Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by Cassander, King of Macedonia. That it was named for his wife, Thessaloniki, who was the daughter of Philip II and the sister of Alexander the Great. History later brought the Romans to Thessaloniki, and they left their mark on the city with the Arch of Galerius.

History, too, was to bring to Thessaloniki the Apostle Paul, who had journeyed into Macedonia to found the first Christian churches. There is a folk tradition that the Gentiles in the city pelted him with stones. And that the Apostle to the Nations lost his Christian patience and pronounced a curse on Thessaloniki: that the stones should never be removed from its streets. And from that day on tradition has called the people of Thessaloniki "Paul-accursed", and the streets of the city have never yet been cleared of those stones.

History, too, stationed in Thessaloniki a young officer named Diocletian, who became its patron saint under the name Demetrius. And his fame and glory spread with the glory of the Byzantine Empire. This was the age when monuments of faith and art arose throughout the city, in the Byzantine churches. But history is a fickle jade, and she replaced the Byzantines in her favour with the Turks, keeping them in the city for nearly five centuries. This was 1430, twenty-three years before the Fall of Constantinople.

Half a century later, she sent the city boatloads of persecuted Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. And when, after another three and a half centuries, the opening shots in the struggle for liberation were fired in the Morea in 1821, history brought their echo to Thessaloniki to give wings to the hopes of the enslaved. But their uprising was quenched in their own blood, and another ninety years had to pass before that same history, escorted by the Makedonomachoi, brought freedom to the ancient but still vital city of Saint Demetrius. And it was 26 October 1912, the feast day of the saint.

The visitor who sees the contemporary city with its broad straight streets and tall modern buildings will have trouble imagining what it looked like seventy years ago. Building up a complete and accurate picture requires considerable powers of reconstruction. Then, as now, the city occupied the same core area, from Bexinar to the Dépôt district and from the sea to the walls of the Moni Vlatadon. Only then it had not absorbed so many outlying townships, and its fringes were not so widely flung.

On the whole the centre of Thessaloniki was as it is today, stretching from Vardari to the White Tower. The city’s other district, from the White Tower to the Dépôt district, was merely a narrow strip on either side of what is now Vasileos Georgiou / Vasilissis Olgas Avenue. Along this road the wealthy townspeople - mainly Jews and Franks - had built their villas, veritable mansions, in architectural styles copied from Europe. This whole area, some of whose old houses still survive, was known as Pyrgoi ("the mansions").

Thessaloniki was a quaint old city, with a very pronounced Oriental character. Its particular geographical location, however, at the place where the interests of the Great Powers crossed and clashed, had helped its central core acquire a strongly European colour. It has something of the character of Constantinople, and much of the idiosyncrasy of Smyrna.

Save for the newer, eastern suburbs, which have been laid out on a fairly regular grid, the central part of Thessaloniki grew up virtually unplanned. Five main arteries traverse the city from end to end, from Vardari to the line of today’s Ethnikis Amynis street. These same arteries still cross it today, only now they have been broadened and straightened, in accordance with the new town plan. These central arteries - Kassandrou, Agiou Dimitriou, Egnatia, Tsimiski and Nikis (or "molos", the quay, as it was called then) - were paved with regular blocks of grey stone. The others, the intermediate and cross streets linking these main arteries, formed a veritable labyrinth of cobbled lanes in which a stranger could easily lose his sense of direction.

Some of the larger of these cross streets, Agias Sophias and Venizelou, for example, were wider than the others, and tended to be distinctly straighter.

The only street that was absolutely straight was the one today called Ethnikis Amynis, a new avenue built in the days of Sultan Hamid, which sliced through the city from the Evangelistria Cemetery to the White Tower. In the latter years of the Ottoman period, a row of sturdy two-storey buildings were erected on the left (west) side, to house a variety of public services. This street, metalled, retained its older architectural aspect until well into modern times. Eventually the old houses on the east side gave way to modern multi-storey buildings, and in the wake of the 1978 earthquake the same fate overtook those on the west.

This vast labyrinth of narrow streets concealed a host of Byzantine churches. Their presence was marked by the tall minarets that resembled nothing so much as a grove of lofty white cypresses. Needless to say, almost all the Byzantine churches had been converted by the Turks into mosques, their mosaics and frescoes either destroyed or thickly plastered over and many of them rendered misshapen by extraneous additions.

Today, outstanding scientists and experts in the field of Byzantine art are uncovering the masterpieces of these anonymous Byzantine artists and restoring the monuments to their exquisite original form.

Thessaloniki was often described as a Jewish city. And indeed, although its Greek element, sovereignly diffused throughout the whole city, gave its cosmopolitan character a distinctive Hellenic flavour, nonetheless its Jewishness, with its purely picturesque elements, was much in evidence in various social circumstances.

The Jews occupied central areas of the city, in cohesive communities that extended over entire quarters. The area between Agia Sophia and the Kapani market, now traversed by Ermou Street, was a patchwork of Jewish houses and shops.

B etween the Kamara and Agiou Dimitriou Street, was the working class neighbourhood known as Kambos (= the Flats), and farther down, towards the Hippodrome, were the parishes of St Constantine and Nea Panagia. There were also other solidly Greek quarters in the eastern part of the city, from the parishes of Agia Triada and Analipsi to the Dépôt district. The Turkish community occupied the heights, from Agiou Dimitriou Street to the Byzantine fortress.

Let it not be thought, however, that these parts of the city were closed areas, belonging exclusively to a single ethnic community. There were Greek houses everywhere in the city, and Turkish and Jewish houses in the Greek quarters.

The old houses were generally two-storeyed, rarely three, with a heavy stone wall at the base. The second / third storey would be half-timbered, with overset masonry separating the elements of a wooden framework. This kind of masonry was called "bolmès". Another common method of constructing walls was the lath-and-plaster system, where a lattice of wooden strips was covered with a mixture of plaster and fine straw. The upper part of the house almost always projected beyond the lower, the overhang being supported by stout wooden timbers. The plaster finish was painted in a variety of colours, most commonly indigo, peach or ochre.

Of course there were also "modern" houses, as we would call them today, built of brick over an iron skeleton, but these on the whole were few and far between. One area where there were many such houses was in the section below Egnatia towards the sea, between Vardari and Venizelou. This was the city’s commercial district, where the larger shops were, the banks, the tobacco warehouses, the agents for foreign companies, almost all the hotels. Venizelou Street, although different then, was - as it still is - the centre of the draper’s trade. Along it stood the multi-storey department stores - Türing’s, Oroshdimpak, Stein’s. Like their European counterparts, where you could find the most diverse articles, from sewing needles to double-barrelled shotguns and from ready-made suits to Viennese chairs. Known as the "Frankish Quarter", this intensely cosmopolitan part of the city was a veritable crossroad of the nations, its Frankish character accented by the presence of the Catholic Church, French Hospital and the Ecole des Frères.

One might have assumed that the city’s three main population groups, the Jews, the Greeks and the Turks, lived separately in their own areas, as if in entrenched camps. In fact, in their commercial and occupational relations all these communities intermingled, created relations with parallel or conflicting interests, frequently clashing with one another in the struggle for survival. There were, however, certain trades and certain commercial activities that, by some unspoken agreement, were reserved virtually exclusively to one group or another.

The trades of baker and builder, for example, were essentially a prerogative of the Christian community. The shops that sold dairy products, known in those days as "yoghurt shops" or "halvah shops", were run by the Albanians. These businesses also had their street vendors: Albanians in coarse narrow woollen breeches, towel fastened around their waist, would walk the cobblestone lanes selling their halvah from the large round wooden trays carried on their heads. In the winter, these same Albanian vendors would make the rounds of the houses early in the morning, selling mugs of steaming hot salepi liberally sprinkled with cinnamon. In the summer you would see them with tall, unusual brass or copper containers resting on their shoulders, from which they would pour - into the glasses hung around their waist in a tin holder - lemonade "bouz yimpi", meaning (in Turkish) "ice cold". These street vendors also sold dondurma (ice cream) and boza (a fermented drink made from millet).

The Jews had a virtual monopoly on haberdashery, porterage, second-hand goods and a number of other trades. In the winter they added a long jubbah, with moth-eaten fur. They walked the streets from morning till evening, carrying their packs of goods -rolls of calico, reels of cotton, packets of buttons, papers of pins- and calling their wares in a monotonous singsong cadence. 

Must See

Old Seafront

Old, beloved and unforgettable, the old waterfront is the warmest and most tender aspect of the North for the rest of Greece.

White Tower

The White Tower, the symbol of Thessaloniki, and a point of reference for the inhabitants and the visitors to the city, is the remnant of

Rotonda

Rotunda is a pericentral construction, unique in Greece.

Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea old seafront
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea White Tower sunset
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea upper town old city Kastra
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea old seafront Alexander the Great statue sunset
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break Bezesteni Karipi street taverna
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break Rotonda Rotunda
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea seafront bicycle sunset
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea old seafront White Tower
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break statue Archaeological museum of Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break Kamara Galerius arch Rotunda Rotonda monuments
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea seafront bicycle walking
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break sea Ladadika Katouni street
Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Greece city break Agios Dimitrios church St Dimitrios Crypt of Agios Demetrios

What to see

Thessaloniki

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia museum byzantine culture

Thessaloniki

Museum of Byzantine Culture

Founded in 1994, this important new Museum is dedicated to the conservation, research and study of features of Byzantine culture to be found in the Macedonian region as a whole and the city of Thessaloniki in particular.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia zongolopoulos umbrellas

Thessaloniki

Zongolopoulos Umbrellas

George Zongolopoulos’ "Umbrellas" were set up on the new waterfront in 1997, when Thessaloniki was the Cultural Capital of Europe.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia trigoniou tower

Thessaloniki

Trigoniou Tower

The Trigonio tower, known as the Artillery, or Chain Tower, dates from the same period as the White Tower.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia statue alexander great

Thessaloniki

Statue of Alexander the Great

The brassbound statue of Alexander the Great is considered to be the highest sculpture of Greece (height 6,15m). It was created by the sculptor Evaggelos Moustakas (1974).

Θεσσαλονίκη Κεντρική Μακεδονία Γεντί Κουλέ

Thessaloniki

Gendi Koule

At the highest point of the city, built amphitheatrically on the slope, we can see the imposing form of the Eptapyrgion (Seven Towers - Gendi Koulé). It covers the north part of the Acropolis.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia palatial complex galerius

Thessaloniki

Palatial complex of Galerius

The palace of Galerius Maximus in Navarinou Square was the administrative and religious centre of Roman Thessaloniki.

Greece Thessaloniki Macedonia athonos square

Thessaloniki

Athonos square

The square was built immediately after the fire of 1917 in the place of an older market. It was one of the important centres of the city since junk shops’ market was placed here.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia Ano Poli Old city Upper Town

Thessaloniki

Ano Poli

Taking the street of the Turkish Consulate upwards, and turning right you will inevitably find yourself shortly in the winding backstreets that seduce you to the Ano Poli (Upper City).

Near Here

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia municipal vlali market

Thessaloniki

Municipal Vlali Market

The Turks once called this area Oun Kapan, which means Flour Bazaar.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia paradise baths bey hamam

Ancient Agora square

Paradise Baths (Bey Hamam)

The Paradise Baths, known as Bey Hamam after the name of their founder Sultan Murat II, who was known with the title of Bey. These double baths - with a men’s and women’s section - were built in 1444.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia church panagia chalkeon

Ancient Agora square

Church of Panagia Chalkeon

The church of Panagia Chalkeon (Our Lady of the Coppersmiths), to the southwest of the ancient market, was built in 1028. Its name could be related to the coppersmiths’ workshops that were found in the vicinity.

Greece Thessaloniki Macedonia egnatia street

Thessaloniki

Egnatia street

Egnatia Street was part of the Roman Via Egnatia that ran from Rome to Constantinople.

Greece Thessaloniki Central Macedonia statue eleftherios venizelos

Thessaloniki

Statue of Eleftherios Venizelos

The statue of Eleftherios Venizelos in Dikastirion Square, right next to Egnatia.

Greece Thessaloniki Macedonia athonos square

Thessaloniki

Athonos square

The square was built immediately after the fire of 1917 in the place of an older market. It was one of the important centres of the city since junk shops’ market was placed here.

Greece Thessaloniki Macedonia aristotelous street

Thessaloniki

Aristotelous street

Dominant element in the organization of the city, according to the Hebrard urban masterplan after the 1917 fire, was the monumental Ethnon avenue (today Aristotelous street).