Secularizing Religious Education in Salonica

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 220-221:

The struggle for communal authority was fought out over many areas—care for the poor and sick, the upkeep of cemeteries, the administration of religious foundations themselves—but the key battleground was education. For religious learning alone was no longer enough. Ties with the West meant also that local merchants needed employees to be familiar with modern languages, mathematics and geography. The notable Jewish families pushed hard for the use of Italian and French books in the old Talmud Torah in the 1840s. When they got nowhere, they obtained a firman to found their own pilot school, run by a German rabbi whom the local rabbis regarded as an impious foreigner. But the real educational revolution among Salonican Jewry only came in 1873 when the same notables opened a branch of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle—the very embodiment of French Enlightenment liberalism—in the teeth of fierce opposition from the elderly chief rabbi. It was an extraordinary success: by 1912 the Alliance was responsible for educating more than four thousand pupils, over half the total number of children in Jewish schools. “I was once invited to an annual gathering of the Israelite Alliance,” wrote a British journalist during the First World War. “There were many hundreds of Jews there, male and female, and a great many of them were once removed only from the street porter class. But they rattled off French as if they had been born to it.” Not only were the majority of the city’s Jewish children receiving an education outside the control of the religious authorities, but they were receiving it on the basis of the principles of contemporary French republicanism. Such a trend had a corrosive effect on the authority of the chief rabbi, and helped turn him slowly into more and more of a purely religious and spiritual figurehead.

Within the Greek community similar shifts were taking place. In the old days, children learned reading and writing from the occasional literate priest or from the so-called didaskaloi who gave lessons as they passed through the city. But in 1828 the junior high school was reestablished, and a girls’ school was set up in 1845. The primary school population climbed from 1500 in 1874 to nearly 2000 in 1900 and 3900 by the time the Greek army arrived in 1912. An Educational Society was set up in 1872 with its own private library and a commitment to “useful knowledge,” and in 1876 a teacher-training college followed. Salonica’s Greek high school was recognized by the University of Athens, a development of huge significance for the rise of Greek nationalism, and the control of school standards and appointments was also handled by representatives of the Greek state. Through education in other words, the Greeks of Salonica gradually reoriented themselves towards the new national centre in Athens. The Patriarchate in Istanbul, which had once enjoyed unchallenged authority over the empire’s Orthodox believers, found itself losing ground.

Within the city’s Muslim community, pedagogical arguments were also raging. All Riza, a minor customs official, quarrelled with his wife Zübeyde, over how to educate their son, Mustafa. Zübeyde, a devout woman who was nicknamed the mollah, followed the older conception or education and wanted him to attend the neighbourhood Qur’anic school. His father, on the other hand, favoured the new style of schooling pioneered by a renowned local teacher, Shemsi Effendi, who ran the first private primary school in the empire. In the end, the young Mustafa started at the first and finished at the second, before moving to the military preparatory college. Helped by his education and by Salonica’s new beer-gardens and nightlife, he became a pronounced secularist, thereby foreshadowing in his own upbringing the trajectory through which—by then better known to the world as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—he would later lead post-Ottoman Turkey.

Mustafa Kemal’s experiences were not unusual, for the spirit of Western education was transforming local Muslim cultures of learning. The Ma’min were setting up private schools like Shemsi’s, and state officials like Mustafa Kemal’s father shared their vision of a modernizing Islam. Investment in education had been a priority of the reformers in Istanbul, and m 1869 a new imperial Ordinance of General Education outlined a school system, based partly on the French lycée model that would promote knowledge of science, technology and commerce among both boys and girls. Reaction from the long-established medreses was fierce but under Sultan Abdul Hamid this was overcome, in part by emphasizing the Islamic character of the new schools. A state schooling sector emerged in Salonica and the city’s first vocational college the Ecole des Arts et Métiers, trained orphans in typography, lithography, tailoring and music. Later came a teacher-training college, a junior high school, a commercial school and a preparatory school for civil servants—the Idadié—housed in an imposing neo-classical building standing just beyond the eastern walls. (Today it contains the chief administrative offices of the University of Thessaloniki.)

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Filed under Balkans, education, France, Greece, language, Mediterranean, nationalism, Turkey

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