The Great Fire of Thessaloniki changed the city forever.
When the Great Balkan Ride reaches Thessaloniki on August 12th, the city that meets us will be quite unlike the one that stood one hundred years before. We will arrive just one week before the centenary of perhaps the most consequential event in the city’s history: the Great Fire of Thessaloniki.
Even before the fire, the citizens of Thessaloniki were living through a period of immense turmoil. Salonika, as it was known until 1912, had long been a great trading center, famous for its multicultural population. The Ottoman rulers did not exert too firm a grip on their subjects (though those who ended up in the “red tower” may have disagreed). Many Sephardic Jews, driven out of Spain in 1492, lived in the city, alongside Greeks, Turks, Slavs, and those of many other nationalities.
Salonika Before the Fire
Salonika’s natural bay on the Aegean Sea was a perfect location for trading, linking the Balkans with the Mediterranean and beyond. And so, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, various young nations were eager to make it their own. The Greeks seized control of the city in November 1912, during the First Balkan War, one day before the arrival of Bulgarian forces. During the First World War, Thessaloniki became a base for allied forces fighting on the Macedonian Front, which supported Serbia in its conflict with the Central Powers.
The Great Fire of Thessaloniki
In August 1917, Thessaloniki was cramped, hot, and had been without rain for four months. At noon on 18th August (or the 5th of August according to the old calendar used at the time), a small fire broke out in the kitchen of a house in the Mevlane district, home to refugees. There was no organised fire brigade and, in any case, much of the city’s water supply had been diverted to the army camps on the outskirts. However, citizens were initially not especially concerned: fires were not uncommon. This fire, though, coincided with fierce winds which quickly spread the flames through the town’s narrow streets and to the center of the city. Almost two days would pass before the Great Fire of Thessaloniki was over.
The Damage Caused by the Fire
The damage was enormous, with almost a third of Thessaloniki destroyed: from mosques to churches, banks to printing presses, all kinds of structures were damaged. The fire had torn through hundreds of acres of old wooden housing and had even crossed the main street, the Via Egnatia, then the city’s widest at 8 meters across. The overcrowded central Jewish quarter vanished entirely, and with it centuries of history. Over 50,000 Jews were left homeless, plus 10,000 Muslims and a further 10,000 Christians.
The Rebuilding of the City
If the Great Fire of Thessaloniki didn’t change the city for ever, the reconstruction certainly did. Authorities were determined to create a modern European city. Gone would be the days of haphazard, narrow streets lined with wooden houses. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos invited French architect Ernest Hebrard to remodel the entire center in a style combining Byzantine heritage and contemporary ideas.
Though Hebrard’s plans were too expensive to be fully completed, his vision for the city is clearly visible today. He designed the city’s central landmark, Aristotelous Square, and the grid system which allows for the transport links necessary to support a large population, while seeking to preserve historic upper town, Ano Poli. Notable for their absence, though, are remains of ordinary life before the Great Fire of Thessaloniki. Ancient city walls and several ornate mosques remain, but the tightly-packed Ottoman houses are gone forever. This is a European city now.