Salonica’s Heterodox Modernizers

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 74-76:

The Ottoman authorities clearly regarded their [Ma’min] heterodoxy with some suspicion and as late as 1905 treated a case of a Ma’min girl who had fallen in love with her Muslim tutor, Hadji Feyzullah Effendi, as a question of conversion. Yet with their usual indifference to inner belief, they left them alone. A pasha who proposed to put them all to death was, according to local myth, removed by God before he could realize his plan. In 1859, at a time when the Ottoman authorities were starting to worry more about religious orthodoxy, a governor of the city carried out an enquiry which concluded they posed no threat to public order. All he did was to prevent rabbis from instructing them any longer. A later investigation confirmed their prosperity and honesty and after 1875 such official monitoring lapsed. Ma’min spearheaded the expansion of Muslim—including women’s—schooling in the city, and were prominent in its commercial and intellectual life. Merchant dynasties like the fez-makers, the Kapandjis, accumulated huge fortunes, built villas in the European style by the sea and entered the municipal administration. Others were in humbler trades—barbers, coppersmiths, town-criers and butchers.

Gradually—as with the Marranos of Portugal, from whom many were descended—their connection with their ancestral religion faded. High-class Ma’min married into mainstream Muslim society, though most resided in central quarters, between the Muslim neighbourhoods of the Upper Town and the Jewish quarters below, streets where often the two religions lived side by side. “They will be converted purely and simply into Muslims,” predicted one scholar in 1897. But like many of Salonica’s Muslims at this time, the Ma’min also embraced European learning, and identified themselves with secular knowledge, political radicalism and freemasonry. By a strange twist of fate it was thus the Muslim followers of a Jewish messiah who helped turn late-nineteenth-century Salonica into the most liberal, progressive and revolutionary city in the empire.

The juxtaposition of old and new outlooks in a fin-de-siècle Ma’min household is vividly evoked in the memoirs of Ahmed Emin Yalman. His father, Osman Tewfik Bey, was a civil servant and a teacher of calligraphy. Living in the house with him and his parents were his uncle and aunt, his seven siblings, two orphaned cousins and at least five servants. “The strife between the old and the new was ever present in our house,” he recollects. His uncle was of the old school: a devout man, he prayed five times a day, abhorred alcohol, and disliked travel or innovation. For some reason, he refused to wear white shirts; “a coloured shirt with attached collar was, for him, the extreme limit of westernization in dress to which he felt that one could go without falling into conflict with religion … He objected to the theatre, music, drinking, card playing, and photography—all new inventions which he considered part of Satan’s world.” Yalman’s father, on the other hand—Osman Tewfik Bey—was “a progressive, perhaps even a revolutionary,” who wore “the highest possible white collars,” beautiful cravats and stylish shoes in the latest fashion, loved poetry, theatre and anything that was new, taking his children on long trips and photographing them with enthusiasm. He adorned his rooms with their pictures and prayed but rarely.

Esin Eden’s memoir of the following generation shows Europeanization taken even further. Hers was a well-to-do family of tobacco merchants which combined a strong consciousness of its Jewish ancestry with pride in its contemporary achievements as part of a special Muslim community, umbilically linked to Salonica itself. The women were all highly educated—one was even a teacher at the famous new Terakki lycée—sociable, energetic and articulate. They smoked lemon-scented cigarettes in the garden of their modern villa by the sea, played cards endlessly and kept their eyes on the latest European fashions. Their servants were Greek, their furnishings French and German, and their cuisine a mix of “traditionally high Ottoman cuisine as well as traditional Sephardic cooking,” though with no concern for the dietary laws of Judaism.

When the Young Turk revolt broke out in Salonica in 1908, Ma’min economics professors, newspaper men, businessmen and lawyers were among the leading activists and there were three Ma’min ministers in the first Young Turk government. Indeed conspiracy theorists saw the Ma’min everywhere and assumed any Muslim from Salonica must be one. Today some people even argue that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk must have been a Ma’min (there is no evidence for this), and see the destruction of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the secular republic of Turkey as their handiwork—the final revenge, as it were, of Sabbatai Zevi, and the unexpected fulfilment of his dreams. In fact, many of the Ma’min themselves had mixed feelings at what was happening in nationalist Turkey: some were Kemalists, others opposed him. In 1923, however, they were all counted as Muslims in the compulsory exchange of populations and packed off to Istanbul, where a small but distinguished community of businessmen, newspaper magnates, industrialists and diplomats has since flourished. As the writer John Freely tells us, their cemetery, in the Valley of the Nightingales above Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, is still known as the Selanikliler Mezarligi—the Cemetery of Those from Salonica.

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Filed under Balkans, economics, education, Europe, Greece, Islam, Judaism, Mediterranean, migration, nationalism, Turkey

One response to “Salonica’s Heterodox Modernizers

  1. Pingback: Secularizing Religious Education in Salonica « Far Outliers

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