For months I saw Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts; Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 sitting on the shelf at the public library, almost daring me to take it. Since I’ve always had a passing interest in Ottoman history, numerous times I toyed with grabbing Mazower’s 2005 book during my many library visits. Finally one day I yielded to temptation and took it. After slowly working my way through it for months, (and getting frequently distracted by countless other books along the way), at long last I finished it. And I must say, I liked it.
Mazower, a British historian currently teaching at Columbia University in New York, has written an insanely well-researched and comprehensive history of the Balkan coastal city. Covering over 500 years, Salonica starts with the city as the jewel of the Byzantine empire only to be conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Murad II in 1430. For over 400 years the city was home to a diverse and vibrant community of Orthodox Greeks, Muslims of varying stripe, (including a significant community of Ma’mins- followers of Sabbetai Zevi, a medieval-era Jewish messianic figure who converted to Islam when faced with execution), and a large population of Spanish-speaking Jews originally from the Iberian peninsula. Over the centuries this would be leavened with communities of Austrians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, French and Albanians, (one such Albanian was Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who was born in Salonica).
As the world, or more specifically as Europe changed, so would Salonica. With the coming of the 19th century, the same forces revolutionizing Europe would also remake Salonica. Technological advances such as the telegraph, railroad and steamship would connect the city to a wider world of modernizing and secularizing ideas, but perhaps more importantly would allow the non-Ottoman powers of England, France Austria and Russia to project their power and influence throughout the region, including Salonica. As as result, Ottoman control over the city would slowly begin to wane.
Eventually however, once modern concepts of the nation-state were combined with the above mentioned modern technology, the Ottomans would be driven from the European part of their empire. Retaking the city in 1912, after 500 years of Ottoman rule, the Greeks would add the city to their modern nation. Unfortunately, the city’s Muslim community would soon be gone, deported to Turkey in the early 1920s, as part of one of the world’s first large-scale population transfers. It would go down as one of 20th century’s least known human tragedies. (Incidentally, a great book which discusses Europe’s forgotten history of ethnic cleansing is Benjamin Lieberman’s Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe ).
Sadly, Salonica’s would experience one last horrific tragedy before the 20th century was half-finished. During the Second World War virtually all of the city’s Jewish population was forcibly interned and eventually transported to Auschwitz. A huge community which had preserved its distinct Iberian language and culture for over 400 years was wiped from the face of the earth. Even the old Jewish cemetery is now the campus of the national university.
Like I mentioned earlier, Mazower’s Salonica is insanely researched and heavy on detail. Fortunately, as detailed and expansive as it is, Salonica is not dry or laborious to read, (despite its author being a British academic !) The book won several awards and was well received by critics and readers alike. I’ve heard good things about Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe in the Twentieth Century and as a result I might have to give it a try in 2011.
Sometimes a good book just takes you a long time to read. Salonica is one of them.