When I think of Byzantium a multitude of places, people and images come to mind. They include stunning mosaics, the architecturally unsurpassed Hagia Sophia, lewd, crude and shrewd emperors, the ferociously effective Varangian Guard, character assassinations like those found in the pages of Procopius’ Secret History, Justinian II with his prosthetically enhanced silver nose and Emperor Heraclius’ suffering from bouts of debilitating aquaphobia. These are just a few of my favorite things about Byzantium, but one image trumps all those listed above, old city walls.
For the longest time, this image usually began and ended with the magnificent remains of the Theodosian Walls which can still be admired in Istanbul. Seeing those walls provided me with a visual touchstone, a direct connection to over fifteen hundred years of history stretching from late antiquity to the Ottoman Empire’s final decades. The Theodosian Walls (Walls of Constantinople) are the first and still only relic of Byzantium that I have been able to physically touch. Reaching across the void of time to run my hands across the same stone walls that citizens of Byzantium built so long ago was an electrifying experience. One that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Marking Time – An Indispensable Asset
I was reminded of this while contemplating the Walls of Thessaloniki. Though much less well known, as well as shorter in stature and length than those of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), the Walls of Thessaloniki still evoked a significant emotional response in me. It may have had something to do with the fact that there were less of these walls than those in Istanbul. Scarcity added to my appreciation. Only half of the original 8 kilometers of Thessaloniki’s Walls are still standing today. Fortunately, these remnants are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Modern Thessaloniki has long since escaped the walls. In a utilitarian sense, the city has no need for them, but as a marker of its past the walls are an indispensable asset.
My first experience with the walls will be forever embedded in my mind. I saw them up close and intensely personal just as an autumn sunrise broke open the sky and cast a fiery light upon them. The first rays of sunlight bathed the walls in a sensational golden glory. It was one of those moments that I knew would last forever, an unforgettable gift courtesy of peoples who last lived a millennium and a half ago. The Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans may have all vanished, but each of them found the walls quite useful for their own purposes. Their purpose in modern Thessaloniki has been transformed. Today rather than offer protection, the walls are protected as a monument to the past. One that invites further exploration. I had the opportunity to do it both in person and through research.
Walled In – An Experience Of History
The power of visiting a historic place should never be underestimated. One of my favorite pastimes is reading about a place after I visit it. Only then do the words literally jump off the page since I now have a visual to go with facts and anecdotes. Understanding the significance of Thessaloniki’s walls requires experiencing them firsthand and then doing research to place them within the context of history. The walls were a long time in coming to fruition, a product of several empires that built upon the foundations left by their predecessors. The first semi-permanent wall was built by the Romans. Though this was much smaller than what would later be constructed, it did help to repel the Gothic invaders twice during the 3rd century. As the later Roman Empire was riven by crisis, the need for security grew, as did the city walls in response to external threats. The walls would have to be expanded.
In the latter part of the 4th century this was exactly what happened. The Byzantines built upon the existing infrastructure. The walls grew in depth, breadth and height to offer much stouter resistance. Any barbarian tribes contemplating a takeover of the city were going to be forced into mounting a major military operation. The expansion of the walls proved a useful form of defense. They also served to proscribe the city’s development until the late 19th century. Though they would eventually prove far from insurmountable, the walls provided effective protection to Thessalonians in an age of strife. The Walls of Thessaloniki kept the Dark Ages from descending upon the city. Any invader hoping to take Thessaloniki was forced to find a way over them. This proved a difficult task, one that barbarian tribes skilled in raiding expeditions and rural warfare found difficult to overcome.
In 904 the Saracens were able to enter the city by going over the sea wall with predictably dire consequences. They pillaged, murdered and looted while thousands of Thessalonians died in the process. The Normans sacked the city again in 1185. And in 1430, the Ottoman Turks dealt a fatal blow to the Byzantines in Thessaloniki when they surmounted the walls, entering the city in mass numbers. Thessalonians suffered three days of depredations before Sultan Murad called a halt to the pillaging. One of the first things the new Ottoman government did was build up the city walls once again. The Ottomans did not want to suffer the same fate they had just inflicted upon the Byzantines. It was not until the latter half of the 19th century with the city’s modernization that the walls began to be pulled down. At that point, expansion was more important than history. Fortunately, preservation has now trumped expansion with what is left of the Walls of Thessaloniki.
Experiencing Eternity – Going Beyond The Limits
The morning I set out to see the Walls of Thessaloniki, dawn was just beginning to break over the city. I made my way up through the steepening streets of Ano Poli (Upper Town), passing by Byzantine churches and beneath cantilevered Ottoman era homes. Labyrinthine passageways led into small squares or corridors that wove their way into and out of elaborate mazes. I noticed that many of the walls had more graffiti than paint or plaster. The only true north seemed to be ever upward. Sweat beads began to form upon my brow despite the cool morning air.
After twenty minutes I finally caught my breath, as well as sight of the Walls of Thessaloniki rising above what had been the old city’s northern extremity. As the sun began to transform the walls into a towering monolith of ancient radiance, I realized just how lucky I was to see these walls still standing at this very moment. The walls marked the limit of my morning walk, just as they had marked Thessaloniki’s limit for centuries on end. It was hard to believe anything could last so long. If it is true that nothing will last forever, then the Walls of Thessaloniki are as close as I will ever get to experiencing eternity.