The White Tower: The story of Thessaloniki's Symbol

Melina Thalassinou
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Key Takeaways

  • The Thessaloniki White Tower is the most recognizable symbol of the city, often referred to as the 'Tower of Thessaloniki.'
  • It was initially built as part of the city's defensive walls in the 15th century. Over the centuries, it has served various purposes, including as a prison, a fortification, and a military outpost.
  • Today, the White Tower houses the Museum of the White Tower, which offers visitors a glimpse into Thessaloniki's history.
  • From the top, visitors can enjoy a 360-degree view of Thessaloniki, including the cityscape, the Thermaic Gulf, and the surrounding landscape.

About 500 km north of Athens, Thessaloniki welcomes travelers who want to wander around, explore, get to know the ancient and modern side of the co-capital of Greece, have fun, and relax by a cool seaside breeze.

It would be an unforgivable omission for someone to go to Thessaloniki and not visit the White Tower. On its six floors, this wonderful but suffering city's fascinating history unfolds through an elegant exhibition with modern media. When you reach the top, words are useless. The view is simply stunning!  

Read below about the story of the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s trademark that never fails to amaze its visitors.

The City of Thessaloniki

The White Tower in Thessaloniki - credits: wikimedia.org

Thessaloniki was founded in 316/315 BC. by the king of Macedonia, Kassandros. Its original population was made up of residents of 26 small towns in the surrounding area who relocated to it. 

Kassandros gave the city the name of his wife and sister of, Alexander the Great. The choice of this place by Kassandros was extremely successful, as time and history have shown. It was built in an area rich in productive springs, protected by the Chortiatis mountain range, and in the depths of the Thermaikos Gulf.

Safe for ships, open to sea communication, with rivers opening natural passages to the Balkan hinterland, Thessaloniki, a real crossroads of land and waterways, was destined to have the fate that few European cities were fortunate to have: a long, unbroken historical presence and the entity of a large city. 

Cosmopolitan in antiquity, as shown by the worship of various gods of ancient Greece in Greek Mythology but also foreigners from Egypt and the East, Thessaloniki made its acquaintance with Christianity in the year 50 AD. when the Apostle Paul first visited her and taught in a Jewish synagogue. 

In the Byzantine era, there were periods when it was the most important city after Constantinople, the ‘First after the First,’ as Byzantine writers call it. During the years of Ottoman rule, it retained its importance, being the largest urban center in the European part of the Ottoman Empire with a multiracial society. 

With its liberation in 1912, it was integrated into the Greek state. Due to its geopolitical location, Thessaloniki has always been a crossroads where people with different religious and cultural backgrounds met and coexisted for long periods of time. 

However, it maintained its Greekness, which was strengthened by the settlement of the Asia Minor refugee in 1922. 

Brief Description of the Tower

Greece, White Tower - credits: wallpaperflare.com

The White Tower, the monument-symbol of Thessaloniki, which today rises alone on the beach of the city, in the past was the southeastern tower of its fortification. 

According to travelers' descriptions and old depictions of the city, the sea part of the wall, which was demolished in 1867, had three towers, of which the White Tower was to the east, built exactly where the east met the sea wall. 

Its exact date is unknown, but it is almost certain that it was built in the late 15th century, after the conquest of Thessaloniki by the Turks, and replaced an older Byzantine tower, which the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki Efstathios mentions in the description of the siege. of the city from the Normans in 1185. 

In its long and fascinating history, the tower has changed from time to time names and uses. In the 18th century, it was referred to as ‘the Fortress of Kalamaria’, while in the 19th century as ‘the Tower of the Janissaries’ and ‘the Tower of Blood.’ 

The last two names were given to it because it was a prison for prisoners of conscience, and it was stained with blood from the frequent mass executions of prisoners by the Janissaries. In 1890 a convict, to gain his freedom, whitewashed the tower with lime, and since then, its current name has remained the White Tower of Thessaloniki.

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After the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912, the tower came to the Greek state and had various uses from time to time. During World War I, it housed the Allied transmission center. At the same time, in 1916, one of its floors was used to store antiquities from the archeological activities of British forces in their area of ​​responsibility. 

It was also used for the air defense of the city and as a Meteorological Laboratory of the University of Thessaloniki. The last to be housed in the tower before its restoration were the Scouts. At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous cafe and the ‘White Tower Theater’ operated in the area around the tower, which was demolished in 1954, to expand the park. 

The tower is cylindrical, with a height of 33.90 m and a diameter of 22.70 m. It has a ground floor and six floors, communicating with an internal staircase of 8.50 m in diameter. 

Thus, on each floor, a central circular room is formed, with which smaller quadrilateral rooms communicate, opened to the thickness of the outer wall. The top floor has only the main hall, and outside it, a roof is created, which offers an excellent view of the surrounding city landscape and the sea. 

As the historical evidence shows, but also the interior layout of the premises, with the existence of fireplaces, chimneys, and small toilets with a sewerage system, the tower had not only a defensive use but was also a military accommodation. 

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the tower was surrounded by a low octagonal enclosure, reinforced with octagonal turrets at its three corners. Inside, there was a dervish sanctuary, gunpowder depots, and a water tank, while at its entrance was preserved a Turkish inscription stating that the Leo tower was built in 1535-1536, a date that probably refers to the construction of the precinct. 

In 1983-1985, the 9th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities restored the monument and turned it into an exhibition space. On the occasion of the celebration of 2,300 years since the founding of Thessaloniki, it hosted the exhibition 'Thessaloniki - History, and Art,' while in 2001, the periodical exhibition 'Byzantine Hours - Everyday life in Byzantium.' 

In September 2008, the new permanent exhibition concerning the history of Thessaloniki from its foundation until today was inaugurated. The report was co-financed by the European Union and by the Greek government.

The Location of the Monument

The White Tower from above - credits: discovergreece.com

Thessaloniki is built amphitheatrically on the slopes of Kedrinos Hill and is surrounded to the north by the forest of Sheikh Sou. Also, it is located in the west of the Prefecture of Thessaloniki and at the mouth of the Thermaic Gulf

It is the most important transport hub of Northern Greece, as it passes through the highways and railways of Europe. Moreover, its port creates a crossroads between Greece and the countries of the rest of Southeastern Europe. 

Due to its location, the existence of the port, and its natural fortification, Thessaloniki has been an important strategic, transport, commercial, and cultural hub from ancient times until today. 

Thessaloniki, therefore, was often defined topographically by its many torrents. One of them started from a quarry in Agios Pavlos to the east of which there is today the cemetery of Evangelistria and, continuing parallel to Ethnikis Amini's Street, ended up, through the alluvium, in the creation of a small cape. 

On this cape, there was probably a small fortification tower as early as 1185, a work of the Byzantines. However, there are doubts as to whether the tower of 1185 was located on the cape or further west, approximately at the height of the Royal Theater. 

Others believe that it is not the Evangelistria torrent that is responsible for the cape but the torrent that flowed east from the Jewish cemetery and branched off at Goz Dere (Eye Pit) and Kirishane (String Factory). 

However, there is a common agreement about the alluvial nature of the cape and the two coves that it had, which constituted the natural location of the White Tower. Also, according to traveler descriptions and old depictions of the city, the sea part of the wall, which was demolished in 1867, had three towers, of which the eastern end was the White Tower, built exactly where the east met the sea wall. 

Thus, the White Tower is a monument and museum on the waterfront of the city of Thessaloniki, the capital of the region of Macedonia in Northern Greece, and a symbol of Greek sovereignty in Macedonia. The White Tower is built on Thermaikos Gulf's shores, located in the southern part of Thessaloniki

One reason why the White Tower was built on this site is that it is in contact with the sea, something that has long helped to develop trade and communication with other peoples through the Mediterranean. In this way, trade became easier since shipping was also very developed.

The Reconstruction of the Tower

About a century after the city's occupation, a series of fortification works created new fortresses in the city. In the context of this activity, we had the creation of the Tower. 

The main source for the year of creation is an infrared marble inscription of the entrance first mentioned by the traveler Evliya Celebi, and in fact, there is a photo of it by the German Struck. The inscription does not exist today - according to some, it was erased by Sultan Hamid, and according to others, by the Greek administration in 1937.

Depending on the translator - there are slight differences - in the inscription we read in Arabic script: ‘Built by order of the brave lion Suleiman, he became the lion of all fortresses. With the lion-faced draconian cannons around him, it is fitting to name this fortress the lion of the forts, Year 942 of the Ephra of the Prophet .’ 

In other words, the tower was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the year 942 AD, ie 1535 AD. Another date mentioned is 974 AD, ie 1566 AD. However, it is worth noting that it has been estimated, through arboriculture, that the wooden supports are oaks of Pindos cut around the 15th century. 

Some believe that Sinan, the trusted and famous architect of Suleiman, is responsible for the symbol of Thessaloniki, but it is probably a simple rumor since we do not have any relevant testimony, while a total of hundreds of works are attributed to Sinan. 

The rumor that it is the work of Venetian craftsmen is definitively refuted by another internal inscription that mentions a major reconstruction with chores - that is, mandatory participation of the people- in 1619, and later reports state that it was the date of construction. 

Besides, the masonry is in line with other Ottoman constructions of the period for which we have more information. It has been speculated that the architect of the White Tower was Mimar Sinan, the famous architect of Suleiman, due to its resemblance to a similar tower in Albania, built in the 1530s. 

The Shape of the Tower

The shape of the Thessaloniki White Tower- credits: emiliamaghiar/Pixabay.com

Originally the Tower was built without its famous wall. On the contrary, it had a conical lead roof, and between the current loopholes, the cannons that controlled the Thermaikos Gulf appeared and fired ‘40-barrel missiles with a length of 8 miles.' 

Most likely, the lintel marble sign at the entrance of the outer enclosure probably referred to the cannon, which was its main mission. The Tower itself is cylindrical with a height of 33.9 m., A perimeter of 70 m. And a diameter of 22.7 m. It has a ground floor and 6 floors, which communicate with an internal staircase of length 120 m. wall, leaving in the center a circular core with a diameter of 8.5 m. 

As a result, on each floor, a central circular room is formed, with which smaller four-sided rooms communicate, opened in the thickness of the outer wall. The top floor has only the main hall, and outside it, a roof is created, which offers an excellent view of the surrounding city landscape and the sea. 

Around the tower, there was a low octagonal enclosure, which we do not know when it was built, but we know its shape. It was octagonal in shape, about 5 meters high, and had three octagonal turrets at its three edges, also equipped with televisions. 

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This enclosure was mainly used to protect the Tower from the sea, but it is considered possible to be used to install heavy artillery, which would control the coastline and the port. It is interesting to note that they were facing the great city.

This enclosure was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century. There was another two-story turret and various other buildings inside. The entrance of the wall, from the north and in a straight line with the entrance of the Tower, was called the Gate of Divan Hane. 

Some sources refer to the commander of the janissaries as Divan Efendi, while others with this title mention the commander of the Acropolis, that is, of the Eptapyrgio complex. This indicates the multipolarity of the Ottoman Empire and the rivalries between janissaries and the central government.  

The Tower had other additional constructions necessary for its operation as accommodation, such as fireplaces and latrines, inside the main building and warehouses and water tanks outside the main building.

The Names of the Tower

The White Tower acquired power over the years- credits: tourism.gr

Over the years, the White Tower changed many names until its present name prevailed. At first, it was called the ‘Lion Tower' or the 'Tower of the Lions’, and then it received various other names during the years of Ottoman occupation. 

From the 17th century, it was called ‘Fortress of Kalamaria’ -or Kelemeriye Kal'asi- and in the 19th century, when it functioned as a prison for prisoners, ‘Tower of the Janissaries’ and ‘Kanli-Kule,’ meaning ‘Tower of Blood,’ because the Turks used it as a death row prison and a place of torture, which was often carried out by the Janissaries filling the great city walls with blood. For that reason, it was also nicknamed the 'Red Tower.' 

In 1890, Nathan Gueledi, a prisoner in the red tower, whitewashed it in exchange for his freedom. The reason is not known. legend has it that it was the Sultan's wish to show that something was changing after the Treaty of St. Stephen or with the end of Tanzimat: the beginning of the demolition of the wall and a conscious attempt to disconnect the Tower from its bloody past.  It has since been referred to as ‘Beyaz Kule,’ meaning ‘White Tower.’ 

The History of the Tower

The 4th floor of the White Tower - credits: theculturetrip.com

According to travelers' descriptions and old depictions of the city, the sea part of the wall, which was demolished in 1867, had three towers, of which the White Tower was to the east, built exactly where the east met the sea wall.

Its exact date is not known, but it is almost certain that it was built in the late 15th century, after the conquest of Thessaloniki by the Turks, and replaced an older Byzantine tower, which connected the eastern part of the fortification of Thessaloniki, which survives and today, with the sea, which was demolished in 1867. It is mentioned by the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki Efstathios in the description of the siege of the city by the Normans in 1185. 

It was formerly believed that it was the work of the Venetians, but this has now been rejected

from modern historiography. According to one version, the monument's construction date is placed around 1450-1470, shortly after the occupation of Thessaloniki by the Turks, in 1430, and it is one of the earliest examples of Ottoman fortifications take into account the artillery. 

The Turks' irrational violence and greed towards the city's inhabitants, regardless of religion, and the creation of structures parallel to the Ottoman state was a permanent wound to every Sultan. After all, all the city's religious groups emphasized that these were the special target of the Janissaries. 

It is revealing that most of the information about the conditions of detention we have from the Philhellene judge Hairoulah. He was imprisoned for his efforts to end the janissaries' massacres in 1821 AD. after the revolution in Halkidiki. 

Finally, on June 16, 1826 AD, Mahmud II ordered their extermination, and with their focus on Thessaloniki, their extermination was organized throughout the Empire. About 3,000 survived and were captured after fierce battles with the Ottoman army and transported to the Thessaloniki White Tower, where they were executed en masse. 

That's when the White Tower got the name ‘Kanli Kule’ (Blood Tower) - because of the Janissary massacre. Its subsequent use as a notorious prison and execution site announced by a cannonade retained its name. There are reports that the prisoners in Pyrgos were mainly for political crimes, but no official source confirms this information. 

Over time, the role of the Tower was changed, and from the protection from external threats, it became part of the control plan of the city itself. The wall's existence only towards the city confirmed the seriousness of the riots that broke out in the city until the 18th century due to food problems. 

The dating of logs used in the White Tower showed that they were cut in the year 1535, but there is a possibility that the logs were used in an extensive repair of the monument. All this demonstrates the difficulties in dating monuments of the Ottoman military architecture of the Renaissance. 

The Religiosity of the White Tower

The top of the White Tower - credits: dimitrisvetsikas1969/Pixabay.com

The White Tower remained a symbol of tyranny for many years. However, it should be mentioned that the White Tower, even before the revolution was a fighter of the "good fight" since, according to tradition, it was a "martyrdom" of many Christians. 

It is believed that the brothers Theodoros and Iosif Studitis were imprisoned in the year 797 in the fortress at the site of the White Tower, in which they wrote some tropes, including the verses of the aeneas of Saint Dimitrios, after his miraculous appearances. 

There are abundant testimonies about Agios Dimitrios' appearances on the White Tower ramparts during the siege of Thessaloniki. This event inspired many artists who narrated with their works this miraculous appearance of the patron saint on the tower ramparts with the sword in hand defending Thessaloniki

Uses of the White Tower in the Passage of Time

The White Tower - credits: RmX86/Pixabay.com

During World War I, the White Tower housed the Allied Transmission Center, and in 1916 a floor was used to preserve antiquities from archeological work in the area of ​​responsibility of the British Expeditionary Force. 

After the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912, the monument became a part of the Greek state and, until 1983, hosted the city's air defense, the University Meteorology laboratory, and Scout systems. 

It was also used for the city's air defense and as a Meteorological Laboratory of the University of Thessaloniki. The last to be housed in the tower before its restoration were the Scouts. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous cafe and the "White Tower Theater" operated in the area around the tower, which was demolished in 1954, to expand the park. 

From 1983 to 1985, the Archaeological Service preserved and restored the monument and turned it into an exhibition space. From 1985 to 1994, the permanent exhibition ‘Thessaloniki: History and Art’ was open. 

The Byzantine Museum of Culture opened in 1994, and the exhibits gradually began to be transferred to it. In 2001, the impressive exhibition ‘Everyday Life in Byzantium’ was presented at the White Tower as part of a network of three exhibitions with the general title ‘Byzantine Hours, Works and Days in Byzantium.’ 

In 2002, an exhibition of works by the painter and conservator of antiquities, Fotis Zachariou, was presented entitled ‘Athos: Impressions and Memories.’ The exhibition space belongs administratively to the Museum of Byzantine Culture and, since 2006, has been permanently operating as the City Museum of Thessaloniki.

The White Tower Today

The White Tower today - credits: emiliamaghiar/Pixabay.com

It is the most characteristic monument of Thessaloniki and, at the same time, the city's emblem. The White Tower Today houses the exhibition of Christian antiquities, including objects dating from 300 AD. approximately until 1430 and originating mainly in Thessaloniki. 

The exhibition is distributed by floors. The ground floor displays coins, Christian lamps, and mosaic floors, mainly from the Early Christian Period. Highlighting elements that have distinguished Thessaloniki over time, such as its urban character, the exhibition focuses on landmark moments and special aspects of city life. 

The thematic units that develop on the ground floor, on the five floors, and on the roof of the White Tower refer to the location of Thessaloniki in the geographical area, the transformations of the built space, to important moments of its history as they stand out through its monuments, to the key its commercial position at the crossroads of land and sea roads, to its inhabitants, to its spiritual and cultural life, but also its tastes. 

As a result, visitors have the opportunity to make a charming journey through time from the founding of Thessaloniki to its recent past, accompanied by the sounds, the special atmosphere, the spirit, and the tastes of the city. 

A Visit to the Exhibition

The exhibition inside the White Tower - credits: lpth.gr

The historicity and the peculiar interior design of the fortification tower did not allow the necessary interventions for the White Tower to have the basic infrastructure of a modern museum building. 

Thus, the exhibition does not have air conditioning, guest toilets, a refreshment room, or a cloakroom. As it was also impossible to install an elevator, people with mobility problems have the opportunity to visit the exhibition only virtually, through information stations on the ground floor of the building. 

The need to maintain stable climatic conditions and the limited durability of the monument requires strict control of the flow of visitors, according to international practices. According to a special study, the number of visitors who can be at the monument at the same time can not exceed 70 to maintain the appropriate temperature and humidity conditions.

The interior of the White Tower

The Interior of the White Tower - credits: flickr.com

On the first floor, there are architectural members, capitals, fragments of wall mosaics, statues, and silver relics. On the second floor, there is an autonomous section dedicated to the afterlife. On the third floor, there are relief icons, church utensils, lead bullions, and coins. Finally, on the fourth floor, there is an exhibition of monumental Byzantine paintings. 

In each section, there are two levels of information: in the central area of ​​the floor, each topic is briefly developed, while in the perimeter rooms, there are applications for deepening its individual aspects, allowing visitors to choose the pace at which they will move. 

The balcony of the White Tower functions not only as a viewing area of ​​the city and the surrounding area but also as an extension of the exhibition space. Information boards have been placed on selected ramparts, informing the visitor about what he sees today and what he saw in the past.  

The virtually impossible project of presenting 23 centuries of history in a total area of ​​just 450 sq.m. was successfully completed with the help of new technologies: the information is presented mainly through an impressive set of video and audio applications in the form of projections, video, and slide shows, audio documents and multimedia applications on touch screens, harmoniously combined with the limited number of ancient objects on display.

How much does it cost to visit the White Tower of Thessaloniki?

The White Tower - credits: theculturetrip.com

Admission to the museum is € 4, while for children it is free and the usual discounts for special categories of people apply. The museum is open every day. It is a must for the tourists but also for anyone who happens to pass by! 

How to Get to the White Tower

The White Tower - credits: grece-bleue.net

You can reach the White Tower by bus through the following routes:

From the Center - Station White Tower (Pavlou Mela) with the bus lines 3K, 5, 5A, 6, 15, 33, 39, 39A

From the East - Station Thessaloniki History Center (Tsimiski) with the bus lines 3K, 5.5A 6,12,33, 58

From the Center - Station of the Society for Macedonian Studies (Nikolaou Germanou) from bus lines 11, 11B, 12, 15, 39 

In the area and within a very short distance, several parking lots facilitate those who decide to visit the monument with their car.

Final Thoughts

Inside the White Tower, you learn the history of Thessaloniki in a very beautiful environment designed for this purpose. A visit to this historic monument will offer you a journey through time, surpassing your expectations.

We believe that everyone who visits Thessaloniki, one of the best mainland destinations in Greece, should visit the White Tower! Even if you’re not interested in Greek history, the top of the Tower overlooking Thermaikos and the city will steal your breath!

Our Tailor-Made Trip Planning
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the White Tower of Thessaloniki?

Why is it called the 'White Tower'?

What is the history behind the White Tower?

What can visitors see inside the White Tower?

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