Thessaloniki – A city and a history / Richard Gamper / Reviews (and spoilers)


Thessaloniki  –  A city and a history


It was the third dead rat that finally got our attention.   We’d spotted the first and then the second, bobbing in the small wavelets slapping against the sea wall, swollen to the size and shape of large sweet potatoes, but we had dismissed them as part of the usual harbour flotsam.   But with the third, and more and more ominously until we spotted the seventh, balloon-like except for the small feet and tail still protruding from the stretched fur, we felt that we were revisiting the opening chapter of ’The Plague’, only this time set in Greek Thessaloniki rather than the Algerian Oran of Camus‘ novel.

All cities are home to rats, of course, and I suppose that spotting seven corpses along a kilometre of waterfront is not so extreme, but it was the contrast that was unsettling as we walked along Leoforos Nikis.   Translating as ‘Avenue of Victory‘, this corniche stretches for couple of kilometres along the harbour front of Thessaloniki.  Modern apartment blocks tower ten floors above smart pavement cafes on the city side of the road, and iced coffees and  Jack Daniels are sipped at sidewalk level while florists’ delivery workers carry in man-high potted plants to grace the balconies thrusting outwards from the floors above.  On the other side of the wide road, the glittering waters of the Thermaic Gulf carry the eye out past anchored container ships towards the misty silhouette of the opposite shore of the Gulf.  Unless you happen to look down …

Thessaloniki is a city that has remade itself many times; it is still doing so.  Leoforos Nikis was originally the harbour quayside of the city, running northwest to southeast with its western side towards the sea.  Old photographs show a forest of ships’ masts and a quayside littered with bales and boxes,  but now it’s the place to share the sunset with friends or a lover over drinks.  A cycle lane runs along the water’s edge and joggers and strollers pass along the sea towards the White Tower at the eastern end. This tower stands alone like an enormous pepper pot, the height of two Martello towers stacked together, and was originally a part of the walled defences of the city.  Starting from here it’s possible to appreciate just how much Thessaloniki has changed over the centuries.

White Tower

Gordon and I had come here after a few days climbing Mount Olympus (two-thirds of the way to the summit, since you ask…) and we were glad we had brought good sunglasses.  To the south of the White Tower a blindingly white marble pavement frames a statue of Alexander the Great on his horse, flanked by a row of shields and the long spears carried by his Greek, or rather Macedonian, hoplite soldiers.  Alexander had a half-sister Thessalonike, named by their father Philip of Macedon for Thessaly (the region) and Nike (victory), and on Alexander’s death she was married by Cassander, one of his generals, as part of a bid to seize power.  Cassander founded the city and named it after his wife.   He chose the site well; a seaport at the head of the Thermaic Gulf, with the hinterland of Thessaly and Macedonia to the north , fertile farmland irrigated by the Vardar river to the west, and only three hundred miles to the west of the Bosphorus, junction of Europe and Asia,  It’s not for nothing that Thessaloniki has long been called ‘The Key to the Balkans’.


Between Alexander and the White Tower a long rank of concrete fins, each over two metres high and looking like the teeth of a giant zip fastener, marks the line of the original city Walls and directed us past the imposing National Theatre of Northern Greece, away from the sea and towards the Arch of Galerius.  After Greece fell under the sway of the  Roman Empire at the start of the second century BC, the city became an important hub on the Via Egnatia, the trade route between Europe and Asia, and eventually administrative headquarters of the Emperor Galerius.  The Arch commemorates his great victory over the Persians in 299AD.

At first sight the arch looks more like a section of viaduct, chopped off in mid-span to accommodate the widening of Egnatias, the avenue on which it sits.  Like most triumphal arches, Galerius’ is girdled with bas-relief figures; mounted Roman soldiers chop down at Persian infantry, while troops with spears keep close escort over lines of prisoners bound for slavery or the arena.   Close up, the detail of the carving was clear and sharp under the brightness of the late morning sun; Romans wearing armour or togas, bearded Persian captives with their women and children, and we felt drawn in, almost able to hear the neighing of terrified horses, the screams and the clash of iron,  instead of the steady rumble of traffic that constantly passes along Egnatias.


For Egnatias is the main avenue of Thessaloniki, running parallel to the seafront about half a mile inland, its tree-shaded pavements lined with smart shops.   To the northwest it becomes Monastiriou and leads past the railway station towards the road to Athens, while at the southeastern end it carries traffic out beyond the old city walls and south of the University campus.  Halfway along are the gardens of Dikastrion Square, with the Roman Agora behind, the marketplace buildings still under excavation. Within a short walking radius of the Arch it’s possible to view traces of the whole history of Greece, and indeed of a great deal of Europe.

Just north of Galerius’ Arch is the Rotunda, also built under his rule.  This enormous circular building was constructed as a temple to the pantheon of Roman gods, but with the rise of Christianity it was turned into a church.   The Apostle Paul passed through Thessaloniki on his travels, and  in the third century AD a Roman officer, Dimitrios, was martyred for his Christian faith and became a saint,  the patron saint of the city, commemorated by the numerous churches to Agios (saint) Dimitrios.  When the emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the official Roman religion, and divided the Empire into western and eastern halves, the Eastern empire centred on Byzantium, the ancient Greek city on the Bosphorus that he rebuilt and extended, and which on his death was renamed Constantinople.


As Rome gradually succumbed to decay and invasion, the centre of Christian culture during the Dark Ages moved eastwards to Constantinople, which remained the capital of Eastern Christianity, and the Byzantine Empire, until the fifteenth century.  In the ninth century two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, Greeks born in Thessaloniki, translated biblical works into Slavic, using a new – Cyrillic – alphabet that remains in use in Greece and parts of Eastern Europe today.   In the windows of the numerous icon shops along Egnatias we could read the names of the saints painted in archaic Cyrillic lettering, while the shop signs themselves announced their business using theta, sigma, pi and the other Greek letters in more modern typefaces.   Following the Great Schism of 1054, Christianity divided into Roman based Catholicism and Orthodoxy, centred on Constantinople.  Russia too embraced the Orthodox faith, and the Russian language still uses a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet.  Thessaloniki itself is only sixty miles from Mount Athos, that collection of monasteries on the easternmost Halkidiki peninsula, which is the centre of ultra-rigorous Orthodoxy, and there is a very strong Orthodox presence in the city today, with administrative offices, study centres and many shops selling religious icons and books.

Icon shop

Echoes of the Byzantine era are everywhere, traces of a time long-gone but recalling hundreds of years of influence and prosperity; buildings like the Church of the Holy Apostles, with its beautiful mosaic decoration, Agia Sophia at the eastern end of Ermou, or the wonderful church of Agios Dimitrios with several stunning mosaics of the saint and an enormous painted Virgin and child Christ gazing down from the dome.  But we were most taken by the many little round-domed churches built in thin honey-coloured brick with reddish tile roofs.  Apart from festivals like Easter, I have seen churches visited for the most part by the elderly, but here we watched as smartly dressed younger people stopped briefly to light candles in the vestibule of a church, or passed out of the hard light and heat of the pavement into the dark interior.  Once  inside, eyes adjust and the dimness is relieved by the gleam of candlelight on the gold and silver of the decoration, the icons and the festoons of votive offerings.


The church of Metamorfosi Sotiros, only a short distance from the Arch of Galerius, is completely overshadowed by surrounding apartment blocks, the repetitive rectangular pattern of their windows producing a kind of secular grey frame around the intricate curves of the brickwork and tiles, a temporal setting for a small jewel of eternity.   Further west along Egnatias, the Church of Panagia Eleousa (The Virgin of Tenderness) has been overbuilt by a new development of shops and offices.  Only the entrance is visible, steps leading down below street level as worshippers seeking God’s grace pass through under a golden mosaic of the Virgin and Child.  On the pavement, a hopeful beggar displaying his deformed leg sat next to his wheelchair, at the foot of an expanse of red and blue builders’ plastic sheeting that covers the outside of the upper floors.

Redeveloped Church

Thessaloniki remained largely under the control of Byzantine Constantinople, but in several episodes was held for a time by Norman knights and later by forces of the Fourth Crusade, led by the Venetians, on their way to relieve Constantinople from siege by the Moors.  (Of course the Crusaders proceeded to sack Constantinople, massacring thousands and carrying off priceless works of art to their capitals back in  the West).   By the early fifteenth century the Ottomans, Sunni muslims who had moved into Anatolia the century before, had risen to the leadership of the Islamic world.  Thessaloniki was finally captured by them under Sultan Murad II in 1430, beginning almost four hundred years of continuous Ottoman  occupation.  The new masters followed their usual practice and brought in muslim settlers to colonise the city, extending and repairing the walls and building mosques, commercial buildings,  hamams (bath houses)  and spacious villas for wealthy merchants and officials of the empire.   The majority of these buildings have been destroyed, but midway along Egnatias is the Hamza Bey mosque, and close by are the sprawling ruins of the Bey Hamam, where worshippers would have washed themselves before prayer.  Just south of here, on the other side of Egnatias and past the market, is the enchanting Hamam Yahudi, another jewel of a building, constructed with thin brick and roof of curved tiles, overshadowed by modern blocks but flanked on one side by trees, a  cool shady  place to sit and take coffee in the open air.

Hamam Yahudi

The Rotunda, built as a temple and then become a church, was thus converted into a mosque, and its tall minaret, raised to call the faithful to prayer, still towers over the dome and the surrounding streets.  In this century the Rotunda has been given yet another new identity, as a museum and exhibition space.   When Gordon and I visited in 2010 Thessaloniki was hosting ‘Topos’ (translation: ‘Surface’), a city-wide programme  of exhibitions around the theme of landscape. The Rotunda was showing ‘From the Adriatic to the Bosphorus’, photographs of The Balkans taken by German and French photographers between 1878 and 1914.  It’s cool and dim beneath the high dome, and the exhibition panels displayed astonishing sepia photographs of towns and cities spiked with minarets, the slender white towers bizarrely recalling pictures of Midlands factory chimneys at the height of the Industrial Revolution.  When we read of today’s Muslims in Bosnia or Montenegro it’s sometimes hard to remember that these people are the descendents of an empire which once stretched across eastern Europe, through Hungary, as far west as the outskirts of Vienna.  Other panels showed timelines of the rolling back of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and of the Balkan Wars of independence.

Rotunda small

While the Ottoman Sultans were taking Thessaloniki, and later Constantinople itself in 1453, at the other end of the Mediterranean France and later Spain were pushing back the forces of Islam in the ‘reconquest’ of their countries.  After their troops had captured Granada and driven out the last Moors, the Spanish Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella proceeded in 1492 to expel all the Jews from their country.  As part of this mass movement many thousands of  Jewish refugees settled in Thessaloniki.   By now the city had been Ottoman for decades and was called Salonika.  These new arrivals changed the ethnic makeup of the city, to such an extent that for centuries afterwards around half the inhabitants of Salonika were Jewish, speaking a particular dialect mixture of Spanish and Hebrew.

The community ranged from beggars and dock-workers to extremely wealthy merchants, and they took advantage of Salonika’s location as a port at the entry to the Balkans to develop trade and  build up the economy of the city.  Breweries, mills and later the processing of Balkan tobacco were all important sources of profit.  They built villas and synagogues, and when they died they were buried in the Jewish Cemetery, just east of the city Walls.  In 1913 there were over 60,000 Jews, around forty per cent of the city’s population, and though many emigrated after a great fire in 1917, they were still a sizeable community until the Second World War.  Over 95% of Salonika’s Jews perished in The Holocaust, transported by the Nazis to extermination camps in 1943.  The Cemetery was built over, the site eventually becoming the campus of the University, and after the war very few Jewish people returned to the city.

The University is just a few minutes walk from the Rotunda, and this area north of Egnatias is busy with students and their friends.   The wide pavements are fringed with bars, cafes and restaurants; some take-away cheap, some very chic.    We sat outside under a wide yellow canopy and watched the passers-by over a couple of beers. This eastern side of Salonika seems much smarter than the west, with avenues of expensive modern apartment blocks running down from the higher ground towards the sea, linked by narrower streets, some tree-lined and open only to pedestrians. In the shade of the smaller streets the air was cool and comfortable, and after our drink we played  flanneur for an hour, strolling under the trees past tables of lunchtime diners and window shopping smart fashion, leather goods, sculpture and paintings.


Several long squares run right down to the seafront, giving a great feeling of space and air.   Constructed since the nineteen sixties, they are wide, with central flowerbeds and gleaming white buildings above elegant colonnades.   This close to the University we were able to discover lots of books and music on sale, and in half an hour browsing in a basement store, we picked up CDs of rembetika  bouzouki music from the Athens demi-monde of the early sixties.


Though notably cruel in war and the dispensing of justice, the Ottomans were relatively tolerant (by the standards of the time) of the religions of their subject peoples.   Christians and Jews were allowed to follow their faiths, albeit with the imposition of extra taxes, and Christian boys were often trained and recruited into the ranks of the elite Janissary infantry corps.  Many Greeks as well as Jews grew wealthy and influential as Salonika maintained its position as the most important city in the empire after Constantinople.   By the early nineteenth century, however, the power of the Ottomans was ebbing away.    The Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary was pushing against the empire from the north-west, and in the south Greece waged a successful revolt in 1821, resulting in an independent Greek kingdom extending to Larissa, half way between Athens and Salonika.  In 1878 Romania, Montenegro and Serbia all became independent, and Bulgaria achieved partial autonomy.

The Balkans has always been passionately nationalistic (for a long time it was called ‘the powder-keg of Europe’) and Bulgarians, Serbs and Greeks each claimed territory in Macedonia, north of Salonika and still under Ottoman control, and all sent bands of guerrilla fighters to battle for influence.  Some originated from Crete, and we saw a wonderful statue commemorating the ‘Cretan Fighters in Macedonia’ on Mitropoleus, half way between Egnatias and the sea.  This ‘Cretan Fighter’ is about eight feet tall, sporting a fine moustache and high boots and holding a pistol and a dagger, while two more pistols are stuffed into the sash at his waist; we didn’t want to meet him on a dark night!  The fighter is a modern statue in black metal, erected in a burst of nationalism during the more recent tension over Macedonia after the break-up of Yugoslavia, a reminder that nothing changes in the Balkans…   Greek, Macedonian and EU flags hang from poles behind him, as he gazes down Mitropoleus towards the sea.  I wondered what he would have thought of the European Union.

Cretan Macedonian Fighter

Thessaloniki would try very hard to deny it, but the city can be seen as the midwife of modern Turkey.   Kemal Attaturk was born in the city and spent his childhood there, then trained as a military officer in Constantinople.  Like the city itself, he remade his identity many times.  Born Mustafa in 1881, he was named Kemal (Perfection) for his excellence at school and later, as the founding force behind the Turkish Republic, he took the name Attaturk (Father of the Turks).   By the start of the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire was in decline and drastic need of reform. A major army garrison outside Constantinople was in Salonika, and was here that younger officers started a movement for modernization and nationalism, promoting an ethnic Turkish identity in place of an religious Islamic one.  The organisation was the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), but the movement became known as the Young Turks.   By 1909 they had forced the Ottoman Sultan into exile, and while their stronghold remained Salonika they were effectively in control of the Empire.

Kemal did not rise to supreme power till after the First World War, but Gordon and I were keen to visit the house where he grew up, which is now a museum.  We had assumed that it would be fairly easy to find, but tourist city maps showed no trace and everyone we asked just shrugged in dismissal and changed the subject.  Thessaloniki is quite definitely Greek these days!    Eventually we dropped into an Internet café (near the Rotunda, where else?) and bought half an hour’s web-surfing.  Turning the screen to hide it from the other users, we huddled over it and Googled -‘thessaloniki attaturk’. I was half expecting a thunderbolt, Mount Olympus being only fifty miles away, but instead up came a Google map showing the Attaturk Museum – just three streets away, to the north of the Rotunda on Apostolou Pavlou (Paul the Apostle).   We walked there in less than five minutes.

The building also fronts on to Agiou Dimitriou, another tree-lined avenue running parallel to Egnatias a quarter mile to the north, and named of course after the patron saint Dimitrios.  The complex houses the Turkish Consulate as well, and after an entryphone conversation we had to leave our passports at the gatehouse and have our bags scanned before we got a sight of the house itself.  Inside, the three floors have been left with early 1900s furniture, beds, carpets and decoration, with long low divans for sitting and low tables next to them, and the rooms house photographs, newspaper pages and mementos of Attaturk’s life.   I was fascinated to look at a full-length photograph from the thirties showing him in tiny, shiny shoes, which I assumed had been amateurishly retouched, and then coming on a display case with his formal clothing laid out inside, including those tiny, shiny shoes.   We got a close-up view of an important man, but also a feel of domestic life in the Balkans a century ago.

Kemal bedroom

Despite the Young Turks’ influence, the tide of nationalism was running fast against the Ottomans.  In the autumn of 1912 an alliance of Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece struck against the Empire, starting the first Balkan War.  Within a few months Macedonia was free and a Bulgarian army was in Thrace, almost at the Bosphorus and threatening Constantinople.  A Greek army led by Crown Prince Constantine took Salonika by the end of October, recovering the city after almost five hundred years of Ottoman rule.  There was still a second Balkan War to come, as Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece quarreled over their gains, but the Greek kingdom was much enlarged and secure.  Greek civilians flooded in, altering the ethnic balance of the city yet again; workers, merchants and civil servants, from Athens but also from the Peloponnese and Crete.

Crete was the home of many of the Macedonian Fighters (we remembered the statue) and also the birthplace of Eleftherios Venizelos, and we walked about half way along Egnatias to Dikastrion Square to take a look at his statue.  Unlike the Fighter, Venizelos is carved in white marble, and as a politician he is not mounted on horseback but standing,  right arm raised as he harangues his audience with a speech, facing the avenue with his back to the marble pavements and trees of the square.   He has the eyes of a visionary, or a poet, and he was responsible for enormous political and military events that changed modern Greece.



Venizelos, as prime minister, was a supporter of the Entente powers (Britain and France, with Russia and Serbia) during the First Word War, while Constantine, by then King of Greece, was in favour of joining the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) or at least remaining neutral.  The split caused a schism in Greek politics, and Venizelos allowed British and French forces to use Salonika as a base for military operations against the Turks at Gallipoli and the Bulgarians in Macedonia.  (the Gallipoli peninsula being named after the city of Gallipoli, which betrays its origins as a Greek settlement by a corruption of ’Kali Polis’ or ’beautiful city’).   In 1916 Venizelos left Athens to form a breakaway government in Salonika, and in 1917 King Constantine abdicated as Greece entered the war on the Entente side.  Eleftherios Venizelos had ensured his country’s place among the victors of the Great War, and soon he would claim his reward.

We had been impressed by Thessaloniki’s geometric grid plan: wide avenues running in parallel, with straight streets and long squares crossing them at right angles and leading down to the sea.   At each end of the waterfront a star of roads radiates out, crossing the grid on the diagonal.  This is the legacy of the Great Fire of 1917, which destroyed the medieval warren of streets with their wooden houses in a two-day inferno which left over 70,000 people homeless.  Venizelos and the occupying Entente forces gave Ernst Hebrard, a French architect, the job of planning the city’s reconstruction, and the result has much in common with the grid layouts of New York and Barcelona, laid out at about the same time.  The new streets were wide as well as straight, and it was during the widening of Egnatias that the Arch of Galerius was cut open.   Walking down towards the sea from Dikastrion Square we turned right along Ermou.   The street is named after Hermes, messenger of the gods, and himself god of trade – and of thieves.   Probably given that name because of the old Modiano market on its south side.   At the western end of Ermou the twentieth-century grid ends and we entered a maze of narrower streets running down to the port.

Near the market

Here the buildings are older, of brick construction rather than concrete, with wooden shutters on windows and walls of yellow and pink ochre.  Above a shopfront, a first floor balcony was supported by the heads of elegantly carved white stone lions, squatting on their haunches, springing from the wall over the street.  Some of the properties are in bad repair, a few completely decayed and open to the elements, while here and there a postwar replacement stands self-consciously out of place.  This is an area which was spared by the fire and so avoided reconstruction, and we felt that we had gone back in time to the nineteenth century.   It’s quieter in the streets, there’s less traffic and bustle and there are people sitting outside their buildings chatting or greeting passers by.  Nearer the port there are maritime businesses: provisions, ship’s stores and insurance companies, some modern but many with peeling facades from many years ago.

Near the port

As with many port cities, this would also have been the red-light district.  To some extent it still is, though nothing like the scale of 1917, when the area between port and railway station was home to over one thousand prostitutes.  A few nightclubs are visible, but these days the area is more obvious as a place to eat.  There are numerous restaurants and tavernas, and a number of the narrow streets are busy with diners from  lunchtime till late into the evening.  We walked along Karipi, essentially an alleyway for pedestrians only, squeezing past outside tables laden with chicken, fish and salad and tempted by the aroma of roasted lamb and the music emanating from inside, while above us a set of life-sized figures of musicians and satyrs cavorted along the buildings at first floor level.  When we finally returned to eat that evening, we dined like kings off grilled sardines, fat and succulent beneath the charred skins. There are small paved areas where some of the streets meet, too small to be called squares but shaded by the buildings through most of the day and good places to sit with a drink.  Which we did.

Above Karipi Street

Thessaloniki’s port is still very busy, but nowadays the big vessels unload their containers in specialized facilities a kilometer further along to the north west, and the eastern end is not much used.  It’s not dead by any means, though, and after our drink we left the shady streets to cross Leoforos Nikis in baking sunshine and visit the photography gallery on the easternmost quay.  Like many places we had seen, this area has remade itself and now houses  port administration buildings and a post office, along with two arts facilities, one devoted to film and the other to photography, housed in a refurbished wharf warehouse.   When we visited, the photography museum was hosting part of the ‘Topos’ event that was taking place across the city and we had first encountered at the Rotunda.  We left the heat outside and entered a cool, high-ceilinged exhibition space, then spent an hour or so gazing at vast photographic landscapes.  Nikos Markou’s were studies of forms and patterns, both natural and man-made, while Inge Rambow showed the devastation of abandoned industrial sites in East Germany and Russia.   An interesting choice, as we could not help but contrast the post-industrial horrors of Rambow’s pictures with the imaginative regeneration of the buildings at this end of the port.

Emerging back onto the quay, we were faced with the unforgettable sight of the whole waterfront lit by the late afternoon light, the sea darker now with the sun low in the west and the buildings along the corniche glowing gold in their receding perspective, until our eyes picked out the distinctive shape of the White Tower at the eastern end.   The day was calm, the swell was very slight and we stood looking for some time, the deserted waters giving us an uninterrupted view of the whole panorama.  I remembered seeing photographs taken of the port during the Great War, when the entire quay was crowded with horses, trucks and troops while the sea bustled with lighters unloading supplies and launches ferrying military personnel from the warships anchored offshore.


For in 1918 more than one hundred and fifty thousand British, French and Greek troops were quartered in Salonika, and it was from here that they and their Serb allies launched the offensive that smashed the Bulgarian army in Macedonia.  This  breakthrough started a rout of the Austro-Hungarian armies in the Balkans, and Austria soon sued for peace, followed  by Germany.  By November the war was over, an Armistice was agreed, and the next year the fate of the defeated nations was being decided at the Versailles peace conference.   Turkey was also on the losing side, of course, and the Turkish possessions in the Near East were handed over to the victor nations; some directly, others, like Palestine and Jordan (to Great Britain) and Syria and Lebanon (to France) under ‘mandates to govern’ which made them colonies in all but name.  Eleftherios Venizelos was a long-time supporter of the ‘Great Idea’ of a Greater Greece regaining the old Byzantine Empire’s possessions in Anatolia, with port access to the Black Sea as well as the eastern Aegean.  In 1919 he got his reward for joining the Entente, and the port at Salonika saw more troop movements as Britain, France and America allowed Greece to land an army in western Turkey at Izmir, known to them as Smyrna.

The Greek forces had great success at first, occupying the region around Smyrna and pushing eastwards into Anatolia.  This was Mustafa Kemal’s moment, and he inspired a war of national resistance, creating a new Turkish army from the remnants of the Ottoman forces and by mobilizing the Anatolian peasants.  He based himself at Ankara, then a small town high on the central plateau but destined to become capital of the new Turkish republic, and lured the Greek armies deep into the interior where their supply lines became overextended.  In August 1922 the Greek army suffered a catastrophic defeat and the shattered remnants retreated back to Smyrna.  Most were evacuated to the island of Chios, but the civilian refugees following were not so fortunate. The retreating Greek army had burned villages to slow down their pursuers, and the victorious Turkish army now burned Greek and Armenian areas of Smyrna in revenge.  Thousands of civilians perished in the flames, while warships of the very nations that had encouraged the Greeks in the first place stood by in the harbour and did nothing.

Just as Thessaloniki had a mixed population of Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews under the Ottoman Empire, so did Smyrna, Constantinople and large parts of Anatolia.  Kemal Attaturk’s new Turkish republic was secular, but defined its people’s  nationality by their religion, so the postwar settlement of 1923 required the Christian population of Anatolia to be exchanged for the Muslim population of Greece.  Families who had lived somewhere for generations were uprooted and sent as refugees to a different country where few of them even spoke the language.  Over a million Orthodox Christians were expelled to Greece while almost eight hundred thousand Muslims left for Turkey.   It was an organized mass transfer of people greater than anything seen until the partition of India and Pakistan twenty five years later.  Except that it was anything but organized; people died, families became separated, thousands and thousands dragged themselves along the roads and tracks towards Macedonia, or crammed into overcrowded unsanitary boats and left without having any idea of where they were going.  Some went to the Greek islands, but most arrived at the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki.


Traces of this exodus are visible everywhere in Thessaloniki.  The refugees needed somewhere to live, as did many still homeless from the great fire only six years earlier, and in the years following the city expanded beyond the old Walls in a great crescent, focused on the waterfront.  We had walked up Eleftherios Venizelos (who else?)  past Diikitiriou Square and the Ministry of Macedonia and after a few minutes reached a section of the old City Walls. They are still imposing, tier upon tier of brick rearing upwards with heavy stone inserts and castellations like enormous teeth, high as a man, along the parapet.  The wall line turns often, following the undulations of the hill but also providing recesses and outcroppings from which defending fire could outflank a direct frontal assault.  The builders meant business, and the walls were never breached in war, but these days there are great gaps punched through them, carrying traffic to and from the districts outside.   The postwar developments of houses and apartment blocks press right up to the Walls in places, mothers gossip in their shade and children bounce balls against Byzantine bricks.

Castellated Walls

Kemal’s house in Thessaloniki has a further part to play in this story.  The population exchange exempted the Greeks living in Constantinople, by now renamed  Istanbul, and over 60,000 continued to live in the city until the nineteen-fifties.  There was continual tension over the political status of Cyprus (home to both Greeks and Turks) which flared up in 1955, and a bomb plot to blow up Kemal’s house sparked rioting against the Istanbul Greeks that left tens of citizens dead, but hundreds of churches and businesses destroyed.  The plot was later shown to be a provocation organized by the Turkish government to encourage a pogrom, and Greeks took the hint – by 1960 over 15,000 had left Istanbul.  The process continued over the years, with another 40,000 deported in 1964.   Today Istanbul is home to less than three thousand Greeks.

Back on Ermou, and the streets running between Egnatias and the sea, we passed more than a few shop signs bearing the addendum: (founded 1924).   The Anatolian refugees might have left most of their possessions behind, but they had brought with them their knowledge, their trading contacts and their entrepreneurial skills.  It didn’t take long for businessmen and artisans to make a new start in Greece, and although  the refugee communities tended to stick together, bound by ties of a common Turkish language and Anatolian customs, they saw themselves above all as fellow Greek citizens.  Almost all the Muslim inhabitants had left the city in the population exchange, so there were numerous houses and estates available to be requisitioned. Some were simply squatted, and the legal process of recognising ownership continued for years, some were split into plots of land and given to groups of refugees who built their own homes.

They brought their artistic culture with them, too.  In a music shop near the University we had bought rembetika music recorded in the nineteen sixties, but this art form goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century.  The Ottoman Empire was a rich mix of peoples with highly developed musical traditions, and before the First World War there was a culture of guitar and bouzouki music in Constantinople and Smyrna which had links with Salonika.  After the war of 1923 and the exchange of populations, refugees who were musicians arrived from Anatolia bringing a rougher, more rhythmic music and, not surprisingly, songs of lost loves and the loneliness of exclusion.  The first Greek recordings were produced in makeshift studios in Athens and Piraeus around 1925.  Rembetika itself is like the blues, the music of a criminal and drug sub-culture, but in its wailing notes, like in more mainstream bouzouki music, it’s possible to hear echoes of the centuries-old sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

Rembetika and Tsiporo

The refugees were not all entrepreneurs, of course; the majority were manual workers, arriving in a country with not enough jobs and thus faced with exploitation and low wages.  Tobacco processing was still a major industry in the city, and the tobacco workers, along with dockers and mill workers, became militantly unionized in the 1920s.  Ironically it was Venizelos (that man turns up everywhere…) who encouraged the formation of a nationwide trade union movement during the war, and though he later tried to repress them, his power-base at Thessaloniki meant that it was here that the movement started and took hold most strongly.  The KKE communist party of Greece was founded in this city, and it’s significant that a number of its leaders were of Anatolian origin.   Although it had its own industrial working-class, especially in the port of Piraeus, Athens remained much more under the influence of conservative, right-wing monarchists, and Greece saw the beginnings of the left-right schism which has bedevilled the country for most of the last century.

As the late Twenties became the Thirties and the world slid into the Great Depression, the Greek economy was hard-hit as world markets for tobacco, olive oil and agricultural products in general collapsed, along with shipping,  Political violence increased, with a series of attempted coups, and a succession of inept governments led finally, in 1936, to dictatorship. Dictatorships, of course, were all the rage in the Thirties, and General John Metaxas, with the support of the king, grasped power to impose an authoritarian yet rather paternalistic rule over Greece.   He liked to be known as ‘Leader’ or ‘National Father’,  just like ‘Fuhrer’ (Leader) Hitler,  ‘Duce’ (Leader) Mussolini, and ‘Attaturk’ (Father of the Turks) Kemal.   Not a terribly original politician, then, but Metaxas did reform and streamline the Greek army, so that when Italian troops invaded northern Greece at the end of October 1940,  Greek forces were not only able to stop the advance, but push them back across the Albanian border, capturing several important towns by early December.

The Italian debacle led, by its humiliating failure, to the German invasion of Greece on 6 April, 1941. Three days later they entered Thessaloniki, beginning three and a half years of occupation.  These years were incredibly harsh for all the city’s inhabitants, and hunger was a constant problem, but the burden fell hardest on the Jewish population.  The usual Nazi anti-semitic measures were applied, as in other occupied countries, and at the end of 1942 the Jewish cemetery was destroyed.  After the war, the site eventually became the site of the University campus.  In the early months of 1943 a Ghetto was designated and the Jewish population concentrated inside it.   By the middle of May the transports were carrying them to Auschwitz.   Less than five per cent of Jews escaped deportation; virtually none came back.

The Germans finally retreated from Greece at the end of 1944, but there had been constant resistance activity throughout the occupation.  Not far from the Macedonian Fighter is another statue, life-size this time, of a woman resistance fighter laden with two rifles and bandoliers of cartridges.  A small bunch of flowers lay at her feet; a touching gesture, although we were not sure whether they commemorated her role in the anti-Nazi struggle or in the Civil War which followed.   The wartime resistance was led by various groups of communist guerillas (whose ideological differences were often sharper than their hatred of the Fascist occupiers…) and at the war’s end they expected to form the post-war government.   The realities of the Cold War carve-up of Europe between Russia and the Western powers meant that Greece would not be given up to the Communist bloc, and so British  and American forces helped the Greek government to crush the leftist fighters.


The Civil War lasted from 1946 until 1950, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands of villagers forcibly relocated.  The eventual government victory relied heavily on ultra-right paramilitary units, and these groups remained active for decades after the last communists had retreated over the border into Albania.   As late as 1963, one of these organisations was responsible for the assassination of a left-wing MP, Gregory Lambrakis, in Thessaloniki, an event vividly portrayed in the Costas Gravas film  ‘Z’.   The political schism between Right and Left continued, and there was still the dictatorship of the Colonels’ military Junta to come, of course, from 1967 to 1973, but by now the destruction of the old city was being carried out by bulldozers, not by bazookas. Throughout the sixties and seventies the city’s population increased, the economy improved, and great swathes of old buildings were pulled down to make way for the elegant squares we had admired earlier.

Hemmed in

Today Thessaloniki is a very beautiful city, with breathtaking views of white marble colonnades running down to the blue waters of the Thermaic Gulf, and elegant tree-lined avenues.  It’s not a completely new canvas, though, it‘s a palimpsest of many layers and makeovers; walking the streets and squares we saw many juxtaposition of old and new.  New apartment blocks flanking a nineteenth century building, rectilinear balconies in white-painted concrete contrasting with the ionic columns,  pale yellow or blue stucco and wooden shutters of their more venerable neighbour.  Or an Ottoman hammam, framed by a checkerboard of blue and white air conditioning units on the office building behind it.  Or a Byzantine church overshadowed by a sixties block, honey-coloured brick still vivid while the aluminium window frames look dusty and tired.  (I couldn’t resist taking photographs of all of these, and many more…)

Old and new

Thessaloniki:  photographer’s paradise and history lesson all in one, under a brilliant Mediterranean sun.  Hasn‘t forgotten its radical past, either, and has been the setting for many demonstrations during the current financial crisis.  We had passed building frontages and advertising hoardings splashed with anti-capitalist graffiti, and more than one painted slogan screamed  ‘Smash the Fascists’.   When I mentioned our tally of dead rats to Michaelis, in a bookshop on Egnatias, he shrugged dismissively – “That’s nothing, my friend; there are much bigger rats still alive in the banks…”

Bank protest

Strat Mastoris  2011        All photographs copyright Strat Mastoris



Richard Gamper      10th March 1944  –  8th May 2017

A great power of photography is the way a picture freezes an instant in time, a moment in somebody’s existence, and holds it unchanging for years, for decades.
This photo of Richard Gamper was taken for our ‘Calendar Boys’ nude calendar fundraising project back in 2013, and it tells us such a lot about Richard.

First – Richard was up for it. He was a real team player, happy to pose (almost) nude for a good cause and a fun project. Second – look at the location. Richard was pictured there because he was a prime mover in the refurbishment of our Upstairs Theatre, helping to plan the new space and carrying out a huge amount of the construction himself, as a central member of the working group. He did the same when the South Hall floor was replaced – I have vivid memories of him kneeling between the joists, manhandling floorboards and nailing them into position. Richard had spent a lot of time liaising with Brighton Council over those floorboards, to ensure he found ones that were suitable for our Listed building.

But the NVT’s purpose is to produce plays, and Richard worked on the stage sets of many, many of our shows – too many to list here. For years, we could always find him in the Props Room on a Saturday morning, part of the small team of members who sorted out design problems over cups of tea – then during the week he’d be up a ladder securing a flat, or doing precision work with a chisel or a plane to ensure that a scenery door or window opened smoothly. For years he oversaw our Health and Safety policies, as well

Richard was artistic as well as practical. He was a photographer himself – an enthusiastic member of Hove Camera Club, with his own darkroom at home. It was only in the last couple of years I found that he was a painter, too. He had a talent for producing powerful urban landscapes, and evocative views of St Ives, which he and Eleanor loved to visit. We used details from two of those in the NVT’s quarterly brochure earlier this year.

That’s just Brighton. Richard had enjoyed a remarkably full and varied life before they arrived on the south coast. For a number of years he and Eleanor ran a theatre in Surbiton, where Eleanor was Artistic Director and wrote and produced shows, and Richard took charge of the administration, and seems to have kept the building functioning. This was while he was working as a very senior Human Resources Manager for British Gas, a career that occupied him for two and a half decades. Richard was as precise in his language as he was with a circular saw, and on several occasions he was keen to explain to me that a ‘gasometer’ is not the same thing as a ‘gasholder’.

But the Gas Board was actually Richard’s second career. On leaving school he joined the Metropolitan Police. For many years he was based in London, at West End Central, and he had a great fund of stories about the villains he encountered in Soho. It seems that one night he was the duty officer, and had to take Ronnie Kray’s fingerprints! Early on in his time in the police, a detachment of officers were sent to accompany troops to keep the peace in Anguilla, one of our colonial possessions (it was still the sixties) where there was a supposed insurrection.

As Richard told the story, the trouble was just a rumour; so the policemen, armed with pistols but with no-one to point them at, spent their days swimming and enjoying the sunshine. Eleanor has often recounted the sequel – that Richard returned to Britain, a tall, fit, tanned man in his twenties who’d travelled the world, and swept her off her feet. Irresistible.

But there’s so much more to tell about this man’s life. How he and his brother used to go mountaineering in the Dolomites. How he’d helped a friend sail a forty foot yacht. How Richard’s uncle, Juan Gamper, was the Founder of Barcelona football club (and how Richard and his son Edward were feted when the went to see ‘Barca’ play at their stadium). Being Richard of course, none of this was paraded in front of people – these stories slipped out late in the evening after a few pints in the pub, or after a good dinner and several glasses of wine.

So many stories from before. So many good memories from the time that we knew Richard and Eleanor in Brighton. Richard was our good friend. He will be greatly missed.

Published in the New Venture Theatre newsletter  June 2017



Reviews  (and spoilers)


I write a fair number of theatre reviews, though not for the NVT (never review friends…) and I do take production photographs for NVT which are used to publicise the shows.  Anything which illustrates a work of art is bound to give away a certain level of detail about the work – so how much information is needed, and does too much constitute a ‘spoiler’, something which degrades the audience’s enjoyment of the piece when they finally get to see it?

I think it depends on what we mean by a ‘review’.  Is a review something which is meant to encourage potential audience members to go and see the show, or is it some kind of assessment process employed after the event?   Where reviews award stars, does a five star rating mean – “You really must go and see this”, or does it mean – “This was a really high-quality production, and the company did superbly well”. ?

If it’s the first, then it’s really a form of advertising – a preview, that gives people a flavour of what to expect when they finally do see the production, and so presumably too much detail would spoil some of the freshness and surprise of the performance.  They don’t want to be told – “The butler did it…”

But in the way of theatre – especially fringe theatre – most of the population won’t get to see the show, so for them the function of the review is to provide some kind of record of the event.  They can read about a production that they didn’t experience for themselves at first hand, and decide whether the company, and the author, are worth pursuing in the future. That’s certainly how I read reviews.

My dictionary defines ‘review’ as – ‘a survey; a critical examination; a critique’.  That’s what I try to produce when I write. To that end I put in as much detail as is needed to describe the production adequately. But I’m actually trying to do more…

‘News is only the first draft of History’.  Alan Barth, a journalist on The Washington Post, wrote that in 1943.  I don’t see myself as writing ‘History’, with all the academic analysis and perspective that the word implies, but I am trying to write a contemporary ‘eyewitness account’.  What was it like to BE at that performance on that particular night?  What did that production FEEL like?  If I can give some of the flavour of the event – if I can make readers experience some of the sensations I felt myself – then I’ll have produced something that’s useful today, but hopefully has some lasting value as well.  Remember that after a few years, the review might well be the only record of a production.

During the Festival I saw a wonderful production called ‘Belvedere’ (you can read my review on this website) and at the end I gave away the final twist of the plot. That action has been criticised, and I’m not totally happy myself.  Did you see the show? – probably not – but now by reading my review you have the opportunity to examine the author’s imagery and plot construction.  And you might be encouraged to see more work by Ana-Maria Bamberger.  Surely that’s the job of a reviewer.

I describe the sets, the costumes and the action of the show.  I set out the plot and usually quote enough of the lines to give a flavour of the author’s voice, too.  If that involves ‘spoilers’, it should become obvious before I get to the point where I reveal that it was ‘the butler who did it‘, and people don’t have to read the review.  Robert Capa (I’m a photographer, remember) once said – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.  I try to take my readers very close indeed.

Published in New Venture Theatre newsletter  July 2013


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