During his 2002 trip to Thessaloniki in northern Greece, Pithikos (aka The Monkey) got to grips with some of the city’s less modern elements.
Maybe this better fits your perception of what the Monkey in Greece ought to look like. At Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum, this elaborately carved tomb was left outside as a teaser for the treasures inside; in most countries it would be a main attraction.
In recent years, Greece, along with other states with ancient historical wealth like Turkey and Egypt, have been campaigning for the return of precious national treasures that were whisked away by foreign collectors during the infancy of these states, when political turmoil made it simple to sign a few documents, agree to a price, and walk away with the national patrimony to put it on display in New York, London, Paris, and other Western cultural capitals. In some cases, there is little doubt that certain items were simply stolen by greedy Western “collectors.” The Western museums that showcase these antiquities refuse to consider returning the artifacts, claiming that they were acquired fairly and that the museums constitute a sort of forum for global patrimony where more people can encounter humanity’s common past. It is a complex debate, but the Monkey would like to point out that these museums in wealthy nations often turn handsome profits on the artifacts that come from developing nations (even Greece, despite its European Union membership, is not an economic powerhouse). At a minimum, the museums might consider paying a mutually agreed upon rent on the items in question to the states that now seek their return.
Thessaloniki’s past is often buried below street level. Here, in the very center of the city, an ongoing excavation is uncovering the ruins of an ancient Roman agora. The Romans made Salonika the capital of the Macedonia region in 168 BCE. The Monkey was ready to help out with the dig, but there was no one around to receive his offer (we’ll chalk it up to the high noon sun).
The Bey Hamam is one of Thessaloniki’s best preserved Ottoman remains, dating from 1444. The Hamam, or Turkish public bath, is located in a central square, and was used until 1968. It is being restored as a museum; at the time of the Monkey’s visit only the men’s bathing sections were open to the public, while work on the women’s baths was continuing. Here the Monkey can be seen in the main hall of the baths, where marble floors and fixtures rest under a graceful dome. You’ll have to fill in the steam in your mind’s eye. Sadly, some other Ottoman architectural treasures are being left to rot, including a number of central mosques.
While checking the headlines at a newsstand, the Monkey also takes a gander at the Arch of Galerius, one of Thessaloniki’s Roman-era ruins. The arch was built around 305 CE to commemorate the Roman Emperor Galerius’ defeat of the Persians in 297. It was part of an imperial complex that included a palace (the foundations of which are excavated below street level) and a large Rotonda that served under the Byzantines as a church and under the Ottomans as a mosque before becoming a secular museum today.
The Monkey takes a moment for repose in the plaza in front of the Basilica of Ayios Dhimitrios. The modern facade belies ancient origins. The church is dedicated to Thessaloniki’s patron saint, and rests on foundations and a crypt that date to the 5th Century. Damaged extensively in the 1917 fire that leveled large parts of Salonika, much of the church is a modern reconstruction that maintains a certain harmony with the aesthetics of old. Despite outward appearances here, it is also the largest basilica in Greece.
In central Thessaloniki, by the Via Egnatia (an ancient Roman road that survives as a modern boulevard), the Monkey paused for a photo by the Panayia Halkeon church. The small church is typically Byzantine, and its age is apparent when one considers how far below modern street level it lies. In Greece, like other countries built atop ancient civilizations, one often wonders what else is below the ground one walks on. Aside from the heat, Pithikos enjoyed his stay in Greece, and looks forward to returning (in the winter!).
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