Prior to reading this book, the only thing that sprang to mind at the mention of this quintessentially Greek city was an Irish Folk/ Independence song, Salonica. I hoped this weighty tome (coming in at a chunky 544 pages) would shed some light on Salonica, or Thessaloniki as it is now called.
Goodness, did it! Mazower writes in the introduction that this book is the product of nigh on 20 years of research and writing after a trip to Salonica with the army. His passion for and knowledge of seemingly every aspect of the city’s history was breath-taking. The city’s changing architecture was explored in the same loving detail as the changes in the city’s religious communities.
This wealth of knowledge and detail is even more fascinating when taking into account the fact that parts of the city and their respective histories have been obliterated by successive conquerors and natural disasters (the conquering Greeks back in 1912, a fire in 1917 that wiped out three-quarters of the city, the Nazis who approved of the destruction of mosques and one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe to name but a few).
But Salonica, City of Ghosts, does not just confine itself to the early to mid-20th century (although the 20th century is the era in which Mazower specialises). Instead it encompasses the city’s early years, even straying back to pay homage to a certain memorable Roman before working its way up until (and including) the Balkan conflicts. Mazower brought up issues that the current administration would probably prefer to be swept under the carpet. The destruction of the Jewish cemetery, mentioned above, has still not been acknowledged or apologised for. Ironically a university, a building that should be a beacon of light and knowledge and of truth has been built over it, without a word written about the building’s foundations.
With knowledge like that ringing in my ears, it is at times hard to imagine this now thoroughly Greek place as being the ethnically and culturally diverse place of refuge for groups hounded in other parts of Europe.
To paraphrase Mazower, only ghosts keep the memories now. But in reading this book, the ghosts of the past- of the truth- stirred and walked with me for a while down the streets of memory in a city I may never walk through. Soupy as that may sound, it feels true.
Overall: Every line is so intelligently and so beautifully written that the prose is in itself a good enough reason to read this book. The sheer amount of information packed in makes it unmissable.
This book counts towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge – Greece.