It was a spark from a homemade stove falling on a pile of straw at a refugees’ hovel that’s said to have instigated a new phase in the history of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city. A century ago, on 18 August 1917, the fire grew into an inferno that destroyed 9,500 houses, left 1 sq km of the city in cinders and 70,000 homeless.
As the centre of operations for allied forces in the Balkans during the first world war, Thessaloniki had no fire service and its water supply was requisitioned by foreign soldiers – which, along with the Vadaris wind, is why the Great Fire attained historic proportions.
Refugees and foreign powers commandeering resources are still resonant realities for the rebuilt port city of 325,000 as it harks back to the conflagration this week.
‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’
The Great Fire was the beginning of the end for the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, the melting pot that had evolved during Ottoman occupation. Many of the 52,000 Jews who were left destitute departed afterwards; but it was the reconstruction plan overseen by the French architect Ernest Hébrard that deepened Thessaloniki’s homogenisation.
“It was the first and last rational and holistic development of the city,” says Lina Liakou, architect and chief resilience officer for the municipality. Hébrard fostered a European-style centre with boulevards and open squares to tidy the minaret-filled skyline and de-Ottomanise the city. But his plan went out of the window in subsequent decades, leading to ad hoc development in the suburbs and modern Thessaloniki’s high-density, high-rise character.
<figure class="element element-video"> <figcaption>Eleni Stoumpou-Katsamouris wrote and directed this archaeological film for the Archaeological Institute of Macedonian and Thracian Studies (Hellenic Ministry of Culture) in 2012</figcaption> </figure> <p><a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/greece/9998013/Yiannis-Boutaris-Greeces-vision-of-hope.html">Yiannis Boutaris</a>, mayor since 2011, has tried to wind the clock back to the period before the Great Fire by emphasising his city’s Jewish and Turkish past. Liakou, 32, was struck by the change when she returned in 2014 after six years away: “I left a city that was very introvert, very conservative. But in 2014 it started to become the cultural, creative, youthful city that it is now.”</p> <p>As well as the multicultural amnesty, Boutaris has supported gay rights and overseen the creative rejuvenation of commercial spaces left empty by the Greek crisis. The prospect of Thessaloniki’s makeover as Berlin-esque hipster free-for-all didn’t please everyone: the city’s archbishop said he would rather kill himself than swear the tattooed former winemaker and recovering alcoholic into office.</p> <h2>Thessaloniki in numbers …</h2> <p><strong> 27.2%</strong> – the local unemployment rate reached in November 2012.</p> <p><strong>19%</strong> – the growth in tourism under Boutaris between 2010 and 2013. </p> <p><strong>295</strong> BC – the year that Macedonian princess Thessalonike, after whom the city is named, died. </p> <p><strong>9 </strong>– Thessaloniki’s 2015 ranking in <a href="http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/top-10/nightlife-cities/">National Geographic’s list of cities with the best nightlife</a>. It reputedly has the highest number of bars and cafes per capita in Europe.</p> <p><strong>17</strong> – the house number on Apostolou Pavlou street where Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born.</p> <figure class="element element-embed"> </body></html>"> </figure> <h2>… and pictures</h2> <p><a href="https://www.arisgeorgiou.gr/">Aris Georgiou</a> founded Thessaloniki’s Museum of Photography and is considered one of the pillars of postwar Greek photography. Here’s a <a href="https://issuu.com/delmargallery/docs/aris_georgiou_catalogue">catalogue</a> from a recent Australian retrospective of his work.</p> <h2>History in 100 words</h2> <p>Founded in 315 BC by Thessalonike’s husband, Cassander, during the post-Alexander power struggles, it was conquered by the Romans in 168 BC. Constantine, first Christian Roman emperor, used it as his headquarters while he consolidated his reign, and it became a candidate to become the imperial capital. Byzantium ultimately won out, which didn’t prevent Thessaloniki’s physical expansion and fertile cultural influence. The Celts, Goths, Avars, Slavs, Normans, Franks and Saracen pirates all had a pop at its riches, but it wasn’t until 1430 that it was permanently occupied by the Ottomans. The local tune took on a distinctly Jewish character with the Sephardic expulsion from Spain in 1492. Thirty years later, an estimated 56% of the population were Jewish, an unbroken presence until the 1917 fire and the Holocaust extermination that accounted for tens of thousands of victims.</p> <h2>Thessaloniki in sound and vision</h2> <figure class="element element-video element--showcase"> </figure> <p>Though filmed in Algeria with French dialogue, Costa-Gavras’s 1969 Oscar-winning political thriller Z is a fictionalised account of the assassination in Thessaloniki of reformist politician Gregoris Lambrakis.</p> <figure class="element element-video"> </figure> <p>Thessaloniki four-piece Trypes were regarded as the apex of the post-punk Greek rock boom. Even in its conservative postwar period, the city maintained a strong musical tradition.</p> <h2>What everybody’s talking about</h2> <figure class="element element-embed"> </body></html>"> </figure> <p>A <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thessaloniki_Metro">€1.1bn central government-led project</a> to build the city’s first underground line was first slated for 1999 and began construction in 2006. The Greek crisis has undoubtedly slowed progress on the 10km, 13-station light metro – 2020 is the latest in a continually backsliding set of completion dates. “In my opinion, if it was a locally led project it would have finished already,” says Liakou. “But it has created a lot of controversy because people have lost a lot of business, or the land usage has decreased because of the works in the area around the metro stations.” </p> <h2>What’s next for the city?</h2> <figure class="element element-embed"> </body></html>"> </figure> <p>Tentatively creeping out of austerity, making the most of limited resources and growing cultural credibility. “The first years [after Boutaris was elected] were crisis management, now it’s more a holistic kind of approach,” says Liakou. Thessaloniki launched its <a href="http://publications.arup.com/publications/t/thessaloniki_resilience_strategy">resilience strategy</a> in March, the first time a Greek city has undertaken a long-term plan (prior to this, each municipality was only obligated to make a five-year plan). Consulting with citizens on priorities for things like waterfront development isn’t a philosophical luxury, but a necessity: “We can no longer create a grand utopian plan like Hébrard. We have to find a way to co-manage urban space with the citizens – focusing on the small scale of the pavements, the city block.”</p> <aside class="element element-rich-link element--thumbnail"> <p> <span>Related: </span><a href="https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jun/19/sabha-spotlight-city-migrants-sold-slaves-world-refugee-day">Sabha in the spotlight: the city where migrants are sold as slaves</a> </p> </aside> <p>Some worry about dependency on external finance to accomplish even those things: the European Investment Bank have already funded Thessaloniki infrastructure, and more World Bank money is possibly en route.</p> <h2>Close zoom</h2> <p>You can meander through 500 years of bazaars, massacres and janissaries in Mark Mazower’s <a href="https://bookshop.theguardian.com/salonica-city-of-ghosts.html">Salonica, City of Ghosts 1430-1950</a>. This <a href="https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/culture/owen-hatherleys-eurovisionaries-thessaloniki/8692006.article">Architect’s Journal</a> piece goes into more detail about the recent modernisation.</p> <p><em>Do you live in Thessaloniki? What have we missed? Tell us below or follow Guardian Cities on <a href="https://twitter.com/guardiancities">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/guardiancities">Facebook</a> to join the discussion, and </em><em><a href="https://www.theguardian.com/cities">explore our archive here</a></em>
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