From Nothing More Than His Imagination – Leka of Albania: The Man Who Would Not Be King (Part One)

Back in my college days I had a friend who had grandiose ambitions of making deep, meaningful films. The kind of art house fare that is the preserve of pretentious pseudo-intellects, whose main attribute is a high opinion of themselves. This certainly explains the cinematic designs of my friend, who made possibly the worst films I have ever seen. Imagine a young man standing in front of a mirror with a zombie like expression plastered on his face. Then suddenly stock footage is shown of a freight train steaming down a track with its whistle blaring. This was a surprising take to say the least. My friend tried to attach himself to other misunderstood film directors who were shunned by the unenlightened public. He stated that his main influence was the German director Wim Wenders, who made the second worst films I have ever seen.

Not long thereafter, my friend became a former one, as he recoiled angrily at my questioning of his incomprehensible films. He grew increasingly haughty and arrogant, viewing anyone who could not understand his artistic endeavors for their greatness as little more than provincial fools. As a sort of laughable thought experiment, I used to imagine my former friend graduating to self-declared greatness. He was the kind of guy who would have awarded himself an Oscar, if that accolade had not been beneath him. My friend was akin to a self-declared monarch who had no throne to ascend. He would have made a great would king of Albania. If it did not already have one.

Like Father Like Son - King Zog & Leka

Like Father Like Son – King Zog & Leka

Setting A New Course – A Royal Mess
This friend came to mind while I was reading about Leka, Crown Prince of Albania. Here was a man who aspired to royal greatness, but whose efforts. whether by a perpetually unenlightened Albanian public or the vicissitudes of geopolitics were thwarted. His attempts to assume what he considered his rightful place among European royalty were not successful. That never stopped Leka from having a high opinion of himself, to the point where he saw Albania as his personal inheritance. This was stretching the limits of credulity. Leka spent almost none of his childhood in the country and never set foot on Albanian soil until he was 48 years old. Nevertheless, Leka was nothing if not ambitious, something he shared with his father, King Zog.

It was Zog who created a monarchy out of nothing more than his imagination and then proclaimed himself King of Albania. He single-handedly founded a European house of royalty just a decade after such exalted dynasties as the Habsburgs and Romanovs were ruined by revolution. An impressive accomplishment, even if some did not take Zog seriously. Leka had the same sort of delusional grandeur as his father. Being heir to the throne his father created only stimulated a need for recognition. He thought himself born of greatness, a man who might lead Albania out of the Stalinist wilderness in which it was lost. This was enough to set his life on one of the strangest courses any prospective monarch has ever followed.

Mothers Finest - Queen Geraldine with Leka I

Mothers Finest – Queen Geraldine with Leka I

At Home Abroad – The Albanian Globetrotters
The heir to the throne of Albania was born in the early morning hours on April 5th, 1939 in Tirana at the Royal Palace to King Zog and his wife Queen Geraldine. While the king was Albanian through and through, the mother’s background was a quixotic mixture of Hungarian aristocratic and American blue blood. The heir was given the name Leka, which is the Albanian form of Alexander. Unfortunately for the infant heir, only two days after his birth the royal family was forced to flee the country. The Italians were tired of propping up Zog’s profligate corruption. They invaded when Mussolini decided to invade in the hopes of recreating what he believed would be a new Roman Empire. Leka and his mother were put into an ambulance and transported through the mountains to Greece. Zog would soon follow with over a hundred members of his retinue in tow. Along with him came ten cases of valuables. These, along with the gold reserve of Albania’s treasury, which Zog had secretly been moving to England and Switzerland, would ensure he and his family would live comfortably on the proceeds of his theft.

Zog never returned to Albania. It would be over fifty years before Leka would return to the land that might have been his to rule. He would have no historical memory of Albania to base his future claims to the throne upon. That never stopped Leka from trying to get back to his royal roots. His lightning quick exile meant Leka would spend much of his life globetrotting. He and his parents would live in Great Britain at several addresses. The most notable of these was an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in London. They then spent several of his formative years as the guest of another embattled monarch. King Farouk in Egypt. At an English school there, he became boyhood friends with the heir to Bulgaria’s throne. Leka was educated at a variety of highbrow institutions, including Sandhurst in England and the Sorbonne in France. His education at Sandhurst led to Leka receiving a military commission in the British Army.

The Man Who Would Not Be King - Leka I

The Man Who Would Not Be King – Leka I

The King & I – Would Be Monarch
After his father died in 1961, Leka was proclaimed King of Albania by the Albanian National Assembly in Exile at a hotel in Paris. This state of royal affairs fit the strange pattern of Leka’s life as a would-be monarch. He was the nominal choice to lead the country by Albanians abroad, but their support and his title meant next to nothing. Albania was a hermit nation locked in the iron grip of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. A hardline communist dictatorship that did not allow outsiders in or its citizens out. Leka had no military or political power with which he might attempt to overthrow the regime. All he could do was look on helplessly from abroad while tending to dubious business interests. Leka was said to trade in commodities. His definition of commodities would give new meaning to that word. Leka’s life was about to enter a much more bizarre phase.

 

An Eastern Europe Dream – On The Road To Bababag (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #7)

Distance is measured as much by the imagination as it is in miles. Eastern Europe and Omaha, Nebraska are thousands of miles and an ocean apart, but a used bookstore brought them closer together for me. One book shrank that distance down to nothing. Reminding me of the magical power of words to bring places lodged in the memory back to life.

Rare Editions – By The Book
Within an hour of getting off the plane in Omaha I was striding through the Old Market area of the downtown. I had spent only a few minutes at the hotel dropping off my bags before I was pounding a path to my favorite destination in Omaha, Jackson Street Booksellers. Omaha might not be a hotbed of Eastern European émigrés, but Jackson Street booksellers has an Eastern Europe section better than that of any bookstore I have visited in the United States. Its selection of used books on Eastern Europe is unrivaled in my experience. I have entered other famous used bookstores in the United States, including Strand Bookstore in New York City and Powell’s City of Books in Portland with high hopes of finding a treasure trove of tomes covering every country east of the old Iron Curtain. Almost invariably, I have left disappointed.

Books on former Eastern Bloc countries are still something of a rarity at even the biggest used booksellers in America. The interest from a critical mass of population just isn’t there. At best, there will be a scattering of the most famous books on the region, such as James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a magnificent history/travelogue of unrivaled insight on the region during the tumultuous 1990’s. Every so often I might get lucky and run across Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon on her remarkable pre-World War II travels in what was then Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, these and a few other books are the most common ones on the region readily available at used booksellers. Everything else is conspicuous by its scarcity.

Portal to another world - The Road To Babadag by Andrezj Stasiuk

Portal to another world – The Road To Babadag by Andrezj Stasiuk

Nagykallo – The Other Hungary
Jackson Street Booksellers has an Eastern European section that covers several shelves. If you are looking for a volume on the Romanian perspective concerning Transylvania’s history, it is within reach. The same goes for an academic tome on the history of Medieval Ukraine. The owner of Jackson Street Booksellers has gone above and beyond what would normally be expected. Great finds on Eastern Europe can also be found in the travel section. I got firsthand experience with this when I pulled “On The Road to Babadag: Travels In the Other Europe by the Polish writer Andrezj Stasiuk. The book’s title intrigued me. Flipping through it at length, I came across chapter names that were mysteriously vague, yet held a magnetic allure, much like Eastern Europe itself. One of the first chapters was “The Slovak Two Hundred”, which I thought might be a road, but was instead a map. “Description of a Journey through East Hungary to Ukraine” sent visions of remote, dusty villages on the fringes of Hungary dancing in my head.

When I thumbed through this chapter I saw the word “Nagykallo”. Anyone who had been to that town was a kindred spirit. The fact that the author found his experience in Nagykallo worth writing about had me ready to purchase the book. I had been to Nagykallo and so had Stasiuk. That was enough for me. And still there was more. A chapter entitled Tara Sercuilor, Szekelyfold, Szekerland had my pulse racing. A window into the world of eastern Transylvania is something I have been longing for ever since I visited there myself. Other quixotic names appeared in the chapter titles, places such as Baia Mare, Shqiperia and of course, Babadag. These were places in an Eastern Europe that I had thought only existed in the furtive imagination of people like me. Stasiuk had actually visited them. I was filled with pangs of envy and a lust to learn more. This book was not just about travel in Eastern Europe, it was about the spaces in between the Pragues and Lvivs, the Budapests and Bucharests, that netherworld of sublime normalcy for Eastern Europeans that many see, but very few write about, especially in the English language. I needed to know more about the book because I felt like the author, Andrzej Stasiuk, had written the book for people like me.

Andrzej Stasiuk - Seeing What No One Else Can See

Andrzej Stasiuk – Seeing What No One Else Can See (Credit: Michal Kobylinski)

Nomadic Instincts – The Consummate Outsider
Stasiuk is a Polish author and as such, The Road to Babadag was originally written in Polish and translated into English. This is astonishing because Stasiuk’s travel writing would be difficult to translate. It can best be described as stream of consciousness. A master of words, his literary skill befits someone who is more poet and novelist than travel writer. Stasiuk comes from a non-traditional literary background. Not only does he not have a college degree, but he was kicked out of secondary school and later dropped out of a vocational school. A stint in the military ended in desertion. From reading his bio, I sensed that Stasiuk is the kind of magnificent misfit who was never suited to modern life. The consummate outsider, not by choice, but by his nomadic instincts. It is difficult to put Stasiuk’s writing into a literary genre. The phrase most often used is post-modern. His literary output has mostly been novels, but the Road to Babadag was an initial foray into travel writing than turned into a stunning success.

On The Road to Babadag is dreamy, to the point of hallucinatory. Take the following passage: It is good to come to a country you know practically nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt. In a country you know nothing about, there is no reference point. You struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories. You live a little like a child, or an animal. Objects and events may bring things to mind, but in the end they remain no more than what they are in fact. They begin only when we experience them, vanish when others follow. So they truly have no significance. They are made of that primal substance that touches our senses but is too light, too evanescent, to teach us anything.”

The Path of Stasiuk - A Village in Albania

The Path of Stasiuk – A Village in Albania (Credit: SuSanA Secretariat)

Stasiuk’s Sixth Sense – A Stream of Subconsciousness
Passages such as these had a magical effect upon me. I was reading Stasiuk and at the same time fragments of memories from my travels came flooding back…the container of orange juice I drank on my first morning in Bulgaria, a barking dog in the wrong room I entered at a hostel in Pecs, a prettily painted farm house in southern Romania, bare trees covering an anonymous mountainside in Transylvania, a lake shimmering silver in the autumn sunlight as seen from a train window in eastern Poland. Here was everything being brought back from nothing. Reading Stasiuk stimulated a sixth sense. His writing in The Road To Babadag is a portal, both to Stasiuk’s travels and to my own, starting in a used bookshop in Omaha and ending thousands of miles away.

The Lonely Bibliophile of Budapest – Dani’s English Bookshop: Reading The World Away 

My bi-annual Hungarian travel pilgrimage always involves a trip to my favorite English used bookstore in Buda. Amid all the atmospheric architecture and quaint, picture perfect Baroque townhouses found in the Castle District stands a small bookselling business located at Orszaghaz 18. Signs attached to gated shutters adorning either side of the entrance state:  English Book Shop * Second Hand. Below these signs are books enclosed within glass cases. Above the entrance in fading letters the word Vadaszbolt is written.  Literally translated from Hungarian the word means “Hunters store”. All traces of the Hunters store have disappeared except for the ghost sign. Taking its place is Dani’s English Bookshop, an eclectic establishment with an incredibly eccentric owner. I have met Dani, or at least the man I assume is Dani, on many different occasions. He sits in the back corner of his one room shop staring intently at a book. Every couple of minutes he turns the page. The only time he looks up from the book is to greet a customer with a single word, “Hello”. He makes very little eye contact after this initial interaction.

A Whole New World - Dani's English Bookshop

A Whole New World – Dani’s English Bookshop

A World Unto Himself – A Strange Sort Of Shopkeeper
Almost invariably, I am the only person in Dani’s English Bookstore. That certainly does not make Dani any more aware of my presence. He is a study in complete indifference. Dani’s attention is focused on one thing, finishing the page he is reading so he can turn to the next one. His attention is never fixed on the customer. This makes him a strange sort of shopkeeper, even by Hungarian standards of customer service. One thing I love to try with Dani is engaging him in conversation. My attempts are met with either an uncomfortable silence or a quizzical glance. For the longest time, I have wondered whether Dani might be hard of hearing. He does not seem to understand or care about anything I say to him. Dani might also be suffering from poor eyesight. While reading books, I noticed that he holds them very close to his face. So close, that he could turn the pages just by exhaling. Oddly, he never wears glasses.

Dani is the most intense reader I have seen. The look on his face is of a man totally engrossed in another universe. Nothing other than the book in his hand seems to matter. For Dani, words are to be read, not spoken. Besides the obligatory hello, his only other words are the amount due for a purchase. As soon as the sale concludes, Dani goes back to reading whatever book has captured his interest. Saying goodbye or good day or any parting words in Hungarian fails to elicit so much as a mutter. The term “character” and Dani are synonymous. The last few times I visited Dani’s bookstore was mainly so I could be ignored by him. He has become a Budapest institution in my mind, more so because Dani sticks out like a sore thumb amid the exalted streets, smart shops and overpriced tourist traps that inhabit so much of the Castle District. His prices are totally reasonable, he is not pretending to be anything other than what he is, an inveterate reader with little interest in anything other than books. In short, Dani is a world unto himself.

The Curiosity Shop - Statistics of Centuries

The Curiosity Shop – Statistics of Centuries

Hidden Gems – A Booklover’s Life
I have often wondered what motivates Dani. Obviously, it is not meeting people or customer service. Studying Dani’s dis-shelved clothing, intensely focused stare and lack of social skills, I figured running a bookstore must be a way for him to pursue his twin passions of reading hundreds of books each year and being left alone. The bibliophile life is a solitary, if somewhat enviable existence. It takes someone unique to open a store day after day for years on end, sell a smattering of books and read their days away. I just wish Dani’s knowledge was communicable. Since picking Dani’s brain about his favorite books is impossible, I spend my time perusing the stacks while trying to discern what topics interest him most. History takes up a good deal of space in this small store, thus that might be Dani’s favorite subject. As for my favorite, I go to Dani’s specifically looking for the proverbial needle in his Hungarian section’s bookstack. That is because Dani’s store brought me one of my favorite Hungarian books of all time, Statistics of Centuries (Statistical curios in the Hungarian history) by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. The fact that I found this hidden gem has kept me coming back for more.

Statistics of Centuries is not the kind of book meant to be read straight through, from the first page to the last. Instead, it is the type of book that can be perused at one’s leisure. It is broken up into four sections: 1) The Millennium in Brief 2) Society in the 19th and 20th Centuries 3) Economy in the 19th and 20th Centuries and 4) Regions, Counties, Towns, Villages. Each section is chock full of statistical and historical nuggets on every aspect of Hungary. The only drawback is the date of publication, 2002, which makes the most current information (1990’s onward) a bit dated. It is enlightening to open the book to a random page and see what fact catches the eye. For example, on page 25 I find a chart showing the proportion of the Hungarian electorate that votes, only 56% did in 1998. This was disconcerting, coming less than a decade after the collapse of communism. So much for the love of democracy. On page 88, I learned that the top two causes of death in Hungary – Heart Disease and Malignant Tumors – did not change between 1948 and 2000.  Of the top eight causes of death listed, the most notable entry was liver disease which came in at #5 in 2000. It did not appear on the 1948 list. Alcoholism represents a clear and consistent danger to Hungarians.

Pull Up A Chair - Orszaghaz Utca on Castle Hill in Buda

Pull Up A Chair – Orszaghaz Utca on Castle Hill in Buda

Random Fashion – Finding New Directions
One of the most fascinating charts in a book full of them, is the “Frequency of draws Five -Lotto Numbers” for the first six months of 2001 found on page 112. I had no idea such information was readily available. Of course, the numbers are supposedly generated in “random fashion.” I have never played lotto in Hungary, but I hope that if I ever do, I will draw a 64 (most drawn) over 63 (least drawn) out of the 90 potential numbers. This information may seem nonsensical to some, but it is the type of hard data that stimulates my mind. There are also narratives, recording the history and associated statistical curios from each of the 19 counties in Hungary. I feel like every time I open Statistics of Centuries a multitude of enlightening details come my way. I have Dani to thank for helping me find all these new directions. I just don’t think he would appreciate me telling him so. Such is the life and legacy of the lone bookseller. I expect to see him again soon and be met with indifference. Nothing will please me more.

When All Hope Is Lost – The Siege of Thessaloniki: Points of No Return (Part Fourteen)

I have always wondered what it would be like at the end of a battle or siege on the defeated side at the point of no return. What does someone do when they realize all is lost? Is it the survival instinct that causes them to fight on? Or does a sense of hopelessness bring about complete collapse? Historically – at least until modern times – death or enslavement would almost certainly be their fate. A lucky few might escape with their lives, but they would also be branded eternal cowards and/or fugitives. Life or death, victory or loss, freedom or fear, determination or surrender, these were the uncompromising situations that the unlucky citizens of Thessaloniki were faced with in the final days of the Ottoman siege in 1430.  Tragically, this was nothing new for them, Thessalonians had lived under siege for years.

The Possessed -Sultan Murad II

The Possessed -Sultan Murad II

The Possession – Getting Territorial
Sultan Murad II had always believed that Thessaloniki was Ottoman territory. A sixteen year period straddling the 14th and 15th centuries of Ottoman rule over Thessaloniki sealed the city’s fate in Murad’s mind. Though the Byzantines eventually recovered the city, it was due to internal Ottoman tensions rather than Byzantine strength. To Murad’s way of thinking, once an Ottoman possession always an Ottoman possession. The Byzantines did not help matters when they supported a rival claimant to Murad’s throne. This stiffened his resolve to conquer their territory, especially Thessaloniki. It would not be easy. Byzantine power had been evaporating for centuries, but the city’s ruler at the time, Andronikos Palaiologos, decided to gift the city to Venice. While the Republic of Venice was certainly a formidable power, they had little interest in relieving Thessaloniki’s woes. Instead, they could use the city as another barrier to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan could focus his efforts on the city rather than more important Venetian territories. And Murad certainly knew how to focus on Thessaloniki.

The Siege of Thessaloniki was a long and tedious affair that stretched over an eight year period (1422 – 1430). During much of that time, the Venetians treated the city with utter contempt. Corruption, mismanagement, waste, fraud and abuse all came at the expense of Thessalonians. The Venetians’ administrative incompetence was such that many Thessalonians began to long for Ottoman rule. Food supplies dwindled and famine gripped much of the populace. Thousands fled the city during this time going over to Ottoman territory. The only hope for many Thessalonians stuck inside the city walls was Archbishop Symeon. He fiercely resisted any calls to surrender the city to Ottoman control. Such an idea was tantamount to heresy in Symeon’s mind. His resistance was on a spiritual level, he could never stomach the idea of handing over Thessaloniki to infidels. Unfortunately, for the Orthodox Christian faithful he died in 1429.

The Holdout - Symeon of Thessalonica

The Holdout – Symeon of Thessalonica (Credit: G Garitan)

Toward A Bad Ending – Threats of Violence
After Symeon’s death the population continued to melt away. The Venetians decided to keep defending the city, but only in support of their own narrow self-interests. Mercenary troops ensured that Thessalonians were sufficiently cowed into giving up the idea of surrender. Of course, by this point the population was much easier to control. It had dropped by 75% since the siege began, from 40,000 to approximately 10,000 bedraggled, depressed and demoralized citizens. An overwhelming majority of Thessalonians wanted to surrender, but they were being held hostage inside their own city. The Venetians, who had supposedly come to defend them, made matters much worse. This was a sad irony, that turned more tragic by the day. It was a situation bound to end bad and that is exactly what happened in the spring of 1430.

During the siege’s last days the defenders repeatedly rejected offers by Sultan Murad to spare the city and its inhabitants if they surrendered. These rejections sealed the fate of thousands. Knowing that death or slavery awaited them when the Turks finally took the city, what were Thessalonians thinking when they turned down the Sultan’s offer. The reality was that they were not being allowed to think for themselves. If Thessalonians had their choice, the city would have been handed over several years earlier. It would have spared the population famine, disease and a multitude of privations. The Venetians administering the city were holding out hope that a relief expedition would arrive to lift the siege. At the same time, mercenaries were holding the city’s citizens hostage. Thessalonians had little to no say in their fate even though pro-surrender forces had been in the majority for quite some time, their voices were silenced by the threat of violence.

Thessalonians faced two foes during the siege, the Venetians who were fighting to protect their own interests and the Ottomans whose determination to take the city kept the populace in a state of perpetual tension. The final, fatal blow occurred along the northeast section of the city walls near the Trigonian Tower. The defenders were driven from their positions by a storm of arrows unleashed by Ottoman archers. Legend has it that the first Ottoman soldier to get over the walls beheaded a wounded Venetian and tossed the head to his comrades who then came over the top en masse. The Venetian administrators, in an act of cowardice characteristic of their rule, escaped by ship along with some of the mercenaries. The unlucky Thessalonians left in the city were subjected to rape, pillage and indiscriminate brutality. Their efforts to resist were hopeless, any who fought on were cut down. Those who capitulated would either be killed or enslaved.

Point of no return -Trigonian Tower along the Walls of Thessaloniki

Point of no return -Trigonian Tower along the Walls of Thessaloniki (Credit: Herbert Frank)

Collateral Damage – A Mere Footnote
The Ottomans viewed Thessalonians as either collateral damage or war booty. Their rampage lasted for three days before Murad called a halt to these excesses. He was then magnanimous, inviting property owners back and offering protection to the remaining inhabitants. The problem was that only a couple of thousand were left alive. Byzantine Thessaloniki ceased to exist. Thessalonians worst fears had finally been realized. Whatever courage they displayed in trying to survive the siege had come to naught. The courage and cowardice, heroism and hysteria they displayed for eight long years no longer mattered. They ended up on the wrong side of history, a mere footnote that no one would notice. History was written by the winners, in this case the Ottomans. As for the losers, they were all but forgotten.

An Ancient Radiance – The Walls of Thessaloniki: Fateful Encounters (Part Thirteen)

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.

The City Walls at dawn - Thessaloniki

The City Walls at dawn – Thessaloniki

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 - Thessaloniki with outline of the City Walls

Walled in – Thessaloniki with outline of the City Walls (Credit: Philly boy92)

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.

A constant reminder - The City Walls of Thessaloniki

A constant reminder – The City Walls of Thessaloniki (Credit: Julian Nyca)

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.

Click here for: When All Hope Is Lost – The Siege of Thessaloniki: Points of No Return (Part Fourteen)

 

Lost In Time – The Siege of Thessaloniki: Too Much History (Part Twelve)

Time changes everything, including our view of historical events. The further an event recedes into the past, the less important it may seem to be. Time has a way of limiting our understanding of the passions that gave rise to memorable events. If it is true that time heals all wounds, then history offers plenty of examples. Of course, time can also harden and solidify attitudes that carryover from one generation to the next. The popular media’s tendency is to focus on current events in places where historical grievances have been allowed to fester. Places that have become marginalized in geographic, economic or political importance often get little attention despite important events that may have happened there in the past. Without media or politicians to remind the inhabitants they often lose sight of the notable historical events that occurred in their own backyard. There are plenty of events – while transformational at the time they occurred – that are hardly remembered today. The Siege of Thessaloniki comes to mind in this regard.

A massive amount of blood and treasure was expended during the siege. It was a test between human endurance (Greeks and Venetians) and the military might of an expanding empire (Ottoman Turks). Thousands died in the fighting. Just as many or more suffered in the horrific aftermath. Of course, when the perpetrators and victims have been dead for centuries, the memory of such events becomes increasingly hidden away in dusty archives or is relegated to the pages of obscure history books. Such an event will never attain the fame of a Waterloo or the infamy accorded the bombing of a Pearl Harbor. That is because the Siege of Thessaloniki is not considered of great historical importance. Perhaps that is true, but the siege also ushered in five hundred years of Ottoman rule in Greek Macedonia.

Ottoman Thessaloniki - Oldest photograph of the city from 1863

Ottoman Thessaloniki – Oldest photograph of the city from 1863 (Credit: Josef Szekely)

A City Under Siege – Repeatable Offenses
The final conquest of Thessaloniki would have ramifications for centuries to come, some of which can be still be felt today. The conquest was a landmark event in the history of the city and region. It marked a break with eleven hundred years of history. Thessaloniki had been a Christian city in the Byzantine Empire, but the sword of Islam would conquer and occupy one of Byzantium’s last outposts. After spending four days walking around the cityscape of Thessaloniki, visiting several of its most famous museums and taking in historical attractions, I learned next to nothing about the siege that ended in complete Ottoman control of the city in 1430. I imagined this lack of focus had something to do with the fact that the city is almost totally Greek today. The only Turks to be found are tourists that come to visit the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a handful of Ottoman monuments still standing.

The Siege of Thessaloniki likely gets little recognition these days for another reason, so much history has happened in the city that it is easy to overlook some important events. In the 20th century alone, Thessaloniki went from being part of an empire to a provincial city in a small struggling nation. A few years later it was occupied by one of the largest armies in the First World War. Twenty-five years later its vibrant Jewish population was wiped out by the Holocaust, while the Greek population suffered a horrendous famine and capricious violence during World War II followed by a nasty civil war. Fascinating and horrifying would sum up the city’s recent history. The same might be said of the siege that occurred almost six hundred years ago.

Building an Empire - Ottoman & Byzantine Imperial Territory in 1410

Building an Empire – Ottoman & Byzantine Imperial Territory in 1410 (Credit: Constatine Plakidas)

Many Years In The Making – Imperial Endings & Beginnings
While walking the streets of Thessaloniki I was struck by the inescapable thought that this was a place so rich in history, that it would not only be impossible to know all the historical events that happened here, but the most important ones might get overlooked as well. For reasons that I cannot now remember, I began to focus on the Siege of Thessaloniki. This seemed to me fertile ground for study. The siege was not one clean event, it was a messy multi-year affair filled with defiance, heroism and cowardice. Though it ended in 1430, it was many years in the making. Furthermore, a crucial event in the final stages of the siege happened along one of the remaining portions of the old city walls. The siege might become a personal staging ground for another trip to Thessaloniki. I could become one of the few to stand in the footsteps of history, both inside and outside the walls.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of studying centuries old history is that it allows the student a more detached perspective. I did not have any strong feelings for or against the Ottomans and Byzantines. As I was soon to discover, the siege was a highly complex affair that involved more than the peoples and soldiers of two empires, it was also fatally influenced by the Venetians. The Siege of Thessaloniki was a long time in coming. Its gestation period was over decades rather than years. The siege is usually dated from 1422 to 1430, but the events which led to it go all the way back to the late 14th century. The first siege by Ottoman troops of Thessaloniki took place from 1383 – 1387. It was successful with the Ottomans spending the next 16 years ruling over the city. In this case, Ottoman rule was anything but heavy handed. The citizenry was able to keep their privileges. Property was respected and Christians allowed freedom of worship. Churches remained intact and open. This first occupation by the Ottomans could best be termed as soft rule.

Staging ground - City walls of Thessaloniki

Staging ground – City walls of Thessaloniki (Credit: The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

Outside Influences – Venice Fills the Vacuum
Despite the relatively benign oversight of the Ottomans, the locals chaffed at their rule. An invasion in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) by the forces of Timurlane pulled the Ottomans away from Thessaloniki, allowing the Byzantines to recover the city. The Byzantines turned out to not be any better than the Ottomans as the empire was entering its final death throes. Central authority and administrative control were lacking. Thessaloniki was extremely vulnerable to outside influences. This was when Venice, another great Mediterranean power, arrived on the scene. The consequences of their involvement would have vast ramifications for Thessaloniki’s future. Those consequences inform the centuries to come.

Click here: An Ancient Radiance – The Walls of Thessaloniki: Fateful Encounters (Part Thirteen)

Holy Warrior – Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: Veneration & Vindication (Part Eleven)

The list of famous Thessalonians is long and storied. It includes such famous historical figures as Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet and brought Christianity into the consciousness of Slavs, masterful poets both ancient and modern such as Antipater of Thessalonica and Nazim Hekmat, fabulously wealthy merchants and bankers like Ioannis Papafis and Jacob Modiano. These are just a few of the notables who made their mark on history and the city. As I learned during my time visiting the city, there is one native son who rises above all the rest. Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki is the city’s superstar. No other Thessalonian, living or dead, can come close to Demetrios’ influence on the city’s history and its citizenry today. This is particularly amazing, considering that Demetrios died over 1,700 years ago.

Veneration & Vindication - The Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessaloniki

Veneration & Vindication – The Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessaloniki

Hidden Faith – A Secret Life
Long before he was revered as a Christian saint, Demetrios was a member of the Roman nobility and son of the proconsul (governor) of Helles province. During his upbringing, Demetrios showed a great deal of athleticism, intelligence and martial skill. This was recognized by the Emperor Galerius Maximian who believed Demetrios would be able to protect the city from barbarian attacks. Demetrios was soon following in his father’s footsteps when the Emperor appointed him as the next proconsul and given command of Thessaly’s military forces. Demetrios turned out to be an excellent choice, possessing strong leadership skills, personal bravery and a keen grasp of military tactics. Little did the Emperor know that Demetrios came from a Christian family that had practiced the faith in secret for years.

Once in power, Demetrios proved adept as both an administrator and soldier, but he kept his Christian practices out of the public eye, knowing that this could lead to deadly consequences. He was still intimately involved in propagating the faith. Soon word of his activities leaked out. This was the cause of great consternation among the pagan populace. After a series of military triumphs in the East, Maximian returned to Thessaloniki which he had declared as his seat of power. He was soon informed by pagans in the city that Demetrios had been preaching the Christian faith in direct contravention of Roman law. To make matters worse, Demetrios had done this while having a mandate to rout out and persecute Christians.

To say that Maximian was furious would be an understatement. He thought his visit to the city was going to be a celebration of his recent military triumphs over the Scythians. This was to include offerings of thanksgiving to the pagan gods. Instead, he learned that Demetrios was using his official imperial position to promote Christianity. Maximian had made it clear that he detested Christians, was involved in actively persecuting them and had ordered that anyone practicing or professing their faith in Christianity must be put to death. Demetrios was supposed to have been enforcing this imperial policy, Instead, he not only had failed to enforce it, but was doing the complete opposite. Such an act of faith-based insubordination would not be tolerated by Maximian.

The spirit still lives - Frescoes at the Church of St. Demetrios

The spirit still lives – Frescoes at the Church of St. Demetrios

Miracles & Martyrdom – The Spirit Still Lives
Maximian summoned Demetrios to explain his proselytizing. Rather than deny his actions, Demetrios admitted them to the emperor. Furthermore, he told Maximian that the idolatry and worship of pagan gods was wrong. Maximian proceeded to have Demetrios imprisoned in a basement cell below a Roman bath complex. He then ordered celebratory games in the circus to commemorate his military victories in the East. The emperor had brought along with him to Thessaloniki his favorite gladiator, Lyaios, a barbarian of towering height and unrivaled strength. He offered to fight any Christian. At first no one dared take up Lyaios on his offer, because it would have meant almost certain death. Then one of the faithful took up the challenge. As the story goes, a Christian acolyte of Demetrios, by the name of Nestor, believed that the power of Christ could defeat the emperor’s chosen gladiator. Nestor needed Demetrios assistance to make this a possibility.

Nestor was a small man who lacked the requisite physical toughness to take on Lyaios. Nevertheless, Nestor visited the imprisoned Demetrios who blessed him with the sign of the cross. Boosted in confidence by this visit, Nestor took up the challenge of opposing Lyaios. When the giant barbarian rushed at him, Nestor was able to sidestep the hard charging Lyaios. Nestor then managed to kill Lyaios. This came as a profound shock to everyone who witnessed the event. It confirmed for many the power of Christianity. This turn of events enraged Maximian who believed the Christians were employing the darkest of arts to thwart imperial rule. He had Nestor arrested and beheaded outside the city walls. He also sent soldiers to Demetrios’ cell where they surrounded and ran him through with spears.

Hidden Faith - Crypt at the Church of St. Demetrios

Hidden Faith – Crypt at the Church of St. Demetrios

Festive Findings – A Symbolic Savior
Varying accounts state what happened next. One story relates how Roman soldiers threw Demetrios’ body in the street to be devoured by wild dogs, but his followers were able to save his remains from despoilment. Another account states that Christian followers of Demetrios were first-hand witnesses to his murder and were able to recover the body for burial. In the centuries after his death, Demetrios fame grew in Thessaloniki. When the Edict of Milan in 313 AD was proclaimed allowing for religious toleration across the empire, a small place of worship was set up over the site of his martyrdom. Later, a Christian church would be constructed on the same spot. The magnificent Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) stands there today. After Thessaloniki became the main Roman military base in the area during the mid-5th century, the veneration of Demetrios was credited with saving the city from numerous attacks by Slavs, Saracens and Arabs.

When myrrh began oozing from below Demetrios’ tomb, acolytes gathered this substance in small vials. Soon fountains were setup for the many pilgrims who would come to visit the site. They began to collect myrrh and attest to Demetrius miracle working powers. The Feast of Demetrios brought traders from as far away as the Middle East and Africa to the city. Festivities are still celebrated each year in Thessaloniki on October 26th, the date of his martyrdom. Through the ages, Demetrios has become more than a martyr to the city, he is its symbol and savior, a holy warrior offering divine blessings to those Thessalonians who invoke his spirit. He has become one of them and part of them.

Click here for: Holy Warrior – Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: Veneration & Vindication (Part Eleven)

The Via Egnatia – Thessaloniki: A Road To Roman Glory (Part Ten)

Being a native son of the car crazed United States, I always find the subject of transport, whether in ancient, medieval or modern Europe, utterly fascinating. My fascination extends to such everyday objects as road signs and motorways. For instance, on the bus ride into Thessaloniki from the airport, I studied the road signs and found comfort in the fact that they did not look much different from the ones back home. The highway was just like those to be found in any developed country. In a land where the language, customs and culture can seem so foreign, driving down the highway is much the same as anywhere else. One thing I failed to realize until my arrival in Thessaloniki was that the bus travelling between the airport and city center plied one of the most famous ancient Roman thoroughfares, the Via Egnatia.

After realizing this, I looked up expecting to see something that would remind me of Roman times. Perhaps there would be an ancient cobbled roadway, some historical markers explaining the route or at least a few signs written in Latin script. There was nothing of the sort. Instead, I saw modern concrete block buildings on either side of a road jam packed with vehicles. I was the unlucky recipient of a heavy dose of urban congestion as the bus crawled through the city center. I was relieved when me and my wife were able to alight at the bus stop nearest our accommodation, but the Via Egnatia had made an impression upon me. It would not be the last time.

Distance Discovery - Milestone 260 from the Via Egnatia

Distance Discovery – Milestone 260 from the Via Egnatia (Credit: Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki)

An Eastern Movement – Borderless Travel
The Via Egnatia as it exists today in both neglected and entirely modernized form offers a tangible link with ancient Rome. That might be expected in Greece, but the Via Egnatia also crosses countries such as Albania that one usually does not associate with the Roman Empire. Constructed 2,200 years ago to link a chain of Roman Provinces from the Adriatic Sea to the Bosphorus Strait, the 1,120 kilometer long Via Egnatia was among the most important roads in the empire. It was the first road to connect Rome with the further reaches of the empire in the eastern Mediterranean. The Via Egnatia’s construction represented an incredible engineering feat. In what was then the Roman provinces of Illyricum and Macedonia, the road traversed extremely mountainous terrain, threading its way through mountain passes and running across ridgelines.

The Via Egnatia was a symbol of progress that helped facilitate trade and commerce between the western and eastern areas of the empire. The case could be made that in some ways the road was the pinnacle of progress for commercial trade in the region. Consider that in Roman times, a traveler along the Via Egnatia would have been able to make their way from what is Dyrrachium (Durres, Albania) all the way to Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey) without crossing a single border. Driving the same route today, a traveler will be stopping at border controls for Albania-Macedonia, Macedonia-Greece and Greece-Turkey. Travel along the Via Egnatia has gotten more, rather than less, complicated over the past two millennia. Of course, due to modern technology travel is also faster, at least once past border crossings.

The great connector - Map showing the Via Egnatia route

The great connector – Map showing the Via Egnatia route (Credit: Eric Gaba)

Marking Roman Miles – Written In Stone
I did not think too much about the Via Egnatia after that initial shock when I found myself riding into Thessaloniki along the ancient road. Then on my third day in the city, when my wife and I visited the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, an artifact suddenly brought it back to mind. Among the many exquisite works of ancient craftsmanship on display in the museum, I found the single most intriguing to be a milestone that had been dug out of seven meters of sand. It was discovered during excavation on the construction of an industrial plant west of Thessaloniki. The 1.31 meter marble stone was illuminated in such a manner that the carving on it was highly visible and could easily be read. Three lines of rather large Latin text (it was also inscribed in Greek) were arranged in the following order:

CCLX
CN.EGNATI.C.
PRO.COS

The three lines offered clues to the milestone’s origins. The Roman numerals stood for the number 260. The second line spelled out the name of Egnatius, the man who ordered the road constructed and for which it is named. This has been confirmed by mention of Egnatius in the work of Polybius, an ancient historian. The final line was Engnatius’ title of Proconsul, governor of the province. The milestone had once stood along the Via Egnatia, seven miles west of Thessaloniki, marking Roman Mile 260. The mileage was calculated from where the road began at Dyrrachium along the Adriatic coast. Every mile along the Via Egnatia had one of these marble milestones marking distance.

The milestone looked to be in as pristine condition as could be expected for something that had survived over two thousand years of history. I found it fascinating from a modern perspective because mile markers are now built of metal rather than marble. No one expects the modern markers to last more than a couple of decades. Whether the Romans were building these milestones to last is anyone’s guess, but the fact is that a few did. It is too bad that replicas cannot be erected to replace the ancient ones. Of course, the cost to manufacture them would be prohibitive. This is ironic since today’s societies are much wealthier and technologically savvier than the ancient Romans. I shudder to think what our own civilization will leave behind. I am quite certain it will not be modern highway markers. The Roman use of marble for the milestones enshrined a bit of their legacy in stone.

Modernizing a Roman road - Egnatia street in Thessaloniki

Modernizing a Roman road – Egnatia street in Thessaloniki (Credit: Fingalo)

The Road To Glory – A Great Historical Drama
On the rest of this trip, anytime I walked along or across the Via Egnatia I felt like I was following in the footsteps of history. My assumption was correct. For the Via Egnatia was where a rich cast of historical characters traveled on their way to or from making history. The ancient celebrities who used the road were a powerfully eclectic group. These included such luminaries as Julius Caesar and the Apostle Paul. They did not realize at the time that each one of them was caught up in a great historical drama that would not become clear until after they vanished from the earth. The Via Egnatia was the pathway that led to great triumphs and tragedies. It still does today.

 

The First After The First – Thessaloniki in Byzantium: A Distant Second (Part Nine)

“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.

Transcendence - Inside the Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki

Transcendence – Inside the Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki

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.

Faded glory - Mosaic from the Museum of Byzantine Civilization

Faded glory – Mosaic from the Museum of Byzantine Civilization

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.

Setting a future course - The Rotunda in Thessaloniki

Setting a future course – The Rotunda in Thessaloniki

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.

Click here: The Via Egnatia – Thessaloniki: A Road To Roman Glory (Part Ten)

Open To Interpretation – Ataturk’s Birthplace In Thessaloniki: Mysterious Days (Part Eight)

Walking up the steps to enter Ataturk’s birthplace I wondered exactly what I would find inside. Since the house was a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of Turks each year, an aura of reverence was to be expected. The rooms contained exhibits laying out the early life and later accomplishments of perhaps the most indispensable leader to a single nation’s creation and resulting development during the 20th century. Such a statement sounds like hyperbole, but there is no way to overstate Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s centrality to the nation of Turkey, past, present and future. He is adored by Turks with a devotion usually reserved for religious figures. The cult of Ataturk is alive in the country and from what I saw, outside of it as well. The museum at Ataturk’s birthplace emphasized his greatness, but it also left me with the impression that it was as much about paying homage as it was honoring history.

A mythical figure - The man who created Modern Turkey

A mythical figure – The man who created Modern Turkey

It was difficult to get a grasp on Ataturk’s early childhood from the museum. Much of that had to do with the lack of original furnishings. This was understandable. No one could have foreseen just how famous Ataturk would later become or that the city of his birth would end up as part of Greece. In truth, it was something of a miracle that the house survived at all. The family never owned it, only renting the home. After his father’s death, the seven year old Mustafa (Ataturk’s given name at birth), his mother and sister moved from the house to one adjacent to it. (Some sources state that he was born in another house) Mustafa would eventually move away, while his mother and sister continued to live in the city until the Greeks took over from the Ottomans in 1912. They fled, along with 15,000 other Muslim refugees, to Istanbul. The birthplace house was bought by a Greek family, but the Greek government eventually recovered it. They gifted it to Turkey as a symbol of friendship between the two formerly warring nations.

A Mythical Figure – Sharp Dressed Man
The house also managed to survive one cataclysmic fire, two world wars and a slew of earthquakes that remade the cityscape of Thessaloniki (Selanik when Ataturk was born). By fate or fortune, Ataturk’s birthplace escaped the wrath of history. In a sense, the birthplace’s longevity mirrored Ataturk’s own life. Through one maelstrom after another, both emerged unscathed with their images intact. A pristine image of Ataturk was certainly portrayed by the museum. That image was most prominently on display in an uncanny wax figure of Ataturk sitting in a chair, staring intently into the distance, looking like a statesman on a mission. He was immaculately attired, just as he was in life. Among the more pronounced effects of the European culture Ataturk imbibed in Thessaloniki was a penchant for sharp dressing in tailored suits. He abhorred traditional Ottoman dress his entire life.

Sharp dressed man - Artifacts of Ataturk

Sharp dressed man – Artifacts of Ataturk

The wax portrayal of Ataturk was eerily lifelike. To the point that I felt at any moment Ataturk might shift his eyes directly toward mine. Instead he looked right through me, with a gaze of intensity and ambition that demanded respect and reverence. He looked to be the kind of man who can stare right into someone else’s soul. I had seen this pose from Ataturk in historic photographs. While visiting Turkey several years before, I bought a photo of this same likeness. In both the image and wax portrayal there was no hint of a blemish or flaw about the man. Here was the essential Ataturk, strong, determined, radiating confidence and subtle ferocity. There was no hint of the drinking habit that ended his remarkable life at the age of 57. Ataturk was more myth than man in this museum. For that matter, I began to wonder where his younger self was in these rooms. Perhaps hiding somewhere in the shadows cast by his legend and legacy.

A Child’s Game – Consider The Source
The museum did a good job of telling the story of Ataturk’s hometown, his family, the early part of his life and giving a feel for what he stood for. I went into the room where he was likely born. I say likely, because no one really knows for sure. There is not even an agreed upon date for his birth. Ataturk stated that his mother told him he was born in the spring. Scholarly historians have not been able to confirm a specific date, but the best guess is that he was born during the winter of 1881. Does it matter? Not really, except for the fact that so much of Ataturk’s life has become obscured by myth that the truth has become difficult to discern, especially regarding the earliest years of his life. Ataturk and those around him encouraged this sort of manufactured history, a milder version of the cult of personality that is so often cultivated by authoritarian governments. The truth about Ataturk’s early life is either pristine (museum version) or fuzzy (biographies). The difference between fact and fiction is often undetectable. Where there is a vacuum of information, Turks have filled it with reverence. While historians have filled it with their own interpretations.

Man of Action - Words from Ataturk

Man of Action – Words from Ataturk

It felt strange walking around the house. The exhibits were excellent, but they could not replace the lack of authenticity. The house did not look or feel anything like the late 19th century. This made it hard to get a grasp on Ataturk’s early years. Instead, the museum’s interpretation was less about perspective and more about retrospective. Here was Ataturk without flaws, a man of incomparable achievements. There was soothing Turkish music that set a mood of relaxation. I could have stood in those room for hours listening to that music. I lingered longer than usual. Everything was pleasing. There was no struggle, no ambiguity, the wars, personal and political had been fought and won in clinical fashion. The toil and terrible suffering Ataturk must have seen in his lifetime was worth a few paragraphs. As for the young Mustafa reared within these walls, he was to remain a stranger. The childhood experiences that influenced his later life would remain a mystery, forever.

Click here for: The First After The First – Thessaloniki in Byzantium: A Distant Second (Part Nine)