“The first after the first”, this was the title given to Thessaloniki during the Byzantine Empire. While Constantinople was the unrivaled hub of political, economic and cultural power in the empire, Thessaloniki held the moniker of second city. And what a city it was. Despite the fact almost 600 years has passed since Thessaloniki’s final days as part of Byzantium, the city is still a storehouse of architecture and artifacts from the empire. Byzantine churches are scattered throughout both the upper and lower town of Thessaloniki. Parts of the city walls still rise in various states of ruin around the old city boundaries. The most ancient parts of Thessaloniki still currently intact – the Rotunda and Triumphal Arch of Galerius – are not from the famed Kingdom of Macedonia or the classical age of Greece. Instead they hail from late antiquity at the onset of Byzantium in the early 4th century. Other ancient building projects that have been revised beyond all recognition were first constructed during early Byzantium, such as the harbor at Thessaloniki which was built under the direction of Emperor Constantine (306 – 337). Whereas the western part of the empire would be plunged into darkness for centuries to come, Thessaloniki managed to regenerate itself time and again despite barbarian attacks and natural disasters. The Dark Ages were anything but that in Byzantium’s second city.
Varied Treasures – The Museum of Byzantine Culture
One of the main reasons I traveled to Thessaloniki was to visit the Museum of Byzantine Culture. Prior to my arrival, I formulated an idea of what I might see based upon the museum’s name. I expected it to cover the whole of Byzantium, both in history and geographic scope. It certainly covered the former, but the latter was limited mainly to Thessaloniki. This made the museum’s collection that much more impressive. As I passed through the eleven exhibit halls, it seemed as though every artifact came from Thessaloniki. This was largely true, as most of them had been unearthed from the city’s immediate area.
It began to dawn on me that the city’s Byzantine history had a richness and depth that I had not imagined. From what was on display, I discerned that Thessaloniki had continued to thrive long after the western Roman Empire was a distant memory. Western Europe had been laid low by barbarians and was a relatively underdeveloped backwater during this time. Meanwhile, Thessaloniki’s population was in the six figure range. If urbanization was a sign of civilizational development, then Thessaloniki was far ahead of other European cities during the Middle Ages. Constantinople may have been the first city of Byzantium, but Thessaloniki was certainly not far behind.
According to the museum’s informational literature, the exhibit items came mainly from Thessaloniki, those that did not were from nearby areas in Macedonia. This included 70 mosaics, 2000 sculptures and 30,000 coins. A day earlier, I learned that excavation work on the Thessaloniki metro had uncovered some 300,000 artifacts. I began to wonder what hidden treasures lay beneath those endless high rise eminences that now blight Thessaloniki’s modern cityscape. I assumed that archaeology was probably not done when they were being constructed. Then again, how would anything new ever get built if the construction process stopped every time an artifact was found. Fortunately, the best of Thessaloniki’s Byzantine artifacts had found their way into the exhibit halls. This at least gave a rough approximation of Thessaloniki from the 4th through the 15th century.
Setting A Future Course – A European Opening
Thessaloniki’s second city status is something it has kept through modern times. It currently ranks as the second largest city in Greece behind Athens, just as it did behind Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire. At that time, Athens was the provincial outpost, a city whose glory days had long since passed. Conversely, the idea of progress was integral to Thessaloniki’s development. Looking forward was its natural inclination. During the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki reached the height of its power. Emperor Galerius used the city as a base for his operations in the East. Construction of the harbor made the city into a naval center. It now offered a natural port in the Thermaic Gulf as well as the wider area covered by the Aegean Sea. The rise of Christianity brought it greater power. Emperor Theodosius (379 – 395) was baptized in the city. He also made Christianity the official state religion. His experiences in Thessaloniki helped mold his character and shape the empire’s future course of direction.
Modern Thessaloniki has been largely forgotten by mass tourists gorging themselves on Greece. It is more aligned with the Balkans than any other Greek city. Strangely enough, Thessaloniki, like the rest of Greece, has also been largely marginalized when it comes to discussions of the Balkans. Yet for centuries, Thessaloniki infused the Balkans with spiritual, cultural and economic vitality. It was also Byzantium’s opening to Europe. The city’s Balkan and Byzantine importance gets lost in all the focus on classical Greece. Thessaloniki was on the fringes of the latter, both chronologically and geographically. It is still on the fringes of Greece in the popular perception. Athens is the only major Greek city which registers internationally. This role reversal is relatively recent and looks to be increasing rather than diminishing.
The Unacknowledged – Biased Against Byzantium
Thessaloniki’s Byzantine glory may never get the recognition it deserves. The city is largely overlooked by tourists despite 15 UNESCO listed Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments. Why is that? The reason may have less to do with the city and more to do with how Byzantium is viewed by the West. The Roman Empire’s history stops for most people in 476 AD with the western empire’s downfall. Though the eastern Roman Empire (a byword for Byzantium) lasted another thousand years, it has been stereotyped as decadent, rife with corruption, overtly religious and a poor substitute for Roman imperial glory. Much of this attitude is the result of conflicts between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The latter is viewed as intensely superstitious and backward by the western world. Thus, the Byzantines are reviled rather than revered. To some, this makes it unworthy of the western world’s respect. Thus, Byzantine Thessaloniki is not worthy of interest or study. In this case, perception has informed reality. The city that was once referred to as “the first after the first”, will always be a distant second. And no one remembers who finished second, even if they should.