Our understanding of the past came traditionally through books portraying royal families and then of the development of and conflict between nations (variously studied by historians, economists or sociologists). Biographies then developed wonderful insights (eg Henry Pelling’s study of Churchill). More recently writers such as Jason Steele, have offered anthropological, biological and psychological perspectives into our past. But, for me, it is those approaches which focus on geography and specifically cities which give the most powerful insights into the past and its influence on the present – eg Amsterdam (Geert Maak), Barcelona (Robert Hughes), Berlin (Alexandra Richie), Breslau (Wroclaw) by Norman Davies), Constantinople (Philip Mansell), Paris (Richard Cobb). It is in cities that we live, experience (and occasionally influence) the drama of history through the mix of events and individuals. And I doubt whether there is a more evocative book than Mark Mazower’s Salonica – city of ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 which I was unable to put down after opening its pages.
I have the book with me since I hope to visit the city – which is only a few hours’ drive south of here. I first heard of the place from my father who visited it in the 70s because of its connection with St Paul. Mazower’ s book tells a fascinating story of the city’s 500 years under the Byzantine and Ottoman rule – with their tolerant policy making it a beacon for Jews harrassed and victimised elsewhere in Europe. At one stage, they formed the largest (if most poor) part of a city which was dominated by a small group of local elites and suffered from plagues and strife. The growth of Bulgarian, Greek, Macedonian and Serbian nationalist feelings in the 19th century heightened the fears of the city’s people – but noone could have predicted the sheer scale of brutality and population movement which the early part of the 20th century brought to this part of the world – with muslims being driven out of their homes and forced to flee to what was becoming Turkey; with Greeks being forced out of their homes in East Thracia and Anatolia. Last September I mentioned the massacres in Izmir in 1922 which transformed a city which, until then, had been peaceful. Mazower’s book tells a story of a city which had been much more riven with conflict and despair; which was conquered (against all expectations) by the Greek army in 1912; became a central node for hundereds of thousands of western soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign; and then had a third of the city ripped out by a great fire in 1917. As if this was not enough, the major part of its inhabitants were then forced to leave because of their religion.
From Salonica to Sofia – about which little is available on the internet. Here’s a short video on the city – with a rather obnoxious Australian-Brit hectoring an embarrassed Danish woman. But the pics are nice – particularly in the second half.
Der Spiegel gives Italy a deserved kicking here. This links back to a recent post about "amoral familiasm".
And, just to show there's no snooty british prejudice at work, an appropriate quotation about Britain -
It used to be said that the Russian tsarist system was autocracy, tempered by assassination. British public life feels similar: we don't do thoughtful, deliberate, progressive change. We do long periods of complacency, followed by explosions of outrage.The first photo is one I took as I climbed up the Belogradchik fortress - its the superb painting above the door of the derelict but restored mosque there. The second photo shows the town from the old fortress.
We don't properly confront the casino-banking system, until – bang! – all bankers are found to be evil and greedy. Hardly anybody discusses MPs' money until suddenly – crash! – MPs are evil and corrupt. Nobody talks much about how stories end up in newspapers, until suddenly – wallop! Journalists and executives, who made such a good living tearing at other institutions, are at last experiencing the same unforgiving mechanism of public opinion in its outraged mode.