And they all to the White Tower came, lovers and demonstrators, revolutionaries and kings

Thessaloniki – An imposing sentinel on the Thermaic Gulf, the cornerstone of the city’s urban sprawl, witness to centuries of history, the White Tower is the undisputed emblem of the city of Thessaloniki. Both within and without it, on land and sea, momentous events unfolded. Were it to have a voice, the White Tower would need as many centuries as its lofty height has stood at the sea’s edge in order to relate the chronicle of massacres and demonstrations, strikers and revolutionaries, to tell tales of kings, politicians and soldiers, of artists and lovers. Down the years, it has become the eyewitness of all the happenings in the city. Despite being known throughout Greece and beyond, despite glowing during the rejoicings of delirious fans after the city’s every sporting triumph, despite being the focal point of demonstrators and all city events, the White Tower remains virtually unknown. Many remain unaware of its function, and as a new book on the landmark puts it, «its popularity is in reverse relation to knowledge of its history.» The researcher and writer Dimitris Tsiroglou, in his book «The White Tower» (subtitled «The Bastille of Thessaloniki»), went through all sources and explored both the good and bad periods of the monument. Who, indeed, knows the true history of the tower? Most people know that it was a prison once upon a time. A few might know it by one of its names, the Tower of Blood, fewer still that it once was called the Lion Tower or the Tower of the Janissaries. Only a tiny number of people know the historical details of the White Tower of Thessaloniki, which over the passage of time has managed to cast the city’s other monuments in the shade. It played a role in the Greek War of Independence of 1821, and changed names often according to circumstance. It was often used as a jail, and many died a frightful death in its damp cells. It was whitewashed and repainted to wipe out its dark past, changed facade and use, so that today it stands watch over daily life in the city. Students of its history have been unable to find the White Tower’s exact date of construction, nor its initial name. There might not even be a specific building date, and the tower might have been destroyed and rebuilt. «The only thing that’s certain,» Dimitris Tsiroglou said to Kathimerini, «is that a tower has always stood on this point, due to its strategic position. From the historical evidence, it is possible to conclude that the White Tower, as part of a larger complex, was repaired and renovated in 1536.» At the beginning of the 20th century, it lost its use as a prison. But in 1911, the octagonal outer wall was demolished, together with its picturesque, lead-tiled turrets. At the foot of the tower lie the pieces of the German Zeppelin shot down by the Allies in World War I, while the flag of the Turkish warship Fethi Bulent, sunk by Nikolaos Votsis in the port of Thessaloniki in 1912, thus paving the way for the liberation of the city, is to be found at the top. Among the mysteries worthy of note, according to Tsiroglou, is that it is connected to an underground network of stoas in the city. In 1914, its demolition was proposed for the second time, but it escaped due to the high cost involved. It also survived the great fire of 1917, had huge black strips of cloth hung from its battlements to mourn the passing of King George, and welcomed both the Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos and the Asia Minor refugees. From its battlements, the megaphone of the first radio station to broadcast in the Balkans was heard. It became the Scouts headquarters and that of navy and air defense administration, and at various times it sported cannons, barbed wire and anti-aircraft guns. In 1941, trees and houses were drawn on its surface as camouflage and it lost the white color which lent it its modern name. In 1943, students engaged in an act of resistance at its foot. It was festooned with bright lights by the municipality. In 1958, it lost the imposing building in the garden and in 1968, its turret was turned into a watering hole, later run by the Greek Tourist Organization, EOT. It survived the 1978 earthquake with minor damage, to become, in 1985, what it is today: a Museum of Byzantine Art and the jewel in the city’s crown. Place of protest The protest demonstrations and impressive stunts from its battlements are a distinct chapter in the modern history of the White Tower. The monument has been chosen as a sensational backdrop to various requests and demands. In 1994, members of the Ecological Movement hung a banner from it in order to prevent building in Hortiatis. Culture Ministry contract workers hung black cloths in protest last year, while recently, an Internet cafe owner dangled from the battlements on a rope in order to protest against a new law, unfolding a banner which stated his demand. Not getting any taller The White Tower will not gain height after the decision was taken not to go ahead with the works around the famous landmark, which provided for the removal of older earthwork on its perimeter and the highlighting of its entrance. The project, had it been carried out, would have raised the tower’s height to 35 meters from the current 33.90. Due to lack of funds, the project has been shelved for the time being at least. Budgeted at 600 million drachmas (1997 prices) or 1.76 million euros, the works aimed at refurbishing the monument with new floors, lighting and seating as well as upgrading the square and small wooded area.