On Trojan horses and Greeks bearing gifts

lindos-view-2009The proverb tells us to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This dates back to the legend of the Trojan horse, when something that was apparently benign, perhaps miraculous, and surely harmless, turned out to contain all manner of nasties. The gullible Trojans willingly pulled the horse into their city, only to be overrun by the Greek forces hidden within.

Appropriately enough all of this took place on the Aegean shore, where today refugees arrive in large numbers, assembling in the Turkish city of İzmir, not far from the ruins of Troy, to attempt the sea crossing to the Greek islands, toeholds in the EU. The refugees, many of whom hail from Syria, are sometimes portrayed as a modern-day Trojan horse – feigning refugee impoverishment but really the vanguard of an Islamic cultural inundation that threatens European identity.

Such a characterisation is utter tosh, of course, and to further turn the Trojan horse on its head this time it is the Greeks who are doing the welcoming.

In fact, the stories of generosity and compassion coming from Lesbos, among other islands and other locations on the Greek mainland, are legion. As reported in The Conversation, one fisherman from Lesbos explained, “There is not much choice when you find a boat full of scared people in the night.” Caught up in the immediacy and the drama, Greeks have responded with a largeness of spirit that The Conversation says has become contagious amongst Greek communities – but that appears to be in short supply elsewhere at present.

In Lesbos, islanders’ welcoming of refugee communities is said to be having a detrimental effect on the forthcoming season’s tourist bookings in Lesbos, but that doesn’t appear to deter the locals from their good deeds. This speaks volumes of the humanity of the residents of Lesbos. A recent article in The New York Times urges travellers not to turn their backs on the long-suffering Greeks.

It’s not as if Greece doesn’t have enough troubles of its own at the moment. For years it has been wracked by financial turmoil, but neither does this deter Greeks at large from extending a supporting hand to refugee arrivals. In fact, as the government is stretched it appears that individual volunteers and private donations are filling the breach.

Some of this generosity stems from the personal histories of many Greek families. For many Greeks the refugee experience is not that far removed – in the early decades of the 20th centuries significant numbers of Greek families were uprooted from Anatolia, where they had lived for centuries, and made their own passage across the Aegean as refugees to forge a new life in cities such as Thessaloniki and on islands such as Lesbos. The memory is fresh and their empathy (which comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια, meaning “physical affection”) is strong. In fact, one Greek woman in the mainland town of Idomeni remarked that lending a hand to refugees is a “moral obligation”.

This all stands in marked contrast to the reactions of countries like Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia, which have thrown up razor wire fences to prevent refugees moving northward into Europe. It was these very countries that not so long ago languished on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and who hankered for the freedom that the West offered. That they offer no passage to refugees now is nothing short of mean spirited. They appear to have forgotten that geopolitical fate operates without mercy and sometimes leaves the deserving on the wrong side of artificial boundaries.

But the Greeks at the rocky fringes of Europe are fully aware of the power – and necessity – of the humanist gesture and they seek no recourse in cheap retellings of Trojan Horse allegories. And as this video demonstrates, the refugees arriving are not warriors with evil intent hidden within any metaphorical horse, but people who are filled with hope and gratitude for the hospitality and benevolence that the Greeks are bestowing upon them.

Advertisements

On borders, or the crossing thereof

Gjirokastra-01

Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]

epirus-01

Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]

van-train-station

Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]

 

[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1

 

 

On football matches: to mark silence or to boo

Greek-Turkish-trinkets

FOOTBALL IS known as the beautiful game. There are plenty of people who like to see sport as metaphor for life. Like many things, football is really just one of many *parts* of life, so perhaps we should recognise it as such and not read too much into it.

Still, based on several recent incidents, I can’t help but wonder if people’s behaviour at football matches doesn’t offer a perspective on societal dynamics, perhaps on a nation’s psyche or even the deeper workings of the human spirit.

Last Friday, a football match in the Greek city of Larissa was delayed when players, coaches and officials sat down as a protest to urge authorities to work harder to cater to refugees coming to Greece and as a mark of respect for refugees who had lost their lives in recent days attempting to cross the Aegean.

It was the Greeks, after all, who gave us the concept of philanthropy (φιλανθρωπία), which translates literally as “love of humanity”.

Apparently in Greek, there are four different words for love, one of which is agápē (ἀγάπη) from whence we get “agape”, but which translates as a sense of brotherly love and charity. Thomas Aquinas saw agápē as the wishing of good upon another.

I can’t help but compare the actions of the footballers in Larissa with the Turkish football fans in Istanbul who booed and jeered during a pre-game minute of silence for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, just as fans at a match in Konya had earlier disrupted a minute’s silence for the (mostly Kurdish and leftist) victims of the Ankara bombing in October.

Observing a moment’s silence as a mark of respect is not a commonly recognised practice in Turkey, but the actions of the Turkish crowds raised eyebrows around the world, to say the least.

In considering the Turkish crowds, the uncouth behaviour of a portion of a football crowd should not be taken as a reflection of an entire nation or people. The Greeks and the Turks have much more in common – in cultural, social and culinary terms – than nationalists of either strip would ever admit. But for a fleeting second I wondered if, after years of living, travelling, working and researching in Turkey, perhaps I should have been spending my time on the other side of the Aegean…

Until I stumbled across the reaction of Fatih Terim, the manager of the Turkish national team, who decried the “cruelty” of the booing Konya crowd and said better that Turkey had lost the match (after which it qualified for UEFA 2016) and not one life had been lost.

 

 

Neo-Ottomanism hanging in the balance

NEVER ONE alert to treading on toes, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Prizren  recently, caused a minor diplomatic furor by remarking that ‘Kosovo is Turkey’.

It’s a curious comment, to say the least, but in a region still beset by nationalist sensitivities, and in a territory that the Serbs still see as rightfully theirs, it displays a remarkable lack of diplomatic nouse. Serbia duly demanded an apology for the ‘scandal’ and declared its intention to pull out of tri-partite talks with Turkey and Bosnia, which began to great fanfare in 2010 with the aim of dispelling long-running hostility in the region.

Perhaps on some level Erdoğan has a point. To my interloper’s eye (not having ever visited Kosovo, mind), there are many similarities in landscape, architecture, artistic traditions and modes of everyday life across the Balkans/Turkey/the Caucasus.  In my experience as a visitor, the vibe(s) in Albania/Bosnia/Republika Srpska/Macedonia/northern Greece/Armenia/Georgia is/are not unlike that in Turkey. There may be more lamb and less pork on the grill in certain places, more church spires or minarets in others, but, as I see it, the pace of life, traditions of hospitality, the levels of gregariousness, neighbourliness and conviviality are remarkably consistent.

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Erdoğan riffing on affinities and/or commonalities – however clumsily – doesn’t necessarily equate to aggressive intent (which is how the Serbs have construed his comments), but it’s hardly statesmanlike talk, particularly given the traumatic history and tense geopolitics of Kosovo. Who knows if Erdoğan’s was an off-the-cuff remark, or if is just more evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, and an unhealthy degree of hubris (and thinking that he can say whatever comes into his head without repercussions).

The comment was another hiccup in Turkey’s efforts to buddy up to its neighbours, a policy begun under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and efforts to assume a leadership role in southeastern Europe. Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began with what appeared self-generating momentum back in the day but has been scuppered in recent years as the Arab Spring has gone haywire. As one Turkish journalist points out, Davutoğlu can rightly claim that events beyond his control, particularly in the Arab world, have meant his aspirations are all but unattainable, but it’s also true that Erdoğan, and his bluntness, have made things less tenable in the case of Syria and now Serbia.

Whether Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader were ever realistic is difficult to say. As has been noted, at one time its brisk economic growth and the relative stability of its political arena certainly meant it was well placed, but it appears that any window of opportunity is now firmly slammed shut (or perhaps shattered). Some may breathe a sigh of relief at this, but ambitions on the part of Turkey in its near-abroad need not have been sinister. There has been much talk of neo-Ottomanism as either some post-modern form of imperialism, or at least a desire on the part of the Turks to exact some sort of revenge for earlier territorial and military retreats.

Implicit in such interpretations lies a degree of Islamophobia that construes any proactive Muslim-majority state to be intrinsically hegemonic or expansionary (with missionary intent). But it may be more reasonable to see that at its heart the zero-problems-with-neighbours policy is only neo-Ottoman in the sense that it involves rekindling relations with the states within what was once the Ottoman realm. These are Turkey’s immediate neighbours, so it only makes sense that Turkey enjoys good relations, cooperates on strategic issues and trades with them.

For all of the fallout from Erdoğan’s inopportune comments and the traumas in Syria and Egypt, Turkey maintains good relations with Georgia, and these look set to continue under newly incumbent President Georgy Margvelashvili. Turkey also continues to be a country of opportunity for Greeks fleeing the economic malaise in their own homeland. In recent weeks, Ankara has opened the doors for Greek doctors to practice in Turkey, and in fact it is well documented that increasing numbers of Greeks, many of whom have studied the Turkish language, are finding work in Istanbul and Izmir.

Meanwhile, in a recent diplomatic flurry, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has started patching up relations with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the stage is now set for neo-neo-Ottomanism.

Despot in Epirus

THE GREEK ECONOMY is in a parlous state, being largely dependent on EU bail-outs. Winning extra funds hardly counts as a Eureka! moment, a concept which the ancient Greek Archimedes gifted us. Currently, successive bundles of EU benevolence are only bestowed if the Greek government implements further austerity measures, something that Greeks don’t appear to be too happy about.

A while back an alternative panacea (another Greek concept!) was sought. A Greek-Australian treasure hunter undertook a search in the mountains of northern Greece for the long-lost – and possibly fictional – booty of Ali Pasha, a 19th-century Ottoman-appointed governor of a swathe of territory across northern Greece and Albania. It was hoped that the loot would be so substantial that it would shower riches on its discoverer and service a decent portion of Greece’s national debt. In the wash up, like current and future EU handouts, it didn’t amount to untold wealth; in fact, nothing was found, apparently.

His loot may remain undiscovered, but it is well known that Ali Pasha’s capital was at Ioannina (Ιωάννινα), now the capital of the Greek administrative region of Epirus. Ioannina is one of the most intriguing cities in Greece, I think. It forms a neat counterpoint to Gjirokastra across the Greek-Albanian frontier. While Gjirokastra, an Albanian museum city, reveals a distinct Greek imprint, Ioannina on the Greek side of the border displays the legacy of its Albanian-Ottoman history. Only 90 kilometres separates the two. Their physical proximity is matched by similarities in environment and in the movements of peoples over the centuries. Perhaps rather than being exclusively, classifiably Greek or Albanian cities both of them are elemental Balkan entities, essential creations of their individual terrains and histories.

Approaching Ioannina from Igoumenitsa on the Ionian coast in 2004, I was struck by the Balkan nature of the terrain. The twists of the road as it climbed, flowering pomegranates, the implausibly pink fairy-floss blossom of tamarisk (it was May). Purple-grey rock, Spanish broom and groves of myrtle. Out of the corner of my eye I saw, in a gravelly layby, Greek soldiers in camouflage chatting while leaning on the bonnet of their jeep beneath shady plane trees. I told myself – somewhat fancifully – that I was heading into frontier territory. Returning in 2008 I travelled effortlessly on the Via Egnatia motorway built with EU money.

Ioannina has had something of a roller-coaster history. It was noted as well fortified by Procopius in the 6th century. Later it received large numbers of Greek refugees who fled Constantinople when it was rolled by the knights of the fourth Crusade in 1204. At this point, Ioannina was an important city in the despotate of Epirus (presumably ruled by an eponymous despot), but it was to be captured by the Serbs in the late 14th century. The Ottoman Turks then romped in in 1430 taking the city without bloodshed; Epirus remained part of the Ottoman realm until 1912. A scholarly paper by Brendan Osswald investigating the ethnic composition of medieval Epirus reveals that this period saw extensive ethnic and cultural mixing, not always happily it must be said.

Ottoman control didn’t herald the smothering of the Greek identity of the city, despite what some Greek nationalists might assert. Greek aristocratic families in Ioannina retained their privileges and estates after the conquest, living alongside Turks, Albanians and Jews. Capitalising on the city’s favourable location at the meeting point of trade routes across the Balkans, local merchants grew wealthy and endowed the city with schools, grand buildings and printing presses (the height of technological advancement at the time). A 18th-century French visitor opined that it was “a little Marseille” and the poet William Haygarth, during the reign of Ali Pasha, regarded it as the capital of Greece (a country, which at that point, didn’t exist). Ioannina became a centre of Greek literacy and learning – the centre of the “Greek Enlightenment” which fed an awakening sense of Greek nationhood. One 19th-century observer commented that “all Greek authors” were either schooled here or had links to the city.

It is Ali Pasha, of Albanian descent, however, who remains the most notorious Ioanninian. The French diplomat and writer François Pouqeville recounted his meeting with Ali Pasha, remarking on “the lightning of his eyes, his starting convulsive twitches; I observed his discourse apparently vague, but full of purpose and artifice”. Pouqeville, an early Hellenophile, observed that “the fire of his little blue eyes… impressed on me the alarming idea of deep cunning, united with ferocity” and noted freshly cut-off human heads that were planted on stakes in the pasha’s court.

Lord Byron after meeting Ali Pasha called him the “Muslim Bonaparte”. Katherine Fleming used this designation as the title of her monograph on Ali Pasha. Fleming says that most writing on Ali has high “titillation” factor; he is seen as a colourful character and is portrayed as such albeit in a negative way. Pouqeville’s depiction, Fleming asserts, is “exaggerated, biased and unreliable” highlighting picturesquely unctuous aspects of his temperament and exploits to portray him – as many other writers have – as the archetypal “Oriental” despot.

Pouqeville was dismissive of Ioannina, which “like all other towns of Turkey, consists of a dirty bazaar; of crooked streets, not one of which deserves notice”. Parts of Ali Pasha’s Ioannina are still standing. It is these that make the city unlike any other that I have seen in Greece. The Mosque of Aslan Pasha, standing on a headland jutting into Lake Pamvotis, is an Ottoman mosque unlike any that I have ever seen in Turkey, with an air of dilapidated elegance, untouched since (presumably) 1912. The slate roofs of houses on the island in the lake are identical to those in Gjirokastra. A wonderful unnamed gift shop outside the entrance to Ali Pasha’s citadel sells wooden Karagöz shadow puppets (Καραγκιόζης in the Greek) similar to those found in Turkey. There has clearly been a whole mess of cultural mixing going on here for centuries.

But there are quintessentially Greek aspects to the city, too: the tailor in the Old Town with his Singer sewing machine sitting in the window of his shop, and the old local I spied as I was eating my dinner in the tavern who came in to claim what was clearly his regular table where he sat all night wordlessly observing the goings on. These things will no doubt continue no matter what the state of the Greek economy.

Chronicles of a stone town

MARKETING TYPES and wanna-be travel writers like to write of particular destinations as ‘unique’. They’re right of course: no single place is duplicated anywhere in the world, so by definition every destination is unique.

I don’t think that’s what they’re getting at, though. Perhaps, what they’re trying to say is that certain destinations are distinctive, that is, different in subtle ways to other destinations, boasting characteristics that are unlike other places, distinguishable, perhaps even idiosyncratic.

Whatever! To my mind, Albania is one  of the more distinctive – not unique! – destinations in Europe. Its recent history saw it hermetically sealed from the rest of the Continent (as well as the Soviet realm, with which it shared at least some ideological affinity). The Albanians are thought to have descended from the Illyrians, a people who faded into the mists of history (but for a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; well actually he writes of the Illyrian shore, not the people). And the Albanian language is unrelated to any other.

The most famous Albanian at present is probably the writer Ismail Kadare. The winner of the inaugural Man Booker Prize and several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kadare incorporates elements of myth, legend, allegory (designed to outmanoeuvre and skewer socialist-era censors), Balkan lore and history into his writing. One of his most well-loved – and I suspect autobiographical – novels is Chronicle in Stone, set in his birthplace of Gjirokastra during the 1940s and presented through the eyes of a young boy. The Fall of the Stone City, Kadare’s latest novel, recently translated into English, returns to Gjirokastra during WWII, and, going by reviews, is comprised of a familiarly intriguing brew of myth and history, dream and reality.

Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the idiosyncratic, despotic socialist strongman who ruled Albania from WWII until 1985. Hoxha declared his home town a “museum city”, thus it was spared the depredations of post-War socialist architects with their bevies of cement mixers; it retains the bulk of its historical building stock. Yet for all its exalted “museum” status and important place in Albanian history it has a very heavy Greek imprint. Gjirokastra, after all comes from the Greek: agyros (αργυρός, “silver”) + kastro (κάστρο, “castle”).

Gjirokastra climbs a steep hill above the Drinos River, in southern Albania not far from the Greek border. It’s easy to see why the stone motif features in Kadare’s novels about the city, and why he has a predilection for myths and legends. It’s an atmospheric settlement in a rugged, wind-whipped location, backed by calloused mountains. It’s fair to say that Gjirokastra is distinctive! From the lower, new town, steep, cobblestone streets rise to the bazaar area and residential neighbourhoods and beyond to the eponymous and fabulously gloomy kastro, which, when I visited, was framed by a constant halo of hovering crows.

Wandering the upper town is hard work. The winding cobbled streets are undeniably atmospheric, a melange of white-washed garden walls, mighty, jagged plane trees. On the verges and in garden plots grow wild fig, poppies, honeysuckle. The topography of a town straddling a hillside works against a casual stroll. Locals clearly get used to the gradient though: I noticed grandmothers dressed all in black striding purposefully up ascending paths, their sinewy calf muscles bulging in knee-high stockings.

Gjirokastra is notable for its signature, 19th-century kullë mansions (from the Turkish kule, “tower”). Sturdy and imposing they are built in three storeys, topped with weighty, limestone roof tiles. These tiles are very much of the area, elemental building materials that are drawn from the very landscape. They also feature in architecture south of the border in Greece, in Epirus, particularly in the towns of Ioannina and Metsovo.

The Gjerë Mountains form a barrier between Gjirokastra and the Ionian Sea. When I crossed the mountains the bus had to slow at the pass to allow a shepherd and his flock of fat-tailed sheep cross the highway. The shepherd’s wife led a couple of horses that were carrying large milk canisters and a young sheep dog nestled amongst woven bags. Descending to the Drinos Valley, we then turned left and headed north past villages all with Greek names.

After my stay in Gjirokastra I had to head south to Greece. I arrived in the bus station in the lower town early in the morning. I’d missed the first bus of the day to the border. Having no Albanian I found it difficult to determine when the next would leave. I tried French to no avail, and then, on a whim, Turkish – again, no dice. Finally, using my best travellers’ sign language I managed to convince a minibus driver to take me. He charged me well over the odds, I’m sure. There was no change from the note that I proffered.

We set off, heading south along the Drinos Valley. The driver whistled merrily. My fare was probably a substantial contribution to his retirement fund. He stopped for a couple of passengers, women in cardigans and headscarves. All of them looked at me, the lone traveller with a backpack, then chatted animatedly with the driver. All handed over smaller notes than I had.

Just short of the border, he took on another woman. She climbed aboard and declared, “Kαλημέρα.” Kalimera! Good morning! They were speaking Greek. Perhaps if I’d tried my best traveller’s Greek in the lower town I would’ve had a cheaper ride.

When we drew to a halt I thanked the driver: ευχαριστώ πολύ. He looked puzzled, then grinned broadly and wished me bon voyage – καλη ταξίδι – and I lined up to cross the border, leaving the stony hills of Albania for the stony hills of northern Greece.

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.