This piece of research aims to both document and interpret eye-witness accounts of foreign travellers to the city of Thessaloniki in the age of Romanticism. By extension it seeks to comprehend the ways in which romanticism as an intellectual movement in the broader framework of modernity faced the Orient, specifically the Ottoman world, and consolidated its perceptions into a series of stereotypical “images” combining enchantment with prejudice.
The traveller’s description of the city is analyzed in sections based on his way of accessing and on the level of proximity to his object of description. His long distance view of the city, while still on board, fills him with enchantment, eroticism, and the fulfilment of his most profound desires. The dreamy image of Thessaloniki affirms his preconceptions for an Oriental city being an utterly picturesque city.
This description comes in sharp contrast with the one he offers while approaching the city by land. Rational and detailed accounts of the rough landscape, the dangers of travelling, and the difficulties on the way take priority over any lyrical ones.
While entering, walking through, and experiencing the city from nearby the traveller forms a description as a field of contradictions. Enchantment and prejudice, beauty and repulse, alternate in the text thus revealing, not the “true” image of Thessaloniki but the emotional instability of its descriptor, the romantic adventurer. The bipolar opposites belong not to the city as such but to the literary idiom he is used to for developing his description.
For the romantic travellers, their journey to the East has a well-defined scope. It is their love for knowledge – for getting to know another land’s customs, people’s habits, monuments, etc. – which drives them so far away from home. However, for most of them the declared scope of the journey is not identical to the actual purpose of it, which could be very mundane, such as espionage, illicit trade of antiquities, and various entrepreneurial pursuits. Of these, the trade of antiquities has caused a long line of argumentation for the exoneration of the perpetrators in the name of protection of international cultural inheritance. Evidently, Thessaloniki has been one of the renowned targets of such activity.
This paper argues that the image of Thessaloniki as produced from the pen of romantic travellers, due to its multiplicities and contradictions, is demonstrative of the multiple refractions of their gaze, and by extension, of the myth by which the city exists in the consciousness of the “civilized” West even to this date.