A saga of one city, three cultures

For many centuries, Salonica – Thessaloniki to the Greeks – has been a point of intersection for three of the world’s religious cultures, the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, a sort of Middle East writ small. Yet thanks to Athenian presumptions and modern Greek realities, the city has languished in the popular mind as Greece’s middling, if somewhat more livable, second city to the north. Mark Mazower’s «Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950,» published in 2004 in the UK by HarperCollins and this year by Alfred A. Knopf in the USA, demolishes these perceptions page by fascinating page. This volume is about as far as you can get from those indifferently written, dog-eared city guidebooks lurking at kiosk stands. It is a thoroughly researched, carefully constructed and exquisitely written urban history, covering half a millennium of cultural development and political upheaval. Mazower is a noted scholar of Europe, the Balkans, and Greece, having produced award-winning volumes on each. In «Salonica, City of Ghosts,» he tackles not a continent, region or country but a single city – indeed one that still numbers fewer than a million residents – but which has also been a cultural crossroads amounting to a world in itself. He makes the case that Salonica’s tricultural significance, the destruction of physical remnants of its Muslim and Jewish civilizations, and its fascinating but often tragic fate, richly deserve close attention. With such locational specificity he can highlight history «from below,» the artisans and rabbis and not just diplomats and generals. The many localized references may pall for those unfamiliar with the city, but as a vessel of arresting detail it cannot fail to hold most readers’ interest throughout its 490 pages. It would be easy for his narrative to get diverted by the sheer mass of information or to pose his findings as an easy lesson for today’s vexing problems of cultural coexistence, but Mazower is far too astute to let the material get away from him. Others clearly feel the same: his work won the Runciman award for best book in Greece for 2005, beating out (among others) Stephen Miller’s superb work on ancient Greek athletics and a translated volume by Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner. Unique place Named for Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Salonica was a key outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire and an early Christian stronghold long before the 15th century Ottoman takeover and Jewish influx. He sees these three cultures not as forming some comfortably woven history but almost as parallel existences, two of which – the Ottoman in 1912 and the Jewish in 1943 – evaporated suddenly after centuries of predominance while the third, the Greek, triumphed only in the 20th century. In fact, Mazower makes a compelling case that post-antiquity Salonica has not traditionally been Greek at all, but «much closer to the values of the bazaar and the souk,» more in touch with its medieval soul than is Athens with its classical but remote past. A travelogue-like introduction leads to a thumbnail background to the city’s Byzantine roots prior to the city’s Ottoman takeover by Sultan Murad II in 1430 (23 years before his son, Mehmed II, took Constantinople). From the start, fierce local resistance to Ottoman rule spoke to the city’s spirit but also created a tragic precedent (in comparison with Ioannina, which was spared mass executions as it gave in more easily). All but 38 years of the book’s coverage, in fact, takes place under the Ottomans, an era which, for all its deprivations, also left significant autonomy to its other faiths and their religious leaders, who often provided the basis of civil rule as a «privileged ruling caste.» There was little «theological policing» of the Orthodox Christian or Jewish populations, while a persistent lack of legal clarity actually helped the mass of Christian immigrants get established more easily there in the 1920s after the Ottoman collapse. The sudden influx of some 50,000 Sephardic Jews from Iberia, following their expulsion in 1492 from Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain, changed Salonica’s character as they quickly formed the city’s largest single ethnic group. Jewish influx was actually encouraged by the Ottomans for strategic purposes, and the boost of energy it provided helped bankroll the Sultans’ military adventures. Christians fell from over half the city’s population in 1478 to under a quarter by 1519, in the process becoming a minority in the old Byzantine city they long considered their own, naturally stirring resentment. Greek-Jewish tensions festered more than Jewish-Muslim ones, not least as Spanish Jewry proved adaptable to the ruling yet flexible Ottoman framework. Yet even in the late 19th century, 400 years after the expulsion, visiting Spaniards found a curious «outpost of Iberian life» in Salonica, long forgotten in Spain itself. The year 1912 ushered in huge changes, not just with the rapid influx of Christian refugees from Turkey (Mazower stresses that they were not, nor were considered, really «Greek» for decades) but also with the overlooked expulsion of some 30,000 Muslims out of the city. Nearly half the book covers the 20th century, with its Balkan Wars, Young Turk revolution, forced exchanges of populations, interwar upheavals and, finally and most tragically, extermination of the city’s main ethnic group in the 1940s. The section covering the 1930s, during the city’s breakneck modernization and the musical, dance, and sexual expressions it sustained (and conservative backlash it provoked), all amidst pockets of terrible poverty and on the cusp of the Holocaust, makes for poignant reading. Post-Jewish, Cold War Thessaloniki then emerged, colored by what Mazower clearly regards as historically dubious, and less interesting, official versions of history that stress the city’s Greek continuity rather than its cross-cultural fertilization and sudden upheavals. Unusual Utilizing a wide array of letters, testimonials and other decidedly non-official sources, the book also details conflicts within as well as between communities (e.g. the dark role of the Jewish police during WWII) and other, rarely documented oddities. For example, by 1900 over 10,000 Judeo Spanish-speaking Muslims populated the city, the Ma’mins or «Muslim followers of a Jewish messiah.» Such developments actually gave 19th century Salonica a progressive label, while other conversions, not least instances of Christians to Islam, spoke of deference to the political power of the day. We are regaled with tales of janissaries, brigands, Sufi orders, and (as per the book’s title) the widespread beliefs in superstitions, in which healers were often held in higher esteem than medical doctors and where fountains, public squares, and mosques were said to hold spirits. Self-proclaimed messiahs, false prophets, and 17th century millenarians all populate these pages. Yet periodic public executions, 18th century plagues, and wrenching human displacements all speak to a frequently violent past. The destruction of mosques, the great fire of 1917, and rapid postwar construction have done their part to all but eliminate most physical vestiges of this history that is now so well preserved and amplified between these covers.