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Sunday, September 01, 2002


Salonika, City of Shadows

I was born in 1902
I never went back to my birthplace
I don’t like to turn back…
– Nazim Hikmet, from the poem, “Autobiography”

It was, of course, a cloudy day – threatening to shower, in fact – as my wife and I left our hotel through the back exit that gave directly onto the paralia (seafront); I instinctively turned to my right (we were heading toward the center of town) and up: there, as always, stood Yedi Kule, symbol at the same time of arbitrary authority and intractable cultural resistance. Greeks call it the Eptapiryio; rebetes knew it as Yedi Kule. It’s Yedi Kule. We kept on walking.

Northern exposures
I’ve always said that I’ve known the city of my birth intimately, but not well. I couldn’t help that. Like so many native Salonikans – once upon a time, at least – I was born into a world in which existential permanence was not considered a birthright. Either one’s family was uprooted from other lands, or one was uprooted oneself, or (as in my case) both. (In the old days, before postmodern, multicultural mobility replaced pre-bourgeois multiethnic fixity, people weren’t “transplanted,” they were uprooted – which, I suppose, explains the Serbs’ strategy in Bosnia, given their self-proclaimed respect for “tradition.”) In any event, I was not even a year old when my parents immigrated to the United States; I came back to Salonika by myself for the first time when I was 18. I’ve been coming back ever since.

It did end up raining that day, but it wasn’t a shower; it was a downpour. Luckily, we were inside by then, and by the time we were ready to go to dinner, the setting sun had infused the city with that sensual, early-evening gilding that is a glory of the Mediterranean summer. In Salonika, the climate is as inconstant as the city’s identity, and in case there are any doubts for the first-time visitor, the weather makes it clear that we are not in Attica anymore, and certainly not in Mykonos. In the immortal words of another native son, and the most brilliant Greek composer of his generation, Dionysis Savopoulos: “edo einai Valkania, den einai paixeyelase” (my translation – “these are the Balkans, this ain’t no fooling around” – does not begin to do justice either to the meaning of the Greek or to its polemical lyricism). It is also no coincidence that Salonika has become the emblematic city of Greece’s most important artist of the last quarter-century, Thodoros Angelopoulos, whose topoi refuse to recognize the pseudo-Hellenic phantasms of blanched buildings, classical symmetries, and arbitrary cultural unities. The Balkans indeed. Salonika is a city of rupture, of dispossession and renunciation, of estrangement as a fact of life and integration (personal as well as public) as a consummation devoutly to be wished. To put it in another cultural framework: We’re not in Kansas anymore.

We are, in fact, in the heart of a historical terrain that remains contested, whose emotional landmarks and sentimental borderlines are as undefined now as they were half a millennium ago. In that sense, the comparison with that other famous European “second city,” Barcelona, is neither opportunistic nor self-aggrandizing. Salonika is not simply (and, despite Athens’s overweening arrogance, never was) the ever-complaining also-ran to the national capital’s political hegemony, economic concentration, and social vision (if Athens can ever be said to have had a social vision). It is in itself, exactly like Barcelona, the capital of another domain, the center of another kind of national gravity, fundamentally alien to the administrative (read: bureaucratic) definitions of culture, power, and, in the end, nationhood that both Athens and Madrid share so saliently and pathetically. Regardless of Spain’s political structure, Barcelona will always constitute an inherent opposition – not merely, and indeed not so much, political as cultural and social – which means that it will never cease to be independent. Despite Athens’s unabating ideological confusions, grand and petty larcenies, and self-defeating inflexibilities, Salonika will always maintain its innate authority in its own world, in which it has never ceased to be without peer, and therefore thoroughly free of Athens.

What’s in a name?
Because I happened to be a native-born Macedonian Greek of a certain age, I was appalled – actually, offended – by the Greek stance on the republic of Macedonia in the early Nineties. The fact is, I remembered vividly the ludicrous appellative contortions we had to endure as the price of our cultural inclusion in a Greek state whose magnanimity, wisdom, and (of course) authority were not to be questioned. It is no coincidence that the ministry of Macedonia and Thrace used to be called the ministry of “Northern Greece,” or that its rechristening coincided more or less with the onomastic dispute with the (former Yugoslav) republic of Macedonia. (While the Greek state is no different from most others in its dismissal of dissent regarding its powers to define its citizens’ identity, its arrogation to itself of the definition of another country was unusually bizarre.)

As children, we were always taught that we were not Macedonians, but Greeks – or, rather, that Macedonians were simply another kind of Greek, like Cretans or Corfiots or Peloponnesians (although no one ever explained why there was no ministry of Crete, Corfu, or the Peloponnese). For me, the final insult to the injury of Athenocentric contempt for the “northern provinces” was when a notoriously “palioladitis” (as in Palaia Ellas, “Old Greece”) politician from Kalamata, Andonis Samaras, took up the “crusade” of defending Macedonian integrity. Considering that, in the past, “Old Greece” thought of “New Greece” – when it thought of it at all – as the homeland of “Bulgars,” Turks, and Gypsies, this new embrace of long-lost brethren was, in my Macedonian eyes at least, too hypocritical by half.

(I must add a parenthetical comment here. The word, “Voulgaros” [Bulgar], has had a resonance in Greek, going back at least to the last year of the German occupation and the first clear stirrings of the civil war that was to follow, of “EAMovoulgaros” [EAMoBulgar], EAM being the left-wing Ethniko Apeleutherotiko Metopo (National Liberation Front) and Bulgar being…Bulgar. For those non-Greeks not quick enough to decode the ideological invective at which the Greek right – and the state that represented and protected it for so many years – has always excelled, suffice it to say that “Bulgar,” “EAMoBulgar,” worm, and traitor are all, more or less, synonymous terms.)

I’ve said that the embrace of Macedonia in the Nineties by the rest of Greece was hypocritical. In actuality, it was déjà vu all over again. From the moment of Salonika’s incorporation into the Greek state, the city was a problem. At the time, after all, the largest national/ethnic group in it were Jews, most of them Sephardim from Spain who had come after the expulsion of 1492 and who, collectively at least, were not thrilled by the notion of another Christian kingdom gaining sovereignty over them, as they had thrived under the Ottomans. I quote below from a letter written in 1893 to the central committee in Paris of the Alliance Israélite Universelle by Gabriel Arié, a Bulgarian Jew who became a prominent teacher in and headmaster of the Alliance’s schools, as well as its representative, not only in Sofia but in Constantinople and Smyrna. In addition to his professional ties, he had intimate relationships of friendship and kinship with virtually every Jewish community in southeastern Europe and the Ottoman empire, including Salonika, which was, in fact, the home of many of Arié’s friends and relatives (including his daughter).

What strikes a Bulgarian entering Turkey [i.e., the Ottoman empire] is above all the air of freedom one breathes here. Under a theoretically despotic government, one certainly enjoys more freedom than in any constitutional country. That difference is particularly obvious for someone coming from Sofia: there, everything is specified beforehand, regulated; one cannot come and go, attend to one’s affairs, or write a letter without running the risk of committing a thousand infractions of the laws and regulations; it is as if there is a policeman around every corner….

The absence of an interfering police force, of crushing taxes, of very heavy critical duties, such things cannot be appreciated enough by the sultan’s non-Muslim subjects. In particular, the Jews of the country can with good cause consider themselves the happiest of all their coreligionists in the world: enjoying all rights, they have almost no duties; they do not even have to worry about the antisemitic movement, which has flourished in almost all civilized states. Turkey could be a true Promised Land for our coreligionists if they knew how to profit from the advantages of their situation.
– From A Sephardi Life in Southeastern Europe: The Autobiography and Journal of Gabriel Arié, 1863-1939 edited by Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue, translated by Jane Marie Todd, pp. 131-132.

As both Bulgaria and Greece were Orthodox nations, and Sofia’s onerous bureaucracy sounds painfully similar to that of Athens, Arié’s Bulgaria is indeed very close to Greece in more ways than just geography. In the event, it should be remembered that at the time that Arié was writing, Salonika was part of that Ottoman empire he describes as a “Promised Land.” Which means, of course, among other things, that Salonika also had an enormous Turkish presence; indeed, Greeks constituted a distinct but clear minority in the city that was “liberated” by the Greek crown prince in 1912 and would eventually be declared Greece’s “symprotevousa” (co-capital) in what was surely one of the most cynical jokes in twentieth-century Balkan (mis)governance.

Erasing a city…
The collapse of the Ottoman empire, and the Greco-Turkish war that concluded with the treaty of Lausanne in 1923, put paid to the Turkish community of Salonika – as well as those of Crete, Epirus, and all non-Thracian areas of Greece (just as it ethnically cleansed Ionia and the Anatolian hinterland of the Greeks who had resided in that part of the world for millennia before Turkey was even a glimmer in Mustafa Kemal’s eye). Ironic that, since Salonika was the birthplace of none other than the man who would reinvent himself as Atatürk and, in so doing, actually invent Turkey. Nazim Hikmet was also a native-born Salonikan, who, unfortunately (more for the place than for the poet), “…never went back to [his] birthplace….”

For good reason, in this case. For, just as the conflict between Greece and Turkey resulted in destroying the Salonikan community that gave Turkey both its “father” and national poet, the wider global conflict two decades later ensured that the community that truly made Salonika a worldly, outwardly directed, and culturally open Greek city would, for all intents and purposes, be thoroughly exterminated. So, within a generation of Salonika’s “liberation” by Greece, there were no Turks left in the city whose most resonant symbol, the White Tower, was designed by the Ottoman empire’s greatest architect (Sinan, who, in another cultural twist of infinite Ottoman irony, was an ethnic Greek) and just a few Jews – all survivors of a Holocaust that was particularly efficient, and therefore cruel, in Salonika, which lost virtually 96 percent of its Jewish citizens! – in the city that was known throughout southeastern Europe (and much farther) as the “Mother of Israel.” It goes without saying that Salonika could not, and has not, survived this double violence to its integrity and collective presence.

Salonika is now, without doubt or question, a Greek city, with all the smallness of vision, introversion, and withdrawal from the world that that term implies. It is, in fact, a shadow of its former self. To argue differently would be to love Salonika greatly but not well, to cheat it of a past whose singular glory cannot be “revised” away by any historiography for hire. Salonika is now Greek in every way, including the worst, which is ideological. It’s no accident that following the end of the Second World War, it suddenly became Greece’s exemplary “Byzantine” emblem. (Talk about the invention of tradition.) What better way to disguise – actually, bury forever – the Turks and, especially, the Jews who had inhabited the city for hundreds of years than by turning it into a second Constantinople (in more ways than one). To this day, according to the Greek National Tourist Organization, Salonika is the “city of churches.” That it was also once a city of synagogues (and mosques) has been electro-shocked cleanly from the collective national unconscious – or, rather, the national consciousness.

This historical lobotomy was aided and abetted by the fact that, when the few Holocaust survivors returned to their city, they found their homes and businesses already occupied – that is, stolen – by gentiles, none of whom, obviously, could have expropriated these properties without collaborating with the Occupation authorities. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the grotesque theft of Jewish properties that was sanctioned by the Greek state following the Holocaust, but any native-born Salonikan who does not confront the issue is complicitous in its continuing suppression. (This is also not the place to talk about Jewish gravestones used as paving stones for Salonika’s university – another time, another time.)

…And reimagining it
Despite everything, however, a city cannot continually be a city for almost two millennia and not be…a city. In Salonika today, it is precisely the shadows that speak, the ghostly – and not-so-ghostly but concrete and ever-present – forms of other eras that conspire to subvert the complacency and self-satisfaction of a population for which no description suffices more than that seemingly archaic and anachronistic term, “provincial.”

The first hint of another time, of other emanations of life, is, of course, in that most basic unit of urban experience, below one’s feet and above one’s head: the street. There are still streets in Salonika; what I mean to say is that you can still walk them, which is another definition of urban consciousness: one can still be a flâneur in Salonika, albeit if only, in many instances, metaphorically. Even the metaphorical flânerie, however, is transformed into a bond, into a relationship, with the city – if only because of the shadows, of their unending intercourse, which continually engenders the metaphors, which is to say, the reveries, Cavafian in their resilience, of which many native sons, including the poets Manolis Anagnostakis and Dinos Christianopoulos, as well as the writer Kostis Moskof, have borne witness. These Cavafian passages into other times, into other lives and sentiments and bodies, are Salonika’s greatest gift to whoever engages with it honestly and without prejudice. Salonika is a dreamscape – although, sadly, as one negotiates the terrain between life and imagination, the contours often take on the look of a ghost town.

Which, of course, is, in itself, purely Cavafian – that is, of another time and place and way of life. Recently, I met an architect here in Greece who was born in Komotini, and, as we were talking, he mentioned how much he missed the fact that his town used to be made up five major ethnic groups – Turks, Jews, Armenians, Pomaks, and, of course, Greeks – in addition to Bulgarians and Roma. He then went on to decry the destruction of so much of the area’s traditional architecture because of its “Turkish” origins. Although we briefly debated the meaning of “Turkish” architecture, we agreed that denoting (condemning?) the physical environment with purist notions of “national” provenance is a fool’s game. Indeed, it was precisely because he was an architect that he so strongly felt the loss – actually, the wanton and malevolent desecration – of his town’s physical presence, which, of course, was also the physical witness of its historical meaning. I commented that it took a Greek from Komotini and one from Salonika to bemoan the passing of a “Greek” world that was not, in any way, homogeneously Greek, and to understand what that loss has meant for the country’s culture and notions of identity.

In Salonika, fortunately, the city’s resistance – made tangible by an apartment building here, a villa there, a store’s façade a little farther on, an old warehouse just around the corner – will not concede to “eminent domain.” Nikis Avenue, in all its bourgeois self-importance; the Modiano market, still functioning (in a manner of speaking); the converted dockside, in which it is ridiculously easy to hear in your mind’s ear the echoes of the voices of the Jewish hamalidhes (porters), who were so numerous that they ensured that Salonika’s port was closed on the Sabbath; Yedi Kule, which, “Hellenized” as the Eptapiryio, achieved the ignoble distinction of becoming a killing ground for – what else? – Greek communists; the still impressive number of Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings that testify to a bourgeoisie that was in fact a bourgeoisie, and not simply, as in so much of Greece, klephts and tsiflikadhes aspiring to tzakia; and always, Vasilisis Olgas Street, with its villas – and the vision they represented, of a cosmopolitan encounter and engagement with the world, the likes of which Greece has not seen again; and, of course, the ladhadika, which are constantly reinventing themselves, but have still been spared Plaka’s debauching or an irredeemable Disneyfication, and whose streets, in any case, winding around behind the port, remind you of another kind of encounter with the world, deeper, more genuine, more internationalist than that of the residents of the villas on Vasilis Olgas Street – and, for all those reasons, more betrayed, drowned in infinitely more blood – a radical engagement, of people who used to be called “workers,” who were referred to as “proletarians,” of a man by the name of Avraam Benaroya, and of a group called the Federacion (in Ladino), the first socialist organization founded in Greece (before Salonika was even a part of Greece), because wherever there used to be Jews “in the old days,” there was a possibility that the world might change for the better; and, finally, that picturesque, relatively humble, clearly middle-class building from the time of the beginning of the end of the sultans, which is now the Turkish consulate but once upon a time was simply a home, into which a child was born who would invent, or reinvent, a nation – and, in so doing, lose his birthplace.

I cannot imagine much more devastation perpetrated on a city’s soul – and cities do have souls, although I’m not sure that human beings do – than the violence that has wreaked Salonika in the last century. The fact that it remains at all, in any sense, in any form, in any vague resemblance of its previous self, is almost wondrous. Which is why I will always come back; if for no other reason than solidarity. Besides, as everyone knows who’s ever visited, it encapsulates, still, the eros in civilization, that is, that point at which the city has always met – and defined – life, and its pleasures and its purpose.

What’s in a name, indeed? Mea culpa
I will close with a confession. This is the third time in my life I’ve written about Salonika; it is the first time, however, I’ve referred to it as such. Previously, I made a point of speaking of Thessaloniki. Like so many other Greeks from that part of the country – even those of us who considered ourselves “radical” and nonconformist and leftist – we were afraid (indeed, we were taught to be). Don’t ask me of what or who? Of ghosts, naturally; of hobgoblins and things that go bump in the night. In the event, because I, too, fell into that trap – into that fog in which enemies are unseen and voices not identifiable – fearing that a false word, literally, and the city of my birth would be snatched away from me, to disappear forever, at least the way I knew it, I made sure that everyone understood that I came from Thessaloniki, Greek to its foundation, from beginning to end, until time’s termination.

I now publicly apologize for my lack of resolve and sad inconstancy, for my inexcusable collaboration with the powers that be – in a word, for my cowardice. I owe Salonika the homage that it rightly deserves, which is why, for me, for the rest of my life, it will remain Salonika.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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