Unleashed – The Balkans: War of the Stray Dog (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #36)

Anyone who has spent time in the Balkans has almost certainly been confronted by the problem of stray dogs. In Sofia, Bulgaria a group of stray dogs became my running companions for half an hour. In Sarajevo, I came across another pack wandering around a yard just before dawn. That was ten years ago. During my last trip to the Balkans I noticed the problem continues to persist. I never made it to the waterfront in Bar, Montenegro because I came across a pack of dogs whose barks were so ferocious that I did not dare tempt fate and did a quick U-turn within 100 yards of them. Such experiences have led me to think of the Balkans as the land of the stray dog. What I could never have imagined was that the Balkans was also where the War of the Stray Dog took place. This war proved that the truth is not only stranger, but also more sublime than fiction.

Ready for war – Armed forces supporting Bulgaria (Credit: Неизвестен)

Violent Absurdities – Perpetual Contentions
Many years ago while visiting a fort on the coast of Florida, I first learned about the War of Jenkins Ear. The conflict partly resulted from a violent absurdity that occurred when Spanish sailors boarded the merchant ship of Robert Jenkins of Britain and severed his ear. The war took place during the mid-18th century and lasted nine years. At the time, I thought there could not possibly be a more absurd way to start a war. That was until I discovered the War of the Stray Dog fought between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925. It was the culmination of strained relations between the two nations. The postwar World War I Treaty of Neuilly-sure-Seine, which had awarded western Thrace to the Greeks who just happened to end up on the winning side of the war. This became a point of perpetual contention between the two sides.

This did not sit well with the Bulgarians who coveted the region. After the treaty went into effect there were intermittent, cross border incursions by fearsome groups, particularly the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and another offshoot, the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization. Both groups would use whatever means necessary to try and wrest the region away from Greece. The IMRO was notorious for violence, including between its own leader and operatives. IMRO most famously captured, tortured, and murdered the Bulgarian Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski. He had made the mistake of working with Greece and Yugoslavia to improve relations. Tensions between Bulgaria and Greece continued to fester after Stamboliski was out of the way. It would not take much of an incident to bring the two sides to blows, but no one could have imagined that incident would revolve around a stray dog.

Worth fighting for – Stray dog in Bulgaria (Credit: Melody Gilbert)

Running Wild – Going Beyond The Border
Even by the standards of the Balkans, the border region between southwestern Bulgaria and northern Greece is exceedingly remote. Strikingly beautiful, the area is covered by mountains with few good roads. To an outsider, the region seems like an improbable place for a war to start, but many parts of the Balkans continued to be contested ground, no matter how obscure, long after World War I ended. This was the case with the Demir Kapou pass in the Belasica Mountain range, which straddles the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Border sentries of both nations stared across an invisible boundary at each other. The enmity between the Greeks and Bulgars was pervasive, putting the sentries on hair trigger alert. That is probably the best explanation for what occurred on October 19, 1925 when a Greek border guard’s dog got loose and proceeded to run into Bulgarian territory. A Bulgarian soldier shot the border sentry dead. A little bit later, a Greek officer displaying a white flag went into the no man’s land between the two sides. This only made the officer and a private who had accompanied him easy targets. They were also shot dead.

Word of what happened on the border got back to Theodoros Pangolos, who had gained control of Greece through a military coup. This was just the kind of incident Pangolos could use to bolster his strongman credentials. He sent an entire corps of the Greek Army to the border where they were ordered to march into Bulgaria. They met tepid resistance. Along the way, they pillaged and burned villages. In addition, they killed approximately 50 people with this incursion. On the Bulgarian side, cooler heads prevailed. The Bulgarians appealed to the League of Nations to resolve the dispute. Panglos had demanded the Bulgarians pay a huge sum of money – six million Greek Drachmas – for restitution.

Ironically, Panglos had defeated his own cause by ordering the incursion into Bulgaria. The Greeks had gone from victim to perpetrator. They had also committed atrocities in Bulgaria. The upshot was that the Greeks were ordered to pay restitution for the damage they had caused. While the Greeks protested the League’s decision, they had little choice but to comply, since Britain, France, and Italy were in favor of this decision. The Greeks claimed they were not being treated fairly. That the League decided in favor of what the most powerful countries wanted. Of course, the Greeks were ignoring the fact that Bulgaria was a similar sized country.

A show of force – Тheodoros Pangalos

Barking Up The Wrong Tree – A Dog’s Life
The Bulgars may not have won The War of the Stray Dog on the battlefield, but they did win their case before the League of Nations. This infuriated Panglos. It also shamed him. Less than a year later, he would be ousted from his position as de facto dictator of Greece. The humiliating loss in The War of the Stray Dog did irreparable damage to his reputation. Panglos’ political career would never recover. Lost amid the diplomacy and mediation which resolved the dispute, was the fact that a stray dog had started the whole mess. Nothing is known about what happened to the dog. The incident stands as an instructive example of how misunderstandings can lead to war. This was especially true with the Bulgars and Greeks who assumed the worst about each other. A seemingly innocence action by a dog and its owner turned into an international incident. While the situation was resolved at the League of Nations, no one thought to enact another sensible option to make sure the same thing would never happen again, a leash law.

Inspiration By Attempted Assassination– Zog: The Man Who Would Be King 

There is a tendency to discount Albania’s King Zog as a rather ridiculous pseudo-monarch. His popular bio goes something like this: a foolish incompetent, bad at almost everything except for deadly feuds, miraculously avoiding assassination and corruption on a breathtaking scale. It does not help Zog’s reputation that his name is ludicrously memorable. One cannot help but think that no self-respecting king would ever allow themselves to be called Zog. He had a comic strip character kind of name, except that the joke was on whoever crossed him. Zog was lethal when it came to his enemies.

As for his real name, Ahmet Mehtar Zogolli, it was much more difficult to pronounce or remember. The name smacks of something straight out of the Orient, with the usual connotations of despotic behavior and lurid intrigues. Not since Pepin the Short has a monarch been so degraded by his name. It does not help his reputation that Zog led Albania, a nation that was perhaps the most backward in Europe at the time, into oblivion. He fled in the face of Italian invasion, never to return. Zog lived out his life abroad on the proceeds of his thievery.

Bulletproof - Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania

Bulletproof – Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania (Credit: Attila Terbocs)

A Game Of Survival – Forms of Chicanery
With the gift of hindsight, Zog’s misrule in Albania seems rather harmless in comparison to the hardline Stalinism that would come to later dominate the country. In other words, Zog’s rule was bad, but it could have been much worse. His time in power moved Albania towards achieving a national identity, with a central government and modest improvements in communications and transportation. That may not sound like much, then again considering the state of Albania at the time – rampant poverty, mass illiteracy, epidemic levels of malaria and tribal violence – Zog was something of a minor success. He was a formidable politician, despite or more likely because of his inherent flaws. Zog’s greatest success was reserved for himself, as was the Albanian treasury. He had an ability to cheat death. Most famously by surviving more assassination attempts (55), than any head of state in modern history. Zog may have survived, but leading Albania during the 1920’s and 1930’s also meant taking a few bullets. Most famously on some stairs inside the Albanian parliament in Tirana on February 23, 1924.

To say that Albania during the 1920’s was a nation in flux would be a massive understatement. Its existence was hardly assured. Albania had only been a nation-state since 1912. In the aftermath of the First World War it looked as though it would become subsumed in a greater Italy or a greater Greece or a greater Yugoslavia. Instead it was left as it was, a struggling nation surrounded by external enemies and beset by internal discord. Its politics were riven by tribalism, blood feuds and endemic corruption. In other words, Albania, was a terrible mess. Trying to bring order to this chaos would take a leader the likes of which had not been seen in the land for centuries. That leader was nowhere to be found. The man who rose to the top was Zog. He did this through every form of chicanery known in the annals of bad government. Threats, assassinations, torture, payoffs, Zog would go to any lengths in building a base of power. His enemies largely played by these same rules. The difference being that Zog was much better at it.

Take a bow - King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Take a bow – King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Crisis Management – A Moving Target
By 1923, the Albanian government was in crisis. This was nothing new, since the government during this period was always in crisis. A vote was to take place that would hopefully lead to a decisive majority that would enact constitutional reform. Zog, who was Prime Minister at the time, hoped to expand his power through this process, but first he and his allies had to win the election. The opposition’s fear was that if Zog won, he would make himself a virtual dictator. The outcome was fraught with uncertainty, as the Zogist’s came within a whisker of winning a majority. Zog took to dispensing favors in the hopes of gaining enough allies to form a new government. The vote for one would take place in late February. This was a great opportunity for Zog, as well as for the opposition which felt it was their last chance to stop him.

Assassination was politics by other means, specifically violent ones. Zog certainly knew this since he was a target for assassins throughout his political career, including on the mid-afternoon of February 23rd.  Zog was making his way up the stairs to parliament where he was to rally support in the vote for a new government. While making a turn in the stairwell, an opposition supporter fired shots at him. Two bullets struck Zog. He was hit in the wrist, abdomen and thigh. This did not detain him from making his way to Parliament. A shocked crowd of deputies watched a reeling Zog make his way to a seat. Rather than call for immediate medical care which he obviously needed, Zog instead prepared to make a few remarks. While this dramatic scene was taking place, more shots rang out. The assassin had managed to make his way to the bathroom, locked the door and fired rounds from inside of it. He would eventually be forced to surrender. The greatest drama was back in parliament.

A chestful of medals rather than bullets - King Zog

A chestful of medals rather than bullets – King Zog

A Question Of Respect – Profile In Courage
The fact that the man who had just shot him was holding out did not keep Zog from saying a few words. Amazingly, considering the situation, these were delivered in his typically laconic fashion. “Gentlemen, this is not the first time in the world that such a thing has happened in a parliament. I ask my friends to leave it alone and deal with it afterwards.” He then proceeded to stay seated for several minutes. When his personal physician arrived, Zog finally allowed himself to be treated. He then made his way out of parliament under his own power. It was a crazy display of courage that would become legend to his supporters.

Meanwhile, the opposition must have wondered how they would ever rid themselves of Zog. Fortunately for them, political missteps in the coming months by a recovering Zog would lead to him fleeing the country a year later. This was but a brief respite. Zog would be returned to power a year later by Yugoslav troops. He would rule Albania for the next fourteen years. Zog was a remarkably resilient man, both physically and politically. He may not have been a great leader, but he was not a ridiculous one either. Any man who can give remarks a few minutes after taking bullets deserves respect, both then and now.

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:


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)

Reversal of Fortunes – Ataturk’s Birthplace in Thessaloniki: The World That No Longer Exists (Part Seven)

I passed through the life of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in reverse. The first time I stood in his footsteps was at Dolmabache Palace in Istanbul. This was in the bedroom where he passed his final breath. On the battlefield of Gallipoli I stood close to where he was struck by shrapnel. In Thessaloniki, I visited the same room where he was born. Death, near death and birth, that was my experience with Ataturk. I missed those in between places that were also integral to the making of his monumental life. These spatial gaps mirrored my lack of knowledge about Ataturk’s life. This was directly attributable to my failure to do much homework on the man despite my best intentions. Years ago, I bought Andrew Mango’s magisterial biography, Ataturk, a door stop tome that looks like it weighs a ton, because it does.

I tried to start off by reading a few pages at a time. This did not work very well. I put it down one day and never picked it back up except for use as a reference. In Mango’s defense there is no way one could tell the story of such an eventful life in a short, pithy work. Ataturk was a serious man whose legacy includes the creation of modern Turkey. That makes him a larger than life figure, one who is worthy of the 600 plus pages Mango devotes to him. This was a bit too much for me. I preferred my consumption of Ataturk in bite size portions. Perhaps that was why I found the places associated with the beginning, end and near end of his life so fascinating.

Family ties - Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with his mother Zubeyde Hanim (middle) and sister Makbule Atadan (left)

Family ties – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with his mother Zubeyde Hanim (middle) and sister Makbule Atadan (left)

A City Called Selanik – A Multi-Faceted World
My tour of the places important to the life of Ataturk was never planned. The visits just happened to coincide with two trips to Turkey and a very recent one to Greece. It was the last journey, specifically to Ataturk’s birthplace in Thessaloniki, which left the greatest impression upon me. While it lacked the drama of Gallipoli and the sober reverence of Dolmabahce, the house in which Ataturk was born had its own unique charm, much like the city he was born into during the winter of 1881 (the exact date of his birth is not known). It always fascinated me that the founder of modern Turkey spent his youth in what is now the second largest city in Greece.  Of course, at that time Thessaloniki was known by the name of Selanik as part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Turks were the administrative class ruling over the city. They were not in the majority though. Neither were Greeks. The largest group were Jews, who made up 47% of the population. It was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world at that time. Thessaloniki in the late 19th century was a multi-cultural city where disparate ethnic groups lived in segregated communities. At the same time, they interacted daily and lived in relative harmony together. This was the exact opposite of the ethnically homogenous state that Ataturk would eventually create. Of course, the Ottoman Empire of Ataturk’s youth was part of a world that had not yet suffered through the cataclysm of World War One.

On eastern time - Thessaloniki in the late 19th century

On eastern time – Thessaloniki in the late 19th century (Credit: William Miller)

Opposites Attract – The Will To Change
My first impression of the young Mustafa’s (Ataturk’s given name at birth) home from the street was that it looked more bourgeois than I would have imagined. The three story, cantilevered house, painted in the same pink shade as when he lived there, included a lovely courtyard sporting a pomegranate tree. The tree had originally been planted by Ataturk’s father, Ali Reza Efendi. I wondered how Ali Reza was able to afford such a nice home while working as a customs clerk in the civil service. It turns out that he was also a profitable timber merchant, almost certainly taking a cut of proceeds from illicit timber harvested on the slopes of Mt. Olympus and surreptitiously shipped to Thessaloniki rather than further eastward.

Ataturk’s mother, Zubeyde Hanim, was a devout Muslim who believed her son should be educated in a religious school. Ali Reza believed otherwise and according to a story Mustafa told later in life, his father’s argument won out. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his son’s many accomplishments. Ali Reza died when Mustafa was just seven years old. The family moved to the countryside for a while before Mustafa went back to live with his uncle in Thessaloniki while attending a preparatory school. Later on his volition, he took and passed the exam to enter military school in the city. Soldiering would end up carrying him away from Thessaloniki forever.

Back to the start - Ataturk's Birthplace in Thessaloniki

Back to the start – Ataturk’s Birthplace in Thessaloniki

Compound Fracture – Deep Rooted Insecurities
The oddest thing about visiting the Ataturk birthplace in Thessaloniki was how guarded it looked from the outside, but once inside it was the total opposite. Part of the security features around the exterior perimeter had to do with the fact that the Turkish consulate is also housed in the same area. There was good reason for security precautions due to the ebb and flow of tensions. The compound has suffered occasional attacks through the years. The most notorious of these was a bombing in 1955 that was eventually linked back to the Turkish Prime Minister at the time who was trying to stir up unrest. A couple of weeks after leaving Thessaloniki I noticed a news item where twelve anti-Turkish protestors were arrested for breaking security measures around the house.

That would not have been very difficult from what I witnessed on my visit. The police standing on the street close to the house were more interested in chatting and smoking than protective measures, it was not hard to imagine how something might have happened. Entering the grounds of Ataturk’s home was a unique, if not to say strange experience. The entryway was the kind of door one might find at a highly secure compound. I expected that once I opened it, there would be armed guards and scanners to check bags. There was nothing of the sort. Instead a man behind a glass window signaled for me to sign a guest book. That was the extent of security protocols for entering. Once past the entrance, visitors were free to roam around the courtyard and house as they pleased. The lack of restrictions was a pleasant surprise, a harbinger of things to come.