In 1908, Thessaloniki resembled a mosaic of religions. Three major groups, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Jews, made up the bulk of its population, which was complemented by smaller numbers of Catholics, Armenians, Protestants and Exarchates. Each of these groups constituted a community, acknowledged by the Ottoman state as a legal entity. It enjoyed its own places of worship, around which its members lived, forming separate quarters.
Muslims resided primarily in the upper part of the walled city, yet mosques existed in the lower lying areas as well. The central section of the latter, an area dominated by Jews since the early 16th century, encompassed numerous synagogues, while to the southeast, the presence of mainly Orthodox Christians accounted for the operation of a large number of Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches. Additional churches were operated by isolated groups of Orthodox Christians in other parts of the historic centre.
Next to the major groups, Catholics exercised their religious duties in the newly built church of Amiandi Silipsi tis Theotokou, in the area of Frangomahalas, Armenians in the also newly built church of the Virgin, in the southeast section of the walled city, and Orthodox Christians of Serbian origin in the church of Aghios Savas, located close to the Armenian church and to the north. Lastly, a church for the Exarchate community (modern church of Aghios Ioannis Chrissostomos) had begun to be built in the area east of the historic centre.
In the years that followed until World War II, the multifarious nature of Thessaloniki’s population and places of worship suffered major blows. The first was inflicted in 1917, by a fire that brought to ruins the largest part of the city’s historic centre. The unprecedented calamity destroyed churches, mosques and mostly synagogues, as it struck primarily the Jewish quarters.
A few years later, the Asia Minor Disaster caused an influx of approximately 80.000 refugees (Orthodox Christians and Armenians), who settled in the historic centre and in peripheral settlements. Almost simultaneously, the population exchange treaties eliminated the Muslim presence, along with the Christian Exarchate one, in addition to opening the way for the extinction of the places of worship of both communities. Churches that had been converted into mosques gradually resumed their Orthodox Christian identity, while the remaining mosques either fell into neglect or accommodated activities that were incompatible with their sacred character. As concerns the unfinished Exarchate church, it was completed and opened to Orthodox Christian worship.
Between 1924 - 1927, most of the Armenian refugees of the Asia Minor disaster headed for other cities in Europe and the United States, leaving two major groups in the once composite mosaic of religions, namely the Orthodox Christians and the Jews. Nonetheless, the Jewish presence was to weaken drastically in the following years, as a result of the deportation of almost all of Thessaloniki’s Jews to the concentration camps of east Europe during World War II. In addition, the Nazis destroyed most of the city’s synagogues. With the exception of one, the few that survived were demolished in post-war years in order to clear land for development.
In the wake of these events, the multifarious nature of Thessaloniki’s places of worship of 1908 proves nowadays a mere memory. Yet it is a memory with certain clear traces in the dense modern cityscape.
The Orthodox Christian churches of contemporary Thessaloniki comprise most of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine places of worship that were dispersed in the walled city in 1908, together with a much greater number of modern churches that were built in more recent years. The architecture of the latter certainly justifies concern for the way in which the world-renowned Byzantine and post-Byzantine ecclesiastic heritage of Thessaloniki was supplemented in modern times.
Of the numerous mosques of 1908, only six survive. Three of these, i.e. Hamza Bey Mosque, Alaca Imaret and Yeni Camii, either accommodate or will accommodate in the near future compatible functions. Conversely, the mosque of Skala, the mosque of the Pavlos Melas Army Camp and the mosque of Zihni Pasa continue to demonstrate neglect and abandonment.
In the numerous churches that had been converted into mosques and were restored to Orthodox Christian worship after 1912, few signs remain to indicate their intermediate function. To be more precise, these are the west porch, the minaret (the only one that escaped the demolition of Thessaloniki’s minarets in 1925) and the roofed fountain of the church of Aghios Georgios (Rotunda), the shaft of the initial minaret and the interior wall decoration in imitation of marble cladding of the church of Aghia Sophia, the base of the minaret of the church of Aghios Panteleimon and the characteristic scratches on the wall paintings of a number of monuments (for instance the Katholikon of the Vlatadon Monastery), part of the render application process upon conversion into mosques.
Of the similarly numerous synagogues, none remains to point back to their wide dispersion in the urban landscape of 1908. The only “historic” synagogue of modern Thessaloniki, known as “ton Monastirioton”, dates to 1927 and was part of the group of synagogues that were built in the wake of the losses inflicted by the fire of 1917. More recently, another two synagogues were founded in order to cover the needs of the city’s modern Jewish community. Nonetheless, they cannot be detected, as they are accommodated in the interior of multi-storied post-war buildings.
The worship places of the less populous communities of 1908 continue to be part of the urban landscape. The church of Amiandi Silipsi tis Theotokou (Pict.4) and the church of the Virgin have covered without interruption the needs of Thessaloniki’s Catholic and Armenian community, respectively. A smaller Catholic church was founded in 1992 next to a major point of reference of the Catholic community, namely the convent of the monks of the Lazarist order.
The Exarchate church that was built in the east extension of the city was subsequently opened to Orthodox Christian worship, as already mentioned. Nonetheless, its exterior is clearly reminiscent of the special fold for which it was originally intended. It constitutes a characteristic example of neo-Romanesque architecture with Byzantine, Gothic and Neoclassical influences, in an attempt to establish a different profile from that of the Byzantine churches of the city.
The worship pole of the Orthodox Christians of Serbian origin also continues to exist, yet strangely enough in the form of a semi-basement in a post-war multi-storied apartment block close to Sintrivani Square. To the west, on P. P. Germanou street, one encounters the modern multi-storied building that houses the worship and cultural activity of the Greek Evangelist Church, while an apartment in a multi-storied block on the same street accommodates the respective activity of the German Evangelist Church.
In conclusion, it is clear that the dramatic weakening of the multifarious nature of Thessaloniki’s places of worship since 1908 has largely to do with the extinction of the worship poles of two out of the three dominant groups of the city’s population, namely those of the Muslims and the Jews. Though limited, traces of this special nature remain identifiable in the modern urban fabric, pointing to a totally different reality. A reality that is part of the history of Thessaloniki and, as such, makes it imperative that these traces are brought to the foreground, not only with material interventions, but also by raising awareness. Moreover, without considering any of them as references to an Ottoman past that deserve neglect and nothing more.
- Β. Κολώνας - Λ. Παπαματθαιάκη, Ο αρχιτέκτονας Vitaliano Poselli, Θεσσαλονίκη: Παρατηρητής, 1980, σ. 53-76.
- Β. Δημητριάδης, Τοπογραφία της Θεσσαλονίκης κατά την εποχή της Τουρκοκρατίας, 1430 - 1912, Θεσσαλονίκη: Εταιρεία Μακεδονικών Σπουδών, 1983.
- Δ. Ναλμπάντης - Π. Θεοχαρίδης - Δ. Ευγενίδου - Θ. Παπαζώτος, «Η Βυζαντινή Θεσσαλονίκη και τα μνημεία της», Αρχαιολογία 7 (1983), σ. 17-33.
- Μ. Καμπούρη, «Η Θεσσαλονίκη μετά την άλωση, 1430-1912», Αρχαιολογία 7 (1983), σ. 48-52.
- Α. Σαμουηλίδου - Αιμ. Στεφανίδου, «Η Θεσσαλονίκη κατά την Τουρκοκρατία: Τα Τουρκικά μνημεία», Αρχαιολογία 7 (1983), σ. 53-65.
- Θ. Μαντοπούλου-Παναγιωτοπούλου, Θρησκευτική αρχιτεκτονική στη Θεσσαλονίκη κατά την τελευταία φάση της Τουρκοκρατίας, 1839-1912, διδακτορική διατριβή στο Τμήμα Αρχιτεκτόνων της Πολυτεχνικής Σχολής του Α.Π.Θ., 1989.
- Χρ. Μαυροπούλου-Τσιούμη, Βυζαντινή Θεσσαλονίκη, Θεσσαλονίκη, Ρέκος, 1992.
- Ευ. Κουρκουτίδου-Νικολαΐδου - Αν. Τούρτα, Περίπατοι στη βυζαντινή Θεσσαλονίκη, Αθήνα: Εκδόσεις Καπόν, 1997.
- T. S. Mantopoulou-Panagiotopoulou, “The Architecture of Thessaloniki’s Synagogues during the Turkish Period”, The Jewish Communities of southeastern Europe from the fifteenth century to the end of World War II, Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1997, σ. 303-326.
- Η. Μεσσίνας, Οι συναγωγές της Θεσσαλονίκης και της Βέροιας, Αθήνα: Εκδόσεις Γαβριηλίδη, 1997, σ. 34-107.