Sailing to Byzantium’s Beautiful Sister, Thessaloniki

There are a handful of cities in the world that in blinks of eyes can shift you from one historic and cultural realm to another, and one of them is Thessaloniki, also known as Greece’s northern capital. It is a delicious mix – the food is wonderful –of Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, and Ottoman history, but its essential outlines and monuments have not changed much since the days when Byzantium rule the waves of the East Mediterranean.

Reading the moving poem of W.B. Yeats can create a yearning for ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ – but Constantinople became Istanbul a century ago and little of its Byzantine greatness – save some of its great monuments like the Aghia Sophia – remains. And it would be problematic these days to sail there – given the hyperactive ships of Turkey, the vigilant vessels of Greece, and the guard boats of the Frontex European Union border agency.

Yet you can sail to Byzantium’s great and vital port, bastion, commercial hub, and cultural center, the equally multicultural and flavorable Thessaloniki.

Coursing through the Thermaic Gulf towards one of history’s great harbors, one catches glimpses of the past and grasps the importance of Thessaloniki – it is easy to see that with walls – remnant exist –

atop the hills behind the great town with arms at their east and west ends reaching down to the sea. It is a Balkan stronghold and Aegean fortress that defended against the city’s many greedy attackers throughout history. Indeed Thessaloniki’s most famous landmark, the iconic Lefkos Pirgos-White Tower, while it is a masterpiece of Venetian military engineering, was built into the southeast corner of the Roman-Byzantine defense system.

For a journey to Byzantium, visitors guides to Thessaloniki rightly begin with the wonderful Museum of Byzantine Culture – near the sea, surrounded by pleasant cafes and restaurants – and its fine permanent and temporary exhibitions.

After enjoying the museum, visitors should walk through the street grid that is largely unchanged for almost 2000 years.

While ones wishes to be able to see more than just the foundation stones that remain of Thessaloniki’s Roman imperial palaces, markets, and baths (although its Turkish hamams should not be missed, for they too give a taste of the Roman-Byzantine civilization the Ottomans adapted but could not erase) there are impressive monuments that are largely intact.

Everyone loves the famed Arch of Galerius, built by that emperor at the turn of the revolutionary fourth century and which historians tell us once had four arches, not one. The most impressive fully-intact Roman structure, however, is the Rotunda, a secular building inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, which became the Church of St. George.

Today, we can get a sense of life in ancient Greece and Rome from books that rely on the literature of those times and what archaeologists and historians tell us, but the shape and rhythms of life in Byzantine times feel real to many Hellenes to this day because they lived them in the villages on the islands and the Greek mainland.

The Christian calendar of saints days, feasts, and fasts still sets the paces and places of life in many locales, and while that way of life is fading fast, the memories of childhood are vivid for millions around the world.

In Thessaloniki, one Saint dominates the city’s spiritual and social life as in few other places – St. Demetrios, whose feast day on October 26th is a name day for thousands and a day off for all. The city’s wealth and strategic value always inviting attacks, military saints were powerful elements in the consciousness of Thessaloniki’s citizens, and none was more important than its world-renowned and miracle-working patron, St. Demetrios.

The survival of the building itself is something of a miracle, almost perishing in the great fire that destroyed much of Thessaloniki in 1917. Lovingly rebuilt, the church was founded in the 4th century and has survived several fires – its current form dates to the mid-7th century.

Another beloved church the 5th century’s Panagia Acheiropoietos – probably named for a miraculous icon of the Theotokos that once housed there.

There are a total of five Early Christian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki that are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the most interesting is the Church of Aghia Sophia. It is well-known for its evocative mosaics and to architectural historians for its unique form – the domed church is a transitional design, between that of Aghia Sophia is Constantinople and what became the classical Byzantine cross-in-square church. The many fine examples of the latter from the Middle and Late Byzantine periods are jewels of Geek Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture.

The COVID lockdowns in 2020 disrupted all aspects of life in Thessaloniki, but the shutdowns of churches during Holy Week took an especially tough toll on the residents. This year, there was rejoicing as the partial reopening of churches for Holy Week and Pascha heralded the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Those modern visitors present at that time discovered that the Early Christian and Byzantine churches, with their intoxicating incense, trance-inducing Byzantine chant, and flickering candles are gateways to another realm, or at the very least, spiritual oases in the noisy, tumultuous modern world.


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