Learn about Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki (historically also known as Thessalonica), is the second-largest city in Greece. It is also the capital of the region of Central Macedonia and the capital of the Decentralized Administration of Macedonia and Thrace. Its honorary title is Symprotevousa (which literally translates to “co-capital”) a reference to its historical status as the Symvasilevousa, “co-reigning” city of the Byzantine Empire, alongside Constantinople.

According to the 2011 census the municipality of Thessaloniki it has a population of 322.240. The Thessaloniki Urban Area (the contiguous built up area forming the “City of Thessaloniki”) has a population of 790.824. This makes it the fifth largest and most populated city in the Balkans and the second most populated city that is not a capital. The Thessaloniki Metropolitan Area extends over an area of 1.455,62 km2 (562.02 sq mi) with a 2011 population of 1.006.730 inhabitants.


Thessaloniki is Greece’s second major economic, industrial, commercial and political centre, and a main transportation. Its commercial port is of great importance for Greece and the southeastern European mainland. The city is renowned for its festivals, events and ancient sites making it a popular destination for travelers. Many considered Thessaloniki Greece’s cultural center. The Thessaloniki International Trade Fair and the Thessaloniki International Film Festival are annual events of note. The city has become the headquarters for SAE (World Council of Greeks) and the “capital city” of Greek “diaspora”. Thessaloniki has emerged as European Youth Capital 2014.

Thessaloniki is home to numerous notable Byzantine monuments, including them Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) as well as several Roman, Ottoman and Sephardic Jewish structures. With a history of over 2.300 years, it is one of Europe‘s oldest cities. The city’s main university (Aristotle University) is the largest in Greece and in the Balkans.


The alternative name Salonika or Salonica, derived from the variant form Σαλονίκη (Saloniki) in popular Greek speech, gives rise to several languages’ form of the city’s name and is formerly the common name used in some western European languages. Names in other languages prominent in the city’s history include Soluniki in Old Church Slavonic, Salonika in Ladino, Selanik (also Selanik) in Turkish, Solun in the local and neighboring South Slavic languages, Saloniki in Russian, and Saruna in Aromanian. In local speech, the city’s name is typically pronounced with a dark and deep L characteristic of Macedonian accent. The name is often written in the abbreviated form Θεσ/νίκη.


The history of the city of Thessaloniki is a long one, dating back to ancient Macedonia. Since the opening of borders in Southeastern Europe (after the collapse of Communism in the Balkans in the early 1990s) it has experienced a strong revival.

From antiquity to the Roman Empire


The city was founded around 315 BC by the King Cassander of Macedon, on or near the site of the ancient town of Therma and 26 other local villages. He named it after his wife Thessalonike, a half-sister of Alexander the Great and princess of Macedon as daughter of Philip II. Under the kingdom of Macedon the city retained its own autonomy and parliament and evolved to become the most important city in Macedon.

After the fall of the kingdom of Macedon (168 BC), Thessalonica became a free city of the Roman Republic. It grew to be an important trade-hub located on the Via Egnatia, the road connecting Dyrrhachium with Thessaloniki, which facilitated trade between Thessaloniki and great centers of commerce such as Rome and Byzantium. The city later became the capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia. Later it became the capital of all the Greek provinces of the Roman Empire resulting from the city’s importance in the Balkan Peninsula. When the Roman Empire was divided into the Tetrarchy, Thessaloniki became the administrative capital of one of the four portions of the Empire under Galerius Maximianus Caesar, where Galerius commissioned an imperial palace, a new hippodrome, a triumphal arch and a mausoleum among others.

Medieval times and Byzantine era


From the early days of the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki asserted itself as the second city in the Empire, a status it held until it was finally transferred to Venice in 1423. The status of “second city” only to Constantinople was both in terms of wealth and size. In the 1300s the city’s population exceeded 100.000, making it larger than London at that time.

The economic expansion of the city continued through the 12th century as the rule of the Komnenoi dynasty expanded Byzantine control to the north. Thessaloniki passed out of Byzantine hands in 1204, when Constantinople was captured by the forces of the Fourth Crusade. They incorporated the city and its surrounding territories in the Kingdom of Thessalonica — which then became the largest vassal of the Latin Empire. In 1224, the Kingdom of Thessalonica was overrun by the Despotate of Epirus, a remnant of the former Byzantine Empire – under Theodore Komnenos Doukas who crowned himself Emperor – and the city became the Despotat’s capital. The era of the Despotate of Epirus is also known as the Empire of Thessalonica. Following his defeat at Klokotnitsa in 1230, the Empire of Thessalonica became a vassal state of the Second Bulgarian Empire until it was recovered again in 1246, this time by the Nicaean Empire. In 1342, the city saw the rise of the Commune of the Zealots (an anti-aristocratic party formed of sailors and the poor) regarded now as social-revolutionary. The city was practically independent from the rest of the Empire as it had its own government -a form of republic. The zealot movement was overthrown in 1350 and the city was reunited with the rest of the Empire.

In 1423, Despot Andronicus, who was in charge of the city, ceded it to the Republic of Venice in the hope that it could be protected from the Ottomans who were besieging the city (there is no evidence to support the oft-repeated story that he sold the city to them). The Venetians held Thessaloniki until it was captured by the Ottoman Sultan Murad II on 29 March 1430.

Ottoman period


Murad II took Thessaloniki brutally sacking and pillaging it. Roughly one-fifth of the city’s population was enslaved. Upon the capture and plunder of Thessaloniki, many of its inhabitants escaped, including intellectuals such as Theodorus Gaza “Thessalonicensis” and Andronicus Callistus. However, the change of sovereignty from the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman one did not affect the city’s prestige as a major imperial city and trading hub.Thessaloniki and Smyrna, although smaller in size than Constantinople, were the Ottoman Empire’s most important trading hubs. Thessaloniki’s importance was mostly in the field of shipping,but also in manufacturing, while most of the city’s trade was controlled by ethnic Greeks.

During the Ottoman period, the city’s Muslim and Jewish population grew. By 1478 Selanik, as the city came to be known in Ottoman Turkish, had a population of 4,320 Muslims, 6,094 Greek Orthodox and some Catholics, but no Jews. Soon after the turn of the 15th to 16th century, nearly 20,000 Sephardic Jews had immigrated to Greece from Spain following their expulsion. Circa 1500, the numbers had grown to 7.986 Greeks, 8.575 Muslims and 3.770 Jews. By 1519, Sephardic Jews numbered 15.715, 54% of the city’s population. Some historians consider the Ottoman regime’s invitation to the Jews as strategy to prevent the ethnic Greek population (Eastern Orthodox Christians) from dominating the city.

Selanik was the capital of the Selanik within the Rumeli Eyaleti (Balkans) until 1826, and subsequently the capital of Selanik Vilayeti (between 1826 and 1864 Selanik Eyaleti). This consisted of the sanjaks of Selanik, Serres and Drama between 1826 and 1912. Thessaloniki was also a Janissary stronghold where novices Janissaries were trained. In June 1826, regular Ottoman soldiers attacked and destroyed the Janissary base in Thessaloniki while also killing over 10.000 Janissaries, an event known as The Auspicious Incident in Ottoman history. From 1870, driven by economic growth, the city’s population expanded by 70%, reaching 135,000 in 1917.

20th century

In the early 20th century, Thessaloniki was in the center of radical activities by various groups such as the Macedonian Committee, founded in 1903, and the Bulgarian-Macedonian Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, founded in 1893. In 1903 an anarchist group known as the Boatmen of Thessaloniki planted bombs in several buildings in Thessaloniki, including the Ottoman Bank, with some assistance from the IMRO. The Greek consulate in Ottoman Thessaloniki (now the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle) served as the center of operations for the Greek guerillas. In 1908 the Young Turks movement broke out in the city, sparking the Young Turk Revolution.

As the First Balkan War broke out, Greece declared war on the Ottoman Empire and expanded its borders. When Eleftherios Venizelos, Prime Minister at the time, was asked if the Greek army should move towards Thessaloniki or Monastir, Venizelos replied «Salonique a tout prix!» (Thessaloniki, at all costs!). As both Greece and Bulgaria wanted Thessaloniki, the Ottoman garrison of the city entered negotiations with both armies. On 8 November 1912 (26 October Old Style), the feast day of the city’s patron saint, Saint Demetrius, the Greek Army accepted the surrender of the Ottoman garrison at Thessaloniki. The Bulgarian army arrived one day after the surrender of the city to Greece and Tahsin Pasha, ruler of the city, told the Bulgarian officials that “I have only one Thessaloniki, which I have surrendered”. After the Second Balkan War, Thessaloniki and the rest of the Greek portion of Macedonia were officially annexed to Greece by the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913.

In 1915, during World War I, a large Allied expeditionary force established a base at Thessaloniki for operations against pro-German Bulgaria. This culminated in the establishment of the Macedonian Front, also known as the Salonika Front. In 1916, pro-Venizelist Greek army officers and civilians, with the support of the Allies, launched the Movement of National Defence, creating a pro-Allied temporary government by the name of the “State of Thessaloniki” that controlled “new lands” (lands that were gained by Greece in the Balkan Wars, most of Northern Greece). The official government of the King in Athens, the “State of Athens”, controlled the “old lands” which were traditionally Monarchist. The State of Thessaloniki was disestablished with the unification of the two opposing Greek governments under Venizelos, following the abdication of King Constantine in 1917.

Most of the old center of the city was destroyed by the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917, which started accidentally by an unattended kitchen fire on 18 August 1917. The fire swept through the centre of the city, leaving 72.000 people homeless. According to the Pallis Report, most of them were Jewish (50.000). Many businesses were destroyed. As a result, 70% of the population was unemployed. Also a number of religious structures of the three major faiths were also lost. Nearly one-quarter of the total population of approximately 271.157 became homeless. Following the fire the government prohibited quick rebuilding, so it could implement the new redesign of the city according to the European-style urban plan prepared by a group of architects, (which included the Briton Thomas Mawson, and was headed by French architect Ernest Hebrard). The Jewish community’s properties were reduced from a value of 6.5 million Greek drachmas to 750.000. Because of their losses and unable to wait for the rebuilding of the new city, nearly half of the Jewish Greek population emigrated to France, the United States and Palestine.

After the defeat of Greece in the Greco-Turkish War and during the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, a population exchange took place between Greece and Turkey. Over 160.000 ethnic Greeks from the former Ottoman Empire resettled in the city, changing its demographics. Additionally many of the city’s Muslims were exchanged with Turkey, in the area of 20.000 people. During the interwar period, Greece granted Jews full civil rights same as all other Greek citizens.

During World War II Thessaloniki was heavily bombarded by Fascist Italy (with 232 people dead, 871 wounded and over 800 buildings damaged or destroyed in November 1940 alone). The Italians failed to succeed in their invasion of Greece. Thessaloniki finally fell to the forces of Nazi Germany on 8 April 1941and remained under German occupation until 30 October 1944 when it was liberated by the Greek People’s Liberation Army. Soon after the city fell to the forces of Nazi they forced the Jewish population into a ghetto near the railroads and on 15 March 1943 began the deportation process of the city’s 56.000 Jews to concentration camps. Over 43.000 of the city’s Jews were sent to concentration camps, where most were killed in the gas chambers. The Germans also deported 11.000 Jews to forced labor camps, where most perished. Only 1.200 Jews live in the city today. The city also suffered considerable damage from Allied bombing in their effort to fight the Germans.

The importance of Thessaloniki to Nazi Germany can be demonstrated by the fact that initially Hitler planned to incorporate the city in the Third Reich (that is, make it a part of Germany) and not have it controlled by a puppet state such as the Hellenic State or an ally of Germany (Thessaloniki had been promised to Yugoslavia as a reward for joining the Axis on 25 March 1941). Having been the first major city in Greece to fall to the occupying forces just two days after the German invasion, it was in Thessaloniki that the first Greek resistance group was formed (under the name Eleftheria, “Freedom”) as well as the first anti-Nazi newspaper in an occupied territory anywhere in Europe also by the name Eleftheria. Thessaloniki was also home to a military camp-converted-concentration camp, known in German as “Konzentrationslager Pavlo Mela” Pavlos Melas Concentration Camp), where members of the resistance and other non-favorable people towards the German occupation from all over Greece were held either to be killed or sent to concentration camps elsewhere in Europe.

After the war, Thessaloniki was rebuilt with large-scale development of new infrastructure and industry throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Many of its architectural treasures still remain, adding value to the city as a tourist destination, while several early Christian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1988. In 1997, Thessaloniki was celebrated as the European Capital of Culture, sponsoring events across the city and the region, while in 2004 the city hosted a number of the football events as part of the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Today Thessaloniki has become one of the most important trade and business hubs in Southeastern Europe the Port of Thessaloniki is one of the largest in the Aegean Sea and facilitates trade throughout the Balkan hinterland. The city also forms one of the largest student centers in Southeastern Europe, is host to the largest student population in Greece and has emerged as European Youth Capital 2014.