Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece with almost 1,5 million inhabitants, and an important commercial and educational center hosting the largest university community in the country. As a major regional port, Thessaloniki has been historically the gateway to the southern Balkans. The arrival since the 1990s of over 400,000 migrants from Albania, the Caucuses, other Balkan and increasingly Asian and African countries set new challenges for social inclusion and cohesion today, while the city still hosts ghosts of its Jewish, Muslim and Christian past as the historian Mark Mazawer describes in his “Salonika”. Integration is currently posing a deeply political challenge for Thessaloniki present inhabitants and government, as well as for Greek society and state, speaking to the need for new social and educational policies and the establishment of intercultural institutions able to cope with the particular social, linguistic and political representation needs of its increasingly diverse populations.
Browsing the website of the Thessaloniki Municipality one can explore the Heritage Walks, where the city is introduced as “one of the most populous and multicultural of the port cities of the Mediterranean, (that) can look back on an uninterrupted history of many centuries – punctuated with turbulent and dramatic events, but continuing without a break from its foundation to the present day”. Indeed, Thessaloniki owes its present form to the fire of 1917 burning the central area and the Asia Minor war in 1922 which resulted in flows of refugees inundating the city – which restructured the city from a preindustrial city with an oriental appearance and a cosmopolitan character into a modern regional centre. The new European plan superimposed over the old traditional city helped to foster the image of greater homogeneity, while government policies produced serious social changes causing greater class stratification. Yet, the present conjuncture of a Greece of crisis and developing racism and xenophobia, within the broader conjuncture of a European crisis of identity, signals the political necessity of, abandoning the particular way of dealing (and not dealing) with diversity that traditionally emphasised the reproduction of its ‘culture’ to preserve a, supposedly, threatened identity.