Salonica, City of Ghosts

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Despite being modern Greece’s second largest city after Athens, the northern port city of Salonica, or Thessalonike, has been the subject of surprisingly few book-length studies. Aside from tourist guides and travelogues, most recent works discussing Salonica have been personal memoirs, such as Leon Sciaky’s Farewell to Salonica: City at the Crossroads (2003) or Erika Kounio-Amariglio’s From Thessaloniki to Auschwitz and Back, 1926-1996 (2000), highly focused studies of specific moments in the city’s history, or works restricted to a single aspect of the city’s past, such as Steven Bowman and Isaac Benmayor’s collection of eyewitness accounts, The Holocaust in Salonika (2002). As a result, Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts fills an important gap by tracing the development of the city in the broadest possible way, from the Renaissance through the twentieth century. This book is likely to stand for some time as the definitive history of Salonica, particularly for its sensitive examination of the area’s diverse religious traditions. The result is a vivid portrait of Salonica’s fascinating and, at times, tragic history.

Mazower approaches his subject with an historian’s eye but also with a poet’s spirit. Interspersed among all the data drawn from Salonica’s written records are a number of memorable personal notes. These include a letter to the editor of a newspaper written by an English serviceman in World War II that touched off a debate about the correct pronunciation of the city’s name, lyrics from the music of the Greek underworld and hashish dens known as rembetika, and lines by forgotten poets responding to the way in which their city was changing because of war or destruction. While historians thus find all the names, dates, and major events that they could possibly wish in Salonica, City of Ghosts, its greatest contribution may derive from author’s ability to evoke this city’s unique spirit of place. Glimpses into daily life provide insight into what it must have been like to live, work, worship, struggle, and argue in such a cosmopolitan community. Mazower introduces his work with only the briefest survey of Salonica during the nearly two millennia that it served as a crossroads of the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine worlds. His primary goal is to bring the reader quickly to the beginning of the Renaissance, providing the backdrop for what will be five of the city’s most complex centuries.

A constant theme of Salonica, City of Ghosts is to provide an antidote to attempts begun in the early twentieth century by residents and the Greek government to present this city as essentiallyand almost purelyGreek, Christian, and Byzantine in spirit. Throughout most of the city’s history, it was far more multicultural in nature than its Greek inhabitants readily admit. Even today, there are abundant traces of the city’s Turkish and Jewish heritage lurking around corners or behind facades.

Salonica’s fall to the Ottomans in 1430 began a period of occupation that, unlike subsequent conquests, proved to be relatively tolerant of different cultures, even by modern standards. Although the city’s Christian inhabitants were horrified to see a number of their most cherished churches rededicated as mosques, the Ottomans also opened the community to the cultural richness that would characterize its later development. For instance, they welcomed the Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain by the edict of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Within a very short time, Jewish residents actually made up the largest ethnic community living in Salonica, beginning a chapter in the city’s history that would have tragic consequences during World War II.

As Mazower points out, however, it would be a mistake to romanticize the harmony in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in Salonica throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although there was a great deal of mutual (and, at times, unconscious) cultural influence, there were also inevitable tensions, hostilities, and persecutions. Many Christians were sold into slavery. Other Christians as well as Jews led a meager existence, barely scraping by. Nevertheless, the city’s important geographic location, just south of the Balkan range on a pathway that connected western Europe with Istanbul, meant that local citizens were...

(The entire section is 1810 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1262.

History Today 55, no. 1 (January, 2005): 58.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 3 (February 1, 2005): 168.

Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 103.

The Nation 280, no. 23 (June 13, 2005): 35-37.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 11 (June 23, 2005): 40-43.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 8, 2005): 19.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 8 (February 21, 2005): 164-165.

Weekly Standard 10, no. 19 (January 31, 2005): 39.