Europa was the daughter of a Phoenician King named Agenor. Zeus fell in love with her, changed himself into bull, and appeared in a meadow near her. Europa found him handsome, came close, and mounted him. He started running like lightning, crossed the sea, and came ashore on Crete where Europa had 3 sons with Zeus and gave her name to a continent. On that continent today there are more than 50 countries. One of them, Greece, is getting a lot of attention because of its financial troubles.
The 3 largest Greek communities in the world are, in order, Athens, Thessaloniki, and Melbourne, Australia. I’ve written much about 1 and 3 but didn’t visit 2 until recently where I read the story of Europa in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and regretted that I had waited so long to come to this terrific city.
Thessaloniki was established in 315 BCE by Cassander, King of Macedonia. It grew quickly because it had a perfect harbor. Pella, however, remained the capital of northern Greece because Alexander the Great called it home. Thessaloniki was named for Alex’s sister. For a while it was co-capital of the Roman Empire. Emperor Octavian gave this city the right to make its own coins, which was unique in Roman times. It was under Ottoman rule from 1430 until 1912 and almost all of the Christian churches became mosques. It was the 2nd capital of the Byzantine Empire and acquired an Asian character that lingers and makes it very different from Hellenistic Athens. It’s a multi-ethnic city for sure. In 1500 many Jewish refugees from Spain settled in Thessaloniki. Today it faces an influx of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, especially from Syria, and the economic consequences of Greece’s financial turmoil.
Today, it’s a surprising large and sprawling modern city of 1,200,000 with the largest university in Greece. Our guide, a lifelong resident of Thessaloniki, told us that it had 110,000 students. An incredible amount of Thessaloniki’s colorful history remains. There are, for example, 15 UNESCO monuments scattered about this city. The White Tower on the pedestrian promenade along the harbor is one of them and Thessaloniki’s defining monument and greatest tourist attraction. A tower has stood where it is since, at least, the Middle Ages.
My favorite attraction, however, was the Church of St. Demetrius, once the site of a Roman bath. Demetrius was a stubborn Roman military man who became the patron saint of soldiers. He converted to Christianity, started preaching in public, and was arrested and put in what is now a crypt under this church. The emperor begged him not to preach, but Demetrius kept on and was killed in the year 306. Ruth and I both favored it but spent far more time in the Archaeological and Byzantine Culture Museums meeting Europa and looking at coins, helmets, and icons. Brad Paisley would call this time well wasted.