Thessaloniki at the edge of the 19th and 20th centuries: A look back at the history of a multinational city

By Efthymios-Spyridon Georgiou

The modern history of Thessaloniki, a Mediterranean port city in northern Greece, began in the mid-nineteenth century. The Ottoman ruler at the time, Tanziman, was influenced by modernism and Western lifestyles. So while the Ottoman state remained anachronistic in administrative and military structures, Tanziman promoted the modernization of the city. The period between roughly 1870 and 1913, then, is known in Thessaloniki as the period of Tanziman reforms.

Thessaloniki and its multinational past

Thessaloniki in 19th century: Hippodamia Urban System
Source: Culture trip

From its founding in 315 BC until the mid-nineteenth century, a number of uprisings, social movements, and wars have taken place in Thessaloniki. Those events affected the urban development of the city.

For instance, during the construction that took place in 3rd and 2nd century B.C., the neighborhoods reached the coastline followed by the Hippodamian city planning with vertical and horizontal streets which formed rectangular city blocks that reached the area of Egnatia Boulevard. Thereafter, and as the orientation of the land changed from south-eastwards to north-westwards, the blocks in the 6 vicinity of the seafront differentiated. There were also open spaces like the Campos where Galerius built his palace during the Roman rule.

Thessaloniki during the Hellenistic Period: Agora, Acropolis, Administration Centre

The rise of national liberation movements in the Balkans and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire also between 1869 and 1923 had an impact on Thessaloniki. Throughout all of those transformations—fires, epidemics, insecurity, abandonment, population decline, economic misery—the city was surrounded by walls.

Tanzimat undertook the modernization and Westernization of Thessaloniki in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, the city’s districts were divided by ethnicity and religion: Muslims lived in the Upper City; Orthodox lived in various areas along the Egnatia Road, around the Valtadon Monastery, Vardar and the Cathedral and Jews resided near the sea under Egnatia. Meanwhile, the area around the church of Agios Minas was named “The ‘Frankish Quarter’ (‘Malta’) where all foreigners lived as early as in the Byzantine period extended around today’s Fragkon Street and had beautiful stone-built houses with captivating qualities. Thessaloniki was a multicultural city, inhabited by Greeks, Jews, Turks, Franks, Armenians, Slavs, and Dondemes (Islamized Jews).

The city celebrated three different holy day seach the week: Sunday for Christians, Saturday for Jews, and Friday for Muslims. By the end of the nineteenth century, Thessaloniki had educational institutions of nine diverse doctrines, and thirteen different ethnicities.

Population growth and big projects

Panoramic View of Salonica

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the city increased its population due to its economic growth, but the main reason for the increase was the incorporation of rural populations. The city’s population increased from 40,000 in 1840 to 120,000 in 1895. From 1869 to 1896 the city was linked by rail to the region of Bitola, Skopje, Belgrade and northern Europe, as well as to eastern Macedonia, Thrace and Constantinople. The rail connections were important as the city was a sea route for the rest of the Balkans, particularly Belgrade and Sofia, and it contributed to Constantinople’s trade in passenger transport and exports.

In 1870 the reformist Sabri Pasha demolished the maritime wall ‘for the sake of increment of land and the construction of the quay’. For that purpose the ruins were buried deep down so that the first quay could be made. The southern parts of the east and west walls had the same fate. This intervention signaled the modern era of the city. That same year, the seabed wall was demolished and a series of interventions including digging, arterial and road construction, construction of public buildings, banks, hospitals, schools, were completed.

The end of the First Balkan War in October 1912 and the entry of the Greek army into the city brought enormous economic turmoil: local trade was abolished, businesses remained inactive as no trade was allowed, and the city was isolated by the Greek army. Communities sought to find ways to meet the needs of their members. In early November 1912, bread shortages brought confusion and threatened the lives and livelihoods of Thessaloniki’s residents.

The end of cosmopolitanism for Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki, under the Treaty of Bucharest of August 10, 1913, was incorporated into the Greek state. Despite guarantees of economic and social protection, a large number of Jews, 800 wholesalers and capitalists and about 500 craftsmen left Thessaloniki. During the same period, more than 15,000 Muslims evacuated their homes.

From September 22, 1915, 150,000 British soldiers, 112,000 Serbs and 5,000 Russians from the Entente forces conquered the city of Thessaloniki. This marked the beginning of the end of cosmopolitanism in Thessaloniki. In the following years, the composition of the population changed significantly in favor of the Greeks. Slavs and Ottomans gradually left the city, while an influx of refugees from other Greek regions fell under increased Bulgarian or Serbian sovereignty.

The new Greek statement in 1913

The fire which took place in August 1917 was an important moment in the modern history of Thessaloniki. It began in a house in the Muslim neighborhood before reaching the Old City, and soon extended quickly to other parts of Thessaloniki. This incident was a huge catastrophe for the city’s historical center.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 9.59.02 AM
Source: Μοσκώφ Κ. (1978). Θεσσαλονίκη – τομή της μεταπρατικής πόλης, Τόμος Α’ Εκδ. Στοχαστής, Αθήνα

Due to this fire, Venizelos’s government decided to abrogate property law sin order to rebuild and restore the city. For instance, the International Committee New Plan of Thessaloniki was created by French urban planner Ernest Herbard, who, shortly after, proposed a plan for a new town.

The plan suggested a modern city with homogenous characteristics, which delimited working, resident a land industrial areas into distinct zones. The main goal of the planning effort was the creation of orderly city blocks, taming the irregular and maze-like city. Herbard had two purposes in this project. First, he wanted to insure the continued long-tem development of Thessaloniki, planning future extensions in case of an increase in population. Second, he hoped to rebuild the city center while giving possession of a small part of land to independent owners.

The plan called for central routes running vertically to the sea, along with four main boulevards: the axis of Aristotle square and Agias Sofias street, Dimitriou Gounaris street and the open space along the university and the sea). Aristotle Square was the “Boulevard De La Société Des Nations”, (A.K.A The Aristotle Axis In Thessaloniki) and it was the main innovation of the plan. The port was also extended from the west part of the city.

Furthermore, the plan suggested the construction of a Place Civique in Aristotle Square, as well as the construction of a city hall, a court of law, and other significant public buildings. The city center was built based mainly on the “land –for-apartment exchange system” This urban system had an important role in the urban expansion to follow, and was a crucial factor when the refugees arrived during the population exchange of 1922.


Place Civique

Between 1922-1924 more than 130,000 refugees arrived in Thessaloniki, in addition to the more than 30,000 expatriates from Bulgaria, Serbia, Asia Minor, Russia and Caucasus that were already living in Thessaloniki due to war events and persecution in their homelands. The places where they settled were old camps, churches, schools and public buildings (Savvaidis, 2012).

The arrival of the refugees was the starting point of the special and social transformation of Thessaloniki. During the period from 1922-1928 the population of the urban area of Thessaloniki increased by 37.50% (Giannakou, 2015).

In Conclusion

The urban and spatial transformations that took place in the Balkan area are connected to the general social and economic developments in the Ottoman Empire, as well as with the nationalist aspirations of the Balkan countries. The gradual increase of capitalism in the area was associated with the development of a new urban environment. The traditional port-cities and the trading centers, as well as the capitals of the newly formed nation-states were the first to be reformed. In Thessaloniki the main characteristics of this period were the construction of major roads, the attempt of Hippodamian city planning application, the planning of urban public transport and the transport connections.

s200_efthymios.georgiouEfthymios-Spyridon Georgiou is an urban planning specialist in Thessaloniki, Greece. He earned his Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) focused in City/Urban, Community and Regional Planning from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH).

Featured Image (at top): Where Apostle Paul Preached Sanitation. A view of Salonica from an airplane. January 1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Greek References

• Γερολύμπου – Καραδήμου. Α. (2008) «Η Θεσσαλονίκη από την οθωμανική στην νεοελληνική πόλη» Περιοδικό Διάπλους, τεύχος 29, Δεκ.2008-Ιαν.2009 Αθήνα.

• Γιαννακού Α. (2008), «Πολεοδομικά Σχέδια για τη Θεσσαλονίκη: ιδεολογία και πρακτική στη διάρκεια του 20ου αιώνα», στο Καυκαλάς Γ, Λαµπριανίδης Λ. και Παπαµίχος, Ν. (επιµ.), Η Θεσσαλονίκη στο Μεταίχµιο: η Πόλη Από τη Σκοπιά των Αλλαγών ,Αθήνα: εκδ. Κριτική, σσ. 447-87.

• Μοσκώφ Κ. (1978). Θεσσαλονίκη – τομή της μεταπρατικής πόλης, Τόμος Α’ Εκδ. Στοχαστής, Αθήνα.

• Σαββαΐδης Π. (2008.): Θεσσαλονίκης ανάδειξης –χαρτών αναμνήσεις, Λεύκωμα έκθεσης χαρτών Θεσσαλονίκης, ΕΚΕΠΠ-ΕΚΕΧΧΑΚ –Εθνική Χαρτοθήκη, Θεσσαλονίκη.

English References

• Mazower, M. (2004). Salonica. City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430 – 1950. London: Harper Collins.

• Molchos, P. (2001). The Jews of Thessaloniki 1865-1919. A special community.
Athens: Foundation.

• Nystazopoulou-Pelekidou, M. (1991). The Balkan Peoples. From Turkish
Conquest at the National Restoration (14th -19th century), Thessaloniki: Vania.

• Todorova, M. (2009). Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press.

• Yerolympou-Karadimou A. (1995). The reconstruction of Thessaloniki after
fire of 1917, ed. University Studio Press, Thessaloniki.

• Yerolympou A. (1996). Urban Transformations in the Balkans (1820-1920). Aspects of Balkan Town and the Remaking of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki: University Studio Press.

• Photography’s of Thessaloniki. (November, 2019).

• The urban history of Thessaloniki from early inhabitance until today. Unrolling the thread of time.

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