Eric's Reviews > Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

Salonica, City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower
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's review
Aug 02, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Read in July, 2009

The history of this city contains so many of the Big Human Themes. Exile, nostalgia. The course of empire. The maintenance of collective memory. The ways in which religions in close contact melt into each other. Nationalism vs. the Cosmopolis. The limits of tolerance, and the fated vulnerability of coastal, syncretic cities (I’m thinking of St. Petersburg and New Orleans, too). And most infuriatingly, the ludicrous imposture of the scoundrels who believe in tribal purity and uncomplicated cultural continuity. Mazower calls Salonica a “city of ghosts” because the postwar, self-consciously Greek city of high rises sits on the site of other Salonicas, the Ottoman and Jewish Salonicas that aren’t even touristically visible in attenuated but picturesquely restored quarters—these other Salonicas have vanished, either by natural disaster (a fire in 1917 destroyed 75% of the old Jewish neighborhoods in the city center) or by the deliberate dynamiting of mosques and the bulldozing—done with the Nazi’s approval but not at their insistence—of the one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe (it was 35 times larger than that of Prague’s).

Salonica was also nicknamed “City of Refugees,” which could just as easily have been Mazower’s subtitle. Not only was the city a refuge, over many centuries, for millions of the displaced, huge portions of its citizens were driven away, forced to become refugees. The first were the thousands of Byzantine Christians the Ottomans sold into slavery after the 1430 conquest. The city lay barren and depopulated until 1492, when Sephardic Jews expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in their own homogenizing nation-building project settled in the city. The Ottomans were concerned with taxation and practiced a hands-off kind of governance, the Christians were still a small minority, so Salonica thus became a predominantly Jewish city, and a vibrant center of their learning and commerce. Politically Ottoman, ethnographically Jewish, geographically Bulgarian is how one 19th century observer described it.

With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire the city’s Muslim population became the refugees. The Greek state, which had taken Salonica in the first Balkan War of 1912, and the now-Turkey, agreed in 1923 to exchange populations: the Greeks would send all the Muslims to Turkey, and Turkey would “repatriate” their Christians. Here is religious-tinged nationalism at its most farcical. The “Greeks” expelled from Turkey thought of themselves as “Eastern Christians”—they had no sense of themselves as Greeks, and didn’t usually speak Greek; they spoke Turkish, as one would expect of communities that had existed for centuries in Anatolia, Thrace, and around the Black Sea. The Muslims expelled from Salonica were in a similar position: they’d been rooted in the city and in the Macedonian and Bulgarian hinterlands for centuries, thought of themselves as Ottoman subjects, and did not understand—and when they did, scarcely approved of—the secularist Kemalist nation state of “Turkey.”

The refugees from Turkey now tipped the balance of power in the city, which hadn’t rebuilt after the 1917 fire and now had trouble housing and employing all the newcomers. This scarcity of resources affected the city’s Jews as well: after the Nazis deported 45,000 to Auschwitz, the new “Greeks” wasted no time expropriating Jewish property and destroying the Jewish cemetery, over which a new university was built (its administrators to this day refuse to erect some kind of acknowledgement). The few thousand Salonican Jews who survived to return found it impossible to get much back. In time, after a few generations, the refugees from Turkey assimilated to Greek culture (Mazower writes that there is some nationalist embarrasment at being of refugee stock--and with understandable reason, as the refugees were not Greeks), and the city is now what the nation-builders of early 20th century Greece had envisioned: an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greek” city, with its statue of Alexander the Great (he died before the city was founded), its Ottoman and Jewish pasts relegated to a hiccup between the imagined continuity of the Byzantine Empire and Modern Greece.

This is the spine of the book but there is much more, of course. Mazower gives a fascinating account of the functioning of the Ottoman Empire, its policies for the ruling of a polyglot, religiously diverse empire. I really enjoyed the picture of the golden age of Salonican Jewry, and of the community’s durably Hispanic character; the chapter on the Orientalisms that fueled European tourism and amateur archeology was excellent as well. There’s also great stuff on Levantine commerce, and its attendant nuisances, piracy on the seas and brigandage in the hills. Mazower knows his Great Powers diplomacy; he also knows urban planning, the psychology of charismatic false messiahs, Balkan cabaret music, and the intricacies of rabbinic controversy. I learned more about the rise of modern Greece and the two Balkan Wars than I had previously suspected. If Salonica was a crossroads of nations, then it follows that its history will embrace much of the world.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly What a fascinating, wonderful review. Thank you, I really am so excited to find a copy of this. I've read a bit about the Christian/Jewish/Muslim interaction in the middle ages, but that reading was based in Spain. This sounds so so interseting. Thanks again for putting this review up!


Eric I should emphasize how colorful and entertaining this is, as well. Mazower is a master marshaller of archival scraps. He really brings to life the texture of these vanished communities.


message 3: by Steve (last edited Jul 16, 2009 01:59PM) (new)

Steve A friend of mine at work read this a few years back, and I recall that he really liked it. I had forgotten all about it until I saw that Eric was reading it. Fortunately my library has it. Mazower wrote another book that looks interesting (and that I've also wondered about: Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century.


Eric That one looks good. I also want to check out his latest, Hitler's Empire: How The Nazis Ruled Europe


Arda H. Civelek Such a marvellous review you wrote!


Dimitri Anastasopoulos I wonder what you mean by the refugees were not "Greek." What were they?


Nazmul Hasan I sought the words, yet did not find them. This is why I love this book. Thank you.


message 8: by Amazia (new)

Amazia Ido For many years i was curious to learn the enchanting story of Salonica and fortunately i stumbled upon Mazower's book. He did a great job in peeling the historical layers and presenting the conflicts ana dilemmas of the warring sectors of the colourful and ever changing population.


message 9: by Thanasis (new)

Thanasis Gkioles Good review. Allow me one clarification, the Christians repatriated, actually spoke Greek, as most of the population in what is today western Turkey. Especially in Konstantinoupolis and Smirna, people would speak at least two langue, their "mother" language (Arab,Greek, Pontiac,,serbian,Armenian, etc) and Greek, as the Greek language was the common language in a multicultural empire, kind of like English today.


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