile stopover en route to Édhessa and western Macedonia or as a day-trip from Thessaloníki. Its main treasures are a series of pebble mosaics, some in the museum, others in situ.
Today Pella’s ruins stand in the middle of a broad expanse of plain. It was located by chance finds in 1957 and as yet has only been partially excavated. The acropolis at Pella is a low hill to the west of the modern village of Pélla. To the north of the road, at the main site, stand the low remains of a grand official building, probably a government office; it is divided into three large open courts, each enclosed by a peristyle, or portico (the columns of the central one have been re-erected), and bordered by wide streets with a sophisticated drainage system.
In the third court three late fourth-century BC mosaics have been left in situ under sheltering canopies; one, a stag hunt, is complete, and astounding in its dynamism and use of perspective. The others represent, respectively, the rape of Helen by Paris and his friends Phorbas and Theseus, and a fight between a Greek and an Amazon.
The excellent new museum, designed on the rectangular model of the ancient dwellings, stands up at the back of the modern village of Pélla. It showcases more spectacular pebble mosaics taken from the site, as well as rich grave finds from the two local necropolises, delicately worked terracotta figurines from a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Cybele, a large hoard of late Classical/early Hellenistic coins, and – on the rarely seen domestic level – metal door fittings: pivots, knocker plates and crude keys. The finds are all set within the context of life in the ancient capital, with detailed contextual displays, all well translated.