Letter from Thessaloniki

Wow, this place is really far out! a double chiton-clad, under-thirty something woman from Thrace was heard saying as she and her companion entered Thessaloniki from the west through the ornate Golden Gate. The couple was walking along the city’s main street, the Via Regia of the Roman period, later called Leophoros by the Byzantines. (That’s today’s Egnatia Street.) Soon after Octavian’s defeat of Julius Caesar’s assassins in 42 BC the city benefited from the Pax Romana and started developing a high level of political, social and intellectual life. On an October afternoon in AD 380, the aforementioned couple set foot in the bustling metropolis, the second city of the empire after Byzantium. They had spent some days outside the western walls (extra muros) where the man, a tradesman, was doing business. He was a shoemaker, a skytotomos, and he insisted on – please – being distinguished professionally from those who simply sold shoes, the solites. Along with other pilgrims and merchants from various parts of the Byzantine Empire, southern Russia, the Balkans and Western Europe, they have taken the long and dangerous journey from Thrace to visit the Demetria, a great festival and international trade fare, which took place outside the city walls every year from October 20 to 27. Now they finally entered the city they have heard so much about. They also felt like pilgrims since they participated in a sort of religious tourism in order to worship, as they have done before at important religious foundations, and to venerate (and buy or steal) holy relics. They have already been to Constantinople and to the Holy Land. After Apostle Paul visited the city in AD 50 and made Thessaloniki – which was founded in 315 BC and named after the sister of Alexander the Great – the foremost Christian community in Greece, the place regained its past glory. Some months earlier (reminder: we are still in AD 380), on February 28 to be precise, the Metropolitan Ascholios converted the Emperor Theodosius (the Great, of course) to Christianity and baptized him on the spot. Immediately after that he proclaimed the Nicene Creed as the only true one and condemned all the rest as faux and heresies. We should first go and try to find St. Demetrius’s grave, said the woman to her man, referring to the Megalomartyr (Great Martyr) and city-protector saint, who has been educated mainly in the art of war. He used to go to illegal gatherings of a subversive group, the Christians. Not unlike today, the entire Thessalonian society was drifting toward religiosity, not necessarily because it had suddenly discovered God, but because then, as now, war, unemployment and depression caused people to seek solace and thus they went to the reputed new Savior. There is a rumor that he is Myrovlitis too, you know. That his tomb gives forth a sweet fragrance. I mean, consider that he has been already dead for more than 75 years, after his martyrdom in 305! He died young, after they imprisoned him for teaching the new religion. They also say that now he can cure incurable diseases from his grave. Perhaps we can also buy ampullae with myrrh or holy water or just plain earth. Sure. We could also sell some of the mementos when we get back home. There is a market for such things, and we still have to get rid of some silver coins at the hippodrome. My father told me we shouldn’t miss it while here! (Doubtless only a pure coincidence with the mention of New York’s hippodrome in L. Bernstein’s On the Town, since the Thracian could not possibly have known of this classical musical in such early era, nor of Betty Comden’s lyrics.) In the Early Byzantine period, chariot racing was not the only activity in Thessaloniki’s hippodrome. During intermissions, there appeared mimes, acrobats, actors, dwarfs and Siamese twins. Church holy fathers had already started frowning on such panegyria (fairs, amusement parks) because of their pagan and profiteering nature. In the city, whose high imperial noon coincided with foreign (Roman) rule, there were no more gladiatorial battles in the arena. At least not in recent years, after Lyaeus, the Emperor Galerius’s favorite, had been killed by a Christian called Nestor, who had been blessed – it was rumored – by the imprisoned Demetrius, who now stood exposed as ringleader of a plot. Aggrieved at the death of his protege, the emperor ordered him killed by spear in the baths. Death is painful, except in the case of martyrs, who feel no pain as they commit the act that leads to their martyrdom, it was said at the time. This is not unlike our modern times and those who nowadays praise the virtues of suicide in the service of their cause. I am starved. Let’s have a bite first, said the woman. They marveled at the humid, smoke-filled kitchen of the inn they walked into. Long past lunch time (ariston or mesembrinon) it was already time for dinner (deipnos). The habit of eating while reclining on couches, one could observe, was continued by some in those Early Christian times. Most guests were eating with their hands. Some held spoons (the use of forks did not appear on Byzantine tables before the tenth century). The clients who have already eaten and were preparing to leave washed their hands in a cherniboxesto, a clay – sometimes metal – vessel intended for this purpose before paying. The couple chose to eat fish. Then as now, the sea provided the Thessalonians with many things, including a source of food. There was a choice of wonderfully fresh snapper, striped bass, porgy or red mullet, served dressed in the mother of all sauces: a squeeze of lemon and a splash of olive oil. (By the way, the real draw in modern Thessaloniki is a fish restaurant called Angyrovoli on the corner of Stratigou Kalari and Lori Margariti streets in the center of the city. Older diners who can remember authentic tastes will feel as if they were back in some authentic Greek taverna.) Now, the inspiration for this very likely story came from the exhibition Byzantine Hours, with the subtitle Works and Days in Byzantium, organized in Thessaloniki, Athens and Mystras (running until January 10, 2002). A joint exhibition, it is an attempt to salvage from lost time, people and places that no longer exist as they once were. Sure enough, Greece as we now know it was just a small province of the Byzantine Empire at its zenith. Yet the Byzantine cultural heritage is still the most significant heritage for Thessaloniki, which was the hapless Cultural Capital of Europe in 1997. In the massive cylindrical structure that is the emblem of this city, the White Tower (built at the end of the 15th century) visitors can stroll through everyday life in the city, in the marketplace, in the bathhouse in the times of the jurist Peter Magister, the epigrammatist Macedonius Hypatus, Leo the Mathematician, the historian John Cameniates, the prolific Homeric scholar and humanist Eustathius (Archbishop of Thessaloniki), the theologian Gregory Palamas (Archbishop of Thessaloniki), or the missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius, to mention but a few prominent scholars of the Byzantine era. At a time when the entire attention of our government and media is directed exclusively toward Athens 2004, and with Thessaloniki having already started her desolate journey downward, such exhibitions can be really refreshing.

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