A Day, or More Than Two Millennia, in the Life of Salonika: Natterings from Northern Greece on the Looney Front, Part 1

06/08/2015 08:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2016

In the year 353/2 B.C. a daughter was born to Alexander the Great's father, King Philip II of Macedon, on the very same day that he won the Battle of Crocus Field over the Phocians in Thessaly, central Greece, with the help of crack Thessalian horsemen. Let her be called Thessaloniki (Victory in Thessaly), the triumphant monarch decreed.

Which only goes to show how lucky she was that Dad didn't win his victory at Brown Willy, Butthole Lane, Scratchy Bottom or Nasty in England, Ofakim (yes, the 'a' is pronounced as the 'u' in muck) in Israel, Wankers Corner in Oregon, or Middelfart in Denmark, not to mention Dildo in Newfoundland. Being called Dildoniki somehow could have traumatised her for life.


Looking up Aristotle Boulevard from Aristotle Square

Fast forward 37 years to 315, when Alexander was already six feet under, and Cassander, his schoolmate at Aristotle's academy, had married the Great's half-sister, was regent of the Great's empire and founded a city on a plain in northern Greece that he named in honour of his wife.

Which only goes to show how even luckier cartographers are that Philip's victory was not won at Butthole, Ofakim, or Dildo and the like.


Thessaloniki's waterfront

Fast forward even further to 2015, and ancient Thessaloniki, Greece's second city after Athens, known to many as just Salonika - and whose etymology has given rise to the raving musings above - is a handsome metropolis of well over 1 million people.

A major fire destroyed much of the old city in 1917 and it was rebuilt according to French architectural plans with a fine grid of wide avenues. But it still holds much of interest for everybody.


View over modern town from old city

The main square and boulevard are named after Aristotle even though the ancient philosopher, scientist and the Great's tutor died seven years before the city's founding, but he was Macedonian-born from nearby Stagira, on the Halkidiki peninsula.


Aristotle presides

Back on a hillside in the Ana Poli (old upper city) with its twisting lanes and balconied houses, the remnants of the massive Byzantine walls and bulky round towers of the fortress, dating from the Emperor Theodosius (379-395 A.D.) and refurbished by the Ottomans, crown a ridge with splendid views over the new city below.


Old walls


Another view

As you walk down, you pass numerous small Byzantine churches with their characteristic red rib-tiled domes dating back 1,600 years.


Byzantine church


Old city lane


Another church

The most massive is St. Demetrios originally built in the 4th century to commemorate the city patron saint and martyr, but since reconstructed several times, most recently with major repairs after the 1917 fire.


St. Demetrios

Within, a shrine with a silver coffin topped by a great round crown contains the relics of the saint, whom Emperor Galerius had run through by spears in 303 for preaching Christianity on that very same spot when the buildings there served as baths.


St. Demetrios's shrine


A look inside

Just to the south are the vast remains of the Roman forum with its theatre.


Roman forum


The theatre

Further east are the arch that Galerius built and the ruins of what indeed must have been his very palatial palace. The huge rotunda that the emperor built as his mausoleum was never used as such, and Constantine the Great turned it into Thessaloniki's first church, Agiou Geprgiou.


Galerius's arch


Arch sculptures


The rotunda (St. George's church)


Part of Galerius's palace ruins

If you're a Turk, you can visit the house where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881, as well several Turkish bathhouses, though I doubt the house will be a particular draw for Muslims, given the founder of modern Turkey's views of that religion and his banning of the veil among other things.


House where Atatürk was born


The plaque

If you're a Jew, Salonika will be of special interest as one of the major Jewish centres of the middle ages and early modern times. Jews are known to have inhabited Thessaloniki as far back as at least 148 B.C., but it really became a Jewish metropolis when the Sultans welcomed the Sephardi Jews whom the Christians expelled from Spain.

Jews, in fact, were often the city's majority population with dozens of synagogues. The Germans put paid to that during the war when they deported more than 50,000 Salonika Jews, with 37,000 of them being immediately gassed on arrival at Birkenau.


A church view


Another church

Today the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki recounts the life of this storied community. It is housed in a small building in the city centre in a street bordered by orange trees. Outside a police post stands guard.

It's ironic to think that the record of a massacred community that first thrived before the Arabs ever burst forth from their peninsula has to be protected from Arab, Islamist and pro-Palestinian attacks today.


Entrance to the Jewish museum

Right on the waterfront is Thessaloniki's most famous landmark, the White Tower. The large battlemented 112-foot-high drum was built by the Ottomans in the 15th century and served as part of the walls that separated the Jewish quarter from the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries.


Inside St. Sofia church

In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II ordered the massacre there of 6,000 rebellious janissaries - an elite force of troops formed by Christians who were converted as boys - and it became known as the red tower for all the blood spilled. When the Greeks won back Macedonia in the 1912 Balkan War, the tower was symbolically whitewashed and given its present name.


Waterfront promenade


White tower

And what better way to end the day than to sit down in its shadow and watch the sun sink across the Thermaic Gulf, its rays turning the snow-capped summits of Mt. Olympus on the far horizon to pure gold, as the whole city parades past on its daily evening walk, its ranks of youths swollen by the presence of a lively 80,000-strong university population.


Mt. Olympus in the sunset


By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.