Railway lines that changed Greece

During the last quarter of the 19th century, rapid technological advances were opening up a new, modern world of growth, expansion, and experiences unknown before that time. Much social mobility was brought about by the rise of powerful industries, but there was also more movement in the sense of actual traveling, which new forms of transport made increasingly available to ever-greater numbers of people. A sense of discovery and adventure was in the air, and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days captured this spirit in all its whimsy and exuberance. But technological advances also meant the kind of large-scale construction projects that invited fierce competition for economic dominance between industrialists and entrepreneurs. In one such memorable instance of industrial antagonism, where American Jay Gould fought Cornelius Vanderbilt over the control of the Erie railway line, Gould and his team escaped to New Jersey to hide from his antagonist, all the while remaining totally indifferent to the dangers that a deserted railway line might cause to train travelers. Time has a way of distancing us from such past events and mitigating their more down-to-earth aspects. Black- and-white or sepia-tinted dated photographs are especially effective in doing so. This is probably why the impression left by Trains in Northern Greece, 1871-1965 – an exhibit that opens tomorrow at the National Bank Cultural Foundation in Thessaloniki – is not so much a detailed documentation of specific events as the overall representation of a world caught in the throes of technological and industrial change. The photographs on display, all from the collection of the newly founded Christos Kalemkeris Museum of Photography in Kalamaria, well capture the essence of this technological progress through images that depict the construction of the first railway lines linking areas of northern Greece. In Ottoman-occupied Greece, technological progress came relatively late. Ground transportation relied mainly on animal-driven vehicles; it was only in the 1870s that the sultan ordered the construction of the first railway line, for both commercial and military reasons. The line connected Alexandroupolis with Andrianoupolis, and was soon followed by an extension to Constantinople and the opening of another line between Thessaloniki and Skopje. A decade later, a line completed between Thessaloniki and both Vienna and Paris meant that northern Greece was directly accessible by rail from central Europe. When the link between Thessaloniki and the Alexandroupolis-Constantinople line was established in the late 19th century, east-west connections expanded significantly, and commercial transactions between the two likewise accelerated. Thessaloniki became a vital commercial center but also developed into a cosmopolitan city populated by prosperous merchants, an aspect which has been maintained up to our times. Another city that reaped the benefits of the railway network was Edessa, which soon developed into a central wool-manufacturing center. By the early 20th century, when northern Greece became liberated from the Turks, major lines were in full operation. But network construction continued well up until the mid-1960s, creating still other junctions between towns and railway lines and bringing with them development to other parts of the country. The Stoa tou Vivliou is holding the fourth in its Poet’s Rostrum series in honor of Angelos Sikelianos, to mark the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. On October 1 at 8 p.m. in the Logou Room, academic and writer Ritsa Frang- kou-Kilkilia will speak on the political elements of the poet’s work, while writer Giorgos Koropoulis will talk about his poetry. Actor Eva Kotamanidou will read from the work of Sikelianos.

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