Thessaloniki – History and important sights

Explore the enchanting Thessaloniki

If you are in Thessaloniki then you should not miss the opportunity to explore the city and see unique monuments and sites of incredible beauty. Thessaloniki is the second most populous city in Greece, has a rich history and many monuments from the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

A short trip in the history of Thessaloniki

Hellenistic period

Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by Cassander, general of the Macedonian kingdom and was named after his wife, who was the sister of Alexander the Great. The choice of location was of strategic importance as it connected Macedonia with the Aegean Sea. Thus, Thessaloniki quickly became a trade center and one of the most important cities in Macedonia.

Roman period

The city passed into the hands of the Romans in 168 BC. and was originally the capital of one of the four administrative districts they had designated. The construction of the Egnatia Road between 146 BC – 120 BC. enlarged Thessaloniki even more, as it was now a land of trade and military importance.

Byzantine period

During the Byzantine years in Thessaloniki were built public buildings, many temples, a new port but the most important work was the walls, which protected the city from many invaders. The city is characterized as “Co-capital” and holds the position of the next, after Constantinople, city of the empire.

Ottoman period

Thessaloniki was occupied by the Ottomans in 1430 and liberated almost 500 years later, in 1912. The first years of the Ottoman conquest were difficult, as the war effects were still fresh, the population had greatly decreased and trade was steadily declining. The city began to prosper after 1520 when craft industry and international trade developed. During the Turkish occupation, many persecuted Jews from Central European countries settled in Thessaloniki.

Modern History

For a long time after the liberation of 1912, the Ottoman administrative structure of the city was maintained in order to avoid its economic and social disintegration. The great fire in 1917 was the worst disaster that Thessaloniki suffered in recent years. It completely destroyed buildings of rare architectural value in the city center, shops, churches, mosques, synagogues, thousands of houses and caused huge economic and social problems. After the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922, refugees from Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace settled in the city, because of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange agreed with the Treaty of Lausanne.

World War II

During World War II, Thessaloniki was occupied by Nazi forces. Too many Jews in Thessaloniki were killed by the Nazis at that time. One month after the occupation of Greece, the first resistance organization of the country, “Eleftheria”, is founded in the Asia Minor refugee district of Eptalofos, with its homonymous newspaper and the first illegal printing house in the city. The liberation of the city came on October 30, 1944.

Jewish History of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki has a long Jewish history, dating back to the Ottoman years. The Jewish community will come to dominate the city in terms of population and economy, but it will face great difficulties, especially during World War II. For more information click here.

Important sights

White Tower

The White Tower is the monument – symbol of Thessaloniki and is located on the beach. It was a fortification of the city and was built by the Ottomans in the 15th century. In its long history, the tower has changed names and uses from time to time. Initially it was called “Tower of Lion” and later “Fortress of Kalamaria”. In the 19th century it was called “Tower of the Janissaries” and “Tower of Blood”. At that time the tower functioned as a prison for death row inmates and the names were based on the image of blood flowing from the walls of the tower when janissaries slaughtered or tortured prisoners. In 1890 a Jewish prisoner, in order to buy off his freedom, undertook to paint the tower with white paint. The Turkish and Jewish populations gave the name “Torre Blanca”, meaning “White Tower”. From 2006 until today it operates as a history museum of Thessaloniki.

Arch of Galerius and Rotunda

One of the most characteristic monuments of late antiquity is the arch or the triumphal arch of Galerius, now called Kamara. It was built between 298 and 305 BC. in remembrance of Galerius’ campaign and victory against the Persians. Very close to the Arch of Galerius is Rotunda, one of the most important Roman monuments in Greece. It was built in 306 AD. and was used as a place of worship, a mausoleum, a temple, a metropolis, a mosque, and a museum.

The Castles or Byzantine Walls

The Castles of Thessaloniki are a complex of walls, towers and fortifications with unique architecture and historical significance. The current form of the Castles is for the most part a construction of the 4th AD. century. The most impressive point of the walls and one of the busiest places in all of Thessaloniki is the Triangle Tower. When you visit the Triangle Tower and the main gate of the walls (Portara) you will have the opportunity to admire the magnificent view of the Thermaikos Gulf.

Some of the many attractions are:

  • The Archaeological Museum
  • The Museum of Byzantine Culture
  • The Statue of Alexander the Great
  • Aristotelous Square
  • The Roman Agora
  • The church of Agios Dimitrios, the patron saint of the city
  • The Ataturk Museum
  • The church of Agia Sophia
  • The Monastery of Vlatadon

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