THESSALONIKI – It’s been 200 years since the end of the Ottoman Occupation of Greece – after Greeks resisted it for 400 years – and while much of that past has been erased there are still some mosques and monuments, particularly in Thessaloniki.
Greece’s second-largest city and port in the northern part of the country has long has a cosmopolitan aura and center of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities, the products of centuries of various occupations.
In a review, Middle East Eye noted the reminders of what the Turks left, the mark still visible in architecture, including a fountain in the quarter of Ano Poli that is one of the few in the city with inscriptions in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish.
Dating back to the early 20th Century, the text tells the story of its benefactor, a local mufti called Ibrahim, who had it built in memory of his beloved deceased granddaughter, Namika Hanim, the site also said.
Those were common 123 years ago in the city where ornate monuments were in the winding alleys of Ano Poli, tucked between Ottoman houses featuring distinctive overhanging balconies and those grand wooden doors.
There were minarets showing from mosques all over the city, dominating the skies where the call to prayer was heard in neighborhoods where Greeks had no choice but to listen, as subjects.
“Thessaloniki, which was known as Salonica, during Ottoman times was in many ways a quintessentially Ottoman city, having been integrated into the empire decades before Constantinople,” noted the report.
The population also included Jews, Albanians, Armenians, Bulgarians and many others, folded into the blend of civilizations that nonetheless were beholden to the Turkish occupiers.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century that the city really began to change with modernization projects that slowly began to wipe out vestiges of what was once put there by the Turks.
Th old Byzantine walls along the waterfront were demolished and in their place was built the promenade that’s one of the most famous landmarks in the city – along with the city’s symbol there, the Ottoman-built White Tower.
When the city came under Greek rule in 1912, the desire to Hellenize the built environment shaped urban policy and invigorated city planners and then a catastrophic fire in 1917 spurred ideas about changing it, the report said.
Reconstruction led to the erasure of areas predominated by Jewish and Muslim influences and then came the population exchange in 1923 after Greece lost a war with Turkey, seeing most of the Muslims moved out.
FROM MOSQUE TO MOVIE THEATER
When they were gone so too were most of the signs they had been there: mosques closed and used for other purposes,– minarets torn down, Muslim cemeteries destroyed and many Ottoman-era buildings redesigned to look Greek – just like Turkey did in putting minarets up around the ancient church of Haghia Sophia.
The Ottoman structures that have survived remain largely abandoned, with the city’s four remaining mosques in varying states of preservation, including the largest, the Hamza Bey, with a 500-year history.
It was for centuries one of the major Muslim houses of worship in the area, surrounded by other Ottoman structures such as a covered bazaar and various hammams, or places for public bathing.
After the population exchange, it became a cinema known as the Alkazar was was hugely popular among Turkish-speaking Greek refugees who had arrived from Anatolia in the exchange.
It showed many Turkish-language films attractive to Greeks from Anatolia who were moved to the city, the cinema closing in the 1990s and access to the mosque restricted since.
In May 2023, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports announced that the Hamza Bey Mosque would be fully restored and reopened as a museum in 2025, following a multimillion-euro investment project.
That comes despite such tension brought by Turkish provocations and even threats to invade that the preservation has overridden fears of a conflict between the countries and anger among Greek nationalists.
It was former Mayor Yiannis Boutaris who wanted to showcase some of the monuments of the Turkish Occupation and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Modern Turkish Republic that led to the fall of Anatolia – and the population exchange.
Over protests from critics, his house became a museum and Boutaris pushed an agenda to embrace Muslim and Ottoman sites in the city that for many were a reminder of the brutality of occupation, not architectural treasures.
He said their restoration would attract tourists, bring stronger relations with the Muslim world, and promote Thessaloniki’s diverse history and he proposed an Islamic art museum at the neglected Alaca Imaret Mosque, and allowing local Muslims to perform Eid prayers for the first time in decades at the evocative Yeni Mosque, but ran into staunch opposition and he was assaulted.
But some of what the Turks built is still there, from the Namika Hanim Fountain to the Hamza Bey Mosque and the site noted that, “Ottoman and Muslim sites and monuments across Thessaloniki tell the story of one of the most fascinating chapters in the city’s history.”