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

“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.”

 In general the book was thought highly interesting and, although very detailed, highly readable.

The exchange of populations was one of the many topics found interesting. One reader remarked that it must have been harrowing for both Greeks and Turks, so much so that nowadays it is avoided at almost any cost. For the same reader it raised the question of nationalism. Is it an integral part of the human condition though the concept is relatively new, possibly dateable back to Napoleon? It was pointed out that at least as far as Turks are concerned nationhood is a very old concept, traceable back to Turkic origins – as evidenced by words such as budun, el and hence elçi. Given that even in Napoleonic times several were in use in France. As a result it was suggested that nationalism appears to stem from nations as a bureaucratic conceit, such as conscription and tax collection. Another reader then pointed out that the exchange was made more on a religious basis than on whether one was a Turk or Greek. This brought up the crisis in the Ukraine where although people are at least ostensibly of the same religion their present division centres on who speaks Ukrainian (or East Slavic) and who speaks Russian. This brought up the pogroms that were suffered by Turks and Greeks in the Aegean region immediately after World War I. The example of Şirince was given; where having murdered all their Turkish neighbours the Greeks felt forced to leave upon Greece’s defeat. Furthermore, although there was no bloodshed when the Turkish army entered Izmir, when the militias from the hinterland arrived they appear to have taken revenge not only for the mass murders the Greek army inflicted on Turks from Izmir to Eskişehir but also for what many feel was a genocide of Turks and Muslims, (and others including Albanians) in the Balkans. In this context it was pointed out that many of the Turks resident around Alaçatı, for instance, are from the Balkans where because they raised tobacco and livestock they did away with vineyards and fig and olive orchards, much to their own detriment.

Given that some Greeks in Turkey did not even speak Greek although they wrote Turkish in the Cyrillic alphabet, the question why many immigrants do not adapt to the culture (such as language and religion) of the country they have chosen to live in came up. In this context it was pointed out that although immigrants eventually learn the language they seem unable to give up their religion. So what is being Turkish? Will it be like in Great Britain where you may be English or Indian and so on, but you are British? Particularly as many countries sell passports in exchange for how much money you are willing to bring in.

It was noted at this point that Mazower discusses the issue of who is a Turk, albeit on the basis of race and language rather than religion, pointing out that the Ottomans’ millet system contributed to the concept of nationhood in the Balkans. However, contrary to this it was noted that when the Arabs also said they wanted their own nation, the whole issue of who is a Turk arose, which oddly enough was fuelled by non-Turks, such as Poles.

The discussion then switched to Sebatay Levi, the Jewish prophet from Izmir who claimed to be the Messiah. His followers are still known as dönmes; they came to Turkey during the exchange, bringing with them the new ideas that had filtered from Europe through to Salonica, their first entry point into the Ottoman Empire, founding schools and newspapers, taking up key positions in the new Turkish Republic as late as Ismail Cem, who headed up TRT and the Foreign Ministry among other bodies.

There then was a long interlude during which the origins of Atatürk’s ideas were discussed with reference to nationhood and nationals.

When the conversation returned to Sebatay, it was pointed out that the sultan finally called him to Istanbul and he converted to Islam as did his followers (hence dönme).

The conversation then turned to the power of the Janissary Corps in the Ottoman Empire, a topic the group has come across on several occasions in previous books. A reader pointed out that given the sons of Janissaries were accepted directly into the corps, once the recruitment of Christian children stopped in the seventeenth century this practice speeded up the corruption of the corps whose retirees tended to set up in business anyway.

Discussion then turned back to the concept of nationhood given that people seemed to have co-existed quite happily until outside influences brought out their differences. However, co-existence did not mean intermingling, which perhaps is quite different to present-day concepts of co-existence.

In the final analysis one member felt that the richness of detail in the book did not translate to a lesson in history with regard to present-day Greece, Judaism or for that matter Turkey, given the dönmes no longer have an influence. Another member noted that while this may be so it filled a gap with regard to events in the region, the history of which interested him. Yet another member pointed out that the dönmes’ influence continued today in education and journalism, even if they were no longer directly in charge as their liberal traditions were in many cases still being upheld in the schools and newspapers they had founded. Still another member noted that five centuries is a long time; in other words, no region can avoid the changes that go on in the larger world.

Aziz Başan

Summary of discussion on 11 June 2014

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