Letting Salonica’s ghosts speak

Like an archaeologist scraping away the upper earth layers to reach long-buried artifacts, Mark Mazower is digging up the past of Salonica that official history has covered with a thick slab of symbolism. Or silence. Mazower, a Briton who is a history professor at Columbia University, revisits mutilated Ottoman minarets and flattened Jewish graves, as well as modern monuments and institutions, renamed streets and history books to expose «the false continuities and convenient silences» that were used to airbrush away half a millennium of tricultural history. In his magnificently researched and written «Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950,» Mazower unravels the not-so-subtle attempt to draw a clear line from Alexander the Great to the present, prompted by decades of nation-building and often crude Hellenization. The author draws on a vast amount of material to reconstruct a city of three faiths, three cultures that lived next to each other in peace until the emergence of nationalism dismantled the Ottoman Empire and sounded the death knell for Salonica – Thessaloniki to the Greeks – as a multicultural city. A graduate of John Hopkins and Oxford, Mazower has written extensively on Greece and 20th century Europe. His books include «Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44,» «Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century,» and «The Balkans.» A few days before visiting Greece to promote the Greek edition of his latest book (by Alexandria Publishers), the author spoke to Kathimerini English Edition in an e-mail interview. Why do you think it took a foreign historian to dig up the multicultural past of the city? Why haven’t Greeks done so themselves? Actually the book is mostly a synthesis and relies a lot on the work of Greek historians. The last 20 years have seen a historical renaissance in Greece, and that helped enormously. The selection of Thessaloniki as the cultural capital of Europe for 1997 also led to an outpouring of publications on the city’s past. But it’s probably fair to say that distance too has advantages as well as drawbacks: Writing in England and the US one could see the city from afar, lying at the heart of a larger Mediterranean world, linking the Balkans, the Black Sea and North Africa, Turkey and Europe. And then most people in England know almost nothing about Thessaloniki, and that probably helped too: Writing for them as much as for Greek readers, I had to work out why the city should interest them. In fact, to some extent, your book reads like a history of history. Our views of what counts as history, what has historical value – all this interests me. As I wrote, I quickly found that the city’s very diversity challenged standard ways of doing history. It thus posed a problem for me as a historian. But the challenge went deeper, I believe. Can a reflection on how we see the past, how it holds us in its grasp, affect our perception of future possibilities? I think it may. A history of history can, in this sense, be emancipatory. What is your opinion of the Greek debate on the fate of the Jewish and Muslim populations of Salonica? A big gap, as in most places, between what scholars say to one another, and the broader public debate. There is little now that Greek scholars cannot say to one another, and much good work is going on, especially regarding the Jews. The subject of the Muslims in Greece has taken longer, but Ottoman studies are expanding in Greece and I expect much more will appear over the coming years. Still the public debate is overwhelmingly focused on the contemporary issues of immigration and multiculturalism, and the sense that these are subjects which might form part of Greek history is still absent. Most people’s conception of Greek history still revolves around the stretch from Alexander the Great to the war of independence: So long as that is what they get at school, change will be slow. Convenient silences You talk about «false continuities» and «convenient silences,» namely, efforts by nationalists to recreate the past as an unbroken continuity by erasing traces of Muslim and Jewish populations. Do you see that as a conscious/organized process or as a byproduct of modernity? Both. New nation-states invested heavily in memory-making and history-teaching. They felt they needed their own kind of history – a national history – for political and prestige reasons. But there was more to it than this. Many people really saw history in national terms because the sense of national separateness had been growing for many decades through the 19th century. And in the case of Thessaloniki, the city’s new rulers – the Greeks – also saw the Ottomans as retrograde and themselves as the bringers of modernity, and for them this justified wholesale urban renewal and the destruction of the past. Only some «traditional» elements were to be preserved as local color. Many of these, of course, perished in the real estate boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Did the different groups living in the city get along with each other? Was religion, in fact, the defining division, or were others more important? The Ottomans attached enormous importance to preserving public order. Hence relations between religious communities were carefully monitored by the authorities. At the popular level, there was much interaction, especially in trade and the port. But there was also often suspicion and prejudice. Islam was clearly the ruling religion, and though the other faiths were supported by the empire their subordinate position was unmistakable. There were other important social divisions, of course – such as the one between the city-dwellers and all those outside the gates; between the members of various guilds (often encompassing different faiths); or between those with access to bread and those who starved when grain prices rose steeply after a bad winter. Obsessed by religious interaction as we now are, we also forget that this must have seemed a comparatively unimportant subject when living in a world where as much as one quarter of the population could die of the plague in a single year. Was the Ottoman Empire a tolerant regime? Would you describe it as a multicultural one? Multiculturalism is a modern concept. The Ottoman Empire had no mass politics in the conventional sense (no parties, for instance; no press until very late), and was certainly not democratic. It believed in religion as a structuring principle for communities run by their leaders. It was not interested in culture, nor was this seen as something to be preserved (or destroyed). So multicultural? No, though it was not monocultural either (for the same reasons). Tolerant? It did not believe one religion was as good as another. But it depended upon the flourishing of the main three faiths, and never seriously attempted total Islamization. This was very different from what was happening in Christian Europe where persecution and heresy-hunting cost tens of thousands of lives. You seem to be more interested in people, their daily lives, rather than big leaders. Big leaders end up, if they are lucky, as statues on a street corner. In this way they too are incorporated into the daily life of the city. What makes a city appealing, I think, is its essentially anarchic, uncontrollable character. And generally, this is too much for even the biggest leaders to mold. The city, now How has the latest influx of outsiders affected Salonica? Do you see a qualitative change? Their arrival seems to coincide with a strengthening of conservatism in the city, or do you see the trend as a response to change? I think, as everywhere in Europe, mass immigration has brought tremendous social change. As life changes, many people construct a picture in their minds of an earlier stability, a kind of quiet Golden Age, which the immigrants are disrupting. Maybe the Cold War was such a period. But in the case of Thessaloniki, for instance, it was easy to forget that the city has actually been changing very rapidly – and as a result of immigration and emigration – ever since the start of the 19th century. How well is Greece coping with its changing society caused by the massive inflow of foreign migrants? I think in general that given the scale of the social and economic changes that have taken place in Greece since the fall of the junta what is really striking is the stability and maturity of the political system. Unlike in many parts of Europe, immigration has not emerged as a troubling item on the political agenda. Maybe this is connected with the fact that so many Greeks have the experience of upheaval, flight and emigration – forced or voluntary – in the recent experience of their own families. Does the coexistence of different religions in Salonica at the time give credit to those who deem that the Balkans need not be divided along religious/ethnic lines? Not really. It just shows that it is mistaken to think the Balkans have always been divided in such a way. Such divisions happened relatively recently. More recently still, mass immigration has brought a new challenge to the idea of national purity. In that sense, the wars in the former Yugoslavia might be seen as the product of a dreadful anachronism. Can we learn from history? Perhaps, if we are offered the chance to make the same mistakes twice. But this rarely happens. I prefer to think of history as a special kind of entertainment. [email protected] Mazower will present his book at the old Athens stock market, 10 Sophocleous, Jan 11, 12.30 p.m.