Salonica, located in northern Greece, was long a fascinating crossroads metropolis of different religions and ethnicities, where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Sufi dervishes, and Albanian brigands all rubbed shoulders. Tensions sometimes flared, but tolerance largely prevailed until the twentieth century when the Greek army marched in, Muslims were forced out, and the Nazis deported and killed the Jews. As the acclaimed historian Mark Mazower follows the city’s inhabitants through plague, invasion, famine, and the disastrous twentieth century, he resurrects a fascinating and vanished world.
Ok, so I live here. Thessaloniki. My adviser gave me this book as a gift so that I could learn more about the city I now live in from a trusted source. So obviously I had a vested interest in the book. Thessaloniki can seem paradoxically simultaneously warm, welcoming, fascinating, unforgiving, and impenetrable especially to a non-Greek speaker such as myself. Obviously reading a scholarly history of the city is the way to go. At a hefty almost 500 pages, one is immediately struck by how much history. But what kept me going, to read it cover to cover, was not just the city and its history but also Mazower's way of approaching history. There are plenty of dry facts but he fashions it into narrative-each chapter a story. He manages to stick to his timeline but doesn't slavishly adhere to it. And he's not completely writing in themes. This is masterful nonfiction writing that keeps you reading without recourse to humor-though there is some-or embellishment (well, over the top sort-all history is embellishment) in a way that it is easy to retain the facts and want to know more. I plan on reading more of his work.
Thessaloniki has through the centuries been a Bronze Age settlement, Hellenistic small town, Byzantine city, Ottoman's Western capital, a major outpost for Sephardic Judiasm, a seat of the Greek independence, and a major German interest during the World Wars. It has been changed-its current population bearing little resemblance to the populations that built the city. Mazower does not shy from the allegorical use of the city-the clash of cultures, the cost and benefits of nationalism, and the confusions and discontinuities of history and as such may be seen as somewhat unreliable. However, he is using centuries of first hand accounts to construct his narrative so I'd argue he is no more unreliable as we ourselves are in the constant creation of our personal histories.