Thursday, December 17, 2009

A White Tower with a Black & Red History

It's almost Christmas (and sadly, no Advent calendar for me this year, as those about me don't seem to appreciate me as they once did) and I still have so much to tell you about Thessaloníki that I barely (bearly!) know where to start. But today is a rather drizzly, dreary, grey day (not that grey is a dreary colour) in Izmit, so I think I'll brighten it up with something white: like Thessaloníki's famous landmark, the Lefkos Pyrgos - or the White Tower.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the city was once part of the Ottoman Empire, and the tower - originally known as "the Lion's Tower" or "the Fortress of Kalamaría" (which sounds a little bit like a stronghold for squid) - was built by the Turks some time after 1430. The Ottomans - and not the Venetians like it was once thought - probably erected it on the spot of an earlier Byzantine tower.

The White Tower was originally a fort, and then it became a garrison, a particularly infamous and nasty prison, a communications centre during WWI, and a meteorological lab. For many many years, the tower was part of the old city walls, and separated the Jewish quarter of the city from the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.

In 1826, Mahmud II ordered a massacre of the Janissaries there and because of all the bloodshed, it became known as "the Red Tower" and even "the Tower of Blood
." The Janissaries were a class of elite non-Muslim warriors - the very first standing Ottoman army - who served one of these royal institutions: as palace bodyguards, in the military, or in the religious or the scribal sectors. Originally, the Janissaries were comprised of prisoners of war. In the devşirme practice, which began in the 14th century, every 4 or 5 years or so boys were "harvested" from conquered Christian (Jewish boys were exempt) nations - in other words, they were forceably taken from their families, made to convert to Islam, and trained to serve the Sultan. Muslims considered this a very great honour (some Muslims tried unsuccessfully to sneak into the Janissary corps), but I don't think the parents of these boys felt the same way.

y though, the Janissaries became almost universally hated within the Ottoman Empire because they had become very powerful and had a habit of killing any sultan who tried to reform or disband them. In 1826 when they saw that Mahmud II was forming a private army and hiring European mercenaries with very big guns, they rebelled. Out-gunned, it is believed that 10,000 Janissaries were killed on the first day alone. The Turks have called this "the Auspicious Incident" or "Fortunate Event". I don't think the Janissaries felt the same way.

Our tower went from red to white when, in 1890, a Jewish prisoner was given the option of painting it in exchange for his freedom. Needless to say, he got himself a paint brush! At least someone had the common sense to cover up the blood.

In any case, the White Tower isn't very white anymore - well symbolically it's still white - but it really is quite pretty.

There's one more black spot in the history of the White Tower. In the early 1990s, a nationalist organization in the now independent and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia created a "souvenir" bank note on which was featured the White Tower. The Greeks were outraged! They (the nationalists) even suggested that the government adopt the design for its legal currency. The Greeks were outraged some more! Eventually the government vetoed the idea but souvenir copies of the bank notes were printed and distributed, which only fueled the fires of animosity in the Balkans. Honestly, you people. I think you just look for ways to annoy each other.

Now though, it's an award-winning museum (it was restored in 1985 for the city's 2300th anniversary!) in which you climb climb climb - with (free!) audio guide in hand - up up up the spiralling staircase to the top of the tower, stopping at each floor to read about and see the history of Thessaloníki. And once you get to the top - what a view! In some ways the seafront promenade (below) reminds me of Málaga - which just makes me miss Málaga all the more. And have I mentioned that I'll be in Málaga in 8 days?!! Until then, I'll have to bear in mind (bear!) all the positive bits of Thessaloníki - the wonderful people, the ouzo, and the yummy pastries - and try not to think of its darker days, caused by you humans.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

GB "the Great"

It seems so long since I've last blogged - five weeks in fact! - and I want to thank all of my followers who have been thoughtfully emailing me every day, asking if I'm okay. I'm fine, thanks, but unfortunately, my bipedal attendants have been too "occupied" of late (self-absorbed, if you ask me) to accompany me on any junkets, so I've been at home, thinking up ways to promote world peace and flipping through fashion magazines and counting the days until Christmas without the benefit of an advent calendar.

Then, two things happened! The first was one of Islam's biggest holiday/celebrations known, in Turkey, as bayramı. I don't want to talk too much about that because a lot of animals die during bayramı, and it's a very sad time for all of us ... but it did give my bipedals five days of holiday. The second was that the place where my bipedals work lost my female's work visa application and, on top of this, her residence visa was set to expire in mid-November, so she had to leave the country and re-enter with a new tourist visa. My male bipedal and I decided to accompany her - during bayramı, so we could also miss all of the awful awfulness - back to Greece! We took an overnight train with spiffy sleeping compartments (below, right) and the trip took over 13 hours from Istanbul. It was wonderful because as soon as we crossed the border into Greece we could see houses decorated with Christmas lights!

This time though we didn't go to Athens but to the country's second largest city Thessaloníki in the northern, Macedonian part of the country (see me, top) which lies on the Thermaic Gulf - a part of the Aegean Sea. Historically, the whole connection with Macedonia is a little complicated - like everything seems to be in this part of the world - and it shouldn't be confused with the Republic of Macedonia, which Greece doesn't even recognize. *sigh* You humans.

Anyway, I did and saw a lot of neat things in Thessaloníki but I'll have to blog about them later - otherwise, this will be a very very long-winded blog. For today, let me just talk about Thessaloníki's history and that guy and his horse.

So, if you look to the bottom-left, you'll see me with the city's best known son - Alexander the Great - although technically he was really born just outside of Thessaloníki in the city of Pella ... close enough as far as Thessaloníki is concerned. His blue-eyed horse Bucephalus (or "Ox-Head" - apparently he had a big head) is one of the most famous horses in history. We don't know where he was born, but we do know that no one could break the horse ... until Alexander came on the scene and tamed him. Bucephalus carried Alexander into many, many battles and was eventually killed in 326 in what is now Pakistan, where he is buried. There are some stories about Alexander having an "unnatural" affection for his horse, but I don't want to think about that. You humans!

Thessaloníki itself was founded
by King Cassander in 315 b.c.e., who named it after his wife who was also Alexander's half-sister. Her name came from the Macedonians military victory there: nike in Greek means "victory" so if you always wear Nike shoes, you'll be victorious. At least it's a nicer name than "Ox-Head".

Aristotle (photo, bottom-right) was Alexander's tutor, who himself had been a student of Plato or Play Dough as my female bipedal al
ways calls him. It's so easy to mock what you don't understand, isn't it? Aristotle, who was born about 50 km. east of Thessaloníki, gave lessons to Alexander, as well as two other future kings. His advice to Alexander was to be a "leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians" and to care for the Greeks as members of his family and the barbarians as animals or plants. It seems that the boy listened.

At the age of 20 - after the assassination of his father, Philip (he wasn't as
"Great") - Alexander became King of Macedonia. He embarked on a programme of world domination, and at its height, his kingdom stretched from Greece, across Syria, Babylonia and Persia to India, and south to Egypt, and he took the title "King of Kings" - which is a little much in my opinion.

Over the years there were mutinies and plots to overthrow him, but he pretty much managed to stay on top of things. In June of 323, after a night of drinking, he died at the age of 32. Scholars have suggested everything from poison, malaria, typhoid fever, pancreatitis
- and even West Nile Virus - to explain his early death. What we do know is that his body was a mess with battle wounds after years of fighting and he was also a heavy drinker. His health had also declined after the untimely death of his best and closest "friend" Hephaestion (more stories about "unnatural affection") - whom Alexander requested become deified, but whom the oracles gave permission to be worshipped as a divine hero. Honestly, you people ....

Anyway, the Kingdom of Macedonia would eventually be destroyed, with Thessaloníki becoming a city of the Roman Republic and taking the name Salonica. By the 6th century it would be the second most important city in the Byzantine world, after Constantinople. When Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Thessaloníki fell too, but it (and the area around it) became known as the Kingdom of Thessalonica and the largest fief of the Latin Empire. The city was recovered by the Byzantines and then, in 1423, sold - sold! - to the Venetians. Why are the Venetians always involved in my stories?

A few years later the Ottomans captured Thessaloníki, brutally killing and enslaving about a fifth of the population. Those Ottomans ... But the city actually did do well under them, becoming known as Selânik, and had a mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Jews. In fact, to off-balance the large Christian population there, the Ottomans invited the Jews expelled from Spain under Isabel and Ferdinand (isn't it weird how my travels seem to be all interconnected?) to settle there, and, for some 200 years, Selânik/Thessaloníki (called "the Mother of Israel") came to have the largest Jewish population in the world. Until the Nazis stormed in. In 1943, 11,000 Jews were sent to labour camps and another 50,000 were sent to the gas chambers. I don't even know what to say ...

At the turn of the last century, Greece started to throw off the Ottoman Empire and in 1912, the Ottomans surrendered the city to the Greek army without a fight. In 1917, much (but not all) of the historical city was destroyed by a fire which left almost a quarter of the population homeless. And then, while Greece tried to find its identity as a sovereign nation, the Nazis invaded and occupied the city until the end of 1944.

*Sigh* Your human history makes me so sad sometimes. All the wars and killing - and gas chambers? What were you people thinking? You never see bears acting like this! At least Thessaloníki has rebounded and has embraced all of its past, mucking it all together like Play Dough(!) into a vibrant, cosmospolitan city with lots of UNESCO world heritage sites. I wish I were there right now. In fact, I wish I were having an ouzo and munching on pickled peppers (below, photo) right now. Maybe I was a little long-winded after all, but like the guy on his horse, Thessaloníki sure was great.