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.

But here the Ottoman Empire produced yet another of its anomalies. Modernization was a political as well as an economic process. The Ottoman Empire had begun its gradual transformation in 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II liquidated the Janissary corps whose members had frustrated previous attempts at reform in order to protect their many privileges. Further reforms devolved more power over local affairs to the separate religious communities. This was no doubt consonant with contemporary progressive ideas, but in fact the religious leaders to whom this authority was given were frequently traditionalist and conservative, if not obscurantist. In many cases they were more opposed than the Ottoman government to ideas of free trade, free movement, a free press, and above all free thought. Thus modernizing entrepreneurs—Christian, Jewish, and Ma’min—found a common cause in opposing their religious leaders. In 1873 well-to-do Jews and Greeks joined with the British consul, John Blunt, to form the Cercle de Salonique, to encourage the creation of facilities for “society and travelers.” By 1887 the club had 159 members from a variety of ethnic groups; they were, says Mazower, “the city’s new masters—professional men, army officers, diplomats, bankers, land-owners and traders.”

These new masters needed a fresh approach to the city and its future. Until the second half of the nineteenth century urban government had consisted of little more than the pasha, the sultan’s governor, on the one hand, and, on the other, local religious leaders and wealthy landowners and merchants. This arrangement produced occasional tension between the pasha and the local leaders but in general the central authorities in Istanbul felt no compulsion to intervene as long as the city continued to fulfill the functions the government required of it: to pay its fair share of taxes and to provide the imperial capital with specified quantities of grain.

But the Ottoman imperial administration took little other action, a dangerous mistake in an age of accelerating economic and social change. The pashas did not stay in power long enough to undertake any real reform and in any case the local leaders feared such reform because it might undermine their own position. The exception was Sabri Pasha, who arrived as governor from Izmir in 1869 and initiated the first serious rebuilding program, which included demolishing Salonica’s old walls and using the rubble as landfill to build out further into the bay; thus he began “the process of suburban growth which has continued with virtually no interruption up to the present.”

In the year in which Sabri Pasha arrived, another change came with the creation of a municipal council, the second in the empire, the first having been founded in Istanbul the year before. Gradually the new council took over such tasks as street cleaning and fire control, the latter having previously been left to youths conscripted from the twelve main guilds in the city. By the third quarter of the century the council was “the promoter and regulator of urban life.”

There was much to be done. There was no map of the city until 1882. Street names were not introduced systematically until 1898, and even then their usefulness was diminished by the fact that they were originally written only in Turkish, which still used Arabic script. Yet rational development, expanding trade, and international peace in the last quarter of the nineteenth century brought an unprecedented expansion to Salonica. In 1830 its population had been around 30,000; by 1890 it had reached 98,000 and in 1913 stood at 158,000. This population was even more diverse than it had been in the early nineteenth century. Greeks, Jews, and Muslims had been joined by Armenians and local Slavs, who had moved in from the surrounding villages to satisfy the growing demand for labor, while European residents, of whom there had been only about a hundred in 1768, now numbered ten thousand.

One of the causes of Salonica’s expansion, international peace, had the paradoxical effect of producing new conflict. The very process of modernization and Europeanization brought Salonica and its hinterland into international politics and the city became central to the question of who would dominate the large Ottoman-controlled territory of Macedonia, of which Salonica was traditionally a part. Ethnically Macedonia was an immensely varied region whose largest two groups were Greeks and Slavs, although the Slavs considered themselves either Macedonians, Bulgars, or Serbs. Sharing a growing belief in Europe that the Ottoman Empire was in decline, the surrounding states—Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro—planned to seize as much as possible of Macedonia and the rest of the region when it finally fell.

In 1908 the reformers called “Young Turks,” most of them based at the Ottoman garrison in Salonica, launched their movement “to break,” as Mazower puts it, “the hold of the traditional grey-bearded Istanbul statesmen,” raising hopes that “the sick man of Europe” might be on the road to recovery; but the Young Turks’ conception of a new, modern, Ottoman nationalism soon alienated the Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Albanian nationalists who coveted Ottoman territory. In 1912 the governments of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro joined in a system of loose military alliances and within a few weeks their attacks reduced Ottoman territory in Europe to a small area around Istanbul and a few besieged cities in the Balkans.

But the victors were reluctant to apportion their spoils. In the early summer of 1913 Bulgaria launched a preemptive strike against its former ally Serbia. It was a disaster. The Serbs were joined by the Greeks, the Romanians, and the Ottoman Empire, and the combined forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the Bulgarians. They lost all but a small part of their gains in Macedonia, and the remainder of the region was divided between Serbia and Greece. Salonica was taken over by the Greeks, who arrived in the city on November 8, 1912, only hours before the Bulgarians. (In hopeful anticipation of a favorable reception from Salonica’s Jews, the Bulgarians had included in their front-line troops as many Jewish officers and men as they could.)


With the incorporation of Salonica into the Greek state, Mazower begins the final section of his book. Salonica had seen relatively little violence after the slaughter following the siege of 1430, the great exception being the massacre of Greeks at the beginning of the Greek war of independence in 1821. But soon three of its constituent groups were to be removed against their will and as the result of war.

The first to go were practically all the Bulgarians, expelled after the war of 1913; the few that remained were later exchanged after World War I for Greeks from Bulgaria. The second group to leave were Muslims. After World War I the Greek Kingdom had embarked upon a disastrous attempt to seize Anatolia from Turkey, where large Greek colonies had lived for centuries. The Greeks were defeated by a new Turkish army created by Mustafa Riza, a native of Salonica, better known to the world as Kemal Atatürk. After the campaign was over, the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 provided that the Orthodox Christians of Anatolia were to be exchanged for the Muslims of Greece. That involved a huge displacement of peoples—it was the first compulsory population transfer to be sanctioned by international treaty. The departure of the Muslims and their replacement by Christians completely altered the nature of the city. Like the rest of Macedonia Salonica now became, for the first time since the late fifteenth century, overwhelmingly Greek.

There were physical changes too. With the Muslims gone there was no longer any need for mosques and minarets, most of which disappeared. Some had already been destroyed in the fire of 1917. While fires had been a persistent feature of life in Salonica, which had many wooden buildings, that of 1917 was the worst of all. Destroying three quarters of the old city, including all the banks, thirty-seven synagogues, and many mosques, it also had an unfortunate effect on the city’s Jewish population. After the fire, the government in Athens decided that the devastated area should be rebuilt as a modern, planned city center. Most of the people who had lived there were Jewish and they were not allowed back into their old neighborhoods. Many of them believed this was a deliberate decision by the Greek authorities to remove the Jews and Hellenize the city’s heart. Mazower does not disagree.

After Salonica’s fire and the disaster of population transfer from Asia Minor, relations between the city’s Jews and the Greek government varied, they were, paradoxically, at their best under right-wing, authoritarian administrations. Even after the Axis powers had conquered Greece in April 1941 the quisling prime minister could state that “there is no Jewish question in Greece.” The Nazis, of course, had other ideas. In January 1943 Adolf Eichmann sent delegates to Salonica to conduct investigations, and in March 1943, in a remarkably rapid and brutal operation, the city’s Jewish population was transported to Auschwitz. Mazower writes that approximately 45,000 people reached Auschwitz from Salonica. “Within a few hours of arriving most of them had been killed in gas chambers.” Ironically, in the argot of the camp they were known as Mohamedaner (Mohamedans).

The details of the destruction of the city’s Jews contains both the familiar stories of cruelty, greed, corruption, and mendacity, and, like Viktor Klemperer’s description of Dresden,5 examples of non-Jews encouraging and helping the persecuted. Mazower lays particular emphasis on two features of the final solution in Salonica. The first was the initiative taken by local Greeks. Although there is no evidence that they instigated or even wanted mass murder, they were prepared to take advantage of the increasing pressure on the Jews. It was the Greeks, not the Germans, who first suggested that the historic Jewish cemetery should be cleared and used for development. Mazower also tells us that after World War II the question of local complicity in the deportation of the Jews was buried with unseemly haste, not least because the pressures of the Greek civil war meant that the right-wing government, backed first by Britain and then by the United States, felt it had to enlist the support of compromised Greeks in the fight against the Communist insurgents.

At the end of the first half of the twentieth century Salonica had become entirely Greek. Even the historic memory of its former ethnic variety had been eradicated. The mosques and synagogues disappeared under the bulldozer, and so too did the Bulgarian and Muslim as well as the Jewish schools and cemeteries. The history of Salonica, as seen and taught in Greece after World War II was the history of the ancient Greeks, of Byzantium, and of the modern Hellenic kingdom. All that remained of the non-Greeks were the ghosts of Mazower’s subtitle.

Yet cities change. Berlin, the center of Prussian militarism under the Kaisers, was an embattled outpost of liberty during the cold war, and finally, when the Wall fell, it became not only the scene of the West’s victory over Soviet-style communism but a city that some hope will be the cultural capital of an enlarged Europe. Salonica’s image has changed from one of bewildering diversity to one of functional, modern uniformity. But perhaps it, too, will change again. With the end of the Communist bloc in the Balkans, Greek traders and investors have swarmed into Romania, Bulgaria, and, after initial misgivings, into Macedonia. The expansion of the European Union into the Balkans in 2007, when in all likelihood Bulgaria and Romania will become members, could increase Salonica’s interaction with the states to its north and could well bring about immigration from those regions, thus once again encouraging ethnic and cultural diversity. These processes will be intensified if Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU also succeed. Then perhaps Salonica’s ghosts will be exorcised and its rich past rediscovered. As Mazower sagely remarks, “Other futures may require other pasts.”

Mazower has provided a brilliant guide to Salonica’s rich past in an account that is usefully supplemented by maps and by thirty-two pages of illustrations, including many photographs of the city from the early twentieth century. (There are very few mistakes, though the city to which the Serbs and Montenegrins laid siege in 1913 was not Durazzo but Scutari, and the notion that Austria-Hungary wished “to run down to Salonica” has been put under serious question by historians, in particular by Roy Bridge.6 )

Mazower’s book, as its subtitle tells us, is a history of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But he still might have said more about the Slav Christians. He notes that the countryside around Salonica was settled by local Slavs and that they were present in the city itself as workers on the docks and as prominent socialists and intellectuals in the early twentieth century. But this gives the Slavs no more than a walk-on part in a drama in which they were, until 1913, major actors. It is difficult to assess their precise numbers because ethnic statistics are notoriously unreliable, partly because they were used as political propaganda and partly because the Ottoman system of classifying people according to their religion meant that all Orthodox Christians belonged to the Greek millet, whether they were Serb, Greek, Albanian, Bulgar, or Romanian. Nevertheless, local Slavs seem to have made up a sizable element of Salonica’s population in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late 1880s the Serbian geographer Spiridion Gopcevicå« listed 3,900 Christian Slav taxpayers in Salonica which, if each was the head of an average family of four, would mean around 16,000 Christian Slavs, all of whom Gopcevicå« believed were Serbs.7 An apologist for the Bulgarian cause estimated the number of Christian Slavs—to her all of them Bulgarians—as ten thousand8 at around the same time. A less biased source is the commission of inquiry into the Balkan wars of 1912–1913, which mentions that thousands of Bulgarians were imprisoned in and around Salonica in 1913,9 before almost the entire Bulgarian population of the city was deported to Bulgaria.

Clearly the Slavs were numerous or the Greeks would not have feared them so much. The Slavs also had a strong part in the city’s culture. One Bulgarian writer contrived, on the same page, to compare the Bulgarian Gymnasium in Salonica to “an erupting volcano whose enlightening lava spread through the whole of Macedonia” and to “a lighthouse whose thrusting rays of knowledge, education and national spirit reached every corner of Macedonia.”10 Nationalist rhetoric notwithstanding, the school was a major educational institution, whose curriculum included not only Bulgarian history and grammar, but also Turkish, French, mathematics, and chemistry. It had an elaborate system of scholarships for poor Bulgarian boys from Macedonia, and had a girls’ school with similar facilities.

Still, the relative absence of Slavs from Mazower’s fascinating and surprising account does not impair its overall quality. As he concludes, the inhabitants of Salonica today know that whatever nationalist history

they are taught at school, their own family experiences suggest a very different kind of story—a saga of turbulence, upheaval, abandonment and recovery in which chance, not destiny, played the greater role.

It is just such a history that I have tried to show unfolding, a history of forgotten alternatives and wrong choices, of identities assumed and discarded.

This he has done brilliantly.

This Issue

June 23, 2005