By Harry Griswold Dwight
[The National Geographic Magazine, September 1916]
Saloniki stands on rising ground at the head of a long gulf, shaped very much like what the classicists call a Phrygian cap, or what is perhaps more familiar to us as the liberty cap of the French Revolution. This gulf, bending to the east in such a way that its inner recesses can never feel the disturbances of the open sea, is formed by that peninsula of Chalcidice whose three long promontories of Kassandra, Longo, and Athos are the most salient feature of the northern Aegean.
The longer western shore of the gulf sweeps in a curve of over a hundred miles from Saloniki to the tip of the peninsula of Thessaly. For the greater part of their course these spreading coasts are both high and admirable to look upon. But the line of the Greek mainland is in particular notable because above it tower the three classic peaks of Olympus (9,800 feet), Ossa or Kíssavos, as it is now known (6,400 feet), and Pelion or Plessithi (5,300 feet).
STRATEGICALLY VALUABLE APPROACHES
The natural advantages of this inland sea are further increased by various points, indentations, and islands that divide it into four parts. The inmost section is the landlocked bay of Saloniki, a great oval harbor formed by the delta of the Vardar and the opposite cape of Kará Bournóu. The span between the two is no more than 6 or 7 miles, and they lie 10 miles from Saloniki, making a lake-like basin of perfect security.
This complicated and beautiful disposition of mountains, capes, and islands makes the marine approaches of Saloniki of equal interest to the strategist, the geographer, or the mere admiring wanderer by sea. As regards approaches from the land, Saloniki is also happily placed.
NATURE DEFENDS THE CITY
The city faces west and south, toward Macedonia and Thessaly, looking out at Olympus through the gate of the inner bay. The immediate edges of the bay are flat, having been gradually leveled by the three rivers that pour into it. But at no great distance from the water the final spurs of the Rhodope Mountains make an amphitheater which rises east of the city into three peaks of 3,000 feet each.
On the north the hill of Daóud Babá reaches a height of 1,500 feet, whence the ground drops away into the plain of the Vardar. This fertile depression, locally known as the campania, stretches inland and northward 40 or 45 miles to the buttresses of the Pindus range and the heights that separate western from central Macedonia.
These inclosing eminences are all in Greek territory. Through them strike five main avenues of exit, radiating toward every part of the Balkan Peninsula. The southernmost, the valley of the Vistritsa, the classic Heliakmon, is the main artery of communication between Saloniki, Thessaly, and Athens. No railroad, however, as yet connects the systems of northern and central Greece.
IMPORTANT RAILROAD OUTLETS
Next, to the southwest, opens the valley of the Mavronéri (Lydias), an affluent of the Vardar, which has always been a highway between the Aegean and the Adriatic. Through it runs the railway to Monastir, 120 miles distant.
A second and more important railroad follows the main stream of the Vardar (Axios), the chief river of Macedonia, leaving Greek territory near Gevgelí some 40 miles to the northwest. At Üsktüb, about 150 miles from Saloniki, it divides, one branch going to Mitrovitsa, on the confines of the old Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the other joining at Nish the main line of the Orient Railway.
This is the highroad between Greece and Europe proper, and was the route followed by the Austro-German armies on their advance into southern Servia. The streams flowing through these valleys, with their tributaries and the lakes which they feed, make the campania the granary of Saloniki. But as they converge toward the city and the gulf they form a region of swamps which is harmful or useful, according as one regards it from a hygienic or a strategic point of view. A fourth and less practicable valley, that of the Gáliko, opens behind Saloniki to the north. Last, but not least, especially in the light of current events, is the long valley of Langatha (th hard ), which separates the Chalcidice from the scarps of the Rhodope range. Starting a little to the north of the city, this depression runs due east to the Gulf of Órfana, or Rendina, lying between Kavala, the island of Thasos, and the outer shore of Athos.
THE SHORTEST ROUTE BETWEEN MACEDONIA AND THRACE
Two lakes make up 28 of the 40 miles from Saloniki to the sea, through the valley of Langatha. It forms the shortest and easiest route between Macedonia and Thrace. Through it of old ran the Roman road that went from Durazzo to Constantinople, by way of Elbasan, Ohrida, Monastir, and the valley of the Mavroneri. And long before the time of the Romans, Xerxes and his invading Persians streamed through the Langatha Valley on their way to Greece.
The modern railroad, however, takes a more roundabout route, winding among the foothills of the Rhodope, never very far from the Bulgarian border, through Seres and Drama to the Bulgarian port of Dedeagatch, 160 miles from Saloniki, and meets the main line of the Orient Railway near Demótika, in eastern Thrace.
It is not surprising that a city so admirably placed, whether for defense or for communication, enjoying the temperate climate of the northern Aegean, and amply provided with the various resources of field, wood, and water, should long have been known to men, and that its possession should often have been disputed.
MORE MODERN THAN ATHENS AND CONSTANTINOPLE
Yet compared to its two great neighbors, Athens and Constantinople, Saloniki is relatively a modern town. Founded originally as an Ionian colony, the place was first known as Therme, or Therma, from the hot springs which still exist in that eastern district of the bay. It fell into the hands of the Persians in 512 B. C., when Darius overran Scythia and Thrace; and Xerxes reassembled his own forces there preparatory to his invasion of Greece.
During the great days of the Macedonian Empire the city played no notable role, for Philip and Alexander the Great held their court at Pella, in the hills beyond the Vardar. The present town was founded about 315 B. C. by King Kassander of Macedon, and named after his wife Thessalonike, half sister to Alexander the Great. The adjoining peninsula of Kassandra takes its name from the king himself, who founded another city on its shore.
Under the Romans, Saloniki grew greatly in importance. Made a free city, the capital of the surrounding region, it became the home of many Roman colonists, and not a few famous names associate themselves with the town. Cicero lived there for a time in exile. St. Paul was another temporal resident, whose epistles to the Thessalonians we still preserve.
NERO BUILT A COLONNADE
The emperor Nero decorated the city with a colonnade, a few of whose battered caryatides were visible there until a few years ago, under the picturesque name of las encantadas—the Enchanted Women. They are now in the Louvre.
Trajan erected a rotunda in honor of the Cabiri; for they, with Aphrodite of the Baths, were patrons of pagan Saloniki. Galerius, one of the associates of Diocletian in the purple, made Saloniki his headquarters. Licinius, co-emperor with Constantine the Great, died or was put to death there in 324 by his successful rival. Theodosius the Great also lived there, in 380, in order to keep, his eye on the Goths. .
After his retirement to Milan, ten thousand of the Thessalonians were butchered in the circus, in punishment for insulting the emperor's lieutenant. St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, thundered from the pulpit against the imperial murderer, and Theodosius eventually made a most humiliating public penance.
During the Byzantine period Saloniki became the second city of the empire. Its situation made it the commercial capital of the Balkan Peninsula, and it rivalled Constantinople as a port of traffic between eastern Europe and Alexandria. But its wealth and its comparative remoteness also made it a frequent object of attack. Avars, Goths, and Huns came time and again to its gates. The Saracens captured and sacked it in 904. The Normans descended upon it in 1185.
SERB AND BULGAR VISITORS
And it is not uninteresting to recall that among the most assiduous of these redoubtable visitors were the Serbs, and especially the Bulgars. These neighbors owed much to Saloniki, from whom they took their faith and, indirectly, their alphabet; for it was from Saloniki that St. Cyril and St. Methodius went forth to convert and to civilize the hardy mountaineers of the Balkans. The hardy mountaineers, however, lost no opportunity to take more merchantable loot from Saloniki, though Saloniki itself they never took for long.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 by the Franks and Venetians of the Fourth Crusade, Saloniki fell to the lot of Boniface. Marquis of Montferrat, who made it the capital of an imaginary kingdom. In 1222 King Demetrius, son of Boniface, was driven out with his Lombard nobles by a Byzantine prince of Epirus.
The ensuing two hundred years were the most unhappy in the troubled history of the Thessalonians, who were fought over and bandied about by Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, Catalans, Venetians, and Turks.
The latter first appeared on the scene in 1380. They did not definitely take possession, however, till 1430. Then Sultan Mourad II, father of the conqueror of Constantinople, captured the town from the Venetians; gave it over to sack and massacre, carried off seven thousand of the inhabitants into slavery, and changed many of the churches into mosques or tore them down for use in his own constructions. Some of the marbles of Saloniki were carried as far away as Adrianople.
UNDER TURKISH RULE FOR 500 YEARS
For nearly five hundred years the Turks remained in undisturbed possession. Yet it is perhaps not quite accurate to describe their possession as undisturbed; for during the latter part of that period the frontiers of the empire drew steadily nearer, while toward the end of it Macedonia became the scene of incessant revolutionary outbreaks.
In 1904 the European Powers attempted to solve the situation by making Saloniki the seat of an international board that administered the finances of Macedonia and organized a well-drilled and well-equipped gendarmerie. This foreign surveillance, which threatened to become closer after the historic Reval conference of 1908, precipitated the Turkish revolution of the same year.
The revolution was organized in Saloniki and proclaimed there, the official ring-leaders of the movement being Nyazi Bey and Enver Bey, now Enver Pasha, Minister of War and guiding spirit of the Young Turks. In 1909 the progress of the revolution brought about the dethronement of Sultan Abd-ül-Hamid II, who was thereupon exiled to Saloniki. Nowhere else in the empire would it have been more difficult for him to corrupt his keepers or to escape, and he spent three and a half years as a prisoner in the suburb of Kalamaria.
REMOVING THE EX-SULTAN
The outbreak of the Balkan War, in the autumn of 1912, made it advisable for the ex-sultan to be removed to Constantinople. He was most unwilling to return, however, and was only persuaded to do so by an emissary of the German ambassador, who took him through the Greek blockade in the dispatch boat of the embassy.
A few weeks later the Greek army entered the city, followed closely by a smaller detachment of Bulgarians. The final treaty of peace, signed at Bucharest in 1913, adjudicated Saloniki, with the remainder of the Chalcidice and their strategic hinterland, to Greece. But it is apparently written that Saloniki shall never long enjoy the blessings of peace. At all events, an army of the Allies, as we know, is now entrenched there. And he is a bolder prophet than I who will foretell what may yet lie in store for the people of Saloniki.
There is another aspect of Saloniki which is scarcely less involved in darkness and controversy, but which leads us away from too dangerous ground and offers a perhaps, welcome escape from the harassing questions of the present. It is not surprising that so venerable a city should contain most interesting relics of its past. What is more surprising is that these should be so little known to the world at large.
AMERICAN STREET-CARS PASS UNDER ROMAN ARCHES
The oldest and most accessible of the antiquities of Saloniki is the long Street of the Vardar, slitting the town in two at the foot of the hill. This street is a segment of the old Roman highway from the Adriatic to the Bosphorus, which earlier still was the Royal Way of the Macedonian kings. The street is not particularly imposing, and as you watch the khaki soldiers kick up its dust today, there is little to remind you of the Janissaries of yesterday, the cohorts of Belisarius, the Roman legions, the phalanxes of Alexander, or Xerxes and his Immortals. Still, you may play fancifully enough with the centuries, as American electric cars, driven by a modern Greek, a Spanish Jew, or haply some stranded Turk, clang back and forth under the Roman arch that spans the Street of the Vardar near its eastern end.
The bas-reliefs about the bases of this arch are so blurred that archaeologists long disagreed as to its precise date. But a train of camels distinguishable among them and the name of the river Tigris have sufficed to identify the monument as a triumphal arch of Galerius. In A. D. 296 Diocletian ordered him from the Danube to the Tigris to meet the invading Persians.
Galerius was beaten and only saved his own life by swimming the Euphrates. But the next year he returned to Mesopotamia and wiped out his disgrace by destroying the army of the Persian king. The walls of Saloniki were long a more visible memento of her past. During the last generation, however, they have gradually been disappearing. The sea wall was naturally the first to go, followed by the lower part of the land Avail on both sides. Sultan Abd-ül-Hamid II caused a modern boulevard to be laid out on the site of the old fortifications to the east, where the city has overflowed into the suburb of Kalamaria, little suspecting that he would ever live to see his handiwork or hear it renamed after that strange beast, the Constitution.
THE WHITE TOWER
He was wise enough to spare the great round tower at the angle of the two walls, which is the chief ornament of the water front. The White Tower, surrounded by a smaller crenellated wall of its own and four bartizan turrets, is comparatively modern, being the work of Suleiman the Magnificent.
But the greater part of these old defenses date from the fourth century of our era, when Theodosius the Great took pains that Saloniki should not suffer the fate of Adrianople at the hands of the Goths. The walls of Saloniki are thus older than the more famous walls of Constantinople, which were built by the grandson of Theodosius.
A year or two before their final departure from Saloniki the Turks set about destroying the remaining fortifications on the heights behind the town. The acropolis of the Macedonian city was here, and several fragments of the original Greek masonry remain. In Byzantine times the citadel was called the pentepyrgion, the five towers, from an inner circle of walls and towers that defend it. They contain many interesting monograms and inscriptions.
Saloniki possesses numerous other relics of archaeological interest. The visitor is continually discovering fragments of antiquity—a pre-Christian tomb turned into a fountain, the stylobate of a statue carrying a street lamp, an intricate Byzantine carving set into a wall, a broken sarcophagus.
But the finest remains of the ancient city are its churches. How they ever survived the tempests of the Middle Ages is a miracle. Nevertheless they did, twenty-two of them. And there they stand today, turned back into churches after their five hundred years of use as mosques, illustrating the story of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture even more beautifully, in certain ways, than those of Constantinople. Moreover, they make up between them a museum of the lost Byzantine art of mosaic, unrivaled save in Constantinople and Ravenna.
The oldest of these churches, and after the arch of Galerius the most ancient monument in the city, is St. George. During the long Turkish period it was the mosque of Hortaji Süleïman Effendi. St. George is unlike any other church in Saloniki or Constantinople, in that it is of circular form.
Its design, more characteristic of Italy than of the Levant, reminds us that Saloniki was more directly under Italian influence than under that of Constantinople, and that until the eighth century the city was, in religious matters, subject to Rome. The exterior of the church has no great effect and the dome is masked by a false roof. The interior is more imposing. The immensely thick walls contain eight vaulted recesses. Two of these are entrances, while a third, cutting through the full height of the wall, leads into the apse. The barrel vaulting of the recesses is encrusted with mosaics of great antiquity.
DID ROSI KNOW HOW TO SPELL?
Having begun to drop into ruin, these mosaics were handed over, some years since, to a restorer, who painted in what he lacked the means to replace. He also had the courage to sign his name, Rosi, to the result, causing the present witness of his infamies to question whether he even knew how to spell. His imitations, however, and the fragments of original mosaic give an idea of the invention and decorative, sense that covered those ceilings 'with birds, flowers, and linear designs in blue and green and gold.
The dome of the church contains the finest mosaic in Saloniki and one of the finest in the world. The Roman, the pre-Christian air of St. George, is emphasized again in that series of classic-looking personages and buildings, divided architecturally into eight parts, corresponding to the eight openings below, but united by a mosaic balustrade that seems to guard the spring of the dome. At one point of the balustrade a peacock perches, his tail drooping magnificently toward the spectator.
Not the least interesting of the churches of Saloniki is St. Sophia. Like its greater homonym in Constantinople, it is a domed basilica, and it was long considered to be a provincial copy of that great original. As a matter of fact, the Saloniki church is the original, having been built a hundred years or more the earlier, at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century.
For the student of Byzantine architecture, therefore, it has a place of its own, as being a tentative solution of problems which Justinian's cathedral was so triumphantly to surmount. The church has suffered disastrously by fire, earthquake, and restoration. But the original lines of the structure remain, the pillars and beautiful capitals of wind-blown acanthus, and two fine fragments of mosaic. In the vault of the bema is a gold cross inscribed in a circle, on a rich blue-green ground, while the golden semi-dome of the apse contains a seated Virgin and child—of the eighth century. The principal mosaic, an Ascension, with decorative green trees between the standing figures, lines the great dome. It is supposed to date, from 645, though the figure of Christ in the center is older still.
SOME TURKS TOLERANT
I first saw these interesting mosaics while Saloniki was still a Turkish town. And it struck me as confirming in the Saloniki Turk, leader in the movement of his country toward western civilization, a tolerance less characteristic of his Asiatic brother—that decorations contravening every canon of orthodox Mohammedanism should remain to offend the eyes of the faithful. There are more mosaics to be seen in the larger St. Sophia of Constantinople, but none of them represent human forms or ornament the central parts of the structure.
This impression, repeated in St. George, was strengthened by the Cathedral of St. Demetrius. That five-aisled basilica, dating from the beginning of the fifth century, although restored and enlarged in the seventh, is the largest and best preserved of the Saloniki churches, as well as one of the finest structures of its type in existence.
Although pillaged at the time of the Turkish conquest, it fortunately fell into the hands of the Mevlevi, more popularly known as the Whirling Dervishes, who are among the most tolerant of Mohammedans.
ALL MEN BROTHERS
The dervish who showed me about, on the occasion of my first visit, pointed out that the figures objectionable from a Turkish point of view had merely been covered with a curtain, adding that all men were brothers, and that mosques and churches alike were the houses of God.
St. Demetrius, at any rate, still contains much interesting and beautiful decorative detail. There are superb verdantique columns on either side of the nave, their early Byzantine capitals are of great variety, and the spandrels of the arches are ornamented with charming designs of inlaid marble. There is also a good deal of mosaic in the aisles and the bema, the oldest being that of the north wall. It dates from the seventh century, though some of it has been retouched.
In spite of its early period the basilica has an oddly baroque air. This is chiefly due to an imitation of a cornice on a flat surface of variegated marble. And in one place the veined marble of the walls, sawn in thin sections from the same block, is so arranged as to simulate drapery.
In a dark chamber opening out of the narthex is shown what purports to be the tomb of St. Demetrius himself. But the real shrine was despoiled at the time of the Turkish conquest, and existed in another part of the cathedral.
PATRON OF THE HUSBANDMEN
A place like Saloniki might have suggested to Heine his fancy of gods in exile. St. Demetrius is not merely the successor of Aphrodite and the Cabiri in the prayers of the Thessalonians. He is, by some strange turn of fortune, the true heir of Pelasgian Demeter. As such, he is the patron of husbandmen throughout the Greek world, and his name day, November 8 (or October 26, old style), marks for Greeks and Turks alike the beginning of winter—as the day of his associate St. George, upon whom has fallen the mantle of Apollo, marks the beginning of summer.
Whether the Greek St. Demetrius and the Turkish Kassim be one and the same, this is not the place to inquire. But their fête day is the same, and the Cathedral of St. Demetrius was called by the Turks the Kassimieh. In any case, the good people of Saloniki, whether Christian or Mohammedan, must have found it highly significant that the Greek army of 1912 entered their city on the name day of their patron saint.
Many cities that can boast so much in the way of interesting antiquities have survived themselves. They live only in the memory of what they have been. But not so Saloniki. She is too much interested in what she is and in what she is going to be to think very much about her past. So little indeed has she yet taken in, as the remainder of Europe, has so profitably done, the possibilities of a past, that I was unable to find there a map of the city.
And as I went from shop to shop in search of photographs of the churches I was followed by an officer looking vainly for a Baedeker. Imagine—in a town where one may live quite as comfortably as in Siena or Verona, and where there is quite as much to see!
Somebody had told me that Saloniki was rather like Genoa. My first impression, therefore, was of a disappointing flatness, not in the least comparable to the lofty air—the piled, bastioned, heaven-scaling air—of the Italian city. Yet Saloniki scales heaven, too, in her more discreet manner.
And there is even something faintly Italian about her. This is most palpable on the broad quay of the water front, especially when a veritable row of fishermen from the Adriatic are drying nets or sails under the sea wall, just as they do in Venice. The crescent of white buildings facing the blue bay would not look foreign in any Rimini or Spezzia. The White Tower, which is the most conspicuous of them, might perfectly have been the work of an Italian prince. Indeed, a Doge of Venice is said to have built the first edition of it, and Suleiman the Magnificent employed Venetian masons for his own.
A GREEK "MOVIE" THEATER
A "splendid palace" opens florid gates of hospitality there. A skating rink and a cinematograph offer their own more exotic attractions to the passer-by. Cafés abound, overflowing onto the awninged sidewalk. Electric trams clang back and forth in proud consciousness of the fact that they existed when imperial Constantinople was yet innocent of such modernities.
They take you around the eastern horn of the bay to the trim white suburb of Kalamaria, where consuls and other notables of Saloniki live, and where Sultan Abd-ül-Hamid II spent nearly four bitter years in the Italian Villa Allattini, looking out at the provincial capital which he and Nero both embellished in their day. On the opposite horn of the crescent is the Latin-enough park of Besh Chinar—Five Plane Trees—where it is good to sip coffee and listen to music in the cool of the day.
And if you did not know that greater prize and ornament of Saloniki for Olympus, the true Thessalian Olympus of Greek legend, you might easily-imagine it to be some white Alp or Apennine looming magnificently across the bay.
Look a little closer, however, and this Italian appearing town has unfamiliar details. The white campanili that everywhere prick up above the roofs of weathered red are too slender and too pointed for true bell towers. Then, as you land at the quay you perceive that the electric cars are labeled in strange alphabets. The café do not look quite as they should, either.
A COSMOPOLITAN ASPECT
As for the people in them, a good many would pass without question. Just such slight and trim young men in Italy would sit at little tables on the sidewalk. Just such young women, rather pale and powdered as to complexion, rather dusky as to eyes and hair, would sit beside them. And you hear a good deal of Italian. But you hear more of other and less familiar languages. And those red fezzes are a new note. So are those more numerous hay-colored uniforms that sat at no caffè in my Italian days.
A more striking note is afforded by numerous dignified old gentlemen taking their ease in bath-robes, as it were; slit a little up the side and tied about the waist with a gay silk girdle. Over the bathrobe they usually wear a long, open coat lined with yellow fur, which guards them from the cold in winter and in summer from the heat. And none of them is without a string of beads, preferably of amber, dangling from his hand and giving him something to play with.
Such an old gentleman should be accompanied by an old lady, who contributes what is most characteristic to the local color of Saloniki. The foundation of her costume is a petticoat of some dark silk, and a white bodice crossed below her throat—a very thin bodice, cut very low at the neck, and very palpably unstiffened by any such mail as western women arm themselves with.
WHERE THE CAMERA FAILED
Over this substructure the old lady wears a dark satin bolero lined with fur and two striped silk aprons—one before and one behind. The latter is caught up on one side, some corner of it being apparently tucked into a mysterious pocket. But the crown and glory of the old lady is a headdress which I despair of describing. I wouldn't have to if the old ladies of Saloniki had not formed a conspiracy against me or thrown over me some incantation that put my wiles to nought.
For though I shadowed them by the hour, camera as inconspicuously as possible in hand; though I lay in wait for them behind corners and snapped at them as they passed, I never succeeded in properly potting one of them. Therefore I can only affirm that they wore on their heads, pointing down toward their noses, an invention that looked to me like the pork-pie hat of Victorian portraits—if such a name be not too abhorrent to those particular old ladies.
The Saloniki specimen is no true hat, however. It seems to be a sort of flat frame, tightly wound about with a stamped or embroidered handkerchief and crowned with an oval gilt plaque set off by seed pearls. Whatever its color, this creation invariably ends in a fringed tail of dark green silk, also ornamented by a gilt or gold plaque of seed pearls, hanging half way down the old lady's back. In this wonderful tail the old lady keeps her hair, of which you see not a scrap, unless at the temples. And about her bare throat she wears strings and strings of more seed pearls.
A MOTHER OF MANY
She is, this decorative, this often extremely handsome old lady, a mother in Israel. The old gentleman in the gabardine is her legitimate consort, while many of the modernized young people at the café tables are their descendants—very many. A dozen different estimates of the population were given me, varying, according to the race of my informant; but they all agreed on the point, that Saloniki contains not far from 150,000 people, and that more than half of them are Jews.
There is also a considerable Moslem population of Hebrew origin, mainly descended from the followers of Sabataï Levi, of Smyrna, a would-be Messiah of the seventeenth century, who created a great stir in this part of the world and who, being at last offered his choice between death and Islam, elected the latter. Several of the Young Turk leaders belong to these Dönmeh, as they are called, or Those Who Turned. They are still looked upon a little askance by the orthodox of both confessions.
Altogether the Jews of Saloniki are more than a mere piece of local color. They hold their heads up as do their co-religionists in no other city in Europe—down to the very boatmen in the harbor. Pleasant, hearty-looking fellows the last are, too; fair-haired, many of them, and blue-eyed. The language of these children of Abraham is a corrupt Spanish. The fathers of most of them were driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century by Ferdinand and Isabella. Long before that, however, St. Paul mentioned a synagogue in the city of the Thessalonians.
PICTURESQUE COSTUMES PASS AND SCHOOLS ARE FILLED
I could not help regretting that the younger generation should renounce its picturesque heritage of costume. Yet I was told that the change had entailed the happiest results for Saloniki; had made a dirty medieval town cleaner and more comfortable than any other in its neighborhood; had filled shops and banks and schools. And it played in the greater domain of the Turkish revolution a part that has yet to be recorded.
Between the quay and the Street of the Vardar lies the New Jerusalem of this energetic population. The seaward part of it is a Latin-looking and Greek-speaking quarter for which Saloniki cherishes considerable tenderness. I preferred, myself, such portions of it as have not yet been Haussmannized, or Midhatized. For Midhat Pasha, father of the Turkish Constitution, was many years ago Governor General of Saloniki, and he left his mark in streets of uncommon straightness for the Levant.
Between them alleys of sharp light and shade meander under broad eaves, and glimpses of pleasant courts and loggias are to be caught through open doors. There also congregate many at the receipt of custom, the more favored of them in roofed or awninged thoroughfares, into which the Aegean sunlight picturesquely drips.
A CONGRESS OF NATIONS
Little is Latin there. To loiter among the booths of the bazaar, to explore the busy squares and markets beyond it, to stroll in the crowded Street of the Vardar, or to idle among the coffee-houses of its western end, is to take in something of the Macedonian question. Fur robes and green pigtails are only incidents among many. Sedate red fezzes come and go. Tall Albanians, variously braided according to their tribes and wearing a white skull-cap on one ear, stalk through the crowd with that lordly swing of theirs.
Bulgarians, less lordly, but no less indifferent to the opinion of the world at large, mind their own business in brown home-spun. Kilted Greek peasants in tight white trousers tasseled under the knee, booted Montenegrins with hanging sleeves, lend the scene an operatic air. Women in hats, women in kerchiefs, women in embroideries that you want to buy off their backs—and sometimes do! —women in the Turkish domino, offer a complete exhibition of Balkan fashions.
Beyond the Street of the Vardar the Turkish quarter begins. Saloniki is naturally less of a Turkish town than it was, when the Turks stood second and the Greeks third in the roll of the local babel. But while they have now changed places the fez still adds a very appreciable note to the color of Saloniki.
While Jews and Christians, too, live in this part of the city, the higher you climb the better you might imagine yourself to be in Stamboul. There are more stone houses and some of them are unfamiliarly frescoed on the outside. The windows, though, are latticed, as they should be. There is a good deal of decorative iron work about them.
LISTENING TO A NATURALIZED GRAMOPHONE
Upper stories lean out toward each other on curved wooden brackets. Stenciled under broad eaves, or hung there like a picture in a frame, is an Arabic invocation: "O Protector!" "O Proprietor of all Property!" Occasionally you pass a building like a mosque without a minaret, whose domes are studded with glass bulls' eyes and within whose doorways lounge half-nude figures in striped togas—a Turkish bath. And you keep discovering little squares where a plane tree or two make shadow, where water is sure to trickle, and where grave persons sit on rush-bottomed stools, sipping coffee, smoking water-pipes, and listening it may be to a naturalized gramophone.
At the tiptop of the hill you are stopped by the old walls, whose crenellations print themselves so decoratively across the sky as you look up the long streets from below. Or at least it was so the last time I mounted to that Castellaccio of this Levantine Genoa.
Even then, however, unsentimental crowbars were at work in that ancient masonry. Through the resultant breaches you look northward into a bare country that dips and mounts again to a farther background of heights. One reason why the country is so bare is perhaps that it was so long cut off from the city by the walls. It is, of course, well for the town that it should have room to grow, as for the country that it should be reclaimed from the abomination of desolation.
But, being an irresponsible and sentimental tourist, I was sorry to see those old stones dislodged. I was sorry, too, for the storks. They congregate, so picturesquely among the battlements of Yeni Kapou that one wishes Saloniki might take a tardy lesson from Florence and save at least her gates.
THE VIEW REMAINS
However, no one can ever take away the view, and that is the best reason for climbing to this storied hilltop. They say that Xerxes of Persia, to whom blue water was a rare enough sight, sat here long and admired the spectacle of the underlying gulf, set jewel-like between its hills, with Olympus towering white at the end of the vista.
If he did, I think better of him than he otherwise deserves. I also highly approve the taste of the Turks in preferring this part of Saloniki. Its hanging coffeehouses are not so popular, to be sure, as those, of Besh Chinar, the quay, or the Street of the Vardar. Yet one of them I remember better than any other in the town. Under its plane trees I had the pleasure of hearing a certain famous Turkish singer. The famous singer was called Kara Kash Effendi, otherwise Mr. Black Eyebrow.
Mr. Black Eyebrow sat in a small krosk, surrounded by a chosen company of players on lutes and tambourines, who attended respectfully the descent upon their master of the divine afflatus. When the divine afflatus descended, Mr. Black Eyebrow put his hand to his cheek, as Turkish singers do—I know not whether to aid their strange crescendo—and in a manner which most westerners profess to find laughable.
Whereby they prove again that what we like is what we are used to, and that few be they capable of taking in a new impression. For myself, having long been used to such singing, I could have listened all day to the melancholy of the heart of Mr. Black Eyebrow. It seemed to form a singular medium of twilight, in which the imagination played easily as a bat.
SO THE PERSIANS MUST HAVE SUNG
So I thought the Persians must have sung down there in ancient Therma, as they gathered for their march to Thermopylae. So sang, perhaps, the Moors in Spain. And so the Janissaries sang when they had driven the lion of St. Mark out of that blue bay. As I listened to Mr. Black Eyebrow, looking about me at the red fezzes, the white skullcaps, the fur robes, and all the other variants of the Saloniki scene, I suddenly realized for the first time in my life why it is that a macédoine in a French bill of fare is a dish with a little of everything in it. And I began to understand, what no outsider can in his own country, why the equilibrium of races in Macedonia is so difficult to bring about, and why any final equilibrium must necessarily be in part an artificial one. I could not help hoping that that particular macédoine has been served for the last time.
At airy rate, no one can deny that the Greeks have an older claim to Saloniki than any one else. Yet I could not help feeling a little sorry for Mr. Black Eyebrow and appreciating that not without reason did he pour forth melancholy from his heart.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald