Why Thessaloniki, Greece Is Known as the City of Ghosts

View of Thessaloniki and the Thermaic Gulf from Ano Poli in Greece
View of Thessaloniki and the Thermaic Gulf from Ano Poli in Greece | JFKennedy / Wikimedia Commons
Ethel Dilouambaka

Thessaloniki carries a long series of epithets: Second City of Greece, Capital of Macedonia, the Co-capital (referring to its historical status as the co-sovereign city of the Byzantine Empire alongside Constantinople), Lady of the North, etc. But one of the city’s monikers, City of Ghosts, may be obscure for those unfamiliar with the city.
Since the day of its foundation, Thessaloniki has always been multicultural. An important port and gateway between east and west, Thessaloniki (or Salonica) was a dynamic and prosperous commercial hub. There, Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted for centuries. After multiple diasporas shuffled them in, out and around Greece, from the 15th century onwards, Jews played a particularly important part in the city’s multicultural history. By the 20th century, however, they had become increasingly marginalized, and many Jews from Thessaloniki migrated elsewhere. Unfortunately, those who stayed suffered a terrible fate: by the end of WWII, 90% of the Jews living in Thessaloniki was murdered in the Holocaust. This contrast to being one of Europe’s centuries-old central hubs for Jews is why Thessaloniki is often referred as the City of Ghosts.

History of religious diversity in Thessaloniki

Established in 315 BC by Cassander of Macedon, the city was named after princess Thessalonike of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s half-sister. Already, the city was an important metropolis and the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire, after Constantinople.

Inscription found at the base of a statue of Thessaloniki found in ancient Agora, part of a group of statues of the family of Alexander the Great

In 1430, the city fell to the Ottomans yet retained its status of important commercial and industrial city, though not to the same extent as during the Byzantine period. At that time, the city had a mixed ethnic and religious population of Muslims, Christian Orthodox and a few Catholics until 1492, when Expulsion Edict in Spain forced a vast migration wave of Sephardic Jews to Greece, particularly to Thessaloniki. This influx of Jews contributed city’s dynamic boom, and by 1519, Sephardic Jews accounted for 54% of the population.
For centuries, though considered second-class subjects in the Ottoman Empire, Jews managed to coexist peacefully in Thessaloniki. In fact, before the foundation of Tel Aviv in 1909, Thessaloniki (also called Jerusalem of the Balkans) was the only city where Ladino (Iberian Judeo-Spanish) was the main language. The city kept growing well into the 20th century until the end of the Ottoman reign in 1912, which led to the annexation of Thessaloniki and the Greek portion of Macedonia to Greece at the end of the Second Balkan War.

Creating a Hellenic identity

A census of the city showed that only 25% of the population were Greek Orthodox, leading the Greek authorities to Hellenise the city by, among other tactics, imposing Greek as the main language in an effort to create a cohesive and unified country. After the tragic Great Fire of 1917, which left 70,000 people homeless (most of them Jews), the Greek authorities revamped the city à la française with vast boulevards and broad streets. Later on, the population exchange of 1922 with Turkey saw a considerable portion of Thessaloniki’s Muslim population depart to Turkey while a significant influx of Asia Minor and Pontic Greeks were forced to settle in an unfamiliar country. At the same time, the ongoing Hellenisation proceeded to destroy minarets and mosques as symbols of a horrible past that needed to be erased.

An engraving of Thessaloniki in the late 1800s

Though the present-day Jewish population in Thessaloniki is minimal, their long heritage and presence are still visible today. Modiano Market Hall, which houses Thessaloniki’s main market, was built by prominent Italian Jew Eli Modiano, while Villa Allatini, on the city’s waterfront, belonged to Moise Allatini, a prosperous Jewish merchant. Furthermore, the famous Aristotle University, which attracts many Greek students, was built on a plot of land that served as a Jewish cemetery.

Holocaust Memorial, Thessaloniki

Unfortunately, this forgotten page of Thessaloniki history is not too well known, but it surely deserves to be taught. If you get a chance to visit Thessaloniki, why not try to discover more about the city’s multicultural past?

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