Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by King Kassander of Macedon, by joining up 26 townships in the Thermaikos Gulf. He established the city at its present location due to its strategic position on Macedonian coastline that could easily connect the hinterland with the sea and create the conditions for thriving commercial traffic.
Kassander named the city after his wife, daughter of King Philip ΙΙ and sister of Alexander the Great. Princess Thessalonike was given her name in order to commemorate her birth on the day of Philips’ victory over the Phocians, who were defeated with the help of Thessalian horsemen, the best in the Greek world at the time. Hence the literal meaning of the word is “victory of the Thessalians” from Greek: nike “victory”.
Thessaloniki developed very quickly into an important cultural center and the base of the Macedonian fleet, surpassing the capital city of Pella in fame and glory. Its first walls were built as early as the 2nd century BC to protect itself against Celtic invasions. In 168 BC the Macedonian army was defeated by the Romans at Pydna. The outcome of this battle marked the final subjugation of Greece to the Romans. At the end of the battle the last Macedonian King, Perseus, fled temporarily to Thessaloniki and ordered to the destruction of Macedonian fleet by fire so that it would not to fall into the hands of the Romans.
Following the end of the Hellenistic period, Thessaloniki became part of the Roman Republic. Many of the most imposing and well decorated structures were built during the Roman era of its history, as Thessaloniki was one of the capitals during the Tetrarchy period, while it also served as capital of all the Greek provinces for a period. When the praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum was divided between the East and West Roman Empires in 379, Thessaloniki became the capital of the new Prefecture of Illyricum, which was reduced in size.
Due to the city’s strategic position in the Balkan Peninsula, Thessaloniki was a major trade-hub in the empire, connecting Rome with Byzantium on the Via Egnatia and facilitating trade between Europe and Asia. The Romans marked their presence in the city with superb public edifices and a palace bequeathed by Emperor Galerius. During that period Apostle Paul visited Thessaloniki on his second mission and addressed two Epistles to the Thessalonians, which are the earliest of the Epistles in the New Testament, establishing the first major Christian church in Europe.
In the year 306 Thessaloniki acquired a patron saint, St. Demetrios, who was the Roman governor of Greece under the emperor Maximian. St. Demetrius was martyred at a Roman prison, where the Church of St. Demetrios lies today in the center of the city.
During the Byzantine period the city continued to grow, becoming the political, economic and religious hub of the Balkan Peninsula. Second only to Constantinople (Istanbul) and protected by enormous outer walls, Thessaloniki was adorned by resplendent churches and became a magnet for commerce and the arts. Nowadays fifteen monuments in Thessaloniki are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, including several Paleochristian churches and Byzantine monuments.
Byzantine brothers Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius were born in Thessaloniki and it was Byzantine Emperor Michael III who encouraged them to visit the northern regions as missionaries in the 9th century, where they adopted the South Slavonic speech as the basis for the Old Church Slavonic language.
In the 14th century Thessaloniki became the centre of the Zealot social movement, one of the first social movements in Europe. The mounting discontent of the working class against nobility led to a major revolt of the people in Thessaloniki that turned into a political commotion, introducing several progressive social ideas at the time.
During the 13th and 14th centuries Thessaloniki experienced a great intellectual and spiritual blossoming, promoting a plethora of scholars, artists and theologians. Particularly in the field of arts, the schools of Thessaloniki deeply influenced the entire Balkan Christian world and Russia. This whole intellectual movement is known as the Palaeologan Renaissance and took place during the period where the “co-reigning” Thessaloniki had the intellectual supremacy of the Byzantine Empire.
In 1430 Thessaloniki was conquered by the Ottomans and remained occupied for almost five hundred years. During that period the city evolved into a multicultural metropolis of different religions and ethnicities, and was inhabited predominantly by Greek Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish populations. In the 18th century Thessaloniki became the city with the largest Jewish population in the world and remained so for at least 200 years, gaining the name “Mother of Israel” at the time. Of its 130,000 inhabitants at the start of the 20th century, around 60,000 were Sephardic Jews. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, was born in Thessaloniki in 1881, and the Young Turk movement was headquartered in the city in the early 20th century.
The railway reached the city in 1888 and new modern port facilities were built in 1896-1904. Thessaloniki was the foremost trade and commercial center in the Balkan Peninsula.
Thessaloniki played a major role in the Greek War of Independence. Grigorios Zalykis, a prominent Thessalonian, was the founder of Hellenoglosso Xenodocheio (“Greek-speaking Hotel”), an organization established in 1809 to assist in the mobilization of the Greeks against Ottoman rule. The city was finally liberated by the Greek Army in 1912, during the first Balkan War.
In 1917 the city faced what was perhaps its greatest disaster ever, as a huge fire destroyed almost three quarters of the center, which had various side effects in the following years. Serious efforts were made by famous architects like Ernest Hebrard in order for the city center to be rebuilt in a modern way.
The city’s ethnic composition changed again quite dramatically during the next few decades, following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 and the deportation of the Jewish population in 1943 to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Thessaloniki is a rare example of a city with uninterrupted urban activity over 2,300 years. Over the centuries its strategic position has ensured that it has been constantly one of the most important cultural and intellectual centers in Southern Europe. The city is currently developing rapidly and aims to continue to play a leading role in the region as a whole. The welcoming people of Thessaloniki are proud of their city and, with their efforts, are contributing to its development and prosperity.