Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece and one of the oldest and most diverse cities in Europe. Founded in the 4th century BC by King Cassander of Macedon, who named it after his wife Thessalonike, a half-sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki has been a crossroads of civilizations and cultures for centuries. From the ancient Macedonians, Romans and Byzantines, to the Ottomans, Jews and modern Greeks, Thessaloniki has witnessed and absorbed the influences of many peoples and religions, creating a rich and unique cultural and historical heritage that is worth exploring.
In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the most important and impressive historical sites and monuments that showcase Thessaloniki’s legacy and identity. Whether you are interested in ancient history, Byzantine art, Ottoman architecture or Jewish culture, Thessaloniki has something for everyone.
The Ancient Sites
Thessaloniki was founded on or near the site of the ancient town of Therma, which was part of the kingdom of Macedon. The city soon became an important trade hub and a political center, enjoying privileges and autonomy under the Macedonian kings. After the fall of Macedon in 168 BC, Thessaloniki became a city of the Roman Republic and later the capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia. It was also a major stop on the Via Egnatia, the Roman road that connected Byzantium with Dyrrhachium.
Some of the most remarkable ancient sites in Thessaloniki include:
- The Arch of Galerius: This monumental arch was built in 298-299 AD to celebrate the victory of Emperor Galerius over the Persians. It is decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from the war and portraits of the imperial family. The arch is part of a larger complex that included a palace, a rotunda and a hippodrome.
- The Rotunda: This circular building was originally constructed as a mausoleum for Galerius, but it was never used as such. Instead, it became a Christian church in the 4th century, a mosque in the 16th century and a museum in the 20th century. It is one of the oldest and best-preserved monuments in Thessaloniki, famous for its dome and its mosaics.
- The Roman Forum: This was the administrative and commercial center of Roman Thessaloniki, dating from the 2nd century AD. It consisted of a large square surrounded by porticoes, public buildings, temples and shops. It also had an underground crypt, an odeon and two baths.
- The Palace Complex: This was the residence of Galerius and his successors in Thessaloniki, located on the upper part of the city. It covered an area of about 150,000 square meters and included several buildings, such as a throne hall, an octagonal hall, a basilica, barracks and baths. Only some ruins remain today, but they give an idea of the splendor and size of the complex.
You can visit these sites and learn more about their history and significance at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, which houses a rich collection of artifacts from different periods and cultures.
The Byzantine Sites
Thessaloniki played a prominent role in the Byzantine Empire, as it was considered to be the co-capital or co-reigning city alongside Constantinople. It was also a major center of Christianity, as it was visited by Apostle Paul and hosted several ecumenical councils. Thessaloniki was also a hub of culture and learning, producing famous scholars, artists and saints.
The most distinctive feature of Byzantine Thessaloniki is its churches, which are renowned for their architecture and decoration. Many of them have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO for their outstanding value. Some of the most notable ones are:
- The Church of Saint Demetrius: This is the main sanctuary dedicated to the patron saint of Thessaloniki, who was martyred here in 303 AD during the persecution of Diocletian. The church was built in the 5th century on the site of a Roman bath where Demetrius was imprisoned and killed. It was later rebuilt several times after fires and earthquakes. It is a five-aisled basilica with a transept, a narthex and a crypt. It is decorated with mosaics, frescoes and sculptures, depicting scenes from the life and miracles of Demetrius.
- The Church of Hagia Sophia: This is the oldest surviving church in Thessaloniki, dating from the 7th century. It was modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, but on a smaller scale. It has a central dome supported by four piers and a rectangular nave with three apses. It is adorned with mosaics, frescoes and icons, representing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints.
- The Church of the Acheiropoietos: This is one of the best examples of early Christian basilica architecture in Thessaloniki, dating from the 5th century. It has a wooden roof, three aisles and a wooden iconostasis. It is named after a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary that was said to be not made by human hands (acheiropoietos in Greek).
- The Church of Saint Catherine: This is a late Byzantine church, built in the 13th century by the Palaiologan dynasty. It has a cross-in-square plan with a dome and four columns. It is famous for its frescoes, which are considered to be among the finest examples of Palaiologan art. They depict scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine.
Other Byzantine sites worth visiting in Thessaloniki are the White Tower, which was part of the city’s fortifications and served as a prison and a museum; the Heptapyrgion, which was a citadel on the acropolis hill; and the Walls of Thessaloniki, which surrounded and protected the city for centuries.
The Ottoman Sites
Thessaloniki was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1430 and remained under their rule until 1912. During this period, Thessaloniki became a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population of Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Ottomans left their mark on the city’s architecture and culture, building mosques, baths, markets and schools.
Some of the most interesting Ottoman sites in Thessaloniki are:
- The Hamza Bey Mosque: This is one of the oldest surviving mosques in Thessaloniki, built in 1467 by Hamza Bey, a general of Sultan Mehmed II. It has a square plan with a dome and a minaret. It is now used as an exhibition hall.
- The Bey Hamam: This is one of the largest and most elegant baths in Thessaloniki, built in 1444 by Sultan Murad II. It has two separate sections for men and women, each with three rooms: a cold room, a warm room and a hot room. It is now used as a cultural center.
- The Bezesteni: This is one of the oldest and most characteristic markets in Thessaloniki, built in the 15th century by Sultan Bayezid II. It has a rectangular shape with six domes and four gates. It was originally used as a silk market, but later it sold various goods such as jewelry, fabrics and spices. It is still in use today as a bazaar.
- The Alaca Imaret Mosque: This is one of the most beautiful mosques in Thessaloniki, built in 1484 by Ishak Pasha, a governor of Thessaloniki. It has an octagonal plan with a dome and two minarets. It is decorated with tiles, calligraphy and paintings. It is now used as an art gallery.
You can learn more about the Ottoman history and culture of Thessaloniki at the Museum of Byzantine Culture, which has a section dedicated to this period.
The Jewish Sites
Thessaloniki has a long and rich Jewish history, dating back to ancient times. The Jewish community flourished under Byzantine and Ottoman rule, especially after the arrival of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Thessaloniki became known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans or La Madre de Israel (the Mother of Israel), as it had one of the largest and most influential Jewish populations in Europe.
Some of the most significant Jewish sites in Thessaloniki are:
- The Monastirioton Synagogue: This is one of the few surviving synagogues in Thessaloniki, built in 1927 by Jews who came from Monastir (now Bitola) in Macedonia. It has an eclectic style with neoclassical and oriental elements. It is still active today as a place of worship and education.
- The Jewish Museum: This is a museum that showcases