Wonderful Town?

Salonica, City of Ghosts is a history of a fascinating, turbulent city by one of the most distinguished historians of his generation. The city of Thessaloniki, to give its original and present Greek name, was founded in the fourth century BC by the husband of the half-sister of Alexander the Great. The name commemorates the victory (niki) of their father, Philip, over the people of Thessaly. The city had enormous geographic importance. At the mouth of the river Vardar (referred to as Axios by Greeks) it commanded the gateway to one of the most important routes from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa to the Balkans and, via the Danube, to Central Europe. It rapidly developed into a thriving port.

The Romans, astute as ever in their strategic thinking, made it a pivotal point along the Via Egnatia, the road they built across the Balkans from Durazzo on the Adriatic in the West through to Constantinople and Asia Minor in the East. In Saint Paul’s second epistle to the members of the city’s Christian community he praises them “for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations” (1:4). During the subsequent two thousand years there were to be more persecutions and tribulations, but there was to be much else besides.

When the Emperor Constantine divided the Roman Empire in the late fourth century Salonica was included in the eastern half, which was dominated by Constantinople, or Byzantium; thus when the great schism in the Church occurred in 1054 Salonica became part of the Eastern or Orthodox branch of Christianity. On the European mainland it was second only to the imperial capital itself in size and importance. It was at this time a predominantly Greek city, but that was to change in 1430 when it fell to the advancing armies of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II.

Mark Mazower’s history begins with Sultan Mahmud II’s victory, and goes on to describe the multicultural city that developed under Ottoman rule. The book’s second section, which begins approximately in the 1870s and ends very precisely in November 1912, is an account of the modernization and Europeanization of Salonica. The self-explanatory title of the third section is “Making the City Greek.”

One senses from its richness and verve that the author took the most pleasure writing the first section. In his previous book, The Balkans: A Short History, Mazower showed the variety and complexity of the Ottoman Empire. In his new book he describes, in greater detail, the radically changing history of one of its liveliest cities. Its Greek community, he points out, was not destroyed in 1430 but it was considerably weakened, not least because, against the wishes and better judgment of many of his flock, the senior Greek cleric rejected Murad’s offer of surrender; when it fell the city was therefore subjected to the customary murder, rape, and pillage of the time. The Islamic conquerors did not insist on conversion to their faith …

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