08 February 2009

Remembering Thessaloniki


I’ve mentioned a couple of times that my wife and I have lived twice in Thessaloniki, Greece, the city to whose Church St Paul wrotes the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians—once for two and a half months, and then again for just shy of two years. It is a bustling city, rich with history. Though lacking the Classical monuments for which Athens is justly famous, Thessaloniki more than makes up for it with Byzantine monuments (some of which are well described in Constantine Cavarnos’s Byzantine Churches of Thessaloniki [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1995]), including the old cathedral of Agia Sophia, built between 690 and 730 (Cavarnos, p. 37), and the small but extensively frescoed St Nicholas Orphanos—early 14th-c. (Cavarnos, p. 65).

Of course, while it is now mostly a 20th-c. reconstruction, the Basilica of St Demetrius was considered of old to be the jewel in the city’s crown. Indeed, the author of the ‘Old Slavonic Canon to St Demetrius’—probably St Methodius, the Apostle to the Slavs—refers to ‘glorious Salonika’ (Thomas Butler, ed. and trans. Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries [Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic, 2004], p. 35), and he writes concerning this beautiful temple:

Hear now your poor supplicants, O glorious one, and heed our prayers, as we have become separated far from your radiant shrine, and our hearts burn within us as we long for your church, holy one—to worship there again some day through your prayers.

Why, O wise one, should we—your miserable slaves—alone be deprived of your beauty, travelling through foreign lands and towns for the love of the Creator, blessed one, warriors for the humiliation of the cruel trilinguals and heretics? (Butler, p. 41)

But the city’s history is a complex one, and the many layers it has accumulated are often quite discernible even amid the most recent, contemporary additions. Although Greeks will find much to complain about, Mark Mazower has, I believe, done a wonderful job giving the history of these layers in his book, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (NY: Knopf, 2005). But I would like to post a succinct description of the results of the history Mazower describes. Nikos Pentzikis is a Greek writer (primarily of poetry), painter, and lifelong Thessalonian whom my advisor, Anestis Keselopoulos, has called ‘a man of God’ and ‘a son of mother Thessaloniki’ (Από τον Παπαδιαμάντη στον Πεντζίκη, Λειμών Αμφιλαφής 6 [Thessaloniki: To Palimpseston, 2003], p. 205):

Thessaloniki may possess a lengthy past throughout which she has always upheld a very important role, yet she appears as if she is always fluctuating within an endless process of becoming. They tell us that she is ugly, but at the same time the same people admit that she may well become the loveliest of cities, with, for example, the new seaside avenue whose construction is already under way [this avenue is now complete]. They say she is a town reminiscent of the East, of Asia, commenting on their impressions of the Old Town. Yet they may also say she seems like Manhattan in the cinema, with her grand new buildings on the waterfront. They may say that her houses are old and ruined, unfit for habitation, without however denying their picturesqueness. Or that she has many new buildings, while deploring their lack of any charm and style.

At the point where the north and south winds meet, she can be as warm as Misiri with the scorching south-westerlies, yet in the last war the French and British suffered from frostbite in the winter. She has the deep blue sky of the islands, and fogs like London's. Her bay at the back of the Thermaic Gulf, where ships from every sea lie at anchor, most often makes us think of calm continental lakes, like Geneva's. Romantic when you glimpse her amidst the trees of Seih Sou Park, the sight of her shanty towns inspires the most crushing realism.

If the Via Egnatia and Galerius' Triumphal Arch inspire you with their epic quality, on Vassilissis Olgas Street you turn sentimental; if there are side alleys that remind you of the tranquil petit bourgeois poems of Francois Coppe, stepping into others will give you a headache, as if some corpse has polluted the atmosphere.

Everything begins in Thessaloniki, everything wants to be, to become something, and nothing continues the way it started. Everything is either interrupted or altered. The tendencies towards classical antiquity, the insistent memories of slavery, the arriviste influences of Western Europe.

A tall house side by side with a vacant lot, full of ruins and rubbish. Ruins that do not take you back to the past, but which coexist on the same plane as the living buildings. At different levels, time uses one and the same property, which though it may or may not have been a temple originally, has subsequently become a mosque, a cafe, a chemist's, a telephone centre, a tobacco warehouse, a restaurant, a cabaret, an office and a cinema.

Here is the source of the above passage. One can see a few photos of Thessaloniki’s churches here, and here are various photos of the city itself. The painting above is Pentzikis’s ‘Μυχός κόλπου Θεσσαλονίκης’, which I found here.

2 comments:

Maximus Daniel said...

one of these days I will make it there..

For now it looks like a good visit to Serbia is in the mix..

aaronandbrighid said...

Unfortunately, Serbia is about the only 'Orthodox country' I haven't been to!