Walking the Walls of Thessaloniki
Updated: May 9, 2022
One way of seeing a city with a long and varied history is to follow the route of its past fortified walls.
They may not be there any more or there in snatches, like London, or easily walkable, like York, which I walked in October. I perhaps foolishly mentioned this to my friend Harry and she got obsessed with the idea - insisting that we did them from the sea all the way round, back to the bottom again. The walls at Thessaloniki are like a C shape, cupping the ancient medieval city against the hills and around the sea. And so we started at the Tower of the Relief and Fort Vardar on the west of the city, near the port and city pier.
What was striking was how the walls intercut with car parks, playground, even into fairly recent buildings. This is not to say that the heritage was neglected. A major change since visiting the city in January 2011 was how much more information and care there was for all the historical and cultural periods in the city - including the Jewish and Ottoman past. Thessaloniki is a late city by ancient standards as the city itself was founded in the 4th century BCE and is named after a half sister of Alexander the Great, which is probably why - in my Classically Greek influenced ignorance - I ignored it until getting interested in the later periods of of Greece and eastern mediterranean more generally.
While in Greece, I read Roderick Beaton's magisterial (and it really is) The Greeks. A Global History, in which he described and defined the Greeks by their shared language, not geographical space or the term Hellenes. Hellenic, he argued, belonged to the Ancient Greek past and most Greeks termed themselves Romans in the Byzantine period and even into the end of the Ottoman Empires. After the split of the eastern and western empire from 4thC CE on, until the early 20thC, these Greek speaking peoples were (mainly) Orthodox Christian and lived around the Eastern Mediterranean in mainland Greece, Greek Islands and western Turkey as well as in costal Egypt and parts of Italy, Israel, Syria and Jordan. It was a striking idea and one that - as Bearon argued - thrives well into later chains of migration from Greece into the USA, Australia and northern Europe during the brutal twentieth century, particularly after the civil war of the 1940s. Greece is not confined to the physical space of a nation but spread, through its language, globally and embeds itself in religion (the New Testament - and even parts of the Old - is primarily written in Greek), ideas, science, literature etc.
And yet, physical space and a sense of place is important as the street signs of Thessaloniki reminded us. Most of them in the centre of the city explained why they were named and / or the history of an event that had taken place on them. Within this history are the stories of many people who lived together, at least more so than the differentiated zones found elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire from the 15th CE onwards.
Mark Mazzower's Salonica. City of Ghosts covers this period and its dynamic intermingling of Muslims, Christians and Jews, followed by the loss of these peoples the 'Great Tragedy' of the population exchange of Muslims for Christians from Asia Minor in the
1920s and the Jews in the Holocaust in World War Two. Having read Beaton, I would also add the loss of people due to migration from the period of the civil war of the late 1940s to the Generals of the 1970s.
The palimpsest of history within Thessaloniki itself is clear seen within the city walls, as the exhibition at the Archaeological Museum explained when we visited it the next day. For A Flame that Lives On, Antiquities and Memory - Thessaloniki Macedonia showed how antiquities were found in the walls and in some places rescued as objects of the ancient classical past. Yet, this was obvious when looking at the walls, as the main gate to Eptapirgo (the fortress at the north of the city) showed. The display was of reliefs, architectural emblems and even sculpture embedded into a gate covered by an Ottoman inscription. The Greek, Roman and Byzantine past and the conquered on display for all to see.
From the Fortress in the Acropolis at the north of the town, Harry and I walked down to the Trigoniou Tower, built by the Ottoman Turks, and along the eastern walls back in the centre of the city, passing a former Ottoman orphanage from the 1870s and making a sift detour around the graveyard.
In doing this we came to the Rotunda, which - in my view - was as impressive as the similarly domed Pantheon in Rome. From the 4th to 6th centuries CE, the Rotunda built by Emperor Galerius who was notoriously anti-christian.
Despite this the Rotunda became a heavily decorated Byzantine church, with its own walls depicted within on delicate mosaics.
Like so much of Thessaloniki what was one thing became another and the church became a mosque, with a prayer tower added to the side.
Further along the eastern walls we came to the Arch of Galerius, showing his triumphal procession against the Persians and walked on down past that to his palace complex. On the way we passed the university, where armed police stood guard due to student demonstrations objecting to their presence and the fact they had been allowed to enter university buildings. After the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic against the military junta in 1973, in which 9 students died, and the return of democracy in late 1970s, the police and military banned from university campuses to allow academic freedom. It appears that the police have been invited in by the university authorities against sit ins and disturbances at universities in Greece. It's disturbing that Greek Higher Education is even more toxic and divisive than in the UK!
Later that evening, we had a drink by the Jewish Baths (Yahoudi Hammam), which were clearly in the process of being conserved and managed to get a sense of the spotlit interiors through the windows.
The city of Thessaloniki appears to have embraced its past diversity as defined in its marketing sentence 'One city, One heart, Different cultures'. Walking the walls gave us a sense of these cultures and pasts and the exhibitions we visited the next day gave us an understanding of some of the people who lived them. This is why I love Greece and Greek history.
Mark Mazower (2004), Salonica City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430 - 1950, London: Harper Collins.
Roderick Beaton (2020), The Greeks. A Global History, London, Faber.
Angeliki Koukouvοu & Evanthia Papadopoulou (eds.), (2021), For a flame that burns on. Antiquities and Memory, Thessaloniki-Macedonia [1821-2021], Temporary exhibition catalogue July 15 2021 - July 17 2022, Thessaloniki: Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, publication no 48.