Ottoman history is a seductive topic. This is true partly for reasons of the empire's obvious geopolitical interest--its successor states include present-day Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Libya--but perhaps in greater part because of the richness and rococo intricacy of the societies over which Constantinople long ruled. In City of Ghosts, Mark Mazower offers up a particularly exotic slice of Ottoman life, a detailed panorama of the city of Salonica, once the empire's chief European port, now a largely ignored corner of northern Greece.
A professor of history at Columbia and director of the university's Center for International History, Mazower first gained attention with Inside Hitler's Greece (1993), an elegant if overly romantic account of Greek resistance to German occupation during World War II. He recently served on a Columbia committee that investigated, and largely exonerated, faculty who were accused of intimidating Jewish students. Mazower's new work again shows him to be an accomplished practitioner of historical narrative--and an unreliable judge of historical culpability.
Named after the daughter of Philip of Macedon and the half-sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki (as it is rendered in Greek) was a substantial commercial and political center in the ancient world, as well as an important center of Christian learning in the Byzantine Empire. An impoverished town by the time the Ottoman Turks sacked it in 1430, Salonica would likely have seen its fortunes wane permanently had it not been for an act of religiously motivated folly: Spain's expulsion of its Jews in 1492. Spain's loss was the Ottomans' gain.
The Sephardim not only revived Salonica, they made it into a remarkable Jewish enclave nestled between a Muslim empire and the largely Christian Balkans. Before the foundation of Tel Aviv in 1909, Salonica was the only city in the world whose main language was Jewish, in this case Judeo-Spanish, commonly known as Ladino (the Iberian equivalent of Yiddish). It was a city whose port closed on the Jewish Sabbath, when most of its stevedores rested.
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