Mark Mazower’s Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (Alfred Knopf: 2004/paperback 2006) is not the usual kind of book to gain much attention outside historical circles. Yet it received strong reviews in magazines such as The Economist and newspapers like the New York Times when it first came out over a year ago. Mazower, for the most part, deserved them: this is a serious book by a serious scholar.
His is a book that brings us face-to-face with forces that shredded the Ottoman Empire to help explain why the Balkans and even the former Ottoman-controlled Middle East look the way they do today. What Mazower does is place his twenty years of copious research about this single city within the larger context of Ottoman and post-Ottoman Balkan history. He makes the cavalcade of events come to life through the eyes of the people who lived, visited, played, worked and died in Thessaloniki.
I would have welcomed such a book years ago – when I lived in Thessaloniki, or Salonica, as it was called under the Ottomans, and worked at Anatolia College as a Teaching Fellow between college and graduate school. This was in the mid-1960s. Thessaloniki was then a provincial Greek city – albeit the capital of Northern Greece – whose cosmopolitan past had all but disappeared into a concrete sea of indistinct apartment and office buildings with a strong Greek national identity.
As Mazower explains, a devastating fire in 1917 destroyed many of this city’s wooden buildings just five years after the city became part of Greece. This changed its architectural contours forever. Further
political, physical and sociological changes happened as time went on. Successive waves of refugees that had begun as a result of the Ottoman retreat from the Balkans, exchanges of Christian and Muslim populations in the 1920s and the devastating affects of the Nazi Holocaust’s “final solution” on the city’s Jews all happened in less than a century. This turned the population of a once peaceful, multi-ethnic Ottoman trading city on the Thermaic Gulf’s entrance to the Balkans into a backwater ruled by Athens and populated principally by Greek Orthodox Christians – including many struggling refugees from Asia Minor with no connection to the city’s past and nowhere near enough government or international aid to recuperate quickly from their devastating personal and material losses.
It’s not as if I was ignorant of major facets of Thessaloniki’s history before reading Mazower. Anyone
knows them who has lived there, talked to its residents, taught its children and walked the city streets - map in hand searching for its past. But Mazower puts much of the city’s history together like assembling a jig-saw puzzle. He helped make sense of parts of a past that I had only wondered about previously.
History of Salonica’s Sephardim
I think Mazower’s history of Salonica’s Sephardim is this book’s particular strength. A look at his references suggests that he relied heavily – although not exclusively- on Jewish accounts. There is no doubt that this now almost vanished population contributed tremendously to the vibrancy and wealth of the city for more than four centuries. These Spanish-Jews who moved from Spain to Ottoman-controlled Salonica on the invitation of the Sultan to escape the Catholic Inquisition in the early 1500s became the city’s largest single ethno-religious group until the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust destroyed most of them in 1943. Mazower explains how this happened in eloquent terms.
This was a Ladino-speaking population (why Mazower or his editor insists upon using the awkward term Spanish-Jewish throughout is beyond me especially since he otherwise liberally sprinkles the text with Turkish, Greek and Ladino words) and the largest and most influential in the Ottoman Empire.
Yet an “enforced Greekness” through education for the school age Jewish population in the Greek language after the Greek military conquest of the city in 1912 helped save more than a few Salonica Sephardim from Auschwitz. Why? Because the younger generation of Thessaloniki Jews, unlike their Ladino speaking elders, also spoke native Greek and with the help often of Christian friends fled south, abroad or melted into the underground.
One can only wonder why part of Spain’s Sephardim chose to live openly as Jews or as converts to Islam under a tolerant Muslim regime while others – in the guise of “New Christians” – immigrated to Spain’s colonies in the New World where their descendants either lost the religion entirely as did a segment of Salonica’s Jews (Ma’min) who became Muslim or hid as “crypto-Jews” and are just now openly discussing their past.
Infectious winds of 19th century nationalism
Mazower, like a scholar of Ottoman history I spoke with earlier this summer, traces the decline and fall of
this once great empire not to economic or trade problems wrought by a tightening noose from a rising British imperial navy but to inability of this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, loosely-governed Empire to withstand the infectious winds of 19th century European nationalism. Yet, it is also clear that well before its demise, the Ottoman caliphate had seen far better days and that the inspired leadership of 16th century Sultan Suleyman had failed to transfer to successor generations.
Perhaps because Salonica was the most westernized Ottoman city and the idea of the nation-state as the building-block of a new Europe penetrated the Balkans before nationalism traveled eastward, Salonica became the seat of Ottoman reform. It played home to the Young Turk revolt in 1908 whose leaders’ goal was to modernize, or Europeanize the Empire and thus save it from itself. It was also the childhood home of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the military general who founded modern Turkey on the ashes of the religio-political Ottoman Empire after WWI. (His birthplace now houses the Turkish Consulate General.)
The Inescapable Macedonian Question
Mazower also sheds new light on the complex Macedonian question which has perplexed and divided Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians and even Albanians for more than a century. Prior to the Sultan’s decision to establish a Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870, the Christians of Macedonia had come under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Patriarch. Had the Ottomans allowed the Christians to settle their linguistic differences amongst themselves, Mazower implies, the intense rivalry over this territory might have been avoided or at least diminished in intensity. In fact, the continuing divide has been a running sore as recently as the 1990s after the new country of Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) was created from the southernmost province of the former Yugoslavia.
There are a couple of points, however, where I take issue with Mazower’s analysis. First, his characterization of EAM/ELAS as a “left-wing national resistance movement” underplays this World War II organization’s close relationship to the Greek Communist Party as well as its significance as a Communist Front. For the record: EAM was the front’s political arm and ELAS its military wing. As events that followed the Nazi retreat demonstrated – the KKE (Communist Party of Greece) pulled the strings and those strings were controlled by Moscow. If Mazower had read Peter Stavrakis’ Moscow and Greek Communism (1944-1949) published in 1989 or Dimitrios Kousoulas’ Revolution and Defeat: the Story of the Greek Communist Party (1965), he might not have been so hesitant to call a spade a spade, or in this case a Moscow manipulated Communist Front a Moscow manipulated Communist Front.
My second criticism of Salonica is Mazower’s omission of the impact of the city’s foreign schools on the education, indeed, westernization of Thessaloniki’s professional classes and their help in modernizing Macedonia’s agricultural sector. The schools I remember best are Anatolia College, the American Farm School and the French Lycee.
Anatolia (known popularly as “the American college”) was originally a protestant missionary school that had moved to Thessaloniki in 1924 from Eastern Turkey at the time of the post World War I population exchange and whose student body included - when I worked there - not only Orthodox Christians but also Jewish and Armenian children from all reaches of society and destined for – in some cases – high successful professional careers. This could have been overcome had Mazower interviewed former president William McGrew, current president Richard Jackson or long time Greek faculty or administrators and perhaps opened additional historical archives and personal stories to scrutiny.
For that matter I fail to understand why Mazower only mentioned the American Farm School in his passing reference to the kidnapping of the school’s entire class by the Communists during the Greek Civil War. Yet the Farm School turned generations of Greek peasants into farmers using modern agricultural techniques. And it has for years operated thanks largely to private American and U.S. government largesse. Then there’s the French Lycee which is, in a sense, Anatolia’s French-language equivalent. That Mazower also fails to mention the Armenian community which was transferred to Greece from Anatolian Turkey along with Greek Orthodox as part of the enforced post World War I population exchange of Christians for Muslims is another oversight that should not have occurred in this lengthy 440 page volume.
Despite the two shortcomings mentioned above, I have added Salonica to my collection of books on modern Greece. This readable book is a welcome addition and excellent English language resource that brings to light new facts and facets of long neglected Balkan, Greek, Turkish and Ottoman history.
Mark Mazower, Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Copyright 2004 by Mark Mazower.
Photos: 1) Thessaloniki's White Tower by Patricia H. Kushlis (1974); 2) Thessaloniki's waterfront with White Tower at end by Patricia H. Kushlis (1974); 3) Thessaloniki apartment buildings downtown (1966); 4) Thessaloniki's remaining minaret by Patricia H. Kushlis (1966); Other illustrations: Map of Greece and bookjacket (Knopf publishers).