Thursday, April 12, 2012

The History
  • A centuries-old city
Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by one of the epigones of Alexander the Great, Kassandros (Cassander), who united 26 small towns and villages, the most important of which was Thermi, hence Thermaikos, the name of the Gulf, on which Thessaloniki lies.

In 148 BC, Macedonia succumbed to the Romans and Thessaloniki became the capital of Provincia Macedonia.

In 303 AD, the Roman Emperor Galerius settled permanently in the city and bequeathed it with the so-called Galerius complex, which included a Palace, the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda of St George, which have survived to date.

In 322 AD, a port was constructed and Thessaloniki thrived and grew in importance, during the times of the Byzantine Empire, becoming second only to the capital Constantinople.

The city came under siege many times, from Slavs, Goths, Pechenegs, Franks and Venetians among others; in 1430, it yielded to the Ottoman armies and remained under Ottoman rule until 1912.

Following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, many Iberian Jews settled in Thessaloniki, with the largest numbers arriving in 1492-3 and 1536. Thus, in the 16th-18th centuries, Thessaloniki housed one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, with a solid rabbinical tradition.

 Thessaloniki was also the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatourk, the founding father of Modern Turkey, and of Nazim Hikmet, one of its greatest poets of last century.

In the second part of the 19th century, multi-ethnic Thessaloniki (Salonica, Selanik, Solun) became a major manufacturing hub in the Ottoman Empire and the third biggest port together with Beirut, after Istanbul and Izmir. Its growth was helped by its location, at the crossroads of civilizations and empires, the Balkan hinterland, the development of transport and communication routes.
At the turn of the 20th century, it also became the locus of events that had wider implications for the region (1908 – Young Turks movement, the awakening of Ottoman and Balkan Socialism, the founding of the Socialist Labour Federation, the Balkan Wars (1912-3).

In 1912, following the victorious Greek army’s entry into the city, Thessaloniki became part of the modern Greek state, while retaining its multiethnic character.

  •  Thessaloniki between 1912-2012
The First Balkan War broke out in October 1912 and by the end of the month (October 27) Thessaloniki was captured by the Greek army. When World War I broke out, it was in Thessaloniki that the so-called “National Schism” between Venizelos government and King Constantine was played out, over which side of the warring powers Greece would support. Eventually, Venizelos’s side carried the day: Greece, after joining the forces of the Entente against the Central Powers, was on winning side at the end of the war.
In 1917 a fire which broke out accidentally destroyed three quarters of the old town; the Jewish community of the city was worst affected as the fire consumed its historic quarters, leading to massive Jewish emigration.

Out of the ashes a new city began to emerge according to a plan which swept away the oriental features of Thessaloniki and transformed it into the modern European metropolis that it is today.
In the 1920s, emigration, population exchanges and the influx of thousands of ethnic Greek refugees who fled to Greece, following the Asia Minor debacle of 1922 changed the demographic characteristics of the city, whose population was predominately Greek (75%) at the end of the ‘30s. The refugees brought with them the aroma of the East, together with their food culture, their music, and customs, which blended harmoniously with city’s already multi-cultural tradition.

The wave of refugees also contributed to the city’s and surrounding area’s industrial development, followed by increased worker militancy, a high moment of which was the 1936 strike, put down ruthlessly by the police and the gendarmerie, leaving 12 dead and over 30 people badly-wounded. The event was commemorated by poet Yiannis Ritsos in his poem, Epitaph.

"I drew youth from your youth and to boot, I could even smile. 
 Old age never daunted me and death I could disregard. 
But now where can I hold my ground? Where can I find shelter? 
I'm stranded like a withered tree in a plain buried in snow."
   [ Translated by Amy Mims] 

The German occupation was another turning point for Thessaloniki. On April 9, the Nazis entered Thessaloniki, which remained under German jurisdiction for the rest of the occupation.

The horrors of war and occupation dawned upon Thessaloniki as was the case in many other parts of Greece. Particularly daunting was the fate of the city’s Jewish community. In 1943, the Germans carried out a policy of elimination of the Jewish element.

Between March and August, almost the entire Jewish community of Thessaloniki (around 50,000 people) was deported to Auschwitz from where few survivors returned.

After the war, Thessaloniki was rebuilt with large-scale development of new infrastructure and industry throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Many of its architectural treasures still remain intact, adding value to the city as a tourist destination.

In 1997, it was celebrated as European Capital of Culture, sponsoring events across the city and the region, while in 2004 the city hosted a number of the football events as part of the 2004 Summer Olympics.

-Mazower, Mark, Salonica. City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, London: Harper Perennial, 2005
-Veinstein, Gilles, Salonique, 1850-1918. "La ville de Juifs" et le Reveil des Balkans, Paris: Editions Autrement, 1992