Engrossing study of a city that three cultures, religions and peoples can call home.
Mazower (History/Columbia Univ; Dark Continent, 1998, etc.) begins his history of Salonica—Thessaloniki in Greek—in antiquity, but quickly leaps forward to 1430, when the Byzantine city came under Ottoman rule. There it remained until 1912, when it reverted to Greek control—control that temporarily gave way to the Nazis during WWII. What makes the city’s history so distinctive and riveting is its religious diversity. Christianity came first: Energized around the third-century martyr Dimitrios, Salonica developed into a robust center of eastern Orthodoxy. The Ottoman Empire brought Islam and the replacement of churches with mosques. Beginning in medieval times, the city also contained a large, Ladino-speaking Jewish population, comprised of exiles who made their way there after being expelled from western European countries. Salonica became a center of Jewish mysticism and, in the 17th century, of messianic fervor. The Jewish community’s lively history might be seen as the heart of the text, while the story of the Jews’ extermination at the hands of the Nazis gives the narrative its moral depth. Alternating currents of religious coexistence and bloodshed make this a history whose contemporary relevance is too clear. But Mazower’s richly textured work does much more than offer a few object lessons for today. Based on solid archival research, it intertwines the city’s political history with glimpses of its daily life, including the appearance of European carpets, sideboards and marble-topped tables in middle-class houses of fin-de-siècle Salonica and the emergence of a modern press. The only minor flaw here is the introduction, in which Mazower regales readers with the tale of the book’s two-decade gestation, when what he should be providing is a simple, concise overview of Salonica’s story.
History on a grand scale, with themes to match.