The Ancient Forum, the administrative centre of ancient Thessaloniki, occupied an area about two hectares in the heart of the city. Its construction began at the end of the 2nd century A.D. on the site of an older forum dating from early Imperial times.

The complex was arranged around a rectangular paved square. There were stoas on three sides, each of which consisted of a double row of columns and provided direct access to a surrounding zone of public buildings. The southern stoa stood on a vaulted substructure (cryptoporticus) – a double arcade which lay partly underground, making use of the natural slope of the land. To the south, along the whole of the cryptoporticus, lay a row of shops fronting the ancient shopping street which ran along the north side of present-day Philippou St. Off this street lay minor entrances to the square, while the latter opened north, to the present-day Olympou St. In the middle of the east wing, on the site of an earlier council – chamber, a building for public performances was erected, which, on the basis of the inscription and the statues of Muses found there, must have functioned as an odeon.

When the Romans came in Thessaloniki, they inevitably expanded the Greek agora, creating a two-level forum. You can see the arched remains of the cryptoporticus, a retaining wall that supported part of the upper forum. The best-preserved ruin here, the large Odeum, or Odeon, is a theater where Romans enjoyed watching both musical performances and fights to the death between gladiators and wild beasts. The Odeum is sometimes still used for summer concerts.

In modern times, the most famous ancient monument here was the stoa with a series of statues facing the Via Egnatia, known as the Incantadas (Enchanted Idols), the name given them by Thessaloniki’s then-flourishing community of Sephardic Jews. By the 19th century, much of the colonnade was lost, but a segment remained, incorporated into the courtyard of a Jewish home. When the French scholar Emmanuel Miller saw the colonnade, he knew he had to have it  and got permission to cart the remaining incantadas off to the Louvre, where they are to this day. Browse in the few book and print shops in Thessaloniki, and you’ll probably see reproductions of a charming engraving of the colonnade by the 18th-century English antiquarians Stuart and Revett.

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