Hope springs from Salonika

FOR THE TIME being there is a sense of relief – not yet amounting to optimism – that the formation of the new government in Greece by Antonis Samaras may bring some stability to the local and European economies.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times reports, Yiannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city and to my mind its most fascinating, is providing an example of how Greece might be able to get back on track by demanding accountability from his workforce and imposing elementary budgetary discipline.

Boutaris is also working to see the city realise its economic and tourism potential. Facing the Thermaic Gulf, the city’s port is a gateway to the Balkans. Of interest to this blog, Thessaloniki, like many cities in the Balkans, has a multicultural history. Until 1912, as Salonika, it remained part of the Ottoman Empire and was a truly multiconfessional city, home to many nationalities. Leon Sciaky’s memoir of the city in the late 19th century, Farewell to Salonica, is full of tales of a polyglot world, of Albanian baklava sellers, Greek priests, Bulgarian farmers, Turkish shoe-shine men.

And until the horrors of the Holocaust in 1943 Thessaloniki was home to the largest Jewish community in the Balkans. The Jewish community had largely arrived in Salonika at the invitation of the Ottoman sultan, Beyazit, after 1492 when they were expelled from Spain at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Thereafter the city became known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, and busy streets rang with the sound of Ladino, the Sephardic Jewish dialect of Spain. Painfully little evidence remains of that long and significant Jewish presence, but for Molho Bookshop, located in the heart of the city at Tsimski.

Under the Ottomans for over 400 years, Salonika maintained a confessional balancing act; whether this was a graceful balance or ever fragile is something for historians to debate. But here was a city where Muslims ruled, Jews dominated the business and merchant communities, and Christians made up the masses, particularly in the hinterland. Yet for all of the diversity and diffusion of power and competition between interest groups, the city enjoyed a dynamism and creative fervour.

It also maintained an aura of inter-confessional spirituality, hints of which, I would contend, persist to this day, particularly in the narrow streets of the Ano Poli (Old Town). Mark Mazower, in his triumphant history of the city, Salonica: City of Ghosts, recounts tales of Greek Orthodox monks who were often seen in the company of Mevlevi Sufis in the Ano Poli. I can’t help but imagine a clutch of bearded fellows loitering in a cobbled street, muttering quietly, pensively, an air of sanctity and serenity hovering over them – a blur of cassocks, crucifixes, tesbih (prayer beads), turbans.

Mazower reports that there were several Sufi tekkes (lodges) in the Old Town; as well as the Mevlevi, there were sizable groups of Nakshibandis, and Bektashis. The Bektashis, who remain of great import in modern Albania, were notable for being particularly powerful in Anatolia (where Bektashi spirituality continues to underpin the philosophy – for want of a better word – of the Alevi minority); they were often remarked upon for their adoption of Christian traditions and their conspicuous veneration of figures within Christianity, praying and making pilgrimages to Christian shrines and holy sites.

Thessaloniki now has an overwhelmingly Orthodox tenor, but during the Ottoman centuries the city’s skyline bristled with minarets. Many of the first mosques, after the Ottoman capture of the city in 1430, were established in converted churches. This practice can be interpreted as a desecration, an attempt by the victors in war to lord it over the vanquished, to eradicate their – necessarily inferior – faith – all aspects of what came to be seen in later centuries as the ‘Ottoman yoke’. Mazower approaches the topic with more nuance, saying that the Ottoman tendency to appropriate churches for their own spiritual purposes rather reflects their reverence for Christian tradition. Churches and shrines were deemed suitable locations for worship because the Ottoman Muslims recognised that ‘God lingered already in the holy places of their predecessors’.

This intercommunal exchange apparently worked both ways. Salonika saw considerable traffic in Muslims from all over the Balkans en route to Mecca to perform the Hajj; Christians took inspiration from their example, taking the title of Hadji after making a pilgrimage to Orthodox holy sites such as nearby Mt Athos. A look through a phone book (remember them!) will reveal many such names: Hatzidakis, Hatzigiorgis etc etc.

The multicultural ambience of Salonika was considerably reduced after the city was incorporated into the new Greek state in 1912, then more so after the Greek-Turkish population transfers of the 1920s. The city at that time received a new transfusion of blood from the Orthodox immigrants who had arrived from Anatolia. It was at this point that the city assumed its overwhelmingly Greek character and in this milieu – an era of relocation, separation, post-war hardship and economic deprivation – that rembetika, the earthy, soulful, heart-wrenching form of Greek music, was born.

Rembetika might make a suitable soundtrack for the plight of many Greeks in the current economic climate. Some worrying political currents have been swirling, not least in the recent electoral success of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party. Here’s hoping that politicians of the ilk of Yiannis Boutaris come to the fore. He has been prudent enough to recognise Thessaloniki’s multicultural history and exploit it to the city’s advantage, attracting tourists from Turkey and Israel, and his back-to-basics approach to good governance may well be what is necessary to see Thessaloniki, and ultimately Greece, back on the road to recovery.

For more on the attractions of Thessaloniki, you can read a piece I wrote for Neos Kosmos in 2011, here.

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