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Historical Fiction: Eric Sommers: Social and Cultural Life in Salonika Part 6

January 16, 2021

During times when things were quiet, I took the opportunity to ingratiate myself in the social and cultural life of Salonika.

The city was divided up into neighborhoods (mahalas) showing the different races where they lived. The Turks resided in the upper parts of the city, and the Jews inhabited the lower districts near the old sea wall demolished in 1889 and the harbor. The Christians lived along Egnatia Road, and small pockets existed around the cathedral attached to the Vlatadon monastery. Furthermore, the commercial and European quarters were located in the western region of Salonika. It is here where foreign banks, the Bank of Salonika and Imperial Ottoman Bank with their headquarters in Constantinople are, whereas the Greek-owned ones, the Bank of Mitylene, Bank of Athens, and the Bank of East are located.

Egnatia Road is a historical thoroughfare where victorious Roman armies, Byzantium Emperors and the Greek army marched into Salonika. In the morning, you see Greeks, Turks, Jews, Bulgarians, Albanians, Hodjas, monks, Catholic priests, and children going about their business on this busy road. In 1911, the Greek community built a fountain in honor of Sultan Mehmed Resat V’s visit to Salonika. I understand his Majesty was very pleased with his subjects' gesture towards him.

Salonika has many schools providing an excellent education for students. The most notable ones are Alliance Israelite Universelle (Jewish), and the American Agricultural School and the French Institute of Salonika established in 1904 and 1906, respectively. Our school was founded by missionaries to teach people farming and trades.

Since the 1890s, the Salonika urban landscape has undergone a massive change. I was a regular visitor to the Allatini, Hatzilazaros, and Capatzi families who lived in the Pyrgos district. The Jewish industrialist, Charles Allatini, the owner of a flour mill and brickworks, was the wealthiest person in Salonika. Sultan Abdul Hamid II was kept prisoner in Allatini's villa until his escape to Constantinople in 1912. Periklis Hatzilazaros villa provided hospitality to the Greek royal family after the city fell to the Greeks.

They invited me to their social gatherings, where I mixed with the well-to-do citizens of Salonika, where they served sumptuous meals along with the best wines and French champagne. I used these gatherings to gather commercial information that I passed on to our Minister in Constantinople. This could help expand our business interests in the Balkans. Americans were very popular amongst the local citizenry. We had no imperial ambitions in the Balkans like other major powers. I believe that trade was the best way of improving relations with other nations.

The Jews were concerned over the anti-semitic attacks that took place after the Greek occupation. They feared to be Hellenized, which would result in losing their language and cultural identity. The Greek government responded by introducing reforms that sought to rectify the situation. Some of these included: preserving the Sabbath in the city, allowing them to keep accounts in their language (Spanish-Jewish/Landino), and maintaining freedom of the press. Many Salonika Jews remained skeptical over Greek intentions.

They worried that they would lose their economic dominance. Some Jews argued that Salonika should either become an international or a free city, which was favored by Austro-Hungary. The latter didn't want Greek possession though a Bulgarian one would have been preferable. Other powers had imperial designs on Salonika. Many Jews jumped ship by becoming citizens of the other countries, and our consulate was busy, too, making extra consular fees. In the end, Salonika became a Greek city much to the disappointment of some sections of the Jewish community.

The Jews were very active in the labor movement.  Abraham Benaroya founded the Labor Association of Salonika imbued with socialist ideas in 1908. In 1909, the Labor Association, in collaboration with the Socialist Center, established the Labor Socialist Federation of Salonika. On May 1, 1912, for the first time workers celebrated Mayday in the Ottoman Empire, with most being Jews. The labor movement had their newspapers published in Landino, French, and Italian, which included: Workers Newspaper, Labor Solidarity (the organ of the Federation), Independent, Messagero, and Avanti.

I loved walking along the Salonika quay with its cafes, cabarets, beer-gardens, and music halls. One could hear gypsy violins, Turkish instruments, Greek melodies, and dirty French songs. I usually met the British Consul, Sir Harry Davenport, at Barbagiannis restaurant. We discussed political issues, smoked our Turkish cigarettes, and spun yarns to pass our time. Davenport was highly respected by the Turks and foreign diplomatic corps in treating everyone with honesty and fairness. I enjoyed listening to Greek bouzouki music with its songs filled with sadness and happiness depending on the political mood of the time.

Along the quay and surrounding streets, hawkers and street sellers were vying for your business. They would come out and try to sell you something for a high price. I would tell them "too expensive' and bargain with them over the amount in their language. It was fun conducting business with such people earning an ‘honest’ living. I qualify honest, being careful not to be ripped off by these guys.   

I could see the White Tower (previously known as the Tower of Blood) located on Begiaz Avenue, renamed King Constantine Avenue, after the Greek liberation of the city in November 1912. It is one of the best landmarks overlooking the Gulf Salonika. Once upon a time, the guilty were executed inside the tower, where blood flowed freely. The Turks used it as a barracks, and its towers had cannons facing the sea. This allowed the Turks to observe and protect the city from an enemy naval attack. It is here Tahsin Pasha, the Turkish Commander, surrendered Salonika to the Greeks. Since the Greek occupation, the White Tower has become an essential symbol for the Greeks.

I visited mosques (Alaca Imaret and Hamza Bey), synagogues (Monastiriotou and Etz Haim), and churches (Saints Demetrios, Gregory Palamas, and Sophia) and admired the beauty of their architecture. The Greeks regard St. Demetrios as the protector of Salonika. Some churches were constructed during the early years of the Byzantine Empire, and the Turks built their mosques after Salonika fell to them in 1430. The arch of Galerius, the Palace of Galerius, and the Hippodrome located on Egnatia Street are significant monuments constructed during the Roman Times.

In my limited time, I learned to appreciate the people, the history and culture of this multiethnic city. You can see the strong Jewish presence in every aspect of its daily life where the Jews have come to accept the Greek control. I am off to my next diplomatic post in Smyrna. 

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