Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece, located on the Thermaic Gulf, at the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, with over 1 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. It is a major transportation hub for Greece and south eastern Europe through its port. It is considered to be Greece’s cultural capital, renowned for its festivals and cultural events. It was 2014 European Youth Capital. A close look at Thessaloniki’s location on the map shows that it has always sat on a significant strategic point between Turkey and the countries surrounding the Black Sea on one side and the Balkan Countries and Italy on the other. It is not surprising that it was controlled by both the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire for many centuries during the city’s long history.
Thessaloniki’s strategic position at the top of the Aegean Sea means that humanity has gathered in towns and villages in the area for millennia. The Thermic Gulf mentioned above derives its name from the city, Therma, that existed in the area around the 7th century BCE. Four centuries later, the city of Thessaloniki was founded by King Cassander of Macedon and named after his wife Thessalonike. This is where the famous names of the period are inextricably linked to the history of the period. Thessalonike was daughter to Philip II and half-sister to Alexander the Great who had died in Babylon 8 years before the city was founded. The bust to the right is thought to be that of Alexander, found today in the city’s famous archaeological museum
The Kingdom of Macedon lasted for over a century and a half before it fell to the armies of the Roman Empire. Roman control over Thessaloniki lasted for over 6 centuries and it became the second largest city in the Eastern Empire after Constantinople. The period between 476 and 1430 is generally called the period of Byzantine rule in Thessaloniki but its value to envious rivals over this period meant that the city was regularly attacked and massacres of citizens were often recorded. Things didn’t get any better for life expectancy at the time of the city falling to the Ottoman Empire; it is estimated that about a one-fifth of the city’s population was enslaved. However, Thessaloniki’s strategic position wasn’t reduced under the Ottoman Turks and it continued to be a major imperial city and trading hub.
Ottoman control over Thessaloniki lasted from 1430 to 1912. If these nearly 500 years were a very complex period for the local citizens, the first forty years of the 20th century were a period of continuous tragic disruptions, particularly because of the impacts of World War 1 and 2. The graph on the left summarises the impacts of these events on the citizenry of Thessaloniki. The green line shows that Turkish citizens that were moved out as a result of the post World War 1 conflict with Turkey. The orange line illustrates the results of the NAZI invasion of the city in the 1940s resulting in the rounding up of Jewish citizens and their deadly transfer to concentration camps. Today, unlike throughout its long history, Thessaloniki is a Greek City.
This brief look at Thessaloniki’s long history gives the visitor some idea of the complexity of the city they are visiting. The central districts of Thessaloniki today that front the Thermaic Gulf have many preserved buildings from the different historical eras of this ancient city and to do it justice will require plenty of time. We stayed in Thessaloniki for three nights at the Excelsior Hotel which is indicated by the red star on the map above, not far from Aristotelous Square. It was a great base for our three days of exploration of Thessaloniki. We wandered the city in between our day trips to places like Vergina and Amphipolis but I was left with the feeling that a return visit was necessary to do justice to this fascinating place.
The list of potential sites here for a visit to Thessaloniki gives the visitor a suggested itinerary for 3 or 4 days visit to the city. It is important to note here that the ‘monuments’ of Thessaloniki have been declared World Heritage Sites. The organisation’s website states…
“Thessaloniki is an open Museum of Early Christian and Byzantine Art. In 1988 the UNESCO declared World Heritage Sites 15 of the ‘finest monuments’ of the city, representative samples of this period of its history. The Walls of Thessaloniki, the churches, monasteries and Byzantine baths, included in the UNESCO list, all creations of unique architecture and rare religious art, considered that have such and so high cultural importance, that it is necessary to be preserved in the historical memory of the entire humanity” (https://whc.unesco.org).
Given the scattered nature of the UNESCO list, I have decided to start the suggested itinerary with the Roman period of occupation of the city.
For many years the two key tourist Roman monuments in Thessaloniki were the Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius but archaeological excavations over the last 10 years has shown that these two sites are best visited understanding that they were part of the Galerius Palace complex that covered a large part of the city centre of Thessaloniki, all the way to the port. The image below models the extent of the palace, much of which is still under the buildings of modern Thessaloniki.
The Roman Emperor Galerius was Emperor from 305 to 311 CE. It was a busy time in the Empire with not only pressure from Persian armies to the east but huge numbers of displaced ‘barbarians’ moving in from the Caucusus and northern Europe. The ruling structures of the Empire were also in serious decline with competing Emperors and ‘Caesars’. In his six year rule of the Empire, Galerius had time to build at least two palaces in the region, one in Thessaloniki and one in Serbia. I am not sure whether he was able to spend much time enjoying either of his palatial retreats.
Unlike most of the Palace of Galerius, the Rotunda as it is generally called, has been visible and functional ever since it was constructed. It is thought that it was originally built as a mausoleum for Galerius. However its original function idn’t play out; after a painful illness (perhaps bowel cancer), he was buried at Gamzigrad in Croatia in 311CE. During his reign, the spread of Christianity had begun and it was only 2 years later that Constantine I issued an edict of toleration for Christians. By the end of the fourth century, the cycle of religious usage of the Rotunda began with the building being consecrated as the Christian Church of Archangelon. Part of this transition was the decoration of the internal walls of the Rotunda with many gorgeous mosaics.
A millennium or so later it was converted to the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi and a minaret added. During the mayhem around the time of World War I, the inevitable departure of Turkish influence in Thessaloniki meant that the Rotunda was dedicated as an Orthodox Church. The curious nod to the past in this process meant that the minaret was left standing. Today this building is now used as a sculpture Museum but it is also used on special festival days by the Orthodox Church as the Church of St George.
Visiting the Arch of Galerius as a stand alone monument today can be a little confusing as its link to the Rotunda and the rest of what was ancient Thessaloniki is unclear. However if one understands the context of the arch as being built on the main roadway (Via Egnatia) that led eventually all the way to Byzantium (future Constantinople and Istanbul) and was the gateway to the Palace Complex, its function makes much more sense.
By arriving at the palace through the Arch, the visitor couldn’t but be impressed by the display of marble panels on the original eight pillars of the gateway that showed various aspects of Galerius’s victory as a General in 299 CE over Sarses, the emperor of the Persian Empire. It was the equivalent of modern political advertising. The panel shown below apparently illustrates Galerius confronting the Persian Emperor in a direct encounter on the battlefield and clearly dominating his opponent. The Emperor’s PR department would have spent considerable time explaining to the sculptor the image that was needed to promote the popularity of Galerius. On the sculptured panel above the figure of Galerius is an eagle bearing a wreath of victory…to make clear to the viewer who was the hero in this battle!
To visit the excavations of the rest of the Galerius Palace Complex, from the Arch of Galerius the visitor would head directly towards the waterfront to Navarino Square where the excavation entrance is to be found. Almost 1800 years have passed since the Palace was one of the centres of the Roman Empire and so, much of the remains lie underneath the modern city as the map to the right illustrates. One of the many disasters that occurred in 20th century Thessaloniki was the 1917 fire that destroyed much of the city. There were no blessings for the citizens of the city at the time, but at the very least, it was a harsh way of arranging some modern town-planning. It also brought to the surface ruins of past Thessaloniki and enabled rebuilding that acknowledged their Roman past such as Galerius’s Palace complex.
The map of the excavations to the left shows some of the main rooms of the complex that are able to be viewed. Perhaps the most interesting of these buildings is the Octagon of which there are significant sections of the walls remaining. This large building was excavated between 1950 and 1981. The research from this process suggests that it functioned as an audience hall or throne room. It also shows that work was suspended with Galerius’s death and began again when Constantine became Emperor. It also functioned as a Christian Church after its use by Roman authorities declined. It lasted in use until the 7th century when earthquakes struck Thessaloniki and it suffered the same fate as so many other buildings in the city.
Like all major Roman cities, Thessaloniki boasted a hippodrome, a horse and chariot racing venue that was built beside the Palace of Galerius and just inside the double walls of the city. It was a place where the citizens could gather and vent their support or fury for Galerius who could enter his private box directly from his palace. The only remains of the hippodrome are found in the basements of the buildings built above it today. One of the ghastly stories told about the Hippodrome comes from 390 CE when the towns folk objected to the treatment of one of their favourite charioteers. There was a riot in the hippodrome against the Gothic guards and they killed their commander. Unfortunately, the crowd was trapped in the hippodrome and with no escape possible, around 7000 Thessalonians were massacred by the mercenaries under the orders of the Emperor Theodosius. Unsurprisingly, the Hippodrome was no longer an attractive venue for the locals and it fell into disuse and ruin. There is probably a moral from this story for modern football crowds objecting to referee decisions.
The map of Thessaloniki in the early parts of this article shows by its arrows some of the main sites of the city that are definitely worth a visit. I have concentrated on Roman ruins so far in this article but for the visitor who has visited the excavations of the Palace buildings of Galerius, it is only a short walk down to one of the main symbols of Thessaloniki (that is not of Roman origin), the White Tower. As the model of the Hippodrome area above illustrates, the Romans built a defensive wall along the waterfront of the city. This was no doubt continued during the period of the Byzantine Empire but once the Ottoman Turks captured Thessaloniki, the city walls were rebuilt. The White Tower is all that remains in this section of the city of the harbour’s defensive walls, built around 1530. Rather than defending seaward attacks, it was mainly used as a prison. Tourists can visit the tower and gain the great views from the ramparts. It also houses the Museum of Byzantine Culture with exhibits from around 300 to 1430 CE.
From the White Tower it would be foolish not to turn left along the foreshore and have a quick look at the equestrian statue of Alexander the Great on his famous horse Bucephalus. From here it would be good to head back towards the White Tower and stroll along the seafront until you reach Aristotelous Square. This is probably the main square of Thessaloniki and is probably another unexpected gift of the tragedy of the 1917 fire. It was designed in 1918 but took quite a few years before it gained the surrounding buildings and the resulting atmosphere of today’s square. This is where all the major public events of the city take place such as Christmas and New Year celebrations as well as cultural and political events
Heading NNE out of the city’s modern civic square, the visitor should walk directly away from the sea-front for a few blocks and arrive at the centre of civic life in Roman Thessaloniki. This is the Roman Forum or Agora and was a gathering and market place for the citizens of the city. It was developed in the second century at the intersection of two main streets. Large sections of the forum were excavated in 1966 and so the visitor can have a significant stroll around the site. A highlight of the forum is a restored theatre that can be seen below in the image on the right.
APPENDIX 1: MODELING THE GALERIUS PALACE COMPLEX
Interested in viewing some creative modelling of what the Galerius Palace Complex originally looked like ?
The galerian complex.A visual tour
The Palace Complex of Galerius. Thessaloniki. 4th century AD.
APPENDIX 2: Thessaloniki – UNESCO Monuments Route
In this article, I have covered the Roman monuments of Thessaloniki. If you are interested in the early Churches of the city as well as other Byzantine monuments, the link below is great coverage of the sites that make up the reasons for UNESCO’s listing of Thessaloniki as a World Heritage city.
Two other fabulous Greek Macedonian towns that we visited from Thessaloniki.