Letter from Thessaloniki

Three or four times a year I receive a heavy, multi-colored brochure reminding me of my alma mater. This time it was an invitation for a homecoming affair to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Anatolia College in Thessaloniki.  «Salonika was in a chaotic condition,» wrote George E. White, a self-proclaimed «missionary of the cross» and a founder of Anatolia, in his book «Adventuring with Anatolia College» (Grinnell, 1940). «It was only a few years before when in 1912 the Turks went out of the government, the Greeks came in again and the city name was changed to the old form, Thessaloniki.» White told the story of the school from its beginning in a suburb of Constantinople called Bebek to its re-establishment in Thessaloniki in 1924. The original school was started in 1840 by an American missionary, Cyrus Hamlin, to train young Greeks and Armenians living in Turkey to become pastors and teachers. Some years later, Dwight Patterson took the mission far into Merzifon (Marsovan) in the interior of Turkey. His description of the trip «From New York to Merzifon» in 1890 makes quite an impression. Here’s an edited excerpt: «We sailed from New York on the Scotch steamer Furnessia, October 11… We crossed the continent by trains with no sleeping car and made initial acquaintance with cosmopolitan Constantinople… Then came the small Russian steamer, Rostoff, with its characteristic crowd of deck passengers: Armenian rug merchants, Persians with their samovars and tea parties, muscular Kurdish porters, Turkish hucksters, Greek colonizers, Caucasian mountaineers with their daggers and cartridge bandoliers, and stalwart Russians commanding and respected by all. So we reached Samsoun… After bumping over rough, stone-paved roads till nightfall and far beyond, we met our first experience of an Oriental khan at Cavak… The approach to the city resembled the approach to Jerusalem over the Mt of Olives, and just where the cavalcade emerged from among 5,000 vineyards and orchards, the city lay spread out to view westward across ‘the brook.’ There a halt was called, introductions and cordial greetings were exchanged, and then in the autumn twilight our wagons rolled into the compound of the Mission Station and the campus of Anatolia College.» The year 1922, with its enforced exchange of populations, is still remembered in Greece as the Great Catastrophe. The country had to absorb about a million refugees, more than a quarter of them passed through the quarantines and tented encampments of Thessaloniki. The more or less native author Giorgos Ioannou has called Thessaloniki «the capital of refugees.» When Anatolia College came to town the country was split and in shock. A total break with the past was desired. The fierce antagonism that had emerged during World War I between pro-German and pro-English/French lingered on. Originally, the first plan was to make the school in «Edessa, the upland eyrie of King Philip of Macedon and the old capital of the country, and we inspected there the campus already selected provisionally for favorable consideration. It was a wonderful site for a college, but Vodena was isolated from the main currents of travel, and influence, and human activity.» Still, the final decision about Thessaloniki came from Venizelos himself, whom the author met in Paris. He knew about our vicissitudes with Anatolia College in Turkey, and as soon as introductions were over, he said: «We hope you will bring your good work to our country. We want American education, though I must say we cannot offer pecuniary support; we have too many requirements and too few resources in our Greek situation to do that; but we will give you any favors you want such as securing terrain, water supply, and exemption from customs duties, taxes, and the like. You had better locate in Saloniki; that’s the best place for you; it’s the most international.» It is not known whether Thessalonians applauded at the time. Around 1927, «Thessaloniki, as a city, was struggling forward. Paving of main streets had begun, although such municipal improvements proceed slowly unless there are large, capital resources available for taxation. Parks and parking were taking shape. There never had been a sewer in the city until these years following the war, but by this time an urban system was fully half built.» The choice of the campus was not easy either. «There certainly were difficulties. It was remote from town for day pupils. The soil was thin and stony, and it would be difficult for trees and vegetation to take root and grow. There was no water near. No work had been done on the site except some preliminary surveying.» No, the beginning was far from easy. Plaintively the author acknowledged that: «Officials seemed hard to reach and uncertain in authority though fully friendly. Venizelos street was a highway of bottomless mud.» There were things worse than muddy streets at the time of the republic and dictatorship in Greece (1924-1940). It was then that confinement in disagreeable islands was established. Finally (and rightly, I think), after some presumably triumphant encounters with the Divine, things got much, much better. To date, Anatolia College has hit the big time. It is a not just a prestigious private high school but an excellent private university. During my time, the staff was the heart of this very good school. I hope this is still the case. And to conclude on an optimistic note: where immigrants in rags and agonizing missionaries once trod, dressed-for-success yuppies, contemporary politicians on the make and celebrities now reign.