Last Updated on February 24, 2024

Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of Macedonia. In ancient times, it was a major trading hub due to its location along the Roman Via Egnatia road connecting it to major commerce centers like Rome and Byzantium (now Istanbul).

Today, visitors flock to popular sites like the White Tower, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture to learn about Thessaloniki’s rich past. Visitors who go off the beaten path, like I did, can discover intriguing, little-known facts about the city’s fascinating hidden history.

Thessaloniki Earthquake

Stock Market Building of Old Thessaloniki with frozen clock.
Stock Market Building of Old Thessaloniki with frozen clock. Photo By Marni Patterson

Walking past the Stoa Malakopi (Old Stock Exchange Building) downtown, you’ll notice the time on its clock never changes. On the morning of June 20, 1978, a major earthquake rocked the city center and time stood still – literally.

The clock on the old Thessaloniki Stock Exchange building reads 11:07 and hasn’t changed since that day.

The shock was felt throughout northern Greece, Bulgaria and what was then Yugoslavia. It was the first earthquake that hit a big city in Greece in modern times and the largest in the area since the lerrios earthquake in 1932.

Forty-nine people died, more than 220 people were injured, and thousands were left homeless. Over 17,000 buildings sustained moderate to severe damage, and the Thessaloniki Stock Exchange building was one of them.

Instead of fixing the clock, the city decided to leave it as is, serving as a reminder of the earthquake and as a tribute to those who died.

Thessaloniki Started Building a Metro and Found…

As anyone who’s visited Thessaloniki can attest, driving in the city is not for the faint of heart. There’s a reason locals leave their cars at home and rely on buses and taxis to get around.

City managers knew residents needed better public transportation options and began building a metro system in 2006. However, 15 years later, there’s still no metro in Thessaloniki. Why not?

When construction crews began their excavation, they uncovered thousands of ruins and archaeological treasures from different periods of Thessaloniki’s history. Two of the first were a decumanus (major east-west road) built by Caesar Galerius in the 4th Century and another avenue dating back to the Byzantine era. As they continued digging, they found architectural remains of 15th to 17th-century buildings built on top of the remains of Hellenistic and Roman buildings.

Excavation and construction work came to a standstill while archaeologists debated with city authorities to determine the best way to complete the metro while preserving the ruins.

Thessaloniki is now creating an underground museum that will be a major tourist attraction and by the end of 2024, residents will finally have their long-awaited metro system.

Archeological Ruins in Thessaloniki Uncovered by Metro Excavation.
Archeological Ruins in Thessaloniki Uncovered by Metro Excavation. Photo by Marni Patterson

Thessaloniki’s Tragic Jewish Legacy

At one time, Thessaloniki was the Jewish cultural center of Europe. The city became a Torah learning center and attracted many students from abroad. Persecuted Jews from all over Europe arrived in droves with hopes of living a normal life.

At the beginning of World War II, Thessaloniki had a large, prosperous Jewish community of around 65,000. In 1943, the Nazis forced them into ghettos and eventually deported them to death camps and labor camps. Many never returned and by the end of the war, nearly 98% had been killed. Only 1,200 Jews live in the city today.

The Nazis also tried wiping out all vestiges of Judaism throughout the city. Thessaloniki’s Jewish cemetery was established in the 15th century and grew into one of the largest in Europe, with over 350,000 graves. When the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, they dismantled it, scattered the remains of the bodies, and used the headstones to construct buildings and repair roads.

If you know where to look, you can see blocks of stone with Hebrew writing on buildings and roads that were originally headstones in the Jewish Cemetery embedded in buildings and walls.

Pictures can be found in a gallery at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.

Jewish Headstones in Thessaloniki desecrated by Nazis in 1941.
Jewish Headstones in Thessaloniki desecrated by Nazis in 1941. Photo Credit Zack Bodner, Jewish News of Northern California.

Thessaloniki’s Tribute to World War I Heroes

Many people pass the Zeitenlik Allied Military Cemetery northwest of downtown Thessaloniki without realizing it’s a World War I memorial park. Over 20,000 soldiers from France, Serbia, Russia, the United Kingdom and Italy are buried here.

The cemetery is divided into sections according to nationality. The Serbian Military Graveyard is the largest section and built on the site of a former World War I Serbian army field hospital. A memorial at the entrance honors fallen fighters, and the bones of 5,500 Serbian soldiers are interred at the base of the tomb.

Many Serbs make pilgrimages to Zeitenlik Allied Military Cemetery, especially on or near Remembrance Day (November 11th). When I visited in late October, several busloads of Serbs were holding a memorial service at the monument. They also visited the British section to see the grave of Katherine M. Harley.

Harley was a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. She transferred to the Balkan Front and established a motorized ambulance unit attached to the Royal Serbian Army that operated near the front line.

She left the Scottish Women’s Hospitals service to join an independent ambulance unit that served the civilian population of Monastir, Serbia (now in the Republic of North Macedonia). She was killed by shellfire and buried in Thessaloniki. General Milne, the commander of the British forces in the Balkans and the Crown Prince of Serbia attended her funeral.

Serbian officers created a special gravesite to thank her for the work she did for the Serbian people during the war.

Her gravestone reads in English and Serbo-Croat, “On your tomb instead of flowers, the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there. For your wonderful acts, your name shall be known from generation to generation.”

Sofia Vembo: The “Bob Hope” of Greece

The War Museum of Thessaloniki was established in 2000 to preserve modern Greek military history from the turn of the 20th century to the liberation of Greece from Germany at the end of World War II.

Permanent collections include photographs, military uniforms, weapons, replicas of artillery and ships, maps and similar items from Greece and armies of other Balkan countries. One of the most interesting exhibits pays tribute to Sofia Vembo.

Vembo was a Greek singer and actress known as the “Singer of Victory.” She was at the peak of her career in 1940 and 1941 and became (in effect) a one-woman USO performing patriotic songs that were a major source of inspiration for Greek military forces and Greeks fighting on the home front.

Many of her songs celebrated Greek victories against fascist Italian troops during the Greco-Italian War at the beginning of World War II. When the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, she defied German orders by continuing to sing and went to the Middle East to perform for Greek soldiers who were in exile.

Children of Greece,” her most famous song, was written by Mimis Traiforos, a Greek writer and lyricist whom she eventually married. It inspired Greek soldiers during the early days of World War II and is sung throughout Greece, Cyprus and Greek communities worldwide every October 28th to celebrate Oxi Day. The holiday commemorates Greece’s rejection of Mussolini’s orders on October 28, 1940, and its resistance against Nazi occupation.

French novelist and literary critic Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

If you explore Thessaloniki’s history with “new eyes,” you might be amazed at what you find.

Author

  • Marni Patterson

    Marni is a freelance journalist who writes about destination travel, local customs and cultures, and history. She’s lived all over the U.S., spent a year in Belgium as an exchange student, and now calls Phoenix, Arizona home.

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