History professor Peled Barzilai pays close attention as a guide shows the group of Israeli tourists from Netanya around Thessaloniki’s Yeni (New) Mosque, built in 1902 for the northern port city’s Donmeh community – Jews in the Ottoman Empire who publicly converted to Islam while privately observing a mystical form of Judaism.
The caps that Barzilai and the rest of the group are wearing, all featuring the same advertising logo, not only protect them against the sun; they also hide their yarmulkes.
The ongoing crisis has not stopped Israeli tourists from going on organized trips to Thessaloniki, but just a few hours before a local protest against the air strikes on Gaza, the visitors are very careful. They cover up their yarmulkes as they visit local monuments. The group say that during an earlier visit to Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) they had a police escort.
Meanwhile, hundreds of tourists from Istanbul, Bursa, Smyrna and other areas in Turkey are visiting the multimedia Ataturk Museum, housed in the former home of the founder of the modern Turkish state. They take pictures of a wax sculpture of Ataturk, read and listen to stories about his hometown, learn about his military and political achievements, and then rest in the museum’s garden. Later, they drink coffee in the neighborhood “kafeneia” and go souvenir shopping.
Tourists from Israel and Turkey, as well as those from the Balkans and Russia, have helped in Thessaloniki’s rejuvenation over the past four years. A solid campaign by Mayor Yiannis Boutaris and a number of travel agencies to promote the city’s multicultural past and attract tourists has met with a great deal of success. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of Israeli tourists rose by 358 percent, while Turkish visitors went up 226 percent. According to Spyros Pengas, a tourism consultant at the Municipality of Thessaloniki, although Israeli and Turkish tourists only tend to stay in the city for a very short period, their presence has been a huge boon for the local economy, and there has been an increase in the number of medium- and high-income Turkish visitors.
Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, saw a huge increase in Turkish visitors to Thessaloniki this year. Numbers are estimated on the basis of the visitor count at the Ataturk Museum. In the first six months of 2014 there were 31,000 visits (against 29,500 in the same period last year) and if 2013 is anything to go by, the rest of the year is set to see many more. A total 80,000 Turks visited the museum last year up from 25,000 in 2010.
“I feel at home here,” says Esin Uzun, who works at a bank in Istanbul. “I expected Ataturk’s house to be different but I found it to be exactly as it was described in historical texts. I was fascinated by the Ottoman monuments, the White Tower and Aristotelous Square,” she adds.
Most Turkish tourists visit the Alaca Imaret Mosque, the Hamza Bey Mosque, the port and its Ottoman structures, the Yedi Kule fortress, which offers fine views of the entire city, and the Church of Saint Demetrios. They go out, shop, enjoy the local food and venture further afield to see monuments such as the Mausoleum of Gazi Evrenos, an Ottoman military commander, at Giannitsa, the Zincirli Mosque in nearby Serres, the Royal Tombs of Vergina and the ancient city of Dion.
The Israelis, who don’t spend as much as the Turks, visit monuments such as the Yad Lezikaron Synagogue, the Holocaust monument, the Jewish Museum, the Yeni Mosque, the Villa Allatini, the Municipal Art Gallery housed in the famous Villa Bianca, Stoa Saoul (named after its patron, the banker and generous benefactor Saul Modiano), the Modiano Market and Ladadika, a district famous today for its bars and restaurants.
“The Jews know their history but they can understand it much better by visiting the areas where Jewish civilization grew. Thessaloniki is an important part of Jewish history and tradition,” says Barzilai.
For the Turks and the Israelis, Thessaloniki is not just another holiday destination. For Turks, it is Ataturk’s birthplace and for Jews it is the “Mother of Israel.” Many of them visit Thessaloniki to learn about their ancestors. “In every group of tourists there is at least one person who has some connection to Thessaloniki,” says Erika Perahia Zemour, who works at the Jewish Museum. “It was very wise of Boutaris to ensure that Israelis are given help at the registry office, where they go to find data about births in the prewar period and information about relatives.”
Tour guide Constantinos Sfykas says many descendants of Thessaloniki Jews have cried on his shoulder after identifying the homes of their grandparents, but he also mentions the excitement he has witnessed as Jews and Turks alike discover the cultural and architectural traces of their forebears who once lived in Thessaloniki.