For many centuries after Athens’ ancient heyday, and before it rose again as the capital of a newly independent Greece in 1833, Thessaloniki was the most important city not only in Greece but in the entire Balkan region. Founded in 315 BC, and named for a half-sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki become one of the first truly cosmopolitan cities in the world, attracting waves of refugees over the centuries: Sephardic Jews in the 15th century, Orthodox Christians from Anatolia in the early 20th century, and refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East today. As the capital of the Greek region of Macedonia, the city lies at the heart of political tensions surrounding Greece’s longstanding dispute with its neighbour, the soon-to-be-renamed Republic of North Macedonia, a few miles to the north.
In 1917, the old city of Thessaloniki was consumed by a devastating fire that left a quarter of the population homeless, destroyed mosques and synagogues, and condemned the city to an uninspiring 20th-century architectural transformation. The relics that have survived that disaster, however, speak of a spectacularly diverse past. The 8th-century Byzantine Hagia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) church is once again in full working order – less palatial than the original in Istanbul, but painstakingly restored with dazzling gold-painted icons. Close by are signs of the earlier Roman occupation (168 BC–476 AD) in the shape of a ragged but clearly defined forum and the imposing fourth-century Rotunda of Galerius.
During the long Ottoman occupation (1430–1912), the city blossomed under a system of government that encouraged diversity. Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 came here at the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II, and became the majority demographic until 1912, when the city fell to Greek forces. The city became known as “the Jerusalem of the Balkans”, dominated by Jewish trade, commerce and real estate and with Ladino (Sephardic Spanish) as its lingua franca. In 1911, just before the Greek takeover, the Zionist David Ben-Gurion visited the city, then known as Salonika, to study it as a model for the future state of Israel.
Sadly, Ottoman relics of the city’s Jewish majority are few. The brick domes of the 16th-century Yahudi Hamam (Jewish Bath House) are the only visible part of an edifice left to crumble. Today, the roughly 1,200 Jews in the city are a mere fraction of the population of less than a century ago; during the Nazi occupation, 54,000 Jews – 96% of the city’s Jewish community – were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Of some 50 synagogues operating in the early 20th century, just three survive today; the main one, the Monastir Synagogue, is guarded by police and open only at select times.
From a Turkish perspective, Thessaloniki is most notable as the birthplace of the founder of the modern republic of Turkey – Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, born in 1881 in a modest house in the city centre. Today his birthplace is a museum stuffed with odds and ends from his adult life, and filled with Turkish tourist-pilgrims at all times.
The city’s Muslim edifices are notably unfrequented and unkempt, despite attempts by the Turkish government to encourage their restoration. The 1467 Hamza Bey mosque was once a magnificent Ottoman structure; subsequently used as a shopping centre, it is theoretically under reconstruction.
The living parts of the city retain their character more strongly than once-grand buildings. The central Kapani market, a covered bazaar formerly occupied by Ottoman traders and craftsmen, is still bustling with people buying vegetables and spices. In Ano Poli, the upper reaches of the city, the houses of the Ottoman elite survived the 1917 fire and still command impressive views. Today, as throughout its history, the seafront is a wonderful place to walk, admiring the White Tower built by the Ottomans to guard the harbour that once ensured the city’s unparalleled diversity, and which still serves as Thessaloniki’s main connection with the outside world.
Thessaloniki in 8 sites
Hagia Sophia church: Eighth-century Byzantine marvel with dazzling gold-painted icons that have recently been restored
Rotunda and Arch of Galerius: Early fourth-century structure that has served as Roman temple, mosque and Orthodox church; the nearby arch is beautifully decorated with carved friezes
Yahudi Hamam: Look for the remaining domes of the original 16th-century structure, built to serve the Sephardic Jews who arrived having fled the Inquisition in Spain
Monastir Synagogue: The city’s only surviving traditional synagogue, consecrated in 1927
Atatürk Museum: Birthplace in 1881 of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, who took the name Atatürk
Hamza Bey mosque: Built in 1467, one of the first mosques constructed here after the Ottoman conquest – now awaiting restoration
Kapani market: Bustling covered market on the site of the original Ottoman bazaar
White Tower: Distinctive round seafront Ottoman tower, probably built in the 16th century to replace a Byzantine defensive structure
Alev Scott is a journalist and writer. Her new book is Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire (riverrun, 2018)