As part of my annual leave this year, I spent a week in Thessaloniki, as we wanted to explore the Byzantine churches, frescos and mosaics. While we were there, we had the honour of being invited to join the Armenian community in the city to commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
It was a very moving event in the local Armenian church, with prayers, the Mayor of Thessaloniki giving a short address and wonderful music from child and adult choirs. The community had also set up an exhibition on the sea front to inform the people of the city about the Genocide and its impact on the Armenian people.
Thessaloniki, however, is no stranger to genocides and has a very traumatic, even tragic, history of its own. Under Ottoman occupation, the city had thrived as a multi-cultural and multi-religious city. Most of the old Byzantine churches had been converted into mosques but communities on Christian monks and nuns retained a presence within the city and some of the smaller churches continued to serve the Christian community.
There was also a sizeable Jewish community within the city, according to some estimates over half the population at certain times. This community had come to the city following their expulsion from Spain following Christian victories over the Muslim community there. They played a significant role in both the commercial and cultural life of the city and built a series of synagogues to serve their community.
At the end of the nineteenth century, and the early years of the twentieth century, all this was to change through a sequence of dramatic events. First came the liberation of the city by Greek forces and, over time, the expulsion of most of the Muslim and Turkish population. This led to all the old churches reverting to their original use as Christian places of worship and, as the white plaster coverings were removed the revealing of many of the Byzantine frescos and mosaics that are still visible today.
There was, however, a major fire in 1917 that ripped through a very large part of the lower city, destroying many of the older buildings including churches, mosques and synagogues. The old Jewish quarter of the city was particularly badly affected by the fire. The final tragedy came during the Second World War under German occupation when the vast majority of the remaining Jewish population of the city was rounded up and sent to the death camps. The old Jewish cemetery, just outside the city walls was also desecrated and later became the site of what is now the University of Thessaloniki.
This tragic history, like the earlier Greek and Roman cities, is never far below the surface within the city and there are reminders across the city, if you know what to look for, of the older Muslim and Jewish presence. It has also been memorialised in a number of significant novels and historical texts that have focused on the city.
In our contemporary world, where intolerance has appeared to be growing in recent years and where, in Greece as well as elsewhere in Europe, the far right has been making gains in the polls, it is very sobering to reflect on what might have been, and on the tragic histories that we never seem to learn from.
Of course, immigration and the passage of people from Syria, the Middle East more widely, and even from Africa, has had a devastating effect on the Greek Islands, and the impact of this was very clear to see within Thessaloniki itself. Given the memory of the city, however, the current troubles take on a very different perspective.
Our visit to the city was, of course, a holiday, and we were pleased to enjoy the sights, the food and the hospitality of the city. It was a very enjoyable and restful few days pottering around the back streets seeking out the small and often very beautiful remains of the Byzantine past. The history of the city, however, and the awareness of current issues, was always present and gave a very sobering edge to the visit and my memories of the city.