Boris Fishman

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Jewel in the Crown

For three centuries, Salonica was a vibrant hub of Ottoman life.

The northern Greek city of Salonica—Thessaloniki to the Greeks—passed through Roman and Byzantine hands before falling to the Ottomans in 1430, which is the starting point of Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, a chronicle 20 years in the making. At the geographical heart of the Ottoman Empire, Salonica was among its largest ports and most vital economic centers until the 18th century, when several episodes of the plague, along with a shift of trade routes to the rising Turkish port of Izmir, damaged the city’s fortunes. By then, however, it had developed what Mazower calls a multiconfessional community whose many religions and ethnic groups mingled freely; the city, for example, was home to the ma’min, Sephardic Jews who followed the false messiah Sabbetai Sevi into Islam and practiced both Jewish and Muslim rites. This diversity persisted until Greek nationalists captured Salonica in 1912. A forced population exchange with republican Turkey in the 1920s emptied the city of its Muslims; the Nazi occupation did the same for its Jews.

Throughout the book, you attach greater superlatives—a larger harbor, a stronger economy—to Izmir, Alexandria, and other Ottoman cities. Why did you choose to chronicle Salonica?

Salonica is the place where I studied Greek when I became interested in modern Greece and the Balkans. Because Salonica was in the north, near what were then the Yugoslav and Bulgarian borders, the city had a much more Balkan and, I daresay, Ottoman feel than Athens, which is a modern creation. In Salonica, on the other hand, the first thing that strikes you is the Hellenistic walls that still run around the old city. So you see not only the antiquity of the city, but also evidence of layers and layers of continuous settlement. That interested me from the start.

What interested me in particular was this extraordinary Jewish population that was proportionately the largest element in the city, and in the Ottoman Empire—and, indeed, anywhere else in the world outside the Pale of Settlement. So, it was both a typical Ottoman city in that it was polyglot and multiconfessional, and it was unique in the size of its Jewish population.

What made Salonica such a center of Ottoman Jewry?

After the expulsion from Spain, the Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire. They were encouraged to settle in Salonica because, 60 years after the Ottoman conquest of the city, which was their most important possession in the Balkans and a vital economic power base, it was still underpopulated. Ottoman authorities had been focused entirely on repopulating the capital, Istanbul. So they gave the Jews various privileges, put them in charge of woolmaking, making uniforms for the Janissaries, and more or less left them to their own devices. Compared with what the Jews had been used to in Spain and Portugal, this was an extraordinarily favorable turn of events.

Ottoman Jews lived in an environment of relative tolerance and religious fluidity compared to the Jews compressed into the Pale of Settlement. In what ways was the identity of Salonican Jews shaped by their Ottoman masters?

It’s a very important question, one that historians haven’t really begun to answer. In the Jewish community, every synagogue was named after the places they had come from in Spain or Provence, and was constantly in dispute with every other synagogue. There was not a great need for the community to act cohesively because there wasn’t huge pressure from above, provided they could meet their tax obligations. So there is tremendous diversity in the Jewish community for a long time.

And, of course, Ottoman influences saturated Jewish life: dress, the veiling of women, certain dishes, music, jewelry, even manuscript illustrations. There was also some scholarly interaction between rabbis and the ulema. Although the Jews were encouraged to use their own rabbinical courts, they could also use Muslim courts—which were official, while the rabbinical courts always existed in a legal limbo—which issued judgments based on Sharia. This meant that rabbis and Jewish officials had to familiarize themselves with the principles of Ottoman jurisprudence.

If they prospered in the Ottoman Empire, why were Jewish Salonicans so enthusiastic about the international workers’ movement in the early 20th century?
By 1910, the Jewish community is impoverished, for the most part—it’s just too big, and the city can’t provide enough work. But they’re not interested in Zionism, because for them, Palestine is just another part of the Ottoman Empire. Jews are the bulk of the workforce, so what there is great interest in is unionization, because the Jews see worker internationalism as a kind of imperial solution. They want to take the Ottoman Empire and turn it into a socialist empire. They see it as an alternative to nationalism. This was true for European Jews—certainly the Hapsburg Jews—generally: They’re faithful to the empire because the alternative is worse.

It seems the Jewish community in Greece has always fared better under authoritarian governments. Why?

In Greece, as in other places in Europe, democracy in the interwar period was dominated by nationalist parties. Authoritarian dictators, on the whole, were a much better deal because they were invested in preserving the status quo. In Greece, the dictators were royalist, and for a complicated number of reasons, the royalists were traditionally pro-Jewish.

Both religiously and administratively, the Turks took a hands-off approach. Was this policy their key to success?

The book is written against a tendency deeply entrenched in European culture to look down on the Ottomans as, at best, benign and, at worst, lazy. I think the Ottomans were extremely sophisticated. They knew that every imperial power has limited resources and that you have to prioritize. What they required from people, they administered with great exactitude. They needed bodies to fight and taxes regularly paid, and the rest for them was a secondary matter as long as public order was not disturbed. That strikes me as a rather sensible way to run an empire. You don’t interfere much in people’s lives, and for the better part of 300 years, it works pretty well militarily.

Does this laissez-faire policy ever become a liability?

It becomes a liability when you want to increase the level of extraction of resources. In the 19th century, with Europe rapidly developing, the empire needs more revenue and a stronger military, and they face huge resistance—more than that, rebellion—from their subjects over taxation and conscription. So, there is a cost. They can’t face down military challenges without outside help from the Great Powers.

How did Salonica develop differently from Athens?

Athens is a self-made city: It’s a product of Greek independence in 1830, and wasn’t much of a city before that. But it becomes the center of Greek bureaucracy and the country’s Europeanization. It likes to consider itself a highly civilized place. Then comes the conquest of the northern lands. Salonica had been much larger than Athens, had been a continuously developing city, and had not been predominantly Greek. So when the rulers of Greece arrive in Salonica in 1912, they have a bit of culture shock. They regard it as some terrible Ottoman backwater. At the same time, the inhabitants of the city look down on the Athenians. So, there’s a kind of mutual condescension that lasts to this day. For Salonica, it’s the classic second-city complex.

And the atmosphere of the two places?

In Salonica, you’re always looking at the sea. You have the mountains behind you, you feel like you’re close to other countries and cultures. It feels, despite its smaller size, highly cosmopolitan, a highly intellectual place where caf√©s dominate downtown, and the Ottoman and Hellenistic remains add to that. Athens is a city of concrete, where people have landed because they have to, because it’s the center of power. It’s a kind of bureaucratic hive, much less relaxed, much less a place that people feel affection for.

You portray modern Greece as a place of strident nationalism that has led to the suppression of Salonica’s Ottoman history. How has your book been received in Salonica?

It’s being translated into Greek and will be published there in 2006. But, you know, Greece is a different place these days, especially since the fall of the junta in 1974. There’s a good deal of interest in the Ottoman period, in the Jews of the city, though not so much in the Muslims. I’m rather struck at how receptive the Greek reading public has been to books like this. They’re devouring historical novels on this kind of subject. There is a sense in Greece that the nationalist narratives got rather boring and predictable, and also weren’t all that true.

What other ideas did you hope to overturn with the book?

The main one was to try to understand how the Ottoman Empire functioned, without falling into romanticization—the Ottomans were perfectly capable of slaughtering 5,000 Greeks in 1821. On the other hand, it was a very sophisticated form of rule. The book is also about denationalizing these forms of identity, Turks and Greeks. A lot of the Orthodox Christians who come from Asia Minor during the population exchange frequently speak Turkish better than they do Greek. How did they move from these confessional identities to national ones? The same is true for the Jews—a confessional identity that becomes nationalized in the 20th century. How do you politicize religion? It’s about the coming of politics into a society where there was no politics before 1880.

Copyright 2005 Nextbook

May 12, 2005