Young men in formal robes stand in front of gleaming golden walls and porticoes. Above them, wings of the Archangels float in the air. The mosaics of Thessaloniki’s ancient Rotunda are included in the UNESCO World Heritage “Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonika,” and rightly so.
In terms of sightseeing, we always try to eat our cake as soon as possible – that is: not to save the highlights for the end but to go immediately and see the things on top of our wish list. Decades of travelling have taught us that unexpected changes of plan can occur …. So on our first day in Thessaloniki, as soon as we have checked in, we walk down into the town and enter the Rotunda.
30 m high and round, it is a sturdy building from antiquity – the Roman Emperor Galerius had it built in the 4th century, perhaps as a mausoleum for himself. Galerius was a strict persecutor of Christians for most of his life – but soon after, the Empire became Christian and quickly turned the Galerius’ Rotunda into a splendid Christian church. The golden mosaics in the cupola and on some arches are still partly preserved and still magnificent. In 1591, the building became a mosque and with that status came a free-standing minaret. After all that back-and-forth, today it is a non-religious historical site.
Over the next few days, we seek out many more churches, archaeological excavations from the Roman period such as the excavated Roman Forum, and walk along the remnants of the sturdy city walls. Yet five days are not enough to see all the Palaeochristian and Byzantine sites on the UNESCO list and everything else we thought we would like to see in Thessaloniki. Especially as we spent the better part of two days on excursions travelling into the nearby countryside (see our previous post, “The tomb of Philipp II in Vergina“).
The second big item on our sightseeing wish list of “cakes” was the Byzantine Museum. Thessaloniki was from the start one of the most important cities in the Eastern Roman / Byzantine Empire, and there are a lot of early Christian objects on display: The marble columns and huge stone sarcophaguses look quite Roman to us. In the early years, the burial rules were apparently quite lax – short of cremation, the early Christians could do everything as in heathen times, including extravagant grave goods, painted tombs and funeral banquets.
How to become a martyr
Later on, the style shifted to the typical Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, and painted wooden icons of saints and holy martyrs we had never heard of. This even increased after the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople in1453 and ended the Byzantine Empire. Church authorities then promised every martyr for the Christian belief the same status as the traditional saints. In those days, martyrdom was quite easily accomplished. So it became rather popular for Christian losers to run out into the street and insult Islam in public. Muslim authorities at times were rather annoyed that they had to behead all those people in order to prove their authority.
Spells for the dead
In the Archaeological Museum (another sightseeing highlight), we especially liked the stylish bowls from the Island of Chios, and the statues of the Egyptian gods the Romans started to worship in the later years of the Empire. At least in Makedonia, there was also a custom of putting spells written on a strip of metal into the tombs, which reminds us of the Book of the Dead in Egypt. But we also noticed with delight some details like the profession of “flatterer” at formal banquets, the manufacturer’s name on stones for slingshots, or the sales contract for a little slave girl written on a huge stone slab certainly heavier than the girl.
Oh, and then of course, the cakes themselves. Both guidebooks we used for our travel to Thessaloniki had a special section on the best confectioners in town, with suggestions on how to incorporate several of them into a day walk. So we sampled our way through Trigonas (cream-filled triangles) at Stratos, Tsoureki (yeast loaves with sweet fillings and a chocolate icing) at Terkenlis bakery, and variously filled Koulouri (sesame rings – similar to Turkish Simit).
Strong Greek coffee goes quite well with all of this.
And when the weather returned to summer on our last evening of the journey, we even did a short boat cruise along the coastline of Thessaloniki.
Notice: Our trip to Thessaloniki was organised and paid for entirely by ourselves, we do not have any association with the sites and shops mentioned or depicted above, and we did not receive any sponsoring.
We used two travel guidebooks and one history book:
DuMont Reise-Taschenbuch Chalkidikí & Thessaloníki. 2017.
Lonely Planet Greece. 2018 (we had the previous edition).
Mark Mazower: Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews. 2005