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

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

by Mark Mazower

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Salonica, located in northern Greece, was long a fascinating crossroads metropolis of different religions and ethnicities, where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Sufi dervishes, and Albanian brigands all rubbed shoulders. Tensions sometimes flared, but tolerance largely prevailed until the twentieth century when the Greek army marched in, Muslims


Salonica, located in northern Greece, was long a fascinating crossroads metropolis of different religions and ethnicities, where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Sufi dervishes, and Albanian brigands all rubbed shoulders. Tensions sometimes flared, but tolerance largely prevailed until the twentieth century when the Greek army marched in, Muslims were forced out, and the Nazis deported and killed the Jews. As the acclaimed historian Mark Mazower follows the city’s inhabitants through plague, invasion, famine, and the disastrous twentieth century, he resurrects a fascinating and vanished world.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Situated on the Aegean where two mountain ranges meet, Salonica has a unique geographical location, which promoted the rich confluence of cultures that once characterized the city. Part travelogue, part history and part cultural study, this is a splendid tour of the fortunes and misfortunes of this Balkan city. Drawing on a wealth of archival documents, Mazower (The Balkans; Dark Continent) weaves a lavish tapestry illustrating the tangled history of Salonica, which began as a Hellenistic urban center in 315 B.C. and flourished through the Middle Ages as a Greek Orthodox city. In 1430, the Ottoman Empire commenced a rule that lasted until 1912. By the end of the 15th century, Salonica had a large influx of Jews who had fled persecution in Spain. Mazower eloquently points out that these "peoples of the Book" largely tolerated and learned from one another, even though rivalry sometimes erupted into street fights, civil wars and power struggles. A series of civil wars in the 19th century returned the city to the Greeks, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI turned Salonica into a European city. In addition, the impact of the work of 19th-century Christian missionaries, along with the Nazis' removal of Jews, left Salonica bereft of its rich religious pluralism and multiethnic heritage. Mazower's graceful, evocative prose, his deft attention to details and his empathetic presentation of all sides of the story add up to a magnificent tale of this unique city. 32 pages of illus., eight in color; 10 maps. Agent, Carlisle & Co. (Apr. 29) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Mazower (history, Columbia Univ.; Continent) has written a lively biography of the Greek port city founded by a general of Alexander the Great during the succession wars after his death and named Thessaloniki for one of Alexander's sisters. Thessaloniki prospered under the Romans and became the second city of the Byzantine Empire. Two brothers from Thessaloniki helped spread Orthodox Christianity to the Slavs using an alphabet of their invention. However, the period of its history that most interests Mazower is the Ottoman period, when the city was known as Salonica. The city flourished under the Ottomans largely because it became the primary haven for Spain's Jewish population after the expulsion of 1492; for several centuries, it was such an important center of Jewish intellectual life that it was called a new Jerusalem. It also continued to be a major port and favored entry point to the Balkans. World War I marked the beginning of change in Salonica, and World War II saw the destruction of the city's old Jewish population. Today, Salonica seems haunted by the ghosts of its past. Using sound scholarship, Mazower brings Thessaloniki's Ottoman era vividly to life. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Engrossing study of a city that three cultures, religions and peoples can call home. Mazower (History/Columbia Univ; Dark Continent, 1998, etc.) begins his history of Salonica-Thessaloniki in Greek-in antiquity, but quickly leaps forward to 1430, when the Byzantine city came under Ottoman rule. There it remained until 1912, when it reverted to Greek control-control that temporarily gave way to the Nazis during WWII. What makes the city's history so distinctive and riveting is its religious diversity. Christianity came first: Energized around the third-century martyr Dimitrios, Salonica developed into a robust center of eastern Orthodoxy. The Ottoman Empire brought Islam and the replacement of churches with mosques. Beginning in medieval times, the city also contained a large, Ladino-speaking Jewish population, comprised of exiles who made their way there after being expelled from western European countries. Salonica became a center of Jewish mysticism and, in the 17th century, of messianic fervor. The Jewish community's lively history might be seen as the heart of the text, while the story of the Jews' extermination at the hands of the Nazis gives the narrative its moral depth. Alternating currents of religious coexistence and bloodshed make this a history whose contemporary relevance is too clear. But Mazower's richly textured work does much more than offer a few object lessons for today. Based on solid archival research, it intertwines the city's political history with glimpses of its daily life, including the appearance of European carpets, sideboards and marble-topped tables in middle-class houses of fin-de-siecle Salonica and the emergence of a modern press. The only minor flaw hereis the introduction, in which Mazower regales readers with the tale of the book's two-decade gestation, when what he should be providing is a simple, concise overview of Salonica's story. History on a grand scale, with themes to match.
From the Publisher
“Remarkable. . . . Mazower reconstructs a society of dazzling ethnic complexity and exoticism . . . .a thriving port and a crossroads between Europe and Asia.” —The New York Times

“An exhaustive, affectionate biography of the city, a deeply researched account that becomes a portrait of the singular, vanished cosmopolitanism of the Ottoman Empire.” —The Baltimore Sun

“A masterpiece. . . . A masterly synthesis of cultural, political, economic, intellectual, and social history. . . . A book to bring one to tears.” —The Boston Globe

“A history of a fascinating, turbulent city by one of the most distinguished historians of his generationÉMazower has provided a brilliant guide to Salonica’s rich past.”—The New York Review of Books

“Timely, magnificent and sometimes unbearably poignant . . . Brings alive a lost world, one with much to teach contemporary Europe about the nature of identity and nationality.”—The Nation

“[A] tremendous book about a city unique not just in Europe, but in the entire history of humanity. . .What [Mazower] does to perfection is to express the historical meaning of Salonica down the generations, authenticating his story with a multitude of contemporary quotations, from the 15th to the 20th century, and scrupulously explaining it all out of his profound scholarly knowledge. ”—Jan Morris, The Guardian

"Mark Mazower's new book is a necessary masterpiece; necessary because it fills a gap, and a masterpiece because it fills that gap so well. It is written in bite-sized pieces that make the book a pleasure to read, and, since one cannot resist reading the next section, curiously moreish. It sustained me recently during a long trip to the US, continually delivering small pleasures whenever I had a moment in hand."-—Louis de Bernieres, Times of London

"Enthralling new history . . . In a brilliant chapter on popular culture in the interwar years, Mazower shows how the development of a modern urban culture -- in dance, music, art, literature and, most importantly, sex -- began to turn a city of exiles and refugees into a place that could be called home. . . Tragic, hopeful and beautifully written, Salonica, City of Ghosts shows how cities, as much as people, can be seduced by the prospect of escaping their own past and remaking themselves in ways unrecognizable to old friends." —Charles King, Times Literary Supplement

"[Mazower] sensitively analyses the internal debates and divisions which could be found within all the major communities." —Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

"Masterly . . . draws on many new sources: the diary of a Ukraninian refugee in the 1720s; consuls' despatches; the files of the Jewish Museum of Greece. This is a brilliant and timely reminder that cities have played as important a role as states in the lives of their inhabitants."—Philip Mansel, The Spectator

"A brilliant reconstruction of one of Europe's great meeting places between the three monotheistic faiths."—The Economist

"Mazower is a formidable historian. Two of his earlier books, Inside Hitler's Greece and The Balkans: A Short History, rank as definitive works. He has produced a majestic work: the biography of a city, complete with soul and ichor."—Moris Farhi, The Independent

"Salonica, City of Ghosts
, is a wonderful evocation of the complex, glorious and tragic history of a city, with lessons both positive and negative for our present age. The author, as always, writes with compelling clarity and penetrating eye for detail. If the past is another country, the author allows us to travel there." —Anthony Daniels, "Books of the Year," Sunday Telegraph

"This exploration into the soul of a Balkan ciy is both evocative and profound, a masterful addition to Mazower's work." —Jad Adams, BBC History (Salonica was their book of the month for October.)

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Read an Excerpt

Conquest, 1430

Before the city fell in 1430, it had already enjoyed seventeen hundred years of life as a Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine metropolis. Sometimes it had flourished, at others it was sacked and looted. Foreigners had seized it and moved on. Throughout it remained a city whose inhabitants spoke Greek. But of this Greek past, only traces survived the Ottoman conquest. A few Christian survivors returned and saw their great churches turned into mosques. The Hippodrome, forum and imperial palace fell into ruins which gradually disintegrated and slipped beneath the slowly rising topsoil, leaving an invisible substratum of catacombs, crypts and secret passages. In a very different era, far in the future, archaeologists would assign new values to the statues, columns and sarcophagi they found, and new rulers—after the Ottomans had been defeated in their turn—would use them to reshape and redefine the city once more. One thing, however, always survived as a reminder of its Greek origins, however badly it was battered and butchered by time and strangers, and that was its name.

Salonicco, Selanik, Solun? Salonicha or Salonique? There are at least thirteen medieval variants alone; the city is an indexer’s nightmare and a linguist’s delight. “Is there really a correct pronunciation of Salonika?” wrote an English ex-serviceman in 1941. “At any rate nearly all of us now spell it with a ‘k.’ ” His presumption stirred up a hornet’s nest. “Why Saloneeka, when every man in the last war knew it as Salonika?” responded a certain Mr. Pole from Totteridge. “I disagree with W. Pole,” wrote Captain Vance from Edgware, Middlesex. “Every man in the last war did not know it as Salonika.” Mr. Wilks of Newbury tried to calm matters by helpfully pointing out that in 1937 “by Greek royal decree, Salonika reverted to Thessaloniki.” In fact it had been officially known by the Greek form since the Ottomans were defeated in 1912.1

It is only foreigners who make things difficult for themselves, for the Greek etymology is perfectly straightforward. The daughter of a local ruler, Philip of Macedon, was called Thessaloniki, and the city was named after her: both daughter and city commemorated the triumph (niki) of her father over the people of Thessaly as he extended Macedonian power throughout Greece. Later of course, his son, Alexander, conquered much more distant lands which took him to the limits of the known world. There were prehistoric settlements in the area, but the city itself is a creation of the fourth-century BC Macedonian state.

Today the association between the city and the dynasty is as close as it has ever been. If one walks from the White Tower along the wide seafront promenade which winds southeast along the bay, one quickly encounters a huge statue of Megas Alexandros—Alexander the Great. Mounted on horseback, sword in hand, he looks down along the five-lane highway (also named after him) out of town, towards the airport, the beaches and the weekend resorts of the Chalkidiki peninsula. The statue rises heroically above the acrobatic skateboarders skimming around the pedestal, the toddlers, the stray dogs and the partygoers queuing up for the brightly lit floating discos and bars which now circumnavigate the bay by night. It is a magnet for the hundreds who stroll here in the summer evenings, escaping the stuffy backstreets for the refreshment of the sea breeze as the sun dips behind the mountains.

But in 1992, after the collapse of Yugoslavia led the neighbouring republic of Macedonia to declare its independence, Alexander’s Greek defenders took to the streets in a very different mood. Flags proliferated in shop-windows, and car stickers and airport banners proclaimed that “Macedonia has been, and will always be, Greek.” Greeks and Slavs did battle over the legacy of the Macedonian kings, and Salonica was the centre of the agitation. In the main square, hundreds of thousands of angry protestors were urged on by their Metropolitan, Panayiotatos (His Most Holy) Panteleimon (known to some journalists as His Wildness [Panagriotatos] for the extremism of his language). The twentieth century was ending as it had begun, with an argument over Macedonia, and names themselves had become a political issue in a way which few outside Greece understood.

The irony was that Alexander himself never knew the city named after his half-sister, for it was founded during the succession struggle precipitated by his death. He had a general called Cassander, who was married to Thessaloniki. Cassander hoped to succeed to the Macedonian throne and having murdered Alexander’s mother to get there, he founded a number of cities to re-establish his credentials as a statesman. The one he immodestly named after himself has vanished from the pages of history. But that given his wife’s name in 315 BC came to join Alexandria itself in the network of new Mediterranean ports that would link the Greek world with the trading routes to Asia, India and Africa.

As events would prove, Cassander chose his spot well. Built on the slope running down to the sea from the hills in the shadow of Mount Hortiatis, the city gave its inhabitants an easy and comforting sense of orientation: from earliest times, they could see the Gulf before them with Mount Olympos across the bay in the distance, the forested hills and mountains rising behind them, the well-rivered plains stretching away to the west. Less arid than Athens, less hemmed in than Trieste, the new city blended with its surroundings, marking the point where mountains, rivers and sea met. It guarded the most accessible land route from the Mediterranean up into the Balkans and central Europe, down which came Slavs (in the sixth century), and Germans (in 1941) while traders and NATO convoys (on their way into Kosovo in 1999) went in the other direction. Its crucial position between East and West was also later exploited by the Romans, whose seven-hundred-kilometre lifeline between Italy and Anatolia, the Via Egnatia, it straddled.

Poised between Europe and Asia, the Mediterranean and the Balkans, the interface of two climatic zones brings Salonica highly changeable air pressure throughout the year. Driving winter rains and fogs subdue the spirits, and helped inspire a generation of melancholic modernists in the 1930s. The vicious north wind which blows for days down the Vardar valley has done more damage to the city over the centuries than humans ever managed, whipping up fires and turning them into catastrophes. A bad year can also bring heavy falls of snow, even the occasional ice in the Gulf: freezing temperatures in February 1770 left “many poor lying in the streets dead of cold”; in the 1960s, snowdrifts blocked all traffic between the Upper Town and the streets below. Yet the city also enjoys Mediterranean summers—with relatively little wind, little rain and high daytime temperatures, only slightly softened by the afternoon breeze off the bay.2

This combination of winter rains and summer sunshine makes for intensive cultivation. Apricots, chestnuts and mulberries grow well here, as do grains, potatoes, cucumbers and melons. Fringed now by the Athens motorway, vegetable gardens still flourish in the alluvial plains—“our California,” a farmer once happily told me. “There is excellent shooting in the neighbourhood,” noted John Murray’s Handbook in 1854, “including pheasants, woodcocks, wildfowl etc.” Cutting wide loops through the fields the Vardar river to the west runs low in summer, sinuous and fast in the winter months, too powerful to be easily navigable, debouching finally into the miles of thick reedy insect-plagued marshes which line its mouth. All swamp and water, the Vardar plain in December reminded John Morritt at the end of the eighteenth century of nothing so much as “the dear country from Cambridge to Ely.” For hundreds of years it emanated “putrid fevers,” noxious exhalations and agues which drove horses mad, and manifested themselves—before the age of pesticide—in the “sallow cheeks and bloodless lips” of the city’s inhabitants.3

“From water comes everything” runs the inscription on an Ottoman fountain still preserved in the Upper Town. Fed by rivers and rains and moisture rising from the bay, water bathes the city and its surroundings in a hazy light quite different from that of parched Attica, softer, stranger and less harsh, shading the western mountains in grey, brown and violet. After days of cloudy and stormy weather, the Reverend Henry Fanshawe Tozer realized “what I had never felt before—the pleasure of pale colours.” Artesian wells are dug easily down to the water table which sits just below the surface of the earth, and there are plentiful springs in the nearby hills. Winter rains have etched beds deep into the soil on either side of the town, torrents so quick to flood that well into the nineteenth century they would carry away a horse and rider, or sluice out the poorly buried bones of the dead in the cemeteries beyond the walls.4

From earliest times, too, fresh water has been channelled through fountains, aqueducts and underground pipes, attracting the rich and the holy, plane trees, acacias and monasteries, wherever it bubbles to the surface. Archaeologists have traced the remains of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman mills which dotted the water-courses leading down into the city’s reservoirs. Until the 1930s, villagers on nearby Mount Hortiatis produced ice from water-bearing rocks in the thickly forested slopes above the town, kept it in small pits cut into the hillside and brought it down by donkey into the city each summer. With nearby salteries vital for preserving cod and meat, abundant fish in the bay, partridge, hare, rabbits and tortoises in the nearby plain, and oaks, beech and maple in the hills above, it is not surprising that the city flourished.


A Hellenistic dynasty gave Salonica birth but it was under the Romans that it prospered. Shrines to Macedonian and Roman rulers intermingled with temples to Egyptian gods, sphinxes and the city’s own special tutelary deities, the mysterious Samothracian Kabirii. They were probably worshipped in the Rotonda, the oldest building still in use in the city, whose holy space has since attracted saints, dervishes and devotees of modern art and jazz. Even before the birth of Christ Salonica was a provincial capital with substantial municipal privileges. Later it became the base of Emperor Galerius himself. By the side of the main road running through town the carved pillars of a massive triumphal arch still commemorate Galerius’s defeat of the troublesome Persians. His own urban ambitions, influenced by Syrian and Persian models, were extensive. Today students sun themselves on the walkways above where his now vanished portico once connected the triumphal arch with an enormous palace and hippodrome. Meanwhile, in what is still the commercial heart of the city, archaeologists have uncovered a vast forum, a tribute to Greco-Roman consumerism, with a double colonnade of shops, a square paved in marble, a library and a large brothel, complete with sex toys, private baths and dining-rooms for favoured clients.

This was, in short, a flourishing settlement of key strategic significance for Roman power in the East. We may find it puzzling that Greeks even today will call themselves Romioi (Romans). But there is nothing strange about it. The Roman empire existed here too, among the speakers of Greek, and continued to exert its spell long after it had collapsed in the West. Yet we need to be careful, for when Greeks use the term Romios, they do not exactly mean that they are “Roman.” Hiding inside the word is the one ingredient which has shaped the city’s complex cultural mix more strongly than any other—the Christian faith. The Ottomans understood the term this way as well: when they talked about the “community of Romans” (Rum millet) they meant Orthodox Christians, not necessarily Greeks; Rum was Byzantine Anatolia; Rumeli the Orthodox Christian Balkans. Until the age of ethnic nationalism, to be “Greek” was, for most people in the Ottoman world, synonymous with belief in the Orthodox Christian faith.

With this Christianization of the Roman Greek world few cities are as closely identified as Salonica. In the days when the Apostle Paul passed through, Christians were merely a deviant Jewish sect, and members of the two faiths were buried side by side. By the late fourth century, however, Christianity had triumphed on its own terms and turned itself into a new religion: the Rotonda had been converted from pagan use, and chapels, shrines and Christian graveyards were spreading with astonishing speed across the city.

The figure who came to symbolize Christ’s triumph in Salonica, eventually outshining even the Apostle himself, was a Roman officer called Dimitrios who was martyred in the late third century AD. A small shrine to him was built alongside the many other healing shrines which studded the area around the forum. After a grateful Roman prefect was cured by his miraculous powers, he built a five-aisled basilica to the saint, which quickly became the centre of a major cult, attracting Jews as well as Christians and pagans. The adoration of Dimitrios swept the city, and by the early nineteenth century—the first time we have a name-by-name census of its inhabitants—one in ten Christians there were named after him.5

Like the other major early Christian shrines—the massive, low-sunk Panayia Acheiropoietos (the Virgin’s Church Unmade by Mortal Hands), the grand Ayia Sofia and the Rotonda itself—Dimitrios’s church shows how deeply the city’s Greco-Roman culture had been impregnated with Christian rituals and doctrines. Although the fire of 1917 caused irreparable damage to the priceless mosaics that line its colonnades, enough has remained following its restoration to illuminate the imperial-Christian synthesis: the saint is shown heralded by toga-clad angelic trumpeters, receiving children, or casting his arms around the shoulders of the church’s founders. Another saint, Sergios, is depicted in a purple chiton with military insignia around his neck. The city’s devoted inhabitants are Christians, but they are also recognisably Romans. Incorporated into the church’s structure is part of the original baths, the place of the saint’s martyrdom, which became a site of pilgrimage in the following centuries. And crowning the pillars which line the nave are marble capitals whose writhing volutes and acanthus leaves, doves, rams and eagles, sometimes taken from earlier buildings, sometimes carved specially for the church, cover the entire range of Roman design in the centuries when Christianity began to take hold of the empire. Byzantium is the name we have given to a civilization which regarded itself, and was regarded by those around it, as the heir to the glories of imperial Rome. Its character was defined by its cultural synthesis of the traditions of Greece, Rome and Christianity, and Salonica was one of its bastions.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author


Mark Mazower is professor of history at Columbia University and Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941–44, winner of the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History and the Longman/History Today Award for Book of the Year. He lives in New York City.

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