Thessaloniki History Facts and Timeline

(Thessaloniki, Central Macedonia, Greece)

Thessaloniki ranks as the capital of Central Macedonia, one of 13 regions of Greece, not to mention being the birthplace of Mustafa Ataturk.

The city's history stretches back some 3,000 years, boasting prosperous Roman and Ottoman periods, although it is best noted for its ancient Byzantine World Heritage sights.

A Regal Founding

Thessaloniki was founded in the year of 315 BC by Macedonian king Cassander. It was named after his wife, who was actually also Alexander the Great's half sister. Thessaloniki grew fast as the main hub of trade and culture in Macedonia.

The city's Archaeological Museum on the Manoli Andronikou tells of these early days, with prehistoric relics of this region of Macedonia and of northern Greece. Items from Philip II's tomb (discovered in 1977) include his bones, gold and Macedonian coins, along with some Roman mosaics and sculptures.

The Romans and Wealth

The decline of the Macedon kingdom was followed by the Empire of Rome in 168 BC, which conquered Greece. The Romans fortified the city, making it the capital of the Southern Balkans and a Roman district of Macedonia. Along with the construction of a large harbour came the building of the Via Egnatia road to Byzantium, which brought with it great wealth.

In 313 AD, the Church of Agios Dimitrios was built in dedication to the patron saint of Thessaloniki and remains Greece's main church. It has been rebuilt and extended over the years - including in the 7th century and again in the early 1900s after fire damage both times, and is noted for its crypt.

Byzantine Churches

The Byzantine Empire took over from the Roman Empire proper in Thessaloniki in the year of 395 AD, marking an important period in Thessaloniki's history. This would become the Byzantines' second city, after Constantinople (now Istanbul) itself, and it soon garnered a slew of Byzantine monuments during this era.

Some of its churches now make an appearance on the UNESCO World Heritage list, including the 8th-century Hagia Sophia Church (Agia Sofia). The city was built over the Roman baths and takes its cue from the church of the same name in Istanbul. Tourists marvel at its Byzantine frescoes and mosaics.

An earthquake struck Thessaloniki in the 7th century AD and various entities subsequently tried to topple the city over the following centuries, including the Slavs, the barbaric Saracens and the Crusaders. The latter were successful for a time and even took the Byzantine stronghold of Constantinople, although this rule only lasted just over four decades. The Museum of Byzantine Civilisation depicts their time here.

Ottoman History

Byzantium sold Thessaloniki to Venice to keep it from the Ottomans, although the Turks staged a siege in 1430. They remained here for five centuries, building mosques, strengthening the castle and making the city a hub of trade for the Balkans. The White Tower at the waterfront is testament to their knowhow. In addition, Mustafa Ataturk (Turkey's modern-day father) was actually born here in 1881, with his house being a museum today.

War and Modernity

During the First Balkan War in 1912, Thessaloniki was liberated by Greece and it became the state capital in 1916. The Nazis bombed the city, slaughtered its Jewish community and occupied it during WWII. Thessaloniki was rebuilt after the war, although an earthquake in 1978 levelled many Byzantine monuments and killed dozens.

Thessaloniki quickly got back on its feet again, particularly after its early Byzantine and Christian sites were declared as World Heritage Monuments in 1988. A further earthquake in 1995 was followed by the city being voted the European City of Culture in 1997. While Thessaloniki is undeniably steeped in history, it is also nowadays a thoroughly modern city with a metropolitan population of just over one million.