The Great fire of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki Short Stories

The Great fire of Thessaloniki (1917)

By The Honest Explorers

The Catastrophe

On the 18th of August 1917 a small fire started in Olimpiados 3 street. In the next 32 hours, 32% of the city would be destroyed. 

The Origin of the Fire

Many theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the fire. Some argue that it was a number of French soldiers who got drunk one day and in their delusion accidently started a small fire which ended up burning Thessaloniki to the ground.

You see, more than 100,000 soldiers – British and French – were camping in Thessaloniki during WWI. Rumor has it that it was due to the water used by the military camps of the Allies that Thessaloniki lucked the water pressure needed to put the fire out.

Note that the city did not have an established fire department at the time and the it was heavily depended on the efforts of the British soldiers and the local volunteers to extinguish the fire.

The French on the other hand got a bad name during this tragedy and according to local witnesses the French soldiers looted the fortunes of the locals in need instead of assisting them.

Another interesting (conspiracy) theory is that a number of Greek Jew-haters started the fire in order to destroy the livelihood of the local Jews – their houses and businesses.

Thessaloniki was liberated from the Greek army in 1912 and the Greek of the city had finally gotten the upper head in the city since the late 15th century. Up until then, the city was predominantly populated by Jews and controlled by the Ottoman. In a time of rising nationalism all around Europe, it’s not a surprise that this theory has many supporters. After all, out of 72,000 people who lost their houses and businesses to the fire, 50,000 were from the Jewish community.  

A third theory, however, became some sort of legend on the city. According to this theory a housewife (let’s call her Maria) was frying aubergine (eggplants) and while at it she got distracted and forgot about her cooking.

Thessaloniki, if you must know, has long had a reputation for gossip. News were travelling around the city with the speed of light. Whenever I speak of this story, I imagine Maria in a balcony chatting with the neighbors, gossiping, eager to share and learn the “news” of the day.

To this end, however, we need to take a moment to clarify the officially accepted version of the story and clear Maria’s name. It turns out that a flame landed on a stack of hay, the local did not respond fast enough and due to a heavy wind the fire was spread widely. Within the first 12 hours the fire was heading to the seaside but the wind changed direction and the fire start spreading North reaching, eventually, all the way up to the Church of St. Dimitrios completely destroying the church. 

 

The story of Maria is represented in one of the nicest murals in Thessaloniki. Here we can see a young woman in the middle, the front views of buildings and an explosion. A brilliant way, in my opinion, to capture one of the most well-known legends in the city.  

The Aftermath

By the order of the prime minister – Eleutherios Venizelos – no actions of re-construction were to take place until a detailed plan for the re-make of the city was approved. This colossal plan to re-design Thessaloniki was given to Ernest Hébrard. The latter was the person the city needed: an archaeologist, architect, and urban planner. A Frenchman who arrived in Thessaloniki as a member of the academic personnel that joined the French campaign.

Ernest Hébrard designed Thessaloniki with large squares and wide streets, a network of monumental axis to unite the places of archaeological and historical interest moving away from the narrow streets paths and path that made no sense during the Ottoman era and gave Thessaloniki a much-needed orientation. Although, the grand plan of Ernest Hébrard was never fully utilized due to high expenses, it is he to who modern day Thessalonikian own the openness of the living space they enjoy with primary example the heart of the city center – Aristotle square.

 

Fun fact: Aristotle square resembles the shape of Absolut vodka bottle. 

 

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