The Great Fire of Thessaloniki, which broke out on August 18, 1917, completely changed the city’s appearance and path of development. This catastrophe was one of the most decisive factors that determined what the city looks like today. The echo of those events can still be felt in the ancient streets and squares.
The fire raged for thirty-two hours and turned about 9,500 houses to ashes, almost completely destroying the historic city center.
A Pre-fire Period
A photograph of Ottoman Thessaloniki from the late 1800s. After the devastating fire of 1917 the Greek government constructed in the area Aristotelous Square which quickly became the new center of the city. pic.twitter.com/jfDaleBq1R
— βάλλ' εἰς κόρακας🏺🇬🇷 (@AegeanNative) April 12, 2023
To comprehend the extent of the fire’s destruction, one needs to take a look at the city’s layout prior to the fire.
Until the end of the 1860s, Thessaloniki was framed by ancient Byzantine walls, within which there were districts according to religious and ethnic identities of inhabitants.
The Ottoman reforms of that time began to change the face of the city to better match European standards. As a result, the coastal wall was demolished and an extensive embankment created.
Thessaloniki has historically been a very cosmopolitan city. Nikephoros Choumnos, a Byzantine scholar and statesman, wrote as early as the 14th century AD that “no man will be without a homeland, as long as Salonica exists.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the city continued developing, attracting ever more merchants. This led to a high population density in an already dilapidated housing stock. The incorporation of much of northern Greece into the Greek state only increased the influx of new residents into Thessaloniki, where the population skyrocketed.
By 1913, almost 160,000 people resided in the city, most of whom were Jews, Turks, and Orthodox Greeks. The housing problems worsened, and there were sanitation issues. As a result, slums began popping up in the western areas, as well as in the city center.
It was in this state that the city was met with the largest and most devastating fire in its history.
The fire began on August 18th or, according to the Julian calendar, August 5th, at about 3:30 in the afternoon. The fact that that day was the Jewish Sabbath helped avoid significant casualties, as many parts of the city were relatively empty.
Hagios Demetrios after being destroyed by the Great Fire of Thessaloniki in 1917 pic.twitter.com/SEyPmjMKv1
— The Byzantine Legacy (@ByzantineLegacy) April 16, 2019
According to research, the fire began at 3 Olympiados Street. It was the area between the modern Ano Poli and the city center. There is a belief that the housewife was frying eggplants when sparks from the kitchen fire fell on the straw nearby.
The fire was not extinguished immediately due to the absence of water and the local northern winds of Vardaris, which were especially strong in those days. Other factors that led to the fire were the cramped urban environment with narrow streets and a lack of open space, wooden structures, and an outdated fire service.
In the beginning, the fire approached the administration building on Saint Demetrius Street, which was spared thanks to prompt action by employees. However, due to strong winds, the fire then rapidly descended to the sea, eventually destroying the vast shopping area in the center. The following day, it approached the Church of Agia Sofia and surrounded it along the perimeter, though the flames did not actually affect the church building itself. The fire continued to spread eastwards.
It was put out only after about thirty-two hours, wiping out approximately thirty-two percent of the total area of Thessaloniki, including sprawling slums, shopping markets, stone quarters, and historical monuments.
Among the burned buildings were the post and telegraph offices, city hall, the lighting and water companies, and the warehouses of the Bank of Athens. The especially valuable Basilica of Saint Demetrius, the patron saint of the city, was also burned down. Due to the fire, Thessaloniki lost two additional Orthodox churches, sixteen synagogues, and twelve mosques. Most of the newspaper printing houses were destroyed, many of which were never revived.
More than four thousand stores were burned down, leaving seventy percent of the working population unemployed. At the same time, seventy thousand people lost their homes, most of whom were Jews.
Bearing such losses, Thessaloniki was to rise from the ashes like a phoenix.
Rethinking of Thessaloniki
Only a few days after the disaster, initial steps were taken towards the reconstruction and transformation of Thessaloniki into a new urban model and an example of a modern Greek city.
August 1917: Thessaloniki after the Great Fire pic.twitter.com/FXtDvfTuJ3
— Alex Sakalis (@alexsakalis) August 29, 2020
A special role was played by the then Minister of Transport, Alexandros Papanastasiou. He prepared law 823/1917, which was pivotal in determining the restoration of the city. Papanastasiou also organized the International Committee for the New Plan of Thessaloniki, chaired by the French architect and archaeologist Ernest Hébrard.
An ambitious new plan for the city was presented almost a year after the devastating fire, on June 29, 1918. It included the restructuring of Thessaloniki according to European standards, the creation of transport arteries, spacious squares, and other essential facilities.
However, only a part of this grandiose idea came to life. In certain ways, the plan was either modified while, in other areas, it was entirely scrapped due to financial issues and compromises between successive governments. The turbulence of that interwar period also played a role.
Nevertheless, Hébrard managed to bring the main aspects of the plan to fruition. The city saw the emergence of wide boulevards along with the creation of the grand Aristotelous Square as a central public hub.
The Committee promoted the development of a new type of shared housing, namely apartment buildings, introducing the concept of “horizontal real estate.” New construction standards also appeared, implying the replacement of wood with concrete for four- and five-story buildings.
The city’s reconstruction aligned with urbanization trends. As vehicle traffic increased, this led to the construction of straight and wider roads.
City’s Fire Losses
Thessaloniki was modernized and rebuilt according to a new layout, but many valuable, once unique features were lost. Various traditional institutions, such as mosques, synagogues, churches, and post-Byzantine buildings concentrated in the historical center prior to the fire, were never restored and lost forever.
However, one of the most dramatic consequences of the great fire was the outflow of the population. Prominent families left the city to establish new lives elsewhere. Many moved to Athens, and the Jews, who had lived in Thessaloniki for five centuries, fled to Western countries, especially France, or went to Palestine. Turks and other Balkan peoples began to return to their ethnic homelands.
Thus, the fire of 1917 not only brought about unfathomable disaster to the city but also acted as a catalyst for gradual change. It was the beginning of Thessaloniki’s multi-ethnic character.