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The Two Faces of Thessaloniki: Volumes in the History of the City
The Two Faces of Thessaloniki: Volumes in the History of the City
A steady and unbroken development lasting more than twenty-three centuries is an unusual phenomenon in the history of a city. Thessaloniki is one of the few European cities which can boast a long and, at the same time, continuous history. Moreover, in this case, there are some additional features which characterize the history of only a few Greek cities which have remained unchanged throughout the history of the city despite turbulent economic, social and demographic urban change. In the following brief historical review we will try to present concisely all the facts which are considered to be the main components of the history of this Macedonian capital.
A long time before the establishment of the city, the entire gulf of Thermaikos was dotted with long-standing settlements of people. Up until today, seven of those prehistoric settlements have been found in the area, which proves that this area has been inhabited since the fifth or the sixth millennium BC. Moreover, the excavation findings certify the uninterrupted presence of these settlements throughout the Ancient and Classical era as well as the close financial and cultural relations between the inhabitants of this area with the rest of Greece.
The real history of Thessaloniki begins around 315/316 BC. when Kassandros, the then leader and a later King of Macedonia (the husband of Alexander the Great's sister) united 26 neighbouring settlements into a larger new town, which was named after his wife. The new town was situated in an exceptional geographical and strategical position. That was the end of the long Axios valley, which later, during the Roman and the Byzantine Period as well as throughout the years of Turkish domination, permitted access to central Europe through the neighbouring valley of Morava and the River Danube. Furthermore, to the southwest, Thessaloniki was open to the Aegean Sea, the main sea-route that had been used for centuries to reach the Greek colonies on the coast of Ionia and the large commercial centres of the eastern Mediterranean. The position of the city in combination with the rich Macedonian inland and the historic elements, developed within such a short time, contributed to the rapid development of Thessaloniki. The new city soon became a "metropolitan" centre and has retained this profile throughout its entire history.
Despite its metropolitan character, Thessaloniki did not become the capital city, neither in Kassandros' time nor later. It always remained " the second most important city " or
"the joint capital" except for some brief periods of time. Although it was not the first city in rank, Thessaloniki had other advantages. Being situated far away from the main centres of authority, it maintained much of its political independence. So, since Hellenistic times there was the institution of the local government authorities, which survived even after the Roman occupation and, as we will see later, over the following periods of its history.
However, due to its geographical position and its history, the city of Thessaloniki became the link between western Europe and the northern Balkans, on the one side, and the "eastern Greek world" on the other. This was the most important role that the city had played since its foundation. Being influenced by both sides, Thessaloniki inevitably acquired a two-faced character: facing two different directions, like the Roman god Janus, it was exposed to various influences in the fields of economics, society, culture and philosophy.
This role was made obvious after the Roman conquest (168-148BC), when the city of Thessaloniki became, at first, the capital of a vast administrative district called "Provincia Macedonia" (which consisted of the area of Macedonia as well as an area extending from Evros to Illyria), and later the most important road junction of "via Egnatia" (an important road which connected the Adriatic with Thrace and Roman conquests in Asia Minor.) Moreover, from the second half of the 3rd Century BC onwards, Thessaloniki became the base of operations for the Empire's expeditions against the Goths and other races. The walls of the city as well as the glorious monuments (such as Rotonda, the Arch of Gallerius, the Octagonal Palace, etc), which were constructed at the beginning of the 4th Century, speak volumes about the city's military and administrative development during that period.
The vital position of Thessaloniki within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, along with the fact that it had been inhabited since the Hellenistic times by a large number of Jews prompted the Apostle Paul to visit Thessaloniki in 50/51A.D. and 57A.D. to preach Christianity. So, Thessaloniki, along with Philippi and Veria, became the "golden gate" for the introduction of the new religion to Europe and the seat of the first Christian "church" in Europe. This "church" soon revealed eminent and distinguished persons and high-ranking Christian martyrs, such as the later Patron Saint of Thessaloniki, Dimitrios (305 A.D.). The transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to ancient Byzantine and the foundation of Constantinople (330 A.D.) was a new "challenge" for Thessaloniki - perhaps the biggest in its long history: Thessaloniki was to grow to become the second largest centre in the Empire (after Constantinople) and was to become the most important administrative and military centre of the European dominations of the Empire. That explains the first systematic building works on the walls of the city (end of 4th -beginning of 5th Century) and the subsequent repairs (in the 6th, 7th, 10th, 13th and 14th Centuries). The fortifications of Thessaloniki ("the unbreakable walls" according to a well-known stone sign found on the square tower on the east wall, were the second in rank after the walls of Constantinople both in size and importance, and were proved to be of vital importance many times: up until the first decades of the 15th Century the city had been besieged many times both from the north (inland) and from the south (seaward) by various invaders, such as the Goths (end of the 4th Century), the Arabs, the Slavs (end of the 6th- beginning of the 7th Century) and, in particular, the Bulgarians (from the end of the 9th until the beginning of the 13th Century) as well as the Arabs in 904 A.D., the Catalans in 1308A.D., the Normans in 1185 A.D., the Franks in 1204 and the Ottomans in 1387,1391-1403, and 1430).
However, the most important periods of Thessaloniki's history during the Byzantine period were peaceful and productive. First of all, the traditional institution of the "communities", which, as mentioned above, had been formed and established during Hellenistic and Roman times, was preserved. This relative autonomy - which was maintained during the periods of both short-lived and long-lasting foreign domination such as the Latin occupation (1204-1224), the Venetian occupation (1423-1430) and, most significantly of all, the Turkish occupation (1423-1912) - was connected with the prosperous economy of Thessaloniki. The radiance of the city as a prosperous economic centre is proven by the great trade fair, which took place once a year at the end of October and was called "Dimitria" after the martyr Dimitrios, the Patron Saint of the city. During this fair, a host of traders and peddlers not only from the Byzantine state but also from other areas in southeastern and eastern Europe, or even from regions "beyond the Alps" and "the land of the Celts" gathered here.
The financial bonds between Thessaloniki and the neighbouring people favoured the cultural approach of the Byzantine people with their neighbours, especially with the Slavs. So, it was not accidental that the Byzantine Emperors used Thessaloniki as a base for their cultural and diplomatic missions to the Slavs. The most outstanding figures in this attempt were the Greek missionaries Konstantinos-Kyrilos and Methodios "the guides of the Slavs", who worked during the 9th Century first around the Black Sea and later in central and southeastern Europe.
Naturally, that was not irrelevant to the cultural status of the people of Thessaloniki. Despite the various internal crises and the external threats, the town never stopped being one of the greatest intellectual and cultural centres of the eastern Mediterranean, "the first town after the capital". This fact becomes more important if we take into account that after the conquest of the great cultural centres in the East by the Arabs, Constantinople tended to monopolize all of the intellectual, cultural and artistic activities in the Empire. However, the cultural history of Thessaloniki in the Byzantine Period reveals a paradox. Although the 13th, 14th and the beginning of the 15th Century was a difficult period for the capital, Constantinople, not just because of the successive invasions but mainly because of the violent internal religious and social disturbances, they were a "golden era" for Thessaloniki both in the field of Arts (especially in architecture and religious painting) and Philology. For example, some excellent churches of original architecture and with remarkable wall-paintings were built in Thessaloniki during the 14th Century while the Zealots movement was taking place. During approximately the same period, a great number of both unknown and well-known writers of theological, philosophical, philological, historical, rhetorical, poetical and juridical works appeared in the town, which was called "mother of the orators" and "the Helicon of the Muses", by the Byzantine scholars of the 14th Century.
This "flourishing" ended after the stabilization of the Ottomans in Macedonia and Thrace and especially after the conquest of Thessaloniki by the Turks on the 29th of March 1430. The fall of Thessaloniki opened a long-lasting period of occupation and it bodes ill for the town and its population. opened a long-lasting period of occupation andit bodes ill for the town and its population "metropolitan" centre of Macedonia and of a large part of the Balkans. Moreover, Thessaloniki, as opposed to other well-known Greek towns which went into decline after the Turkish conquest, distinguished itself as the "second" largest city in the empire and as the first urban centre of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. So, only half a century after its conquest, Thessaloniki showed the first signs of demographic recovery: its population, which had dramatically reduced during the siege, again started to increase. A lot of Christians from Chalkidiki, central and western Macedonia, and other areas such as Ipiros and Thessalia, moved and settled in Thessaloniki. In that way, the main part of the population, the Greeks, which had survived over the many centuries of the city's history, was strengthened and survived.
In any case, the population of Thessaloniki rose sharply at the end of the 15th Century and during the first few decades of the 16th Century. This increase was followed by a radical change in the demographic and religious composition of the city. As happened in many other large commercial centres in the Ottoman Empire, several thousands of Jewish fugitives, whose largest group arrived from Spain and Southern Italy (the Spanish speaking "Sephardim") arrived in Thessaloniki. So, several decades after the Ottoman conquest, Thessaloniki started to regain -and as time went by to surpass- its previous population and regain its metropolitan character.
The economic development of the city during the Turkish occupation follows a similar pattern. Over the first century following the conquest, there was economic stagnation and retrogression. However, after the Jews settled in the town, the picture changed as they brought with them many cultural elements from the West. (Thessaloniki had always been influenced culturally by the West as well as by the East and all these different influences combined beneficially. However, there were times, such as the period shortly before the Jews arrived, when this was not possible). Furthermore, the Jews had had a long experience in the fields of trade and small industry. They developed these and they were soon followed by the Greeks, who had preserved several of the traditional small industries from the Byzantine period.
These developments took place in parallel with the commercial incursion of western countries into the markets of the Ottoman Empire, which started to spread from the end of the 16th Century onwards. Thessaloniki played an exceptional role as a mediator at that time. However, this took a long time and it was certainly not until the 18th Century when Thessaloniki started its relations on the international scene. These relations became even closer from the beginning of the 19th Century when the road network in south-east Europe was improved, after the naval blockade of Europe during the Napoleonic wars. All these factors led to the development of an enlarged trade zone of the Northern Greek provinces, and Thessaloniki made its mark as the "commercial"capital and "metropolitan"
centre of an area encompassing Macedonia, Thessalia and Ipiros, as far as the northern Balkans.
From the middle of the 19th Century and up to the beginning of the 20th Century, the city of Thessaloniki entered a new era. Throughout this period, the Ottoman Empire attempted to westernize and, along with the other national and religious minorities within the Empire, to introduce reforms in the economy and society. It could be said that over this period there were more changes in Thessaloniki than during the preceding four centuries of the Ottoman domination. So, by the turn of the 20th Century, Thessaloniki had gas lighting, trams - horse-drawn at first and electric later- telephones, electric lighting, modernised piers in the harbour and, most importantly, its first industries. Over the same period, Thessaloniki established rail links to the north with Skopia through to Belgrade, and from there with central Europe and, to the east, with Adrianople and Constantinople.
The efforts made for the adaptation of Ottoman society to the Western model included some urban planning and architectural improvements. Some ambitious projects, such as the demolition of part of the city walls, the razing of the coastal fortifications (with the exception of the White Tower), the construction of the waterfront, and the widening and paving of some main streets of the city (as, for example, the streets of Egnatia, Tsimiski, Venizelou, Agias Sofias and Ethnikis Aminis) took place then and fundamentally changed the urban design of the city. The construction of public and private buildings, schools, hospital, churches, and the like, in a neoclassical, western architectural style also took place at the same time. Unfortunately, few of these buildings have survived up to the present day.
The belated and rapid process of westernization created many new contradictions and inequalities. However, until the beginning of the 20th Century, the tensions were strictly limited to the different communities (Christian, Jewish and Muslim). That was due to a large extent to the fact that these three religious groups had clearly set different social, ideological and cultural limits. The political development of these three communities was unequal. The Muslims seemed to be the most culturally backward. However, a great deal of them, influenced by the spirit of modernization in Thessaloniki, adopted extremely radical political ideas (compared to the teachings of Islam). These ideas were clearly of European origin. So, it is not coincidental that some of the most important proponents of Turkish nationalism expressed their views in public here, and Thessaloniki finally became the ideological centre of the Young Turks movement.
The historical relations between the Jews and the Ottoman regime, the fact that the economic interests of the extensive Jewish trade and large industrial companies were highly dependent on the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire as well as the absence of any prospects for the creation of a state, made it easy for the Jews to approach the Muslims, and especially the Young Turks. This approach was also facilitated by the fact that both sides had close relations with the Masonic lodge as well as by the contacts between the Islamized Jews (who were called "donmedi") and the leaders of the Young Turks movement. However, Turkish-Jewish cooperation was finally ended with the rise of the Zionist movement and, in particular, with the prevalence of the extreme Turkish nationalists.
The ideological trends of the Greek people in Thessaloniki over that period were determined not only by the long-standing confrontation with the Turks but also by the multi-faceted competition (cultural and political) with the other Christian nations in the Balkans. The Greek element of the population in Thessaloniki, due to its superiority in numbers as well as in the fields of the economy and culture, was not seriously threatened within the city by the much smaller number of Bulgarians and Serbs, or by the very few Romanians living there. That is why all the political initiatives taken by the Greeks of Thessaloniki aimed mainly at supporting the Greek people in the Macedonian country where the Macedonian War was going on.
The participation of Greeks from Thessaloniki in the Macedonian War(1903-1908) was not the result of a belated national sensitivity but it was the fruit of a long-lasting ideological preparation, which had started before the Revolution in 1821. During the final phase of this process, the Greeks of Thessaloniki developed close bonds with the national centre. This fact played an important role later when Thessaloniki was liberated (26th October / 8th November 1912) and was finally incorporated into the Greek State under the Treaty of Bucharest (28th July / 10th August 1913).
The modern period of Thessaloniki's long history starts with the liberation of the city. Over this period, many aspects of life changed. The first change, beginning after the end of the Ottoman occupation, was the restoration of the dominance of the Greek element of the population within a relatively short period of time and after almost five centuries of demographic confusion. Immediately after the liberation, the Greek community was 39,965 strong, which was the 25.3% of the total number of 157,889 inhabitants of Thessaloniki, compared with the 61,439 Jewish (38.9%), the 45,867 Muslims (29%), 6,263 Bulgarians (3.9%) and 4,364 people of other nationalities (2.7%). However, within a few years, in 1916, the Greek community was in the overall majority with 68,205 people, or 41.33% of the 165,704 inhabitants of the city. The Jewish community had the next largest population with 61,400 members (37%), followed by the Muslim community with 30,000 members (18%). Over the following years these former national and religious proportions completely changed. The radical change in the demographic and ethnological map of Thessaloniki (as well as the whole area of Macedonia) is largely due to the exchange of populations between Greece, on one side, and Bulgaria and Turkey on the other (1919-1926). As a result of this exchange - the largest in the history of Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean -the percentage of the Greek element in the whole area of Macedonia increased sharply within a fifteen-year period (reaching 88.3% in 1926) and, of course, in and around Thessaloniki (80%).
The break with the Ottoman past, even in the first years after the liberation, was obvious and it was clearly shown not only by the fact that there was a close connection between Macedonia and the rest of the country in the fields of administration, the economy, justice and education but also by the gradual destruction of the outdated structures from Ottoman society. Besides that, the transition from the Ottoman past to the new reality was particularly evident in the radical changes in the urban planning of Thessaloniki. These changes were in some way brought about by some unpredictable factors, such as the Great Fire of the 5th/18th August 1917, which destroyed the "oriental" character of the largest part of the centre and, up to a point, the general traditional structure of the city. Another factor was arrival of the refugees who, being in great need of housing accommodation, led to an increase in the number building constructions not only in the historic centre but also in the old and new districts of the city. However, the preservation of a significant number of old buildings in the Old Town (Ano Poli) should be attributed to the fact that this area - which was mainly inhabited by Muslims during the Turkish domination - was later inhabited mainly by refugee families.
character of the largest part of the centre and, up to a point, the general traditional structure of the city. Another factor was arrival of the refugees who, being in great need of housing accommodation, led to an increase in the number building constructions not only in the historic centre but also in the old and new districts of the city. However, the preservation of a significant number of old buildings in the Old Town (Ano Poli) should be attributed to the fact that this area - which was mainly inhabited by Muslims during the Turkish domination - was later inhabited mainly by refugee families.
However, there are several other events which altered the conditions in the subsequent history of Thessaloniki. Because of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the partition and distribution of its European areas to the Balkan countries, the activities of the big industrial and trading houses of Thessaloniki were inevitably restricted as the united Balkan market within the limits of the Empire had been disrupted. During the period in between the two World Wars and even later, the Greek government tried to eliminate the negative repercussions that the restriction of the inland areas caused to the economic progress of Thessaloniki. Included in these efforts, we should include the foundation of the International Trade Fair in 1926(which was destined to become the most important, regularly-held economic and trade exhibition in Greece after the Second World War), the development of the port into an international facility, etc. In addition to that, the expansion of arable areas, the irrigation and land reclamation works and the use of machinery in agriculture led - within less than twenty years after the liberation - to a spectacular increase in agricultural production which, along with the cheap refugee labour and the protective tariff policy of the Greek governments, favored the start of industrialization in Thessaloniki.
With the liberation, the rate of cultural progress in Thessaloniki increased.
The changes are obvious in the field of education, and are obvious if we compare the numbers of schools in Thessaloniki at the beginning of the century (86 schools with 13-14,000 approximately students) with the number of schools many years later (785 schools and educational establishments with at least 181,000 students in the academic year 1992-93). It should also be noted that public and private institutions of higher education (mainly technical schools) as well as the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (which was founded in 1926 with 65 only students and which numbers today 60,000 students) and the newly-founded University of Macedonia are not included in the number given above.
Changes did not only take place in the field of education. Within two decades after the liberation there was a general change in the cultural life of the city. In any case, the Greek cultural movement in Thessaloniki had already been growing since the middle of the 19th Century (with the catalytic, as it was later proved) foundation of Greek printing-houses and the edition of magazines, newspapers, and philological and literaty works. At the same time, the formation of a City Orchestra and the foundation (in 1911) of a Music School (the first in the Modern history of Thessaloniki) took place and showed a creditable performance to create a musical Movement in the city. Besides the Greek community, the Jewish and Muslim communities showed similar activity. However, after the incorporation of the city into the Greek state, the cultural variety present during the period of the Ottoman occupation gradually began to disappear and correspondingly the cultural and intellectual life of Thessaloniki was increasingly influenced by the rest of Greece.
This link did not mean a complete identification with the Athenian model. The cultural and artistic potential of Thessaloniki was not only the vehicle of local traditions; it was also influenced by many peculiar factors. That is why the intellectuals and artists of Thessaloniki had, besides the main trends, their own preferences. The local element itself is partly responsible for the "influence" imposed on the Macedonian capital. For example, the foundation of the National Music School in 1915 (which is the only public music school in the country even today) and its staffing with eminent Greek musicians from abroad gave music education in the city its own character for decades. Apart from that, the Aristotle University, which was founded in 1926, and in particular its first and most radical faculty, the Faculty of Philosophy, played a very important role in the creation of a much more liberal cultural and artistic movement - compared to that in the capital concerning the language (members of this University played a leading part in the prevalence of Demotic Greek) and ideology. Besides that, graduates from this University provided the manpower which played the most important role in cultural matters in Thessaloniki during the period between the two World Wars.
The Second World War and the Occupation caused regression in almost every aspect of life in Thessaloniki: financial, social, and cultural. However, the darkest point during that period for the whole of Greece was the persecution and decimation of the population of the city by the occupying force. There were more than 1,500 executions in the city, without calculating the number of mass murders which took place in the areas around Thessaloniki. However, this is nothing compared with the decimation of the Jewish element of Thessaloniki - more than 40,000 people were deported to the death camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau.
Not long after the end of the War in Greece (1940-1944) the Civil War began. Thessaloniki felt the effects of this new tragedy perhaps more than any other place. The civil conflicts in the area of Macedonia caused waves of refugees to the city, increasing unemployment and the chronic difficulties (suffered since before the War) of accommodation and in daily life. Moreover, the spread of civil conflicts in the Balkans in combination with a number of political assassinations which took place in Thessaloniki between 1946 and 1947 (such as the assassinations of Koufitsa-the Deputy Chief of the Security Police- Giannis Zevgos- one of the leading members of the Communist Party- and of George Polk, an American journalist) slowed down the restoration of order. So, for many years even after the end of the Civil War, there were conflicts going on in Thessaloniki, culminating in the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a pacifist member of Parliament in the left-wing Party, in the very centre of the City in May 1963.
Despite the political disorder, the postwar period in the history of Thessaloniki is characterized by an increase in its population. This is obvious in the following table, compiled from the available census data for the period 1940-1991:
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