Talk of Greek cities immediately conjures the bright lights of Athens, but for the discerning traveller Thessaloniki reveals a depth of history and a cultural and spiritual atmosphere altogether different.
Positioned on the Via Egnatia, linking Rome and Constantinople, Thessaloniki has been an important city throughout the centuries and has been receiving wanderers, mystics, refugees and scholars for over 2000 years. The itinerant St Paul passed through Thessaloniki in the 1st century, sowing the seeds of Christianity and becoming the first to lend a hallowed air to the city. In the 4th century Dimitrios, a recent convert to the new faith, was martyred during the persecutions of Emperor Galerius.
Dimitrios became the city’s patron saint: his repeated heavenly interventions are said to have saved Thessaloniki from Slavic armies during the Dark Ages. The cathedral of Ayios Dimitrios (open daily) remains the spiritual centre of the city for locals, its architecture, mosaics and crypt all dating from different eras. Nearby the Rotunda (Plateia Agiou Georgiou), was built by Galerius, the emperor responsible for running Dimitrios through with spears. One of the Thessaloniki’s oldest surviving buildings, the Rotunda, is symbolic in that – like the city – it has morphed through different identities: from pagan temple it became a church, then a mosque, museum and now an art space.
The adjacent Arch of Galerius (off Via Egnatia), built after the emperor’s victory over the Persians, casually pops up amid modern apartment blocks. In years past, local tradition said that to approach the arch from the wrong direction would bring bad luck. This is just one example of the local superstitions and mystical ambience of Thessaloniki. During the Greek civil war there were reports of saints, neatly attired in suits and white shirts, arriving at the railway station then catching taxis around town.
In earlier centuries, Muslim Sufis were attracted to Thessaloniki, often making pilgrimages to the crypt of Ayios Dimitrios, who they revered as Casim. One traveller observed these Muslim holy men as “always in the company of Greek monks”: it seems the air of tolerance that reined in the city meant that adherents of different faiths could find common ground. In the Ano Poli (Upper Town), a neighbourhood of cobbled lanes, squares and atmospheric dead ends, are the remains of Sufi tombs.
A local legend has it that as late as the 1930s the spirit of Musa Baba, a Sufi mystic, could regularly be seen here wandering near his crypt. Also in the Upper Town are the Monastery of Vlatadon, a leafy retreat from the bustle of the modern metropolis, and the Church of Osios David, dating from the 5th century and boasting dazzling mosaics. In these quiet havens, the visitor gets a sense of the spiritual life of the city. In 9th century Thessaloniki, Saints Cyril and Methodios, developed the Cyrillic script and their religious conviction saw them set out to convert the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe.
After 1492, Thessaloniki became a city of sanctuary for Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain by the Catholic kings. The city became known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Streets buzzed with conversations in the Ladino dialect, and the Jews continued Cyril and Methodius’s tradition of scholarship, setting up the first printing press in southeastern Europe.
The Jewish chapter of Thessaloniki’s history was significant. By the mid 16th century, Jews made up more than half the city’s population. During Ottoman rule different communities wore different colours, Muslims with white turbans, Greek Christians with blue head gear and Jews with yellow. Such was the mix of peoples that the city had no official language: on the streets travellers reported hearing a babble of Greek, Turkish, Ladino, Slavic dialects, Armenian, French and Italian. The Jewish community sprouted its own share of mystics and superstitions.
In 1666, Sabbatai Zevi claimed to be the Messiah, and won large numbers of adherents, but he was soon forced to convert to Islam and was banished to Albania. The city’s Jewish episode abruptly ended with the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, the Jewish Museum (Agoiu Minou 13) records that colourful but tragically lost era, while the Molho Bookshop (Tsimski 10) is one of few surviving pre-WWII Jewish businesses and a great bookshop to boot.
A disastrous fire in 1917 destroyed many historical buildings, nonetheless, Thessaloniki became a haven for Greeks left homeless after the population exchanges with Turkey in the 1920s. This was a time of hardship and suffering but the arrivals brought new life to the city, and with it an increasingly Greek flavour, albeit with Anatolian influences. In the taverns of the harbourside Ladadika neighbourhood the rhythms and melodies of rebetika took shape. The precinct is now a busy area of bars, nightclubs and restaurants, while the waterfront strip of Leoforos Nikos boasts a lively cafe scene where the students of Aristotle University and locals congregate for daily gossip and evening promenades.
From here, the visitor can look out at the harbour lights, hear the animated babble of Greek and acknowledge one of Europe’s most under-appreciated but most enduring cities. For modern travellers, Thessaloniki has regular flights to Athens, Limnos and Mytilini, ferry connections to Skiathos, Skopelos, Lesvos and Chios, and is well connected to the rest of Europe by rail and mainland Greece by bus.