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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,1 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, but many churches were turned into mosques or secular buildings because there were fewer Christian worshipers to fill them and even fewer priests to serve in them. In 1492 came another upheaval when thousands of Jews evicted from Spain sought and found refuge in the city. More were to follow during the next two decades.

In 1478, Mazower writes, “Salonica was still a Greek city where more than half of the inhabitants were Christians; by 1519, they were less than one quarter.” The Jews, who retained their Judeo-Spanish language throughout their sojourn in Salonica, were still the largest ethnic group in the population when the city fell to the Greek army in 1912. The spirit of the community, somewhat romanticized no doubt, was captured by Leon Sciaky’s Farewell to Salonica in what, until the publication of Mazower’s book, was probably the best-known English account of the city.2 But the division in Salonica was not a simple threefold one between Christian, Muslim, and Jew. On February 19, 1666, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary of hearing more than once

of a Jew in town, that in the name of the rest doth offer to give any man £10, to be paid £100 if a certain person now at Smirna be within these two years owned by all the princes of the East, and perticularly the Grand Segnor [Sultan], as the King of the world…and that this man is the true Messiah.3

In fact he was Sabbatai Zevi, who for some time had been proclaiming his deity and had found large numbers of supporters in the Ottoman Empire, and particularly in Salonica. When Zevi chose conversion to Islam rather than execution, many of his supporters in Salonica followed him, thus establishing in the city another distinct religious subgroup: the Ma’min, or Jewish converts to Islam. By 1900 the Ma’min community in Salonica numbered about ten thousand people, some of them occupying important positions among the city’s professions.

Cultural diversity under the Ottoman Empire was encouraged by the system of government, which basically left the management of everyday affairs to the separate, recognized religious communities, or “millets.” While particular groups tended to live in separate neighborhoods, the city was unusual in having no exclusive districts. Nor was there a Jewish ghetto, a fact that perplexed the Nazis when they invaded Salonica in 1941. Many of Salonica’s guilds, into which much of the trade and manufacturing were organized, also included members of different religious communities. There were also cultural crossovers and borrowings. A generation or so after 1492 many Jews were copying Muslim custom in growing their beards longer and wearing turbans and other clothing of Islamic origin, while the local Bektashi Muslim dervishes, members of the ecumenically minded Sufi sect, copied some features of Christian ritual, such as the use of bread and wine. Moreover, the dervishes gave shelter to Christians in Salonica during the persecutions of 1821 and five years later they provided sanctuary to the Janissaries, the old but by then unruly elite of the Ottoman forces, which Sultan Mahmud II had decided to liquidate. A century earlier Christians had turned to the Sublime Porte, the traditional name for the Ottoman government in Constantinople, for redress against the overenthusiastic tax-collecting activities of their own bishops. They even persuaded the government to imprison a Greek archbishop.

Mazower points out that Christian, Jew, and Muslim also borrowed from one another when it came to warding off or treating illness. Christians had their children blessed by a hodja; Muslims used the hair from the beard of a Jewish peddler as a remedy for fever. Members of each religious community followed the recommendations and rites of mendicant pseudomedics who themselves were often dervishes or gypsies. “Against the fear of infertility,” Mazower writes, “ill health, envy or bad luck, the barriers between faiths quickly crumbled.” Borrowing names changed people’s lives. Tekin Alp was a Turkish nationalist based in Salonica before World War I who later became a prominent intellectual in Atatürk’s secular republic. But he had begun life in Serres in Macedonia and his name at birth was Moise Cohen.

Still, if the Ottoman Empire and Salonica were multicultural, they were not egalitarian. Islam was the superior faith. Christians were made to feel its dominance by the bans placed on the use of church bells or on wooden clappers to summon the faithful. Their buildings could not be as high as nearby mosques and, most seriously perhaps, in any legal dispute with a Muslim, the case would be decided according to Islamic, not Christian, law. If there were many examples of cultural borrowings there were very few of conversion, perhaps, Mazower says, on average no more than ten per year. And when conversions did take place they could cause intercommunal tensions, none more so than in 1876 when the abduction, by Christians, of a Christian girl who had converted to Islam caused riots in which two European consuls were captured as hostages for the girl’s surrender and attacked with chairs and iron bars. By the time the girl was found and handed over, the hostages were dead. “The crowd,” Mazower says, then “dispersed, shouting in triumph and firing pistols and rifles into the air.”

While the cultures could coexist and at times mingle, they were still separate. Some guilds were monopolized by one faith; only Muslims were allowed to become tanners because that was the trade of the Prophet. Others, for example the butchers’ guilds, were divided because of differing rites in the preparation of meat. And while there was a tendency after 1492 toward similarity in dress, the Christian, the Jew, and the Muslim still wore different colored headgear—blue, yellow, and white respectively—in the mid-sixteenth century.

Mazower brilliantly reveals the variety, vitality, and exoticism of Salonica under the Ottoman Empire. The empire generally received harsh treatment by the Western press during the late nineteenth century, but its cultural tolerance and indifference to ethnic division do much to redeem it for him and for other scholars. The empire, as Mazower suggests, had another virtue which we would do well to recapture: it valued silence, particularly at night. In Salonica during the eighteenth century, Janissary patrols would intervene to prevent any rowdiness that was disturbing a neighborhood, and in 1752 they even threw a Greek merchant from Venice into prison because he was noisily celebrating his return from a trip to Cairo. The Janissaries, clearly, were not all bad.


After the Balkans fell under Ottoman domination in the fifteenth century, Salonica remained an important trading center for the eastern Mediterranean, but it had not developed strong commercial links with the center of Europe and beyond. The main lines of communication between Europe and the Levant were the sea routes to the south of Salonica and the Danube to the north. Trade expanded in the eighteenth century, and the Greeks of Salonica had a prominent part in it. But the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, the political turmoil that racked the Ottoman Empire’s European provinces at the same time—for example, in Serbia—and the Greek war of independence that followed in the 1820s stalled, if they did not halt, the increase in the number and the prosperity of the Greek traders. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century steam navigation gradually opened up new commercial possibilities, but it was Salonica’s connection to the European railroad network in the 1880s that allowed for rapid and extensive economic development.

As late as the 1870s some Macedonian traders were taking their goods to market in Vienna by camel,4 but two decades later such practices were no more than a memory. Rail links intensified trade and provided a new and rapid connection between the Danube valley and Central Europe: when Austria-Hungary imposed an embargo on pork, Serbia’s main export, in 1906 the meat was easily diverted by way of Salonica to Cairo, where it became a staple of the diet of British troops in Egypt. With the expansion of trade inevitably came the rise of new social forces, a commercial bourgeoisie, and professions such as law and medicine.

  1. 1

    Modern Library, 2000; see my review, “Myths of the Balkans,” The New York Review, January 11, 2001.

  2. 2

    Leon Sciaky, Farewell to Salonica: Portrait of an Era (Paul Dry Books, 2003).

  3. 3

    The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, Vol. VII, 1666 (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1972), p. 47.

  4. 4

    Virginia Paskaleva, “Die Entwicklung der städtischen Wirtschaft in den Balkanländern in der ersten Hälfte des XIX. Jahrhunderts (Vergleiche und Probleme),” in Actes du Premier Congrès international des Études balkaniques et sud-est européennes, Vol. IV (Histoire xviiie–xix ss), Sofia 1969, pp. 43–53, 49.

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