History of Thessaloniki

History of Thessaloniki

316BC: Origins of the name “Thessaloniki” can be tracked back right after King Phillip II succeeds a decisive military victory at the Battle of Crocus Field against a war tribe in Thessaly with the help of Thessalian horsemen. Phillip’s daughter Thessaloniki, half sister of Alexander the Great, grew up to marry the Macedonian general Kassandros, who decided to honour his wife by naming the city after her.

168BC: Gory battles between Romans and Macedonians result in the former conquering the area which then becomes a roman subordinate province. Thessaloniki soon becomes capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia. A strategic key-point, the city is located ideally on the Thermaikos Gulf and the east-west Via Egnatia. Additionally, Thessaloniki’s proximity to the Axios / Vardar River valley corridor provides a crucial northern gateway to the Balkans, thus, helping it become a leading commercial center, but also the subject of continuous warfare.


50-57: A Jewish community begins to take form. Soon the Apostle Paul visits in order to preach in the Jewish synagogue, establishing the first Christian church. His two letters to the Christian community of the city have been renowned ever since as the Epistles to the Thessalonians. The city is rapidly becoming an early center of Christianity.

Thessaloniki’s acropolis, located in the northern hills, is built for security reasons after Thracian raids in the city’s outskirts.

St. Demetrius becomes the city’s patron saint after being credited with a number of miracles that saved Thessaloniki. Formerly a roman prison, the church of Saint Demetrius was first built by the Roman sub-prefect of Illyricum Leontios in 463. Nowadays, the church is part of the site Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki on the list of World Heritage Sites by Unesco.

When the Roman Prefecture of Illyricum is divided between East and West Roman Empires, Thessaloniki becomes the capital of the new prefecture, and its importance becomes second only to Constantinople itself.

390: Thessaloniki becomes the location of a revolt against the emperor Theodosius I and his Gothic mercenaries. As a result, 7,000 – 15,000 citizens were massacred in revenge in the city’s hippodrome, an act which earned Theodosius a temporary excommunication.

The city passes out of Byzantine rule when Constantinople gets captured by the Fourth Crusade. Thessaloniki and its surrounding territory, the Kingdom of Thessalonica, becomes the largest fief of the Roman Empire.

1246: Thessaloniki is recovered by the Byzantine Empire.

1423: The Despot Andronicus, who was in charge of the city, handles it to the Republic of Venice in hope that it would be protected by the assaulting Ottomans.

: On 29 March, the Ottoman Sultan Murad II captures Thessaloniki and leads the brutal massacre and enslavement of one-fifth of the inhabitants, many of whom committed escape.

1519: Under Ottoman authority, the city’s Jewish population grows, as a measure of preventing the Greek element to dominate the city. Sephardic Jews expelled by Spain were invited to blend in, soon becoming 54% of the population. For the next two centuries, Thessaloniki is the biggest Jewish city in the world, heralded by many as “mother of Israel”.

1881: The founder of the Young Turk movement as well as of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is born in Thessaloniki.

Twentieth century

1912: During the First Balkan War, on October 26th - the symbolic day the city celebrates Demetrius, its patron saint - the Greek army accepts the surrender of the Ottoman garrison at Thessaloniki.

1915: During World War I, a large Allied expeditionary force lands at Thessaloniki and uses it as a base of operations against pro-German Bulgaria. The Macedonian Front is therefore established.

1916: Greek army officers, supporters of the period’s most prominent politician, Eleftherios Venizelos, launch the movement of National Defense, which result in the establishment of a pro-Allied temporary government that controls northern Greece and the Aegean, against the official government of the King in Athens. The city is cited as “symprotevousa”, (co-capital), a characterization that follows Thessaloniki until today.

1918: The catastrophic fire of 18th August destroys most of the old town, leaving some 72,000 homeless, mostly among the Turkish community.

1941: On 22 April the city falls under German occupation. The city suffers considerable damage from Allied bombing. During World War II, 50,000 of the city’s Jews are deported to concentration camps, where most are murdered in gas chambers. Additionally, eleven thousand Jews are deported to forced labour camps. Hardly anyone survived. One survivor though, was Salamo Arouch, a boxing champion, who survived Auschwitz, by entertaining the Nazis with his boxing skills.

1963: On 22 May, soon after he had delivered a key-note speech at an anti-war meeting in Thessaloniki, Gregoris Lambrakis, politician, physician, athlete, pacifist, activist, leading member of the United Democratic Left was assassinated. Two far-right extremists, Emannouel Emannouilides and Spyros Gotzamanis driving a vehicle, struck Lambrakis with a club at the head in plain view. Suffering incurable brain injuries, Lambrakis died in the hospital five days later, becoming a national symbol against political repression. His life and death were chronicled in the novel “Z”, by Vassilis Vassilikos, later a great cinema success thanks to the film by Greek – French director Kosta Gavras.

: The city gets hit by a powerful earthquake, registering a magnitude of 6.5. The tremor causes tremendous damage to several buildings and ancient monuments. Fourty people are crushed to death and an entire apartment block collapses at the Hippodromio district.

: Thessaloniki becomes European City of Culture and is taking advantage of the honour by renewing a great number of its infrastructures and hosting numerous acclaimed cultural events.

2003: At the end of the Greek presidency of the European Union, the summit of European leaders is hosted in the Porto Carras resort in Chalkidiki, attracting a great number of activists and demonstrators. The summit, however, was conducted in utter peacefulness, mostly thanks to the huge security precautions.

2004: Thessaloniki hosts a number of football events as part of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

See also our Greek history feature: http://www.inyourpocket.com/greece/history/_64004c

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