Salonica and Istambul: Cities of Ghosts


I arrive in Thessalonika on a sunny winter afternoon and take a stroll along the prom. Work seems to finish early, and the glittering youth are strutting their stuff and staring at passers by from the armchairs of the pavement cafes. It seems a pleasant Greek city as the sun sets over the Aegean. Busy but relaxed, well-dressed and fashionable. A Chinese rag trade seems to have opened up in the dock area since I was last here some eight years ago. A few Africans are selling fake Armani bags along the main thoroughfares. I hear Greek everywhere. I know that Salonika was an important Ottoman city, but this seems to have been almost completely obliterated. No mosques, muezzins or hamans. I see the Greek and Roman ruins but no mosque, no reminder that Salonika was the most important city in the European Ottoman Empire.

Well-known Turks were born here. Ataturk’s birthplace is now a museum and part of the Turkish consulate, possibly about the only Ottoman house open to visit. The poet Nazim Hikmet, grandson of the former governor of Salonika, Nazim Pahsa, moved from Salonika when he was eleven.

I borrow my title from Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslins and Jews 1430-1950 (Harper). In 1913 Greeks were a minority (40,000) of Salonika’s 157,000 inhabitants (Jews 61,000 and Muslims 46,000). Then, after the defeat of the Turks by the Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks in the First Balkan War in 1913 some 140,000 Muslims from Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, including 24,000 from Salonika, went to Istanbul and Izmir. Thousands of Greek refugees also arrived in Salonika from Thrace. But the largest exchange of numbers was at the end of the Greco-Turkish war in 1922, when Atatürk’s nationalist army defeated the occupying Greek army in Western Turkey. The population exchange was officially sanctioned by international law and had the support of both Atatürk and Venizelos, the Greek leader, who were both attempting to build nation states on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. A Turkish deputy put it like this: “The arrival of every individual is a source of richness for us; and the departure of every individual is a blessing for us!” (p.345). A million and a half ethnic Greeks, mostly from the Izmir region, many of whom who now spoke just Turkish, but who were orthodox Christians, made their way to Greece, many settling in Salonica. And 500,000 ethnic Turks made their way to what was now the Turkish Republic. A far larger population exchange would take place with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

By 1928 the Greeks formed 75% of the population of 236,000 in Salonika. Minarets were destroyed. Mosques were put to other uses such as cinemas and warehouses. The visitor must now seek out the old ruins. No postcards or signposts. No minaret is left other than that of the Roman Rotunda, originally a church then a mosque from 1591, is now a museum but one where Orthodox services are held and where there is a very distinctive cross.

Most of the remaining non-Turks were Jews. Many ran businesses, both big and small. In April 1941 the Germans invaded Greece. Few escaped the 1943 deportations. Differently to Athens, where the smaller number of Jews were more assimilated, no senior Greek official made a vociferous protest when over 45,000 Jews were transported to the concentration camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz. I fınd no momument to the Holocaust in the old Jewish district. Greeks now made up nearly 100% of the population.

Istanbul received a number of Jews, and relations were generally amicable. Indeed, in Salonika Jews generally supported the rule of the Ottoman Empire. But now there are few Jews, most having emigrated to Isreal and the US. As there are few Greeks and Armenians. But, differently to Salonika, the buildings are still there.

On a chilly Sunday morning in Beyoğlu you can imagine for a few moments that you are back in European Pera some hundred years ago. My hotel window overlooks one of the Greek churches. This one is now being renovated. I see the Catholic church of Santo Antonio and hear the church bells, a sound, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, hated by the Sultans and forbidden as the bells were wrung to commemorate the Christian victories over the Turks.

The Istiklal Cadessi, or La Grande Rue de Pera, is fairly empty. I pass by the mansions of the old European embassies: The British Consulate, formerly the embassy before the capital moved to Ankara, was bombed in November 2003, when 27 died in a suicide attack linked to Al Queda. The French Consulate was under police guard in October 2006 when protesters demonstrated against the fact that denying the Armenian massacres was now against French law. The Russian, Italian Swedish and Dutch, and the former American, now moved to safer quarters.

The foreigners are coming to church on Sunday morning, as they have always done, to worship, to meet people, to socialise. No longer dressed in their Sunday best. And their nationalities have also changed. Many brown and black faces. I hear no French. And English has replaced French as the lingua franca.

I visited Santo Antonio a year ago, and the service was in Italian. Now we have fire and brimstone from an African priest, telling us how leaders should always take notice of those they are leading. From Zimbabwe, Kenya, I wonder. There are over a hundred in the church. Mostly African, and you hardly ever see Africans on the streets of Istanbul.

I discover another Catholic church, Italian and Spanish, Santa Maria Draperis, first erected in 1584 by Signora Clara Bertola Draperis, existing on the present site since 1769. A plaque commemorates the unfortunate death of “Adelaide-Sophie Joséphine Cornisset, épouse de Jouannin, premier interprète de SMTC près la porte ottomane on 27 October sur cette terre étrangère” at the tender age of 30, leaving five children.

At the Union Church, inside the Dutch Consulate most of the worshippers are American. “Hi Grant”. They welcome the quiet Malaysians and Koreans. I go down the hill to the Anglican Christ Church, where the service has just finished and a mixture of white and Brown faces are just leaving for brunch. It was erected as “a memorial of all who died in the service of HM Queen Victoria in the Crimean War […] consecrated under the name of Christ Church by the Lord Bishop of Gibraltar, 22 October 1868. A plaque was erected by the wife of Percy Ellen Algernon Frederick William Sydney Symthe, Eighth Viscount Strangford and third Baron Penshurst, 1825-1869, an oriental and in 1844 student attaché in Constantinople. Another plaque mentions the Curtis Memorial Fund, for “Relief of pain and sickness among British subjects at Constantinople”.

The several small Armenian churches remain closed, but the service has just finished at the large Greek church near Taksim, the old ladies, some of the few remaining Greek residents, makes their way out. But now there is a new warmth between Greece and Turkey. The Greek Prime Minister, Costa Karamanlia, is in Turkey to boost trade. The Turkish Daily News runs an article on young Greek executives, investment bankers and computer analysts working in Turkey. Greece doesn’t want a hostile Turkey and is in favour of Turkey joining the EU.

5 Responses to “Salonica and Istambul: Cities of Ghosts”

  1. Sixten Says:

    The author has an agenda. It becomes obvious from the wording! Both Salonica and what is now Istanbul were built, many centuries BC, by Greeks long before Turks, Slavs, Muslims and Jews existed as distinguishable entities!

    The Jews were expelled from Spain because they threw the gates of the cities open to Muslims and served them loyaly against the Christians. They were imported to Greek soil by the occupiers, the Turks. As they were loyal to the Arabs in Spain they were loyal to the Turks in Salonica. They aquired Fortunes robbed from the Greeks with the help of the Turks.

    When Salonica was liberated the Jews wanted to have it as an independent city! Imagine! A Greek city, for thousands of years finally liberated from the Muslims would become Independent!

    Smyrna was a Greek city with an overwhelming majority of Greek population for almost three millenia. Yet the author calls the presence of Greek army in Smyrna 1922 is called the “occupying Greek Army”!

    Why is “Jerusalem Liberata” whereas Smyrna is occupied? Redefinition of the vocabulary?

    Please mr Author, Read History not Propaganda Leaflets disguised to History by postmodernististc redefinition of words and tactful ommission of essential facts that clarify the context. You refer in length to the brief occupation of Greece by Germans and the ensuing elimination of the Salonican jewery but not the systematic persecution of the Greeks of Salonica under hundreds of years by the Turks, partly with the help of the jews. What happened to the local Christian population?

    Why such selectivity?

    According to the propaganda, that you obviously serve, Greeks destroy momuments or even ommit to build monuments!

    No honest person who has read History, not mazowerian stories, can find a word of truth in the picture you are painting.

    The Acropolis of Athens is the Symbol of the Greatness of the West.
    Read the History of Parthenon as it is related by Mary Beard. Facts and their correct context! Many valuable lessons!

  2. konstantinos Says:

    Hello, I come from Thessalonica. I have some comments on the part about the city.

    1) “I fınd no momument to the Holocaust in the old Jewish district.” :

    I am not sure if there is a monument about the Holocaust but you can find for sure a museum dedicated to the Jewish holocaust.

    2) “In April 1941 the Germans invaded Greece. Few escaped the 1943 deportations. …, no senior Greek official made a vociferous protest when over 45,000” :

    During the German occupation the official Greek government retreated to Egypt. There wasn’t any official power in the ciry to stop that. Besides, Greek families both in Thessalonica and Athens risked their lives by hiding Jews.

  3. Dimitra Says:

    Hi, I ‘m from Thessaloniki too. Seeing how observant you are about things like the Chinese near the harbour, I’m surprised you didn’t see the monument to the deportation of the Jews and to the holocaust. You walked right past it because it stands right on the promenade where you took a stroll between the first pier and the cafes.
    Since you seem to have read Mark Mazower’s great book on the city I will point out that it was on that lot that the Jews were concentrated by the Germans before they were sent off to be killed. I do not take much offence to your depiction of the story, but, to set things straight, since you obviously quote from the book you should add that, yes, Greeks did not stand up to the Germans (as though anybody else did) but neither did they assist them. The man who assisted the Germans and betrayed the Jews was their own undescribable Rabbi.

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