You might claim to know Thessaloniki; you might have dwelled there, walked around the streets and neighbourhoods, loved the food and people, absorbed the laid-back culture. Even if this is the case, you would still have trouble recognising the city as depicted in this photo from the 1860s with the city’s celebrated esplanade enclosed in the coastline walls that surrounded it until 1870. The photo surfaced on Facebook in a group aptly called ‘Old Photos of Thessaloniki’. Uploaded by group member Zacharias Semertzidis, who labelled it as the only photographic depiction of the Thessaloniki seaside before the demolition of the wall, the photo was hailed as a ‘Holy Grail’ by history enthusiasts who delved into speculation.

The photo was taken by the Abdullah brothers (known as the Abdullah Freres), legendary Armenian photographers Viken (1820-1902), Hovszep (1830-1908) and Kevork (1839-1918) Abdullah, who had been active for more than 40 years in Istanbul, operating a studio in Pera from 1858 to 1867 (when they sold it to photographer Nicolas Andreiomenos) and becoming the official photographers of the sultan’s court. It was found in the National Archives of Hungary, labelled ‘Szaloniki’, as part of an album of 31 photos of Istanbul showcased at the 1867 International Exposition of Paris, and purchased by the noble Austro-Hungarian Festetics family.

Despite the excitement of the new discovery, many challenged that the city depicted is in fact, Thessaloniki, given that it bears next to no resemblence to the city we know today. The photo is believed to have been taken from the top of the White Tower; some members of the Facebook group tried to compare it with modern photos, looking for landmarks. Others used Google Earth photos taken from the same angle as verification and identified the mountain skyline. Others confirmed it using different means, identifying the mosques marked by the minarets, such as the Kadı Kemal (Lonca Camii). More elements, other photos, press clippings, and so on were added, slowly confirming the authenticity of the Abdullah Freres photo, which serves as testament of the fleeting nature of things that are seemingly concrete. The 1867 Thessaloniki was radically transformed over the following decades. The walls, which were slowly eroding, and never considered to be very strong (they were easily overcome by the Saracenes in 904 AD) were demolished under order of the sultan, for reasons of public health; for one, the neighbourhood behind them were slums, inhabited by working-class people; on the other hand, they were preventing airflow within the city.

Demolition began in 1869 and lasted until the first decade of the 20th century. The walls gave way to the ‘modern’ pier the sultan had envisioned and the debris was used to pave the still-standing Nikis Avenue. The inner city was also permanently changed after the fires of 1890 and 1917. Traces of the walls still exist in parts of the city, most notably behind the local courthouse.