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.


H-Face said...

Another great post GB. GB the Great is a good title too!

Anonymous said...

I think eventually there will be a Grey Bear monument in every city you visit. You truly are an embassador of the world. Your knowledge knows no bounds.

Grey Bear said...

Thanks for the kind words HFace & Anonymous. I'm really not all that knowledgeable - I have 'people' who do most of the research for me. Thanks for coming with me on my travels & I'm glad you enjoy my blog.