I always wanted to travel to Thessaloniki. I’ve been dreaming about it since as a child I heard a joke that the root “salo” points to the fact that it’s an ancient Ukrainian city.
But, joking aside, I was interested in seeing the places where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born. I have long been fond of his fantastic reforms in Turkey because he turned the medieval state into a modern republic, changed the system of chronology and introduced Latin, separated religion from the state and brought in fashion for European clothes.
As a philologist, I also wanted to visit places where the Solun Brothers Cyril and Methodius came from (“Solun” is a Slavic name of Thessaloniki). They invented the Slavic alphabet – the Glagolitic script, which created the ground for further creation of the Cyrillic alphabet. They were the first to translate liturgical books, thus forming the Old Slavonic language on the basis of Bulgarian dialects.
What did I see in this second-largest city in Greece? Wars, pogroms, and fires have led to the situation when you can either see some ancient, mostly sacred architecture, or something recent and modern in Thessaloniki. You come across the excavations of the ancient polis that existed here prior to our era just amidst the dwelling houses in several parts of the old city. But the most beautiful in Thessaloniki are early Christian churches and basilicas. There are a dozen of them here, and all of them are quite well preserved.
Modern architecture, especially the living quarters built in the seventies and eighties, is as ugly as it is in the rest of the world. Only the colours are pleasing to the eye: bright white and blue prevail here. People make terraces on the roofs of their houses, each balcony is closed from the burning sun with awnings and windows are covered with blinds. When the heat goes down, the balcony turns into the main room: here people dine, drink coffee, receive guests.
Thessaloniki has been one of the most important Mediterranean ports, in fact, it was a city-state, where many nations and languages intertwined for almost two millennia. Merchants from all over the world sailed here to sell their merchandise and buy exotic goods for their way back. At the end of the 15th century, many Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain, moved here. They were the largest minority in the city in the Ottoman period (there was no majority). There were also a lot of Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Roma people, Armenians, Italians, Syrians, Albanians, and the French. Thessaloniki was a grand and colourful cosmos-in-itself.
So I did not feel the lack of old architecture here in this city but I lacked people, genuine Thessalonikians. The epoch of nationalism destroyed Thessaloniki, it destroyed the very idea of the city-universe. Clearing the city of the Others, of barbarians who speak a different language, believe in another God, wear other clothes and have a different shade of skin is like painting a tower with lime, trying to hide the true history. First, the Turks who fled to the territory controlled by the Ottomans were expelled from the city, then various Slavs began to get annoying, and during the Second World War, the local Jews were taken to the concentration camps from here. What was left of Thessaloniki, that real Porto Franco? Is it only concrete and stones on the seashore? A boring Greek city?
The whole of Central-Eastern Europe has experienced major resettlement and the persecution of minorities. Cities that used to be truly multicultural have become their own pale shadow. Once a great city now resembles Karagiozis – a famous Turkish theatre of shadows. Walking through its streets, you can imagine former greatness and multilingualism, a local Babylon, and all the exiled from Thessaloniki become only ghosts, shadows roaming the streets, looking at you from the windows far away, giving themselves away by a movement resembling the wind in the curtains.
After all, my native Uzhhorod, Lviv, Chernivtsi, or Odesa do not exist anymore either, because there is no polyphony of their residents. Prague, Trieste, Thessaloniki – many cities in our part of the world lost their souls due to the extermination and the exodus of the multi-ethnic population, and preserved only cold, dead outlines of the past splendour. Today they remind me of a pot, which once cooked a fragrant and delicious dish. Then the ingredients were taken out of it – and now there’s only some boiling salty water left in it.