Salonica’s Polyglot Boot-blacks

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 12-13:

IN THE 1930s, the spirit of the Sufi holy man Mousa Baba was occasionally seen wandering near his tomb in the upper town. Even today house-owners sometimes dream that beneath their cellars lie Turkish janissaries and Byzantine necropoles. One reads stories of hidden Roman catacombs, doomed love-affairs and the unquiet souls who haunt the decaying villas near the sea. One hears rumours of buried Jewish treasure guarded by spirits which have outwitted the exorcists and proved themselves too strong for Mossad agents, former Nazis and anyone else who has tried to locate the hidden jewels and gold they protect.

But Salonica’s ghosts emerge in other ways too, through documents and archives, the letters of Byzantine archbishops, the court records of Ottoman magistrates and the hagiographies of the lives and extraordinary deaths of Christian martyrs. The silencing of the city’s multifarious past has not been for lack of sources. Sixteenth-century rabbis adjudicate on long-forgotten marital rows, business wrangles and the tribulations of a noisy, malodorous crowded town. The diary of a Ukrainian political exile depicts unruly Jewish servants drunk in the mud, gluttonous clerics, a whirl of social engagements, riots and plague. Travellers—drawn in ever-increasing numbers by the city’s antiquities, by the partridge and rabbits in the plains outside, by business, art or sheer love of adventure—penned their impressions of a magical landscape of minarets, cypresses and whitewashed walls climbing high above the Aegean. From the late nineteenth century—though no earlier—there are newspapers, more and more of them, in half a dozen languages, and even that rarity in the Ottoman lands—maps. As for the archives, they are endless—Ottoman, Venetian, Greek, Austrian, French, English, American—compiled conscientiously by generations of long-departed foreign consuls. Drawing on such materials, I begin with the city’s conquest by Sultan Murad II in 1430, delineate its daily life under his successors, and trace its passage from the multiconfessional, extraordinarily polyglot Ottoman world—as late as the First World War, Salonican boot-blacks commanded a working knowledge of six or seven languages—to its role as an ethnically and linguistically homogenised bastion of the twentieth-century nation-state in which by 1950, more than ninety-five per cent of the inhabitants were, by any definition, Greek.

The old empires collapsed and nations fought their way into being, identities changed and people were labelled in new ways: Muslims turned into Turks, Christians into Greeks. Although in Salonica it was the Greeks who eventually got their state, and Bulgarians, Muslims and Jews who in different ways lost out, it is worth remembering that elsewhere Greeks too lost out—in Istanbul, for example, or Trabzon, Alexandria and Izmir, where thousands died during the expulsions of 1922. Cities, after all, are places of both eviction and sanctuary, and many of the Greek refugees who made a new home for themselves in Salonica had been forced from their old ones elsewhere.

Similar transformations occurred in cities across a wide swathe of the globe—in Lviv, for instance, Wroslaw, Vilna and Tiflis, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Lahore. Each of these endured its own moments of trauma caused by the intense violence that has accompanied the emergence of nation-states. Was the function of the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property after 1948, for example, handing out Arab properties to new Jewish owners, very different from that of the Greek Service for the Disposal of Jewish Property founded in Salonica five years earlier? Both systematized the violence of dispossession and sought to give it a more lasting bureaucratic form. Thanks to their activities, the remnants of former cities may also be traced through the trajectories of the refugees who left them. A retiree clipping her roses in a Sussex country garden an elderly merchant in an Istanbul suburb and an Auschwitz survivor in Indianapolis are among those who helped me by reviving their memories of a city that is long gone.

By 1950, when this book concludes, Salonica’s Muslims had been resettled in Turkey, and the Jews had been deported by the Germans and most of them killed. The Greek civil war had just ended in the triumph of the anti-communist Right, and the city was set for the rapid and entirely unexpected pell-mell postwar expansion which saw its population double and treble within thirty or forty years. A forest of densely packed apartment blocks and giant advertising billboards sprouted where in living memory there had been cypresses and minarets, stables, owls and storks. Its transformation continues, and today Russian computer whiz-kids, Ghanaian doctors, Albanian stonemasons, Georgian labourers, Ukrainian nannies and Chinese street pedlars are entering Salonica’s bloodstream. Many of them quickly learn to speak fluent Greek, for the city’s position within the modem nation-state is unquestioned: the story of its passage from Ottoman to Greek hands has become ancient history.

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Filed under Balkans, economics, Greece, labor, language, migration, religion, Turkey

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