The Port of Salonica in 1912

Salonica … is a paradise for Jews. When you are rowed ashore there, your boatman is an Israelite masquerading in Turkish fez and trousers. On landing, you are hustled by porters in turbans and red shoes; but they are Jews. You enter the Customs-house: the mobs of officers, with their continuous gabble, are Jews. Jews in turbans and Jews out of turbans; Jews as builders of houses and Jews as barbers–the children of Israel are everywhere, in every kind of work.” –Samuel S. Cox, Diversions of a Diplomat in Turkey

In 1912, at the end of its life as an Ottoman city, Salonica was flourishing as a major industrial and transportation center. Railroads that first reached Salonica in the early 1870s, as well as the telegraph linkages that came in the next decade, played crucial roles in the growth of the city. Before the end of the century, railroad lines connected Salonica to the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, as well as to the Serbian network and thus to Europe. Salonica boomed as the railhead of three lines that redirected the import-export trade of the southern Balkans through the city. As a result, ship tonnage at the port of Salonica doubled to two million tons by 1912. At this time Salonica was tied with Beirut as the third-largest Ottoman port, surpassed only by the much larger ports of Istanbul and Izmir.

Despite these huge increases in sea-borne commerce, improvements in Salonica’s port facilities came very slowly. Financed by European capital and carried out by Western corporations, construction of more modern facilities was retarded by two quite different forces. The first was the Ottoman state itself, concerned that Western development of ports would lead to increased foreign control of the Ottoman economy and, perhaps, as in China, to extraterritorial port zones. In addition, merchants’ efforts to streamline operations were checked by the Salonica porters’ guilds. These workers, who were overwhelmingly Jewish, saw modernization neither as a blessing nor as progress, but rather as a threat to their jobs of manually hauling freight. As in other Ottoman ports, the porters’ guilds at Salonica prevented real improvements until the end of the century. Finally, in 1897, the Ottoman state yielded to foreign pressure and granted a concession to a French firm. The expansion of the port was completed by 1904. A few years later, the porters’ guilds were curbed further. In 1909 the Salonica Quay Company, the Oriental Railways Company, and the Salonica-Constantinople Junction Railway Company signed an agreement making it possible for trains to run all the way onto the quays, directly discharging to vessels in the port. Previously the trains had stopped at the railway station, where porters picked up the goods and manually carried them over one kilometer of bad road to the port. The new arrangement certainly did make handling more efficient. But the porters who had hauled the goods over that bad road now lost their jobs.

SOURCE: “The Industrial Working Class of Salonica, 1850-1912,” by Donald Quataert, in Jews, Turks, Ottomans: A Shared History, Fifteenth through the Twentieth Century, ed. by Avigdor Levy (Syracuse U. Press, 2002), pp. 194-195

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