Saturday, September 09, 2006

Salonica: City of Ghosts

I just finished reading Mark Mazower's book "Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950."

The book is a history of the city of Thessaloniki (sometimes also called Salonica), with special attention on the period of Ottoman rule and the World Wars. In particular, Mazower is interested in the religious and ethnic communities that inhabited the city during this period.

First, I must say that it was VERY well researched and provides A LOT of interesting historical detail. (In fact, some may complain that it is a bit dry in parts.) In short, I think it's worth reading, especially if you are interested in the city of Thessaloniki. If you are planning to visit us (we hope!), it will give you some good background information.

That being said, I also have some complaints. First, I think Mazower shows too much of a bias. Clearly, he is writing based on a couple personal views. One, he believes the city reached it apex during Ottoman rule, thanks largely to the Jewish community. Two, he sees the rise of European nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries as an unmitigated disaster, and he sees Greek nationalism as particularly pernicious.

While I'm inclined to sympathize with the dismay at ULTRA-Greek nationalism, he is too heavy-handed in his portrayal. For one, he keeps referring to Greek "rewriting" of history along ideological lines, but EVERYONE tells history as they see it, INCLUDING him.

Second, he spends not a little time detailing the pitfalls of Balkan nationalism, but COMPLETELY OVERLOOKS the very same nationalism (or what amounts to the same thing, ethno-centrism) of the Jewish community he praises so much. For example, he barely conceals his contempt for the Greek government's "hellenization" of the city after the fall of the Ottoman Empire -- the push for the Greek language, culture, etc. But when the Jewish community did THE VERY SAME THINGS -- refusing to be culturally assimilated during the whole 500-year Ottoman rule, insisting on their Judeo-Spanish language, etc. -- well, this is just to be expected, apparently. Jewish culture must, of course, be kept pure (it goes without saying), but for Greeks to insist on the same for their culture is tyrannical nationalism. I find that a very frustrating assumption. I don't care if he's in favor of cultural separatism or assimiliation, but don't be hypocritical about it. What's good for one is good for the other.

Besides that, the book is very well done. It is meticulously researched, including many personal letters, diary entries, etc. that are frequently humorous. If you are interested in learning more about Thessaloniki, it's a good source -- just NOT to be taken as the ONLY source. As always (it seems) in the Balkans, there are many sides to the story.

For example, a Greek friend of ours here vehemently disagreed with many of the book's assertions about the size and influence of the Jewish community during Ottoman rule. For the Greeks, the city is fundamentally Greek with only a few non-Greek hiccups along the way. Mazower seems to be writing precisely against this dominant position, going (too far, I think) in the opposite direction.

Anyway, that's just my take. I'd be curious to hear what others think. I believe Makrina read this book as well.

For those interested, it can be purchased on Amazon here, or (even cheaper) on here. (I've used many times and always been happy with them.)

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