CULTURE

Thessaloniki campaign starts with Byzantine walls

In a poll conducted a few years ago, seven in 10 residents of Thessaloniki said the White Tower was a ?symbol of the city? when asked what it was, and nine in 10 said all the castles in the northern port had been used as a prison, obviously thinking them to be one and the same as the notorious Genti Koule.

While the responses regarding the White Tower prove that Greeks often know little of their own history, ignorance of the role of the Byzantine castles and walls can be forgiven as the UNESCO-protected site still remains very low on the visitor?s agenda in Thessaloniki as little has been done to promote them.

However, experts say that it is very rare for the old walls of any city to be preserved in their entirety or for large parts of them to still be visible, and Thessaloniki is one of those rare cases. Yet who knows that the Trigonio Tower, which dominates the northeastern corner of the Byzantine walls in Ano Poli, is the sibling of the landmark White Tower? And who knows how easy it is to visit the well-preserved remnants of the city?s western wall?

In an effort to highlight this part of the old city, the Thessaloniki Municipality recently embarked on an operation to demolish a number of old buildings that hide large sections of the city?s Byzantine walls and block the public?s access to them. Most of these hundreds of ramshackle buildings were initially cobbled together to house refugees from Asia Minor in 1923. The majority of them have been abandoned and are not only an eyesore but also a threat to public sanitation and safety as many had been turned into illegal squats.

However, promoting one part of a city?s history should not be done at the expense of another and the ramshackle homes built along the western wall are an intrinsic part of Thessaloniki?s history, symbols of the great waves of incoming and outgoing immigration that shaped its character, and as such, 12 of them, representing the best samples of period architecture, have been listed for restoration and preservation.

The demolition project is one part of the municipal authority?s campaign to promote Thessaloniki through its cultural heritage, which also includes projects aimed at shining a light on its Byzantine and Ottoman past, as well as on the populous Jewish community that once thrived there.

As part of this campaign, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris has already traveled to Israel and Turkey, while he also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to promote the city as a tourist destination.