May 29 – Thessaloniki

THE MANY LIVES OF THESSALONIKI

Adorning Thessaloniki’s seaside promenade is a modern statue of Alexander the Great, sword drawn, facing east to fight the Persians once again.

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Tutored by Aristotle, king at 20, Alexander created one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. Undefeated in battle, he died before his 33rd birthday. Born in Macedonia (whatever that means), Alexander had a half-sister named Thessalonike. When he died, his son was too young to rule. His half-sister’s husband, the famous general Cassander, eventually murdered the prince and his mother, becoming Emperor. He founded the city in 315 BCE and named it after his wife.

The city eventually passed into Roman hands, and when the Empire moved east to Constantinople, so did Thessaloniki’s allegiance. When Byzantine culture emerged, Thessaloniki was one of its jewels, a center of art and commerce. Like most other locations in the Balkans, it went through successive lives, including Ottoman, Jewish, and now Greek.

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Today was a detailed tour through Thessaloniki’s many lives. In the year 300 CE Roman Emperor Galerius ruled here, and had a palace near the Aegean. There isn’t much of it left to see, but he did build a street north to the enormous ornamental Arch of Galerius, half of which still stands on that very same street. The stone carvings of his battle with the Persians (who cower under his horse’s hooves) and his glorious victory speech surrounded by family are as clear as CNN.com today. Imagine walking by these epic stories every single day—as people actually still do today.

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Beyond the arch the processional street north continues, culminating in an enormous round stone temple now called the Rotunda, its walls 20 feet thick. After Galerius died, it stood empty, until emperor Constantine ordered it changed from temple to basilica in 326 CE. Twelve centuries later the conquering Ottomans converted it into a mosque, and 500 years after that the new Greek state took over, which now runs it. It’s bare inside—except for the heart-stopping mosaics Constantine had installed on the dome and curved upper walls. The tiny gold tiles still glint with Constantine’s fervor for his new religion—the single conversion that changed the world from polytheist to Christian.

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I could barely get enough of the Rotunda—and the idea of how the palace-arch-temple dominates today’s downtown, as it did 1700 years ago—but history awaited, and so I headed toward the northern border of the ancient city. In about 390 CE the whole city—even the seaside—was enclosed in thick, high walls by emperor Theodosius (also responsible for the Theodosian walls you may have walked in Istanbul). The Ottomans added towers around the 16th century as part of their century-long quarrel with the Venetians.

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I’m a sucker for ancient walls, so I walked slowly next to them as the day got hotter. Art-warfare-art-warfare seems to be a recurring human motif, doesn’t it? It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge: they consolidate power, create art, defend themselves, create art, and eventually give way to the next guys.
Meanwhile, geography is destiny. The Roman/Byzantine/Ottoman port is still there, the climate is still there, the perfect/awful location is still there—and all are now Greek. The scale is different: Constantine’s Thessaloniki had 20,000 inhabitants, while Greece is attempting to manage a city of over a million.
The whole Macedonia question? Tomorrow I visit the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and I’ll revisit this thousand-year-old question, so important during my previous trips to Bulgaria, Montenegro, Croatia, Turkey, and even Italy.

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