by Willard Manus
The first time I visited Salonica was in 1971, when my knowledge of the city was superfluous and uninformed. I stayed in the Hotel Mediterranee, a small but sympatico hotel located right on the waterfront. I know the hotel had charm and character, but wasn't aware of its history and roots. Back before the 1917 Great Fire which destroyed so much of ancient Salonica, a famous nightclub had stood on the site; known as Cafe Nazium, it was the place to hear the best singers and musicians of the age, whether Greek, Turkish, Sephardic or Arabic.
It was in 1930, too, that the first hydroplane ever seen in Salonica--a British flying boat christened "City of Salonica" for the occasion--landed in the bay and taxied to a stop in front of the Hotel, where tens of thousands of locals had gathered to witness and cheer the event.
It wasn't until I read SALONICA--CITY OF GHOSTS, CHRISTIANS, MUSLIMS AND JEWS, 1430-1950 by Mark Mazower (Alfred A. Knopf) that I learned the complete history of my favorite hotel in Greece (one which, alas, no longer exists, having been torn down in the urban-renewal craze of the 1980s). The same can be said of my knowledge of Salonica itself. Though I had made many visits to the city after 1971 and had read numerous books and articles about it, my grasp of Salonica's history was woefully lacking in depth and understanding.
Mazower's book has changed all that. Thanks to his scrupulous research and narrative gifts, Salonica stands revealed in all its glorious and tragic aspects, many of which have been hidden or even suppressed by past historians and writers. SALONICA, CITY OF GHOSTS is the first truly honest and comprehensive biography of the city ever written.
Salonica's genesis has Turkish, Serbian, Bulgarian and Jewish roots. The Greeks who took control of the city in 1924, following the infamous population exchange between Greece and Turkey, decided to Hellenize Salonica and turn what had always been a hybrid nation-state, a five-century-old urban melting pot, into a Greek-only metropolis (renamed Thessaloniki). Almost all traces of the past were eradicated: the Ottoman houses and mosques, the Jewish mansions, factories and cemeteries, the Bulgarian markets and shops.
What does that do to a ciy's consciousness of itself, Mazower asks, "when substantial sections were at best allowed to crumble away, at worst written out of the record?"
The story of Salonica's passage from Ottoman to Greek hands is the main focus of Mazower's book, but he also pays attention to the city's Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine origins. Salonica never was monolithic in its makeup and beliefs, not even after Sultan Murad's conquest of the city in 1430. There was still a Christian minority which was swelled in 1478 by the first wave of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain.
By 1670, Mazower writes, "the Jews were such an integral part of Salonica that it seemed impossible to imagine they had not always been there." The Jews' entrepeneurial and productive energy helped revitalize Ottoman Salonica, which became the mercantile and cultural center of the Balkans. Visitors marveled at its bustling port, Eastern bazaars, "multi-colored crowds," churches, mosques and synagogues...and even its red-light district, one of the largest in Europe.
Salonica's Great Fire played a major role in the changes that transformed the city in the 20th century, not speak of the Nazi extermination of the Jewish population. Most of the visible signs of Salonica's rich, multi-ethnic past were obliterated; only the ghosts of the forgotten or murdered souls remained, hidden from view. SALONICA lifts the veils and screens, and gives the ghosts, the forgotten and suppressed ones, a chance to be seen and heard from again.