Thessaloniki was named after Philip of Macedon’s daughter. Both commemorated his victory (niki) over Thessaly. A massive statue of Alexander the Great dominates the waterfront, the city is the capital of Macedonia after all (and as the Greeks say - There is only one Macedonia and it is in Greece), and could there be a more Greek symbol for the city than Alexander? The city was founded after Alexanders death however and over time and under Ottoman rule the city’s name was often butchered to numerous different variants – Salonicco, Selanik, Salon, Salonicha, Salonique. People (in the city itself and in other areas of Greece and in Turkey) still often refer to it as Salonica.
Salonica was one of the great Ottoman cities. Along with Smyrna (now Izmir) it was the empires most important port city. But more than that its location in the heart of the Balkans at the crossroads of Macedonia and Thrace and between a newly formed Greece and crumbling Ottoman empire as well as a city made up of Greeks, Turks, Bulgars, Macedonians makes its history strangely fascinating. Most interestingly for much of its history under the Ottoman Empire Salonica was a predominantly Jewish city. The empire welcomed the Jewish refugees who had been expelled from large areas of Western Europe (the evictions went on till the mid 16th century).
The 1492 edict of banishment by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain forced thousands to leave their homeland. Most of these Iberian Jews made their way to Salonica. Since its capture by Sultan Murad in 1430, Salonica had recovered slowly (unlike Istanbul, conquered in 1453, which had grown humongously, attracting immigrants from all parts of the empire.) Of all the towns in the Levant it was probably Salonica that benefited most from the Jewish influx. By 1520 more than half the city was Jewish and for almost two centuries it remained the largest Jewish city in the world. And so for much of its history under the Ottomans, the city (now the second largest in Greece) was made up of more Turks and Jews than Greeks.
Walking through Thessaloniki today, these remnants of its past are almost invisible. One has to look hard to imagine what the city must have been like, but knowing its history it’s amazing to view it in its present form and imagine how much it has changed. The character of the city altered enormously within the span of a few decades in the early 1900s. The surprise defeat of the Ottoman troops in the First Balkan War led to the loss of almost all of its remaining European territories.
Salonica was captured by the Greeks, much to the dismay of people in Istanbul including one Mustafa Kemal who had been born there. “How could you leave Salonica, that beautiful home town of ours? Why did you leave it to the enemy and come here?” The Greeks, however, had won by a sliver - the Bulgarians marched in just a day later. It was only after the Second Balkan War (which Bulgaria lost decisively) that city was officially in Greek hands. Even then the city didn’t change much, transport links with Greece were poor and establishing a new bureaucracy took time and the city was still primarily Jewish and Ottoman i.e. Muslim.
The fire of 1917 which destroyed 9500 buildings and left more than 70000 people homeless probably changed the face of the city more than any other event in its history. The Jewish community was the worst affected with most of its historic quarters destroyed. The essence of the Ottoman town was destroyed and when rebuilding began it was a new Greek town that emerged. (It is strange how fires made two of the great multi ethnic cities of the (ex) Ottoman Empire more mono cultural. The fire of Smyrna caused most of the Greeks and Armenians to flee the city and the recapture of the city by the Turks effectively ended the Greco – Turkish war. Interestingly Atatürks order on hearing of the fire was simply to “Let it crash, let it come down.”)
While the fire changed the physical infrastructure of Thessaloniki, the city would undergo a massive change in terms of its population make up as well. Following the Turkish War of Independence, the Treaty of Lausanne laid the conditions for the first mutually agreed population exchange of the 20th century. Greece had already been established as an Orthodox Christian country. Atatürk wanted to form the new Turkish republic on a secular but Muslim platform. A large number of Christians had already fled for Greece and getting the remaining Muslims to leave would free up much needed property to resettle them.
Similarly the Muslim immigrants were needed by Turkey to resettle the lands of Anatolia. And so some two million people were forced to leave their homes and set up new lives overnight in countries they had never known. Greece and Turkey had now been established on religious lines which only made matter more bizarre as the Christian immigrants to Greece spoke almost no Greek and the Muslim immigrants to Anatolia were fluent in Greek but knew almost no Turkish. Religion not language or even ethnicity became the distinguisher in this case.
The Jews were thus the only remnants of the old Salonica but that too was to change. The Germans invaded Greece in April 1941 and by the next month the country had been partitioned with Italy in charge of the southern half and Germany the northern. Soon enough Jews were asked to wear stars and identify their homes, the Jewish areas were ghettoed. Within five weeks of the German arrival deportations to Auschwitz started. Some 2800 left on the first train. By the end almost no Jews (save around fifteen) remained.
There are some remnants of the past still. The old hamams are still there in Salonica. Some of them about to tumble over any second. Having been ignored for decades, tourism (of which there isn’t much in Thessaloniki) has revived a little interest in them and there was some renovation work on while I was there. There aren’t any mosques any more (at least none of the old ones survive). The waterfront which is the hub of activity is lined with block shaped buildings; all built in the aftermath of the fire. In establishing its Greekness the city’s Ottoman past was swept away and ancient history embraced.
The area around the train station used to be the main prostitution hub of the city. It is still extremely seedy and I had a most unpleasant experience of being chased down a deserted path by a scary Greek man who kept asking me if I was from Bulgaria and wanted a good time for good money. It is the old city, the Anopoli, which still shows some signs of what the city must have been like. Old Turkish houses survive (including the one Atatürk was born in), the streets are narrow and winding and thinking back it could have just as easily been a district of Istanbul. And then of course there’s climbing the citadel which leaves you breathless, not only because the climb was so steep but because the entire Thermaic Gulf stretches out before you and the sight is incredibly beautiful.
But there is still a tinge of sadness that cities like Thessaloniki carry. It’s easy to miss it but it is there. So many untold stories, so many dilapidated buildings, a sadness that tells of the people who used to once inhabit this place and are now long gone.
(1) I finally got my disposable cameras developed and that brought about this post. Looking at the pictures and thinking of my stay in Thessaloniki I really wish I could go back to that part of the world again. And I wish I had more pictures. Sigh.
(2) Most of the material for the post comes from Mark Mazower’s brilliant, brilliant Salonica: City of ghosts. Highly recommended. Read it long before I left and again when I got back. Other references – Bruce Clark’s excellent Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey and Andrew Mango’s Atatürk.
(3) Istanbul, the great bastard city of the Ottoman Empire is fodder for many such stories too. Visiting the old Greek or Jewish districts there was quite an experience too and perhaps I should write about those next. I miss Istanbul :(