Created | Updated Sep 8, 2006
For more than 1,300 years, Thessaloniki has held the status of second city of the Greek world. In the Byzantine Empire (330 - 1204 AD), it was second only to Byzantium itself (the ancient Greek city which became Constantinople then Istanbul in what is now Turkey). In modern times it is second only to Athens, the capital of modern Greece.
Thessaloniki is an important sea port in northern Greece (Macedonia). It is strategically situated on the Gulf of Thessaloniki at the northern end of the Aegean Sea, in the region of Mount Olympus (the home of the gods of ancient Greece). It has also been known as Thessalonika, Thessalonia, Thessaly and Salonica, and to the Turks as Selaïnik. It is a place of climatic extremes, with severe winters characterised by biting winds, and oppressively hot summers.
The Early Years
Thessaloniki was founded in circa 316 BC by Kassandros (or Cassander), King of Macedonia, and named after his wife, who was the half-sister of Alexander the Great. (A few years earlier, after the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Cassander had murdered Alexander's mother, widow and son.)
Macedonia1 became a Roman province in 146 BC and Thessaloniki its capital. Various now-famous people of the period stayed there, including Cicero, Pompey, and Antony. St Paul the Apostle preached at Thessaloniki in 49 - 50 AD, antagonising some of the Jews, who attacked the house he was staying at. He founded a Christian community there, and wrote letters to them which we know as the Epistles to the Thessalonians.
During the third century AD there were regular attacks by the Goths (a Germanic people who had invaded the Roman Empire). In 390, the hated military commander of the city, Botheric the Goth, was lynched for failing to control the atrocities of his soldiers. There was a little local difficulty in that the most popular chariot-driver of the day was taking liberties with one of Botheric's slave boys. Botheric imprisoned the charioteer, whose infuriated friends murdered Botheric and his officers and dragged their bodies through the streets to the great acclamation of the cheering crowds.
The Emperor Theodosius the Great relied greatly on his Goths as army commanders who could keep the rabble in some sort of order, so he was not best pleased at this. The imprisoned charioteer was released, and the entire populace of Thessaloniki was invited to a special celebration in the Circus. Once they were inside the arena, the exits were sealed and Theodosius' troops fell on the people with drawn swords. According to Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) the ensuing bloodbath lasted for three hours and at least 7,000 were slaughtered.
The Byzantine Empire
Thessaloniki rose in importance to become the second city of the Byzantine Empire. There were further invasions by Goths, as well as various sieges by the Avars (a nomadic equestrian people from central Asia) and the Slavs (from central and eastern Europe), all of which the city withstood. The brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted the Slavs to Christianity and invented the Cyrillic alphabet to help them do so, hailed from Thessaloniki.
It was stormed by the Saracens (nomads of the Syrian and Arabian deserts) who sold 22,000 of its inhabitants into slavery. It was besieged (unsuccessfully) by the Bulgars (a Slavic people from south east Europe). In 1185, it was captured and barbarously ransacked by the Sicilian army and fleet under the command of Tancred (a famous Norman crusader). There was a long period of sieges, struggles, pillaging and general mayhem involving various hordes, including Catalans from Spain and Bulgarians.
Everyone who thought he might be in with half a chance wanted to get his hands on Thessaloniki, since possession of this city was the gateway to possession of the whole of the riches of the Byzantine Empire. During a long period of anarchy, control of the city swung between Ottoman Turks, Mongols, Byzantines and Venetians. Churches became mosques, then became churches again, then became mosques again.
The Ottoman Empire
The Turkish Osman I had established the Ottoman Empire but it got off to a shaky start and suffered various temporary setbacks, notably that of the invasion in 1402 by Tamerlane or Tamburlaine, the Mongol ruler of Samarkand and the ancestor of the Mogul dynasty in India. But the capture of Constantinople in 1453 put the Ottoman Empire on a firm footing in the region. The Ottomans ruled Thessaloniki right until 1912, when the First Balkan War saw the Greek army march in triumph into Thessaloniki and it became Greek again, some 90 years after the rest of Greece had gained its independence from the Ottomans.
Mustafa Kemal was born in Thessaloniki in 1881. He presided over the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate and became President of the Turkish Republic in 1923. A virtual dictator, he instigated various reforms and advocated a strong Turkish nationalism. In 1935 he took the title Atatürk (Father of the Turks).
Although at the start of the 20th Century the population of Thessaloniki was more European than Hellenic, the various upheavals since have meant that it is now almost completely Greek.
A series of fires damaged Thessaloniki in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, culminating in a particularly devastating fire in 1917 which made some 70,000 homeless and led to the replanning and rebuilding of the city centre, a process which began in 1925 and continued into the 1950s. It suffered severe earthquakes in 1978, causing some casualties and disruption, as well as damaging the early churches.
From the foundation of Thessaloniki more than 2,000 years ago, and especially since the 16th Century, the Jewish community has played an important part in the life of the city. When Thessaloniki was founded, Ptolemy I, who had been a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, was the ruler of Egypt and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. At the request of Kassandros (the founder of Thessaloniki) Ptolemy sent over a group of his Jewish artisans to assist in the building of the city, and this was the foundation of the Jewish community.
Jews from Alexandria arrived in 140 BC and there is a further mention of the Jews of Macedonia in 10 AD. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that St Paul visited the city in 50 AD and taught at the synagogue there, so there was clearly a Jewish community established by then.
There were various influxes of Jews during the intervening centuries, but by far the largest occurred at the end of the 15th Century. By that time the Jewish communities of Spain had been flourishing for some considerable time, and brought forth great scholars, artists, philosophers, traders, scientists and artisans. This came to an abrupt end in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and the Inquisition decided to expel all the Jews. When the Jews had gone, the Spanish tore up their cemeteries and razed the areas they had lived in. They even gave those areas new, Christian, names to obliterate all memory of their former inhabitants, so that the old Jewish quarters now have names such as Santa Cruz (Holy Cross).
The Ottomans couldn't understand why the Spanish would want to get rid of such a valuable resource, and happily welcomed this large influx of new taxpayers2. Thessaloniki had been almost totally abandoned since the Ottomans took over in the middle of the 15th Century, and these Spanish Jews, who were to be joined by contingents of Jews from other trouble spots, became the predominant community of Thessaloniki. They worked the mines, founded the first printing house, and once more produced teachers, doctors, philosophers, poets and so on.
The Jews of Thessaloniki thrived in commerce and industry as well as the professions, established their own comprehensive welfare system and charitable institutions and became the main labour force. They lived in peace and prosperity with their Christian and Muslim neighbours and fought alongside them in battle.
Then in April 1941, the Axis powers occupied Thessaloniki, and for the Jewish community this was of course the beginning of the end. In a sort of re-enactment of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition the Jews had to endure destruction and looting of their places of residence, business and worship at the hands of the Nazis, who also held them to ransom for enormous sums of money. The Nazis tried to destroy all the Jewish community's documents and archives, and ripped up the gravestones of the 500-year-old Jewish cemetery (now the site of Thessaloniki's modern Aristotle University) to line roads and pave swimming pools.
Finally in 1943, between March and August a series of transports carried almost all the Jews in cattle trucks all the way to Auschwitz. A few had managed to escape into the mountains, or join the Resistance fighters, and a few more were hidden and looked after by friendly Christians, but the vast majority perished. The Thessalonikians have erected a large and imposing marble memorial to them in the town.
Today Thessaloniki is mostly a modern city with roads and boulevards laid out in a grid pattern. It is still, though, an interesting mixture of smart shopping streets, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs; a brand-new concert hall; the usual global fast-food outlets; a Marks & Spencer3; an incredibly smelly covered market where you buy your chickens, ducks, snails and seafood very much alive, as well as the magnificent fruits, vegetables and flowers; broad and verdant pedestrian precincts; intriguing narrow alleyways; a busy and important port; richly embellished and restored Byzantine churches; and a long esplanade by the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean Sea.