My wife and I have just finished up our week long visit to Thessaloniki. The city is fantastic on a number of levels, and to my mind it’s a wonderful palimpsest—an ideal example of this blog’s inspiration. It comes at you all at once, yet piece by piece. Byzantine churches dominate the modern landscape in strange ways, a reminder of Thessaloniki’s history not only as Byzantium’s second city but also a major Ottoman metropolis since most were converted to mosques during the Ottoman period. Modern squares are filled with cafes and the energy of Thessaloniki’s college students, yet they are often dominated by excavated, Roman remains, a forum here or an imperial palace there, a reminder of the important role the city played in Roman Macedonia economically and politically. Ottoman hammams dot the landscape, and while most are closed to visitors one is in use today as an art gallery (the Bey hammam), a creative blend of the old and the new, and an indication of the renewed interest in the city’s multicultural past. The city’s most famous church, Ayios Demetrios, is built atop the Roman bath in which Demetrios himself was martyred. The church was gutted in the fire of 1917, but restored thereafter, and one can glimpse this 20th century palimpsest quite clearly: the church’s famous early Byzantine mosaics look at you from their perch above the bema, while the modern (reinforced) roof looms above. The city’s great walls, which defended it until they were partially destroyed in the 19th century, take the visitor from late antiquity to Ottoman times. The eastern course is replete with crosses built into the masonry, while the central gate to the acropolis, Eptapyrgio, incorporates several Byzantine relief sculptures and contains an inscription in Arabic noting the tower’s construction in 1431 by Sungur Caus Bey. The same fortress was in use as a prison until the late 1980s. Ano Poli, the upper city (it’s most of what’s left of 19th century Salonica), stretches out below the fortress and its old Turkish homes are being restored in traditional but also creative, modern ways, while interspersed among these are abandoned homes, decaying slowly, archaeology in motion. Finally, the cargo ships floating in the distance, on the horizon, remind the visitor that Thessaloniki today remains a central economic hub for the broader region, a place where the modern cultural and economic currents of the Balkans converge. And the city’s strong local identity (made manifest to any visitor who says he lives in Athens) ensures that this cosmopolis will continue as such, building on its historical foundations during difficult times in Greece.
Some of Thessaloniki’s cultural strength certainly comes from its music scene. Some songs below.
Tsitsanis, Omorfi Thessaloniki (Beautiful Thessaloniki)
Dionysis Savvopoulos, Gennithika sti Saloniki (I was born in Thessaloniki)
Some pics of the landscape:
A wash basin in the Bey Hammam, which is currently being used in connection with the city’s 3rd Biennale of Contemporary Art
Ayios Demetrios on the last day of the saint’s festival (Nov. 2). Here a woman kisses the reliquary that holds the saint’s relics. His relics were returned via a formal procession to their normal resting place in the north aisle of the church on this evening. The church was bursting with people for this event, and the news media were on hand to film it.