The history of Thessaloniki dates back to the Hellenistic era when it was founded near the ancient town of Therma in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon. By the 2nd century BC, the city prospered and had become a major city of the Kingdom of Macedonia; it enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy and had its own parliament with authority over some of the city’s domestic affairs.
Following the defeat of the Macedonians at the hands of the Romans and the subsequent annexation of their territories in 168 BC, Thessaloniki was ruled by the Romans. Under Roman rule, the city emerged as an important trade center that connected Europe to Asia via the Egnatia road and served as one of the empire’s capitals during the Tetrarchy period. Some of Thessaloniki’s most impressive and detailed structures, like the Gallerian Complex and the Roman Agora, that were built during this period, survive to this day and are a testament to the might of the Roman Empire and the influence of Roman culture over the western world.
During the 1st century AD, following the visit of Paul the Apostle, Thessaloniki became one of the first hubs of early Christianity. His preaching planted the seeds for the creation of the city’s first Christian church. However, his message was met with outrage by a large part of the local Jewish community and his followers were prosecuted. This led him to draft the famous letters to Thessalonians that were later incorporated into the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
The city retained its role as an important commercial and administrative center during the Byzantine era, expanding its borders and experienced a surge in economic activity. This time of prosperity saw a burst of intellectual and artistic endeavors that are evidenced in the creation of many beautiful churches like the Panagia Chalkeon, Agia Sofia, and the church of Agios Dimitrios, Thessaloniki’s patron saint.
Unable to hold back the Ottoman advance, the Byzantine Empire handed over Thessaloniki to the Republic of Venice in 1423, but in 1430 it was captured by Sultan Murad II. As a part of a demographic strategy, employed by the Ottoman Empire to prevent the Greek population from dominating the city, the number of Muslim and Jewish people increased significantly. In fact, by 1519 Thessaloniki had become the largest Jewish community in the world and remained as such for more than two centuries. For the next 400 years, the city’s population was chiefly made up of Orthodox Greeks, Muslims and Sephardic Jews and the impact of this cultural integration has left its mark on the city’s identity and character.
Thessaloniki was one of the most significant commercial cities of the Ottoman Empire and it benefited greatly from the empire’s efforts to re-organize and modernize itself during the 19th century. The railway reached the city in 1888, the construction of new port facilities began in 1896, and a number of buildings featuring an exquisite Ottoman architectural style were erected during this time. On October 27th of 1912, Thessaloniki was liberated by the Greek army and officially joined the independent nation of Greece with the signing of the Treaty of Bucharest on the 10th of August 1913. Following the disastrous fire of 1917, the architect and archaeologist Ernest Hebrard prepared a plan to revitalize the decimated city center and although it wasn’t fully implemented, it transformed Thessaloniki into its present form.
Today, Thessaloniki is a modern European metropolitan city. It is the most important commercial and administrative center in northern Greece while it is also one of the largest student centers in Southeastern Europe. By all accounts, Thessaloniki is one of Greece’s most lively and interesting cities to visit.