Salonica: City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

TitleSalonica: City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialMazower, Mark


PublisherLondon: HarperCollinsPublishers
ISSNISBN 0 00 712022 2
Review year


Full Text

Mark Mazower traveled to Salonica for the first time shortly before beginning his meticulous research on what resulted in Salonica: City of Ghosts, and more than two decades prior to the publication of this fascinating historical narrative. He claims to have experienced a different Greece “less in thrall to an ancient past, more intimately linked to neighbouring peoples, languages and cultures” (p.1). He discovered a city whose history reached forward from classical antiquity uninterruptedly,[1] while at the same time being marked by “sharp discontinuities and breaks,” a city where the Ottoman past was still a matter of living memory (the Greek army entered in 1912), though admittedly only few of the Ottoman monuments survived the catastrophes and nationalization of the 20th century (p.5).
Mazower began to ask himself whether the powerful sense of continuity he at first felt was any more than illusory, and posed the general question of what the near total physical eradication of five hundred years of history did to this city’s consciousness of itself (pp.5-6).[2] Reading various histories of the city, he found a strangely limited focus on single groups whose stories seemed to pass each other by (p.9).[3] Thus, he came to understand his real challenge as seeing “the experiences of Christians, Jews and Muslims within the terms of a single encompassing historical narrative,” something that has last been tried nearly a century ago, when Salonican boot-blacks still commanded a working knowledge of six or seven languages – whereas by 1950 95% of the population was Greek, by any way of counting (p.10).
The three parts of Salonica: City of Ghosts are titled The Rose of Sultan Murad, covering the emergence and history of the Ottoman city up to the 19th century, In the Shadow of Europe, ending with the Young Turk revolution of 1908, and the last brief attempt at intercommunal coexistence, and Making the City Greek, beginning with the Balkan Wars and the Greek conquest of the city in 1912 and narrating the waves of catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century. Each three large sections of the book consist of chronologically ordered thematic chapters that seamlessly combine the intriguing larger stories and the small curious details with in-depth analyses and clear argumentation. Importantly, in the later parts of it on the modern period, Mazower links, as he has done in his other writings as well, the spread of the immense destructive force of nationalism in the Balkans to the power of Western ideas and the various intrusions of Europeans, “for bringing the values of Europe to Salonica turned out to mean bringing its divisions too” (p.252).[4]
Mazower’s historical account, after devoting some pages to the prehistory, begins in earnest with the second, permanent Ottoman conquest of Salonica in 1430, at a time when the city was in decline and had no more than 10,000 inhabitants. By refusing to surrender peacefully, Salonica also exposed itself to enslavement and plunder. On the other hand, having imposing fortifications and exceptional commercial possibilities, its potential to become a crucial urban center was never in serious doubt. After 1430, when the city could profit from a single power controlling its entire region for the first time in centuries, the new arrivals were chiefly Muslims, and the demands of Ottoman power and the Islamic faith were slowly changing the physiognomy of the city – without any intention to wipe out Christianity from the city, but rather having what was, in Mazower’s words, “within its own self-imposed limits, an inclusive attitude” (p.40, p.33, p.67). Notably, Muslims were living side by side with Christians in the city, except in the Upper Town, which they dominated. Perhaps more surprisingly, Muslims never came to dominate Salonica numerically, and in fact by 1530 they comprised no more than 25% of the population (p.35).
This was largely due to the arrival of Spanish-speaking Jews “in droves” after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula (p.45). This third and in the eyes of many surprisingly confident element constituted over half of the population already in the first half of the 16th century, when the city’s population rose to 30,000 (p.65). They had communal autonomy without being hierarchically subordinated in the strict sense, and a highly decentralized, almost anarchic system (p.57, p.60). Moreover, a division of labor developed between them and Muslims, fulfilling the economic and administrative functions respectively (p.54). Mazower believes that the exceptional tax contributions of Salonica, owing to its revitalization by large numbers of Jews and Marranos, provided much of the economic sinew for the sultans’ impressive military triumphs at this time (p.65).[5] Another effect of these developments was the marginalization of the Greek Orthodox Christians (some of whom were Slavic or Vlach-speaking). In short, Ottoman Salonica was ruled by Muslims and dominated by Jews in an overwhelmingly Christian hinterland (p.79).[6]
Already by the 16th century, the city’s exceptionally trained rabbis made Salonica a center of learning throughout the eastern Mediterranean (p.63), while it also became a renowned center of Kabbalah and a place where Sabbatai Zevi could cause great frenzy (p.70). Not only was Salonica at the intersection of many different creeds with an extensive sacred geography, it hosted one of the most extraordinary products of interreligious history, the Ma’min, who followed Zevi into Islam, creating an extraordinary blending of influences (see for example the architectural mix of elements that comprise the Yeni Djami), gradually developing a mystical Islam with Judaic components and constituting a wholly exceptional, ten-thousand-strong community of Judeo-Spanish-speaking Muslims in 1900 (pp.75-76). Illustrative of the complex and unusual history of Salonica is Mazower’s claim that “By a strange twist of fate it was thus the Muslim followers of a Jewish messiah who helped turn late nineteenth-century Salonica into the most liberal, progressive and revolutionary city in the empire” (p.77).
Though Salonica proved a rather chaotic city in the 18th century, this was a “chaos of vitality” in the eyes of Mazower, a time during which the Greeks, after nearly three centuries on the margins, reasserted themselves and became an unrivalled force in commerce (p.128). On the other hand, the Greek Uprising of 1821 had catastrophic consequences, since it resulted in the worst massacre in the city’s history in which “perhaps as many as several thousand Christians” were killed (p.136). Shortly afterwards, in 1826, the disbanding of the Janissaries followed and the hard work of administrative reform could commence, aiming to centralize military, judicial and fiscal authority. At this time in Salonica, the central government might have made proposals, but three local power centers predominated, namely the governor, the local landed elite, and the private bankers and money-lenders (who were only slowly replaced by the power of international capitalism). Arbitrariness due to temperament was still common, and hierarchy and informality were blended in multiple ways (pp.143-5). In other words, the mid-19th century Ottoman state might still have suffered more from chronic weakness than excessive despotism (f.e. the Porte still had to decide whether it trusted its own officials at this time when the number of imperial bureaucrats skyrocketed, rising from 1,000 to 100,000 in a century) (p.146).
Due to religious reforms aiming at the equality of religious communities and the new creed of Ottomanism, the position of Christians was unmistakably improving, and the chief rabbi also acquired extraordinary powers among the Jews. Ironically, the consequence of these reforms was that non-Muslim communities seemed to become more rather than less self-contained (p.253). While the Ottoman Empire was recognized as part of the European system for the first time in 1856, in Salonica contacts with Europe expanded in multiple ways too, transfiguring the city’s appearance,[7] it got connected to multiple places by railways,[8] and quadrupled its imports between 1870 and 1912 (pp.228-230). In the late 19th century, power in the city was shifting from the old elites to the new commercial class (in coalition with the autocratic central state) and politics started to demand total participation, with education becoming the key battleground between communities.
Years of often bloody fighting created the sense of national groups,[9] with highly significant divisions and animosity among Orthodox Christians as well (that has by no means disappeared in the meantime, as events of the 1990s were to show).[10] The Young Turk revolution of 1908 proclaimed a return to the official ideology of 19th century reform one last time and pushed it to its limits, aiming to make the state belong to all its citizens. Ottomanism seemed attractive for a time, especially for Muslims and Jews, for whom a national solution offered no sure future, but it collapsed within two years.
By the time of the Balkan wars of 1912-13 the real struggle for the possession of the city took place between Greeks and Bulgarians. The former managed to get international recognition for their fait accompli, even though several alternative plans were cherished at the time. Moreover, as a consequence of the Balkan war of 1913 Salonica’s Bulgarian community largely disappeared (p.298). While a new ruling class of Greek policemen, gendarmes, judges and lawyers were brought to Salonica, the census put the population at 157,889 with 61,438 Jews and 45,867 ‘Ottomans’ among them, and Christians still in a clear numerical minority (p.303). In 1916, the pro-Entente republicans led by Venizelos formed their provisional government in Salonica, splitting Greece into two by the end of 1916, and getting international recognition in 1917. With several hundred thousand soldiers camping in and around Salonica, the city’s population more than doubled in just over a year and ranks, tongues and races intermingled in a bewildering fashion (pp.311-314). 1917 was a year of almost incomprehensible damage: three-quarters of the old city, incidentally the essence of the Ottoman town and its Jewish core, got destroyed in the great fire, with over 70,000 people losing their homes.
The modernizers’ vision of planned urbanity fundamentally changed the historic heart of the city, space as such being newly identified on the basis of use and function. Modernity and civilization were the goals, but ethnic engineering proved not to be incompatible with them, even if the city continued to separate along class rather than ethnic lines in the inter-war period – a trend that began in the 1890s (pp.326-7). At this time, every aspect of ethnic cleansing was the responsibility of the state. Internationally sanctioned, compulsory population exchange affecting the lives of over 1.5 million people (the first of its kind in history) included the expulsion of 30,000 Muslims from Salonica, which meant the real end to the Ottoman city, and the arrival of nearly 100,000 Christians, who exerted considerable pressure and often contributed to the “spiral of nationalist violence.” Ethnic in this case was defined on the basis of religious criterion, and so Mazower convincingly argues that it was not so much that a nation was brought together, but rather its component parts were assembled out of which a nation could emerge (p.360).
These changes meant that by 1928 75% of Salonica’s population was Greek, with refugees making up 1/3 of the population. A ‘second’ city has grown up encircling the old one, and where more than half of the population lived already in 1932. Moreover, the city almost immediately decided to demolish its minarets (twenty-six were demolished in 1925). What had begun in 1912 was completed in little over a decade: Salonica became a new city without Muslims, organized on new principles and with a new population (p.331). Ironically enough, “under the pressure of refugee nostalgia – a nostalgia for another faraway Ottoman past – the signposts of Ottoman Salonica were being discarded” (p.370).
While the organs of the state assumed primary responsibility for the enforcement of social norms (p.400),[11] the city experienced widespread proletarianization and political unrest with a strong local interethnic labor movement (in which Greeks remained underrepresented though). While the misery in Salonica under German occupation during the Second World War was terrible, with 5000 people starving, and problems were clearly made worse by the arrival of many more refugees, the fate that befell the Jewish community remains beyond compare. Their deportations began five weeks upon the arrival of Wisliceny and Brunner alongside one hundred German police in early February 1943. Less than 5% of them survived: 45,000 were killed in Auschwitz, while neither the Government, nor the professional associations and organization were determined to oppose the German orders. Perhaps the best way to assess the latter´s behavior is to claim that they had not sought the deportations, but had not opposed it either, as Mazower states on p.457. The deportations were accompanied and followed by extraordinary stories of greed, coercion, and fraud, not to mention the fact that buildings left behind by deported Jews rewarded local collaborators while arguments about restitution intensified anti-Jewish feelings (pp.445-455).
In his conclusion, Mazower convincingly links the story of the living to the story of the dead, writing that “over many centuries the power of the dead remained an ecumenical one […] But as the empire fell apart and nation-states came into being, something changed in people’s minds. The age of mass migrations began, waves of refugees came and went, and the dead who stayed behind suddenly became just another target for the living whose political passions and enmities brought them humiliation, desecration and eviction” (p.465). In Salonica, feeling at home meant turning the city into an entirely new one, recovering the memory of one past amounted to the forgetting or even destroying of another when the centuries of Ottoman rule were written of as a long historical parenthesis – only in the 1980s did state funds begin to be assigned to Ottoman monuments. Curiously though perhaps not surprisingly, the myth of eternal Hellenism flattened out the history of Greeks as well.
Until now only few, highly sophisticated and empirically solid attempts to understand the similarities as well as the differences between countries and their histories of the East Central European region have been made that would avoid reproducing stereotypes of both national and regional collectivisms. Similarly, only a small number of quality and mainstream historical scholarly works have appeared that move the level of analysis beyond (or below) the entire region and/or the national. In this context of various nationalist and regionalist essentialisms, the study of urban history with its focus on specific localities can, on the one hand, allow a proper rendering of the incredible rich variety of the pasts of these territories stretching from the Baltic to Turkey that had the densest variety of people living together in the world and, on the other, an escape from the at times enormous restrictions imposed by national histories – though admittedly without tackling the core of the national canons. In this situation, attempts to shift the focus and recover through city histories what seems to have been lost, urban spaces and the special quality of urbanity are at times seen as sort of counterconcepts to the national, not always without idealistic connotations – in this discourse they can imply diversity versus homogeneity, creativity versus sterility and provincialism, open-minded tolerance versus aggressive narrow-mindedness, etc..
Mazower´s work strikes an impressive balance between fulfilling his explicit aim of recovering Salonica´s multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual past in its complexity and unusual richness, while also avoiding the traps of idealizations and nostalgia as well as both Occidentalist normative visions and the beliefs in Oriental exceptionalisms. In sum, Salonica: City of Ghosts is an immensely rich and comprehensively researched portrait of the history of a fascinating city and the work of a historian able to combine the skills of a meticulous and judicious researcher with that of an excellent writer who has both verve and analytical depth. In Mazower´s version of writing history, detailed and precisely told stories occupy most of the pages, while polemical arguments and insightful comments are merged seamlessly into his masterful narrative.

[1] Salonica was the creation of the fourth-century BC Macedonian state, being on an accessible land route marking the point where mountains, rivers and sea met, and it later became a bastion of Byzantium and its cultural synthesis of Greek, Roman and Christian traditions.

[2] Mazower writes that “The history of nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendezvous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past, especially for a city like Salonica.” Moreover, he calls the inhabitants’ story “a saga of turbulence, upheaval, abandonment and recovery in which chance, not destiny, played the greater role” (p.474).

[3] It is a remarkable fact that memoirs tend to paint very different, much richer and fuller pictures than scholarly and official accounts.

[4] Moreover, Mazower devotes a separate chapter to “Travellers and the European Imagination,” discussing the aesthetic construction of the East, showing how much the concrete realities and economic possibilities were irrelevant for European writers. In other words, how far they screened out modernity and focused on what they came to see, and how far by the 1870s “the city had escaped even the loose moorings of picturesque romanticism to become nothing more than a foil for human subjectivity itself, a stage-set of imaginative possibilities” (p.200). The obsession with the city’s Oriental nature came to be concentrated in the Western fantasy of the conquest of the feminine East (p.203). In the case of Salonica, the Western passion for the classical past was also of relevance, since there was also the perception that this city was representing antiquity, assuming that the real Salonica lay beneath the Ottoman surface. Mazower claims that this Western attitude was at the origins of neo-Hellenic modernization which was “also an assertion of neo-classicism” (p.221). 

[5] Though, as Mazower puts it, it would be wrong to imagine the Ottomans as modern capitalists aiming at unlimited growth in unrestricted markets. Their goal was the creation and maintenance of a basically closed system (that only gradually became linked to the wider, global economy) in order to keep towns alive, guarantee the domestic production of commodities and provision the military (pp.53-4). He also claims that the state was run in strictly regimented ways where taxes and production was concerned, but in other areas, such as law, it remained almost uninvolved and only sporadically prescriptive (p.62). For instance, even when the need to fight the recurrent plague epidemics was concerned, there was no overall government response, but rather the limited resources and ambitions of the state were revealed (p.118). A curious element of this system were the janissaries whom the poorer inhabitants often needed to defend them from great landowners and civil servants, but who made “unconvincing Robin Hoods.” In the 18th century they inflicted unrestrained and often arbitrary violence on the inhabitants, which made Mazower title one of his chapters “Janissaries and Other Plagues” (pp.102-104).

[6] One needs to add that barriers between religious groups were lower than is often assumed and a submerged popular religion united many of their members, so thinking in clear-cut categories of Muslims, Jews and Christians divided on all levels would certainly not be appropriate.

[7] The urban map was being redrawn in the interests of regularity, accessibility and predictability, as Mazower apply puts it on p.241. He remarks that ironically the new names (linking to city to the country to which it belonged, and not to local memory) stapled on the city proved less durable, and thus they proved to be of little ‘added value.’

[8] Another irony of history was that the arrival of the first train from Paris was greeted by 30,000 enthusiasts, but the rail soon turned into a quintessential factor in the huge forced movements of entire peoples…

[9] Though the question what Turkish meant in the Balkans is an extremely complicated issue. If it simply referred to Muslims, then “there were Albanians, Cretan, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Jewish and other Muslims in addition to a scattering of Sudanese slaves, Egyptian market gardeners and the long-established peasant descendents of nomadic Turcoman tribes” (p.281).

[10] In 1912 there were no more than 6,000 Bulgarians in Salonica who have joined the Exarchate. In 1904, the Patriarchists had 648,962 members in the whole of Macedonia versus 557,734 Exarchists, though the linguistic balance was clearly in favor of the Bulgarians (896,496 versus 307,000 Greeks with around 100,000 Vlachs as well as Serbs).

[11] As Mazower remarks, by the mid-1950s “even prostitution had been Hellenized” (p.392).