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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was the tower the highlight of your visit? Or was it the ouzo? Nice blog today. Very educational as always GB!