Greetings from Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki!

International and area studies librarians facilitate research not only about different parts of the globe, but also about different eras in time.  A prime example of this historical orientation is the recently-acquired and-digitized Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki postcard collection.  This new addition to Duke University Library’s already extensive International Postcard Collection consists of 208 images documenting the famous Aegean Sea port-city from the late 19th to the early 20th-centuries.

Thanks to its favourable location and its large and natural seaport, this ancient city hosted merchants from near and far. In part because of its function as an international trading post, the city’s population was a mix of cultures (Armenian, Jewish, Greek, Arab, and Turk) and religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). During the 20th-century, however, the formation of nation-states with regulated borders, the eruption of major wars in the region, and the consequent displacement of populations through both natural and forced migration, effectively destroyed the diversity of this multi-ethnic metropolis. The Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki postcard collection allows us to get a fleeting—and, therefore, all the more special—glimpse of the world that was lost as a result of war and genocide.

“What’s in a name?”

The Aegean port-city was founded in 315 BC and named after Thessaloniki (Greek: Θεσσαλονίκη), the wife of King Cassander of Macedonia and half-sister of Alexander the Great.  When the Byzantine Empire – the Christianized successor to Alexander’s empire – fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1423, Thessaloniki’s days as a Greek city were numbered.  In fact, just seven years later, the Ottomans captured the Aegean port city and changed its name to Selanik (Ottoman Turkish: سلانیك‎). The city would officially retain this name from 1430 until 1912, when Greek nationalist forces defeated the Ottomans and changed its name back to Thessaloniki.

During the long period of Ottoman rule, the city was also informally known as Salonica (Ladino: סאלוניקו). This toponym was the Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish variant of the Ottoman Turkish name for the city. Like the city itself, Ladino was a mix of cultural influences: “based in Spanish and other Iberian languages, with a strong Hebrew Aramaic component,” but also incorporating “many elements from the languages of the Mediterranean world, including Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, and Arabic.”  The widespread use of the name Salonica is a reminder of the once sizable Jewish community of the Aegean port city.  The Jewish population came to call Salonica home after the Reconquista and the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492. However, in World War II the Jews of Salonica suffered dramatically during the Nazi occupation, which all but erased their physical presence and their role in the city’s history, save for some architectural achievements.

Wish you were here!

As the following selection of greeting cards from the digitized Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki postcard collection demonstrates, the creators of the images were very cognizant of the way they wished to portray their city and, therefore, very deliberate in their choice of subject matter.  Everything was meant to leave the tourist who bought and sent the postcard with a positive memory of his or her visit to the city and the addressee who received it with a desire to visit it for him or herself.

The colourful postcard below, for example, displays a tranquil street scene from the usually bustling and crowded business district of Selanik.  The street in question is not just any street, but the “Grand rue de la Banque Ottoman.”  The influential Ottoman Bank (seen on the right) was built in 1903 by the Turkish architects Barouh and Amar with an eye to synthesizing local and European architectural aesthetics of the time.  This attempt to appeal to multiple constituencies at one and the same time may explain why the title of the card is printed in both French and Ottoman.

Near the Ottoman Bank and its busy shops was the Allatini brick factory, which now sits abandoned. The brick factory was named after the family who founded it. The Allatini family was of Iberian Jewish heritage and had settled in Salonica in the early 16th century. The family would also open the Allatini flour mill, which is still in operation to this day, though now located in Sindos, a suburb of Thessaloniki. The Allatini family also owned the Villa Allatini, which is a historic building not merely because it was the family’s country estate, but also because it came to play a role in one of the most dramatic events in the history of modern Turkey. In 1908, a nationalist group called the Young Turks led a successful revolution to dethrone the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and restore the Constitution.  The Sultan was forced to abdicate and was later put under house arrest at the Villa Allatini (depicted in the black-and-white postcard below).

Other building-related postcards in the digitized collection offer views, frequently only in passing, of architectural features that are no longer a regular part of the everyday modern life. One example are the images of the sahnisi (σαχνισί), or traditional protruding balconies, which were meant to allow sunlight into a specific space of a home (as seen on the right hand side of the next image):

Among other topics, the digitized Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki postcard collection offers images that depict vestiges of Thessaloniki’s Turkish heritage, for example this Deniz hamamı (traditional Ottoman-Turkish bathhouse):

And this image of a sünnet bayramı (circumcision festival), a ceremony regularly held and often documented in manuscripts known as Surname-i Hümayun.

The collection ends in 1917, the year Thessaloniki was ravaged by a tremendous fire. From the dramatic image on the following postcard, it is possible to get a sense of both the magnitude of the fire as well as the terror that must have overcome the locals. The Great Fire, as it came to be known, drastically transformed the layout of the city, adding yet another layer to the palimpsest that is the history of Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki.

Please feel free to explore the digitized Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki postcard collection, and see what you can discover for yourself.  The images are free to download and use for research, but please cite Duke University Libraries.

Should you have questions, please contact Sean Swanick, Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Duke University.

4 thoughts on “Greetings from Selanik/Salonica/Thessaloniki!”

  1. Wonderful collection. The annotations and commentary gave me a taste of the history of this fascinating city.

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