The White Tower of Thessaloniki is a monument and museum on the waterfront of the city of Thessaloniki, capital of the region of Macedonia in northern Greece. The present tower replaced an old Byzantine fortification which was mentioned around the 12th century and reconstructed by the Ottomans to fortify the city’s harbour; it became a notorious prison and scene of mass executions during the period of Ottoman rule. It was substantially remodeled and its exterior was whitewashed after Greece gained control of the city in 1912. It has been adopted as the symbol of the city.
The White Tower takes the form of a cylindrical drum 23 m (75 ft) in diameter with a height of 34 m (112 ft) above ground level, on top of which is a turret 12 m (39 ft) in diameter and 6 m (20 ft) high. Some of the embrasures in the outer wall of the tower are reached by a spiral ramp; others are accessed from a central room on each of the six floors. The turret houses a platform with a diameter of 10 m (33 ft), and the platform at the top of the main tower in front of the turret is about 5 m (16 ft) wide.
The tower has been altered substantially over the decades. Early illustrations show that it was originally covered by a conical roof, like similar towers in the Yedikule Fortress and Rumelihisarı fortress in Istanbul. Until its demolition in 1917, a chemise stood at the foot of the tower, supporting the heavy guns and enclosing an area at least three times the diameter of the main tower. Octagonal turrets on the chemise and caponiers at ground level provided flanking fire around the tower. It is unclear whether the chemise was part of the original scheme for the tower or was a later addition.
The tower, which once guarded the eastern end of the city’s sea walls, was for many years attributed to Venice, to which the Byzantines ceded Thessaloniki in 1423. It is now known definitely that the tower was constructed by the Ottomans some time after the army of Sultan Murad II captured Thessaloniki in 1430. Until 1912, an inscription in Ottoman Turkish verse above the door dated the structure to AH 942 (1535–1536). The historian Franz Babinger speculated that the work was designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who is known to have built fortifications, including a similar tower at the Albanian port Valona in 1537. The present tower likely replaced an older Byzantine tower mentioned by the 12th-century archbishop Eustathios during the sack of 1185.
The Tower was used by the Ottomans successively as a fort, garrison and a prison. In 1826, at the order of the Sultan Mahmud II, there was a massacre of the rebellious Janissariesimprisoned there. Owing to the “countless victims of Ottoman torturers and executioners”, the tower acquired the name “Tower of Blood” or “Red Tower” (Turkish: Kanli Kule), which it kept until the end of the 19th century.
The Tower was for centuries part of the walls of the old city of Thessaloniki, and separated the Jewish quarter of the city from the cemeteries of the Muslims and Jews. The city walls were demolished in 1866. When Thessaloniki was annexed from the Ottoman Empire to the Hellenic State in 1912 during the First Balkan War, the tower was whitewashed as a symbolic gesture of cleansing, and acquired its present name. King George I of Greece was assassinated not far from the White Tower in March 1913.
The Tower is now a buff colour but has retained the name White Tower. It now stands on Thessaloniki’s waterfront boulevard, Nikis (Victory) Street. It houses a museum dedicated to the history of Thessaloniki and is one of the city’s leading tourist attractions. The Tower is under the administration of the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Culture.
White Tower Museum
Today, the White Tower houses an exhibition dedicated to the city of Thessaloniki and its history throughout various periods, organized by the city’s Museum of Byzantine Culture.
For the first few months of 2002 it housed ‘Byzantine Hours’, an exhibition devoted to ordinary life in Byzantine times.
Exhibits on the first floor were part of the thematic unit entitled ‘Professionals in the market place’. To be more precise, there were tools and other objects belonging to goldsmiths, blade-smiths, cobblers, glassmakers and tilers, coins and a model of the city of Thessaloniki market place. The second floor was devoted to journeys and trade. So exhibits included objects and texts related to journeys by sea and overland, fairs, spectacles and pilgrimages.
The third floor is focused mainly on the presentation of the Byzantine home and what it was like inside, the decoration, supper, and the neighbourhood. One floor above this there was an exhibition of life at home with garments and footwear, cosmetics, perfume and jewellery, personal grooming, and even superstitions. The theme of the top floor was death, covering burial and graves, funerary customs, finds from graves, gravestone inscriptions from cemeteries, even objects and specimens of magic were on display in the show cases on the top floor of the Tower.
The Tower is open to the public, and visitors have the opportunity to view a map of the city with monuments and museums, a timeline with events relevant to Thessaloniki, scientific articles of distinguished historians and archaeologists, bibliography etc. School excursions may be arranged by contacting the Byzantine Museum (tel. (++30) 2310 868 570).
In the early 1990s, the White Tower became the focus of a major controversy between Greece and the newly independent Republic of Macedonia. Unofficial “Makedonka” souvenir banknotes created by nationalist organizations in the Republic of Macedonia depicted the White Tower of Thessaloniki, VMRO-DPMNE proposed its adoption. However, the government in Skopje rejected its official use and adopted a different design for the new Macedonian denar, which was issued in 1992.
IMPRES, nonetheless, printed unofficial banknotes depicting the White Tower, which were sold as souvenirs on the streets of Skopje, bearing a disclaimer “this is a souvenir banknote and not for official use”. The printing of the notes became the subject of a rumor in Greece that the currency of the new neighbouring state did in fact depict Greek symbols — a highly controversial point, given the dispute with the Republic of Macedonia over its name and flag. The notes were never placed in circulation, as they were not legal tender, but the episode nonetheless exacerbated the ill will felt between the two countries and helped to aggravate tensions.