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Book Review


Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430–1950. By Mark Mazower. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. ISBN: 0-375-41298-0

     When he first visited the northern Greek port city of Salonica twenty years ago, Mark Mazower encountered a modern, commercial metropolis crowded with drab apartment blocks. Yet he saw traces, often barely visible, of a much older city whose "hybrid spirit" was at once Byzantine, Jewish, and Ottoman. Shouldering a rucksack, he passed the Rotonda, originally a Roman structure that would be converted later into a mosque and now serves as a museum. He glimpsed the city's only surviving minaret as he made his way to Upper Town. The neighborhood's inhabitants all were Greek, but the small homes and gardens along the narrow, twisting lanes betrayed a Turkish past. Mazower's discerning eye detected in Salonica a palimpsest. The two thousand year old city's earlier incarnations had been deliberately scraped away, and only careful historical restoration, the ambition of Salonica: City of Ghosts, could bring them into sharp relief.

     Salonica's layered history is marked by periodic discontinuities that have cut off the city from its own past more than once. Long a center of Orthodox learning and monasticism, the Byzantine city fell to Sultan Murad II in 1430, inaugurating over five hundred years of Ottoman rule. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and violent conflict between Greece and a nascent Turkey led to forced population exchange in 1923 and to Hellenization of the city. The Sephardic Jewish community in Salonica, offered asylum by the Ottoman sultan after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, flourished until it was erased by German occupation and genocide in 1943. Today a Greek university hospital sits on what had been the Jewish cemetery, silencing even the dead.

     According to Mazower, professor of European history at Columbia University, standard histories of the region are highly selective, exclusive, and one-dimensional. The imagined Orthodox Christian city as "home of Saint Dimitrios," a third century Roman martyr, is empty of Jews; and the Sephardic city as "Mother of Israel" has no place in its narrative for Greeks. Muslims, not surprisingly, have been airbrushed from both versions. Mazower offers a clue to why the city has deliberately eradicated traces of its own past. Each community, he tentatively proposes, is now blinkered by its adherence to modern nationalism and entanglement in ethnic politics. Nowhere in these accounts do we see the cosmopolitan, polyglot city that thrived during the Ottoman centuries, an era when boot blacks would routinely speak five or six languages.

     A resourceful and creative historian, Mazower mines a deep vein of memoirs, newspapers, travel documents, statistics and archival sources to reveal a multi-confessional mosaic and "kaleidoscopic interaction" among Salonica's religious communities (11). While acknowledging Salonica's discontinuities, he sets out to tell the story of the city's Jews, Christians, and Muslims along the arc of a single sweeping narrative. By evoking voices of the collective actors in his absorbing chronicle, Mazower conjures Salonica's spirits and persuasively shows that a city can have a soul, however restless or hidden.

     Hellenistic in origin, Salonica derives its original name of Thessalonike from the daughter of Philip II of Macedon, also half-sister of Alexander and wife of dynast Cassander. Both the daughter and the city commemorated Cassander's Macedonian victory (nike) over Thessaly in northern Greece. The Greek-speaking city prospered under Roman imperial rule, was visited by St. Paul , and later became a bastion of Christian Orthodoxy. When the Byzantine city submitted to Ottoman rule, Sultan Murad II soon recognized its great economic potential. Perched at the edge of the northern Aegean Sea, poised between Europe and the Middle East, Salonica would long thrive as an Eastern Mediterranean center of Ottoman trade. Murad colonized the city, acquired a sheikh who acted as mufti, and directed pious charitable foundations (wakfs) to finance public services and building projects. As Salonica was transformed from a Byzantine into an Ottoman city, mosques outstripped churches and altered the city's skyline. Ottoman authorities changed the physiognomy of Salonica again when they exploited the Spanish enemy's anti-Jewish measures and invited these enterprising "people of the Book" to enrich the empire as well as themselves. Ottoman sultans belonged to the Hanafi school, the most tolerant and flexible in its attitudes toward non-Muslims. They married Greek and Serbian princesses, built new synagogues, and governed their multi-confessional city lightly so long as tax collectors were regularly paid.

     Mazower does not romanticize the mingling of ethnic and religious communities in Salonica. Greeks grew resentful at Jewish newcomers who by 1520 made up over half of the city's population and formed its economic elite. Real hostilities across religious divides could be seen in Jews mocking Christian worshippers during holy festivals, Orthodox burning effigies of Judas on Easter, and the Janissary who beat a Christian arms merchant to death as he shouted, "Why are you an unbeliever?" Christians were not permitted to ring church bells, a reminder that theirs was a lesser religion. Mazower reports that one group of Greeks appealed to the Ottoman authorities to stop their Jewish neighbors from emptying their rubbish into the churchyard. And, although it is true that Ottoman authorities were not interested in policing private beliefs, they did issue a dress code (e.g., colored turbans) that classified their subjects by religious affiliation.

     But Mazower is also quick to distinguish imperial regulations from the porous boundaries of everyday life. The fluidity of religious belief and practice can be seen in the experience of Jews expelled from Iberia. Although they retained the language of Ladino—Spanish with Hebrew orthography—as a conduit of culture, some became Marranos who converted to Catholicism while secretly practicing Judaism; others converted to Catholicism; and, among the latter, some were "ships with two rudders" who converted back to Judaism (67). Sabbatei Zevi, perhaps the most fascinating figure discussed in the book, was a 17th century rabbi who proclaimed himself the Messiah and declared his intention to topple the sultan and usher in the day of redemption. Rather than having him killed and turned into a martyr, Sultan Murad IV gave the rabbi a chance to convert, an offer he surprisingly accepted. Even more unexpected was the decision of many followers to join him after concluding that apostasy was a test of faith in their God. This community of converts to Islam, known as the Faithful (ma'mim), eventually lost any connection with their ancestral faith.

     Mazower adds that at the level of popular religious culture, a shared sense of the sacred united the city's diverse faiths. In "an atmosphere of overlapping devotion," Christian women visited Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mausoleums where they would collect earth from graves to guard against evil spirits; and Muslim children would have prayers read over them in church. Heterodox Sufi sects played a particularly important part in bridging religious divides (76). For example, the Bektashi order assimilated Christian practices including the use of bread and wine into their rituals. After all, as one observer remarked, "… all men [are] equal in the eyes of God" (79).

     The second section of Mazower's book, titled "Under Europe's Shadow," analyzes the European impact on the city as the Ottoman state faced growing challenges to its authority. Although the early Ottomans had built towers and sea walls to fortify the city against attack, threats to security and order arose mainly from within the empire. Rustic Albanians—known for such colorful salutations as "I'll fuck your mother," "Eat shit," and "I'll fart in your nose"—were recruited to serve in militias only to turn on their former masters (101). Waves of plague and high levels of street violence strained the resources and will of the Ottoman authorities who granted substantial power to local elites and religious officials. Through the 18th century, Salonica was a chaotic city, but a "chaos of vitality" nevertheless (113). The local governor, the landed elite, and prosperous Greek and Jewish bankers all vied for power as the city grew integrated into an international economy dominated by European powers far removed from the reach of the sultanate. With the introduction of railways to Salonica in the nineteenth century, European consuls, merchants, and tourists looking for the "picturesque" all poured into the city as exports poured out.

     The contours of Salonica changed, too, as the old walls were demolished and banks, hotels, and public spaces sprang up. New, fancy neighborhoods for the cosmopolitan elite reflected the deepening class divisions that cut across confessional communities. Throughout this period of rapid socio-economic change, the Ottoman state struggled to centralize its authority and modernize its institutions, first by massacring the Janissaries, the empire's standing army, in 1826 and then through a series of legal reforms (tanzimat), experiments in constitutionalism, entry into the Concert of Europe in 1856, and tentative, failed redefinition of Ottomanism (Ottomanlilik) as a secular state belonging to all of its citizens.

     According to Mazower, it was the rise of competing nationalisms in the late nineteenth century that finally broke apart Salonica's fragile synthesis and replaced cosmopolitanism with deep ethnic and religious fault lines. The 1821 Greek War of Independence from Turkey, fought mainly south in the Peloponnesus, led to brutal Turkish massacres of Greeks in Salonica. The city's Macedonian hinterland became the site of an ethnic struggle between rival Bulgarians and Greeks that split apart the Orthodox Christian community. The project of "neo-Hellenization," addressed in the final section of the book, began in earnest when the crumbling Ottoman Empire ceded Salonica, now renamed Thessaloniki, to Greece in 1912. The Greek government imposed the Greek language, which had been spoken by few of the city's residents, and changed street names. A devastating fire that destroyed the core of the city in 1917, including the historic quarters of the Jewish community, provided champions of Hellenism an excellent opportunity to raze mosques, minarets, and old Ottoman neighborhoods; they would eagerly replace them with broad, straight boulevards in the style of a French metropolis. The Muslim exodus continued after World War I and in 1923 the remnant of Salonica's Muslim population fled to Turkey. At the same time, Anatolian Christians, many of whom spoke only Turkish and would need years to perceive themselves as "Greek," settled in refugee camps and occupied abandoned homes of evicted Muslims.

     The cruelty of population exchange in pursuit of ethnic homogeneity had affected over one and half million lives. The Jewish population became marginalized and impoverished, living in a precarious state under their new Greek masters. Many Jews emigrated but most met their end in 1943 with deportation to Auschwitz where over ninety percent of Salonica's fifty thousand Jews were murdered. The few survivors who returned to Salonica after the war found that the city had been changed beyond recognition, most of its synagogues destroyed and their homes occupied by refugees. Mazower sympathetically relates this haunting experience of one survivor: "I was smoking cigarette after cigarette for fear the tears would come. A Greek Orthodox friend found me alone around midnight and said, 'I understand you, Jacques. You don't really know any more where to go in Salonica, the city where you once knew every stone.' And that's how it was" (428).

     Even the central actors can be located in the tragic story of Salonica as a place of origins and exile. When the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) launched its Young Turk revolution against the Ottoman government in 1908, the deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid II was sent packing and arrived by train at Salonica where he became a peculiar tourist attraction. Salonica is also the childhood home of Mustafa Kemal, the architect and leader of the new Turkish nation built on the ashes of Abdul Hamid's Ottoman Empire. After Kemal's new Turkish army had defeated the Greeks in Anatolia and orchestrated a forced movement of population without precedent, "By 1930, only a small proportion of Salonica's inhabitants could remember the city as it had existed in the days of Abdul Hamid" (310).

     The story of scraping away Salonica's past wouldn't be complete without mentioning the Greek nation-state's strategy of inventing a new past as a source of Hellenic pride. Greek archaeologists in the early twentieth century excavated Salonica for its Byzantine monuments as if they had set out to "re-baptize" the city out of nostalgia for the lost lands of Christian orthodoxy (431). Mazower conveys an important and timely lesson when he cautions, "But…recovering the memory of one past meant forgetting or even destroying another. The centuries of Ottoman rule were written off as a long historical parenthesis, a nightmare of oppression and stagnation. Any surviving remains associated with them not only lacked historical value but potentially threatened the new image the city was creating for itself" (433). No wonder that the young Mazower never saw a Jewish grave or skyline punctuated with minarets. Twenty years later the mature scholar has reclaimed Salonica's multifarious history and brilliantly illuminated a vibrant Ottoman city that once belonged to its multiple communities. In his closing comment, Mazower implies that perhaps we, too, should be less greedy when we look at our own history: "They all claimed the city for themselves. Yet is it not said: where God is, there is everything" (440). Salonica: City of Ghosts is as wise as it is compelling.

Steven Goldberg teaches history and philosophy at Oak Park and River Forest High School. He can be contacted at


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