Veria is the capital city of the Prefecture of Imathia and is located in the northern borders of Greece, in the region of Central Macedonia. It is 362.6 km² in size and its population amounts to 47,500 inhabitants. Across the town passes the river "Trippotamos", the rocky banks of which and its special flora create a stunning natural environment. Though Veria has been an important settlement since ancient times, the Roman statesman Cicero (100-43 BC) described it as an "out-of-the-way town" because of its distance from Thessalonika (68 km) and the Roman Via Egnatia.
Today, despite being close to a throbbing motorway, it remains a small, neat provincial town amongst the hilly farmland of central Macedonia, with a view across the broad plain below.
Saint Paul the Apostle preached in Veria on his evangelical tour of Macedonia (around 49-51 AD) and found a very receptive audience. A grand outdoor marble and mosaic monument to his visit has been built on the Víma, the square where he preached, at the edge of the town.
One of the main mosaics depicts Paul's "Macedonian vision", a scene found in many churches in Macedonia.
Downtown has a couple of main streets lined with smart shops, cafés and offices full of well-dressed young people. Pleasant but unremarkable. As ever, it's when you go behind this modern veneer and explore the side streets and alleys that things get interesting.
As so often in Greece, one comes across the widespread ambivalence to its own history and heritage. Ancient mosques, churches and houses have been left to decay.
During the five centuries of Turkish occupation, churches were disguised as barns and warehouses. There are said to be 48 of these, which explains Veria's epithet "Little Jerusalem". But the stories of disguise seem odd, as you only have to walk past one and peer into a window to see the magnificent frescoes or smell the incense. It is impossible not to conclude that there must have been a degree of collusion or laissez-faire between the local Greek and Turkish populations. This was certainly not always the case, and the Turkish authorities were known to inflict vicious retribution, such as the hanging of the archbishop in 1436.
Macedonia only became part of modern in Greece in 1913 after the Balkan Wars. Despite the ancient enmities between Greeks and Turks, it is surprising that in many Greek towns the old mosques (and sometimes even hamams and medresas) were not simply torn down or converted into churches. A local I met (who spoke heavily-accented Greek, and a dialect I could not identify) told me that one of the mosques had originally been a church.
Older Greek people have told me of the sadness caused by the enforced exchanges of Greek and Turkish populations over the century following Greece's independence. The loss of Turks must have left quite a hole in many smaller communities. I also met an elderly couple in Turkey who had been forced out of Crete. They still spoke Greek and felt considerable nostalgia for their home.
Very few people mourn the loss of the Ottoman empire which oppressed just about everybody, but centuries of shared culture, especially amongst the poor, have laid deep roots which politics have not managed to erase.
This may help explain why many old mosques have not been demolished to make way for supermarkets or hotels. But what to do with them? All over Greece Muslim buildings, some very fine architecturally, slowly rot. Of course this is also true of churches and other buildings. Unfortunately, there is neither the means nor the political will to do anything about it.
Likewise, until recently, a synagogue in Veria lay neglected since the 1940s. Now an international fund is planning to renovate it. The Jews had thriving communities in Macedonia from classical times (synagogue is a Greek word meaning coming together).
Author: David John
Need help making travel arrangements in Greece? XpatBookings is a one-stop-shop that helps expats and travelers with their travel needs in Greece!