Farewell to Salonica by Leon Sciaky


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Without wanting to sound too “bags and baggage”-ish about it, the end of Ottoman rule in the Balkans is generally regarded in the West as being a very positive thing. The Balkan Wars which immediately preceded the outbreak of the First World War aren’t regarded in the same semi-romantic light as is the Greek War of Independence, but the ceding of the remaining Ottoman territory in the Balkans to the nation states of the area is certainly seen as a good thing.

On the other hand … well, there are two terms from this era which remain in use in English, even if a lot of people probably use them without even knowing whence they originate. One is “Balkanisation” – the division of a territory into a number of small states, giving rise to problems as well as benefits. The Balkan Wars were supposed to involve Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro fighting the Ottoman Empire … but they then fell out amongst themselves. The other is “Young Turks”, which comes from the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which was supposed to see the Ottoman Empire move towards liberalism and democracy but all went rather pear-shaped.

Caught up in the middle of all this was Macedonia. In the 1990s, there was suddenly an international row over the word “Macedonia”, because Greece got in a huge strop over the newly-independent former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia calling itself … er, Macedonia. The issue still hasn’t been fully resolved: the new country was admitted to the UN under the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. Furthermore, its population is around 25% ethnic Albanian. Other parts of historic Macedonia lie in Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo (and whether or not Kosovo is an independent country is another story … and, if it is, surely it should be referred to as Kosova rather than Kosovo, but that’s beside the point …) and, of course, Greece. And the capital of Greek Macedonia, the second city of Greece, bearing the glorious name of Alexander the Great’s half-sister, herself named after the Macedonia victory in Thessaly, is Thessaloniki. Er, also known as Salonica.

Brilliantly confusing, isn’t it?!

When I first starting reading Balkan history, in the late 1980s, it was Sarajevo which was famous for being the melting pot of the Balkans … before the tragedy of the war of the 1990s. Thessaloniki/Salonica, at the time at which this book, the author’s memoirs of his childhood, is set – the early 20th century, before the Balkan Wars – was even more of a melting pot than Sarajevo was. Christians, Jews and Muslims. Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Kurds, Armenians, Serbs, Aromanians (BTW, why do tennis commentators never mention the interesting fact that Simona Halep is of Aromanian descent?) … is there anywhere in “the Levant” (for lack of a better term) where you still get that glorious mix of peoples? Not Istanbul, not any more. Maybe Jerusalem. And we see that these people no longer want to remain under Ottoman rule as it is … but nor do many of them want what they eventually get, which is rule by Greece. In fact, the book does a good job of helping the reader understand Bulgaria’s decision to side with the Central Powers in 1915, even though it does seem so bizarre that Bulgaria should have sided with the Ottomans and against Russia.

The author and his parents and siblings left for New York in 1912. They intended to return, but never did: they felt that the city under Greek rule wasn’t their city any more … even though the city under Ottoman rule had had its problems for non-Turks as well. The city was badly damaged by fire in 1917, then its Turkish population was deported as part of the population exchanges following the Treaty of Lausanne, and then the majority of its large Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Oh dear, this all sounds very negative. Thessaloniki today is a wonderful, thriving city. And the book itself isn’t negative: it’s a fascinating portrayal of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual city. But it’s sad that, even as we hear all the time about multiculturalism in Britain, North America, Australia, Western Europe, etc, so many multicultural communities which had flourished for centuries are no more, and even many of traces of their past have been removed. It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly very interesting.






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