Thessaloniki, located in the north and Greece’s 2nd largest city, has a particularly fascinating and very multicultural history. Because of its proximity to Constantinople, the city held great significance in the Byzantine, Roman, 2nd Byzantine, and Ottoman eras — and on multiple trade routes as a result. From its inception Macedonian and of the Balkan region, the city didn’t become part of Greece until the early 20th century. Thessaloniki has always offered asylum to those in need or politically exiled, and as such maintains a liberal and global outlook today.
Thessaloniki’s fundamental welcoming of all peoples and their cultures is passed on to each generation; the photo is of a mural on an elementary school playground. The city borders Turkey to the east, with Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) not far away, and during the Ottoman era was known as its second capital; Bulgaria, Northern Macedonia, and Albania are all to its north, while the open sea lies south, and east. This city, even more than the rest of Greece, stands at the boundary of East and West — and during Ottoman rule, had such a large Jewish population that it was called “Jerusalem of the Balkans” and “Mother Israel.”
The Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jews who were expelled from Spain and elsewhere, many of whom settled in the (now) Greek city of Thessaloniki. By the early 20th century, the city’s Jewish population was the largest ethnic group, outnumbering Greeks, though a large number emigrated following a disastrous fire in 1917 which left many homeless. When the Nazis took up occupancy in the city, there were an estimated 55,000 Jewish residents remaining — 95% of whom were murdered in the camps. This Holocaust memorial and a Jewish museum serve as a reminder, and a large Holocaust museum is in the process of being built on the seafront — at the site of the old train station and deportation point.
Thessaloniki’s broad tolerance and liberal ideals show up in other ways, too: the city is particularly welcoming toward the LGBTQIA community, with an annual Pride week including multiple venues and events. Though same sex marriage is not yet allowed in Greece and heatedly protested by the Orthodox Church, civil unions have been permitted since 2014. In 2020, Thessaloniki will host EuroPride, an annual event drawing people from all across the continent.