In Rumelia

Memories of the Aladja Imaret

Remaining Ottoman era spots in Thessaloniki (as of 2012)

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Sitting at a bar with two friends late Wednesday night, they asked me what I thought about Thessaloniki as a city. “So many old mosques and baths here,” I said, referring to the Ottoman era buildings still intact in the city center, “I’m really having trouble seeing everything in the small amount of time I have.” They looked at me for a second, and then one responded, “but there’s hardly anything left; either the 1917 fire destroyed it or the Greek nationals practically converted it all into something else!”

That may be true. I did remember seeing mosques turned into churches and hamams into cinemas. But at least they are being preserved in some way? “Not so much, actually,” the other friend said. And then I remembered the graffiti on the sides of a mosque and the broken windows of another mosque a few blocks north. But it’s not to say at all that these buildings have not been utilized in some respects and hopefully, this small essay can highlight both the past and the present, the Ottoman “old” and the European “new” that has manifested itself in these old buildings in Thessaloniki/Salonica.

Like I said, I wasn’t able to catch everything during my stay in Thessaloniki, but the general sense I got with the places I visited was that any vestiges of an “Ottoman past” (or more generally, any memory of a dominating Muslim order) had long since faded. I wasn’t really expecting anything different. I remember, for instance, the language the electronic tour guide used at the White Tower Museum in reference to the Ottoman era in Salonica (it wasn’t an Ottoman “occupation” or “period,” but an era of “Ottoman domination”). Nor did any signs or guides at various locations in the city go into much detail about the city’s Ottoman past–instead, they now put much more emphasis on the Byzantine and Classical periods in Thessaloniki. Again, this was all very predictable. Observing spaces where Islam and Ottomanism once thrived (the mosques, the markets, the streets, etc.) and how those spaces are used today is important in order to ask how Thessaloniki’s residents today connect with their once-Ottomanized city.

An old photograph of the Aladja Imaret during Ottoman rule (minaret still attached).

A key example is the Aladja Imaret (Alatza Imaret) Mosque. Named for its colorful minaret, the Aladja Imaret was built in 1484 by Ishak Pasha after a number of churches (such as Aghia Sofia) were converted into mosques–this was the beginning of a sweeping new building initiative in the city, creating many spaces for Muslim worship in both the city center (close to Egnatia Street) and the northern part of the town (the Turkish district).

There is a story to the Aladja Imaret that (surprise surprise) Mark Mazower highlights in his City of Ghosts book. After the Greeks gained control of the city early in the 20th century, the Aladja neighborhood was the site for many Greek squatters–it was for many centuries a Turkish community ever since the mosque had been built, but it was after the city’s fight for independence from the Ottomans when “gangs of axe-wielding Greek refugees” began to ransack Muslim shops and break into houses (318). “Fezzes were torn from people’s heads and in June 1914 the muezzin in the Mes’ud Hasan district was mocked whenever he made the call to prayer” (Ibid). Mazower continues:

In a couple of years, more than fifteen thousand Muslims left their homes. The mother, sister and cousin of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made their way to the refugee camps of the Turkish capital. Also departing was Nazim Pasha, the last governor of the city: he was a distinguished associate of the great reformer Midhat Pasha, a poet and a Mevlevi adept. His eleven-year-old grandson, who had grown up in the neighborhood of the Aladja Imaret, wrote a poem lamenting the loss of the city; later he would become famous as Turkey’s best-known modern poet, Nazim Hikmet.


In his poem “Otobiyografi” (written in East Berlin during 1961) Hikmet reminisces of his time in Selanik/Salonica, the city in which he was born, and also a city that had become incredibly divided between varying religions and national identities:

1902’de doğdum
doğduğum şehre dönmedim bir daha
geriye dönmeyi sevmem…

…kimi insan otların kimi insan balıkların çeşidini bilir 
ben ayrılıkların

I was born in 1902
I never once went back to my birthplace
I don’t like to turn back…

…some people know all about plants some about fish
I know separation (Hikmet, 1961)

Aladja Imaret Mosque today (2012)

Note the broken glass in the bottom-right window

Before and after 1914, the Aladja Imaret also knows separation. Once a mark of the Turkish district in the city, today the mosque is caved in, surrounded by high-rises on every side. Also lying in a statistically poorer part of the city, the mosque has not seen much renovation work. Upkeep of the mosque’s exterior has been minimal (broken windows and peeling walls suggest the city hasn’t done much to preserve this building). When I visited the mosque, I noticed that the main door was opened ajar; as soon as I was about to take my shoes off and enter, I saw through the cracks that this building was no longer a mosque; it was actually an art gallery, with white walls prosthetically attached to the rest of the prayer room.

After doing some research I found out that this mosque wasn’t the only space for these white-walled exhibits–apparently it’s a grand project including many historical spaces in the city such as the White Tower, Yeni Cami, and Casa Bianca (see here). With the idea that the historical white walls of Thessaloniki (i.e. those surrounding and consisting of the White Tower) have now become a symbol and a logo for the city, artists have incorporated white walls as gallery spaces in other spaces (such as mosques) in order to challenge the permanent significance of historically-defined spaces. In other words: a mosque can now be an art gallery as much as a place of worship, just as much as the White Tower can be a tourist trap as much as a former fortification of the Ottoman empire. Architecture blogger Andreas Angelidakis had this to say regarding the project:

{The white walls] once protected art from reality, but now they signify exhibitionville, they became logos for the generic art space…suddenly in Thessaloniki white walls extend out of galleries, and stand guard in front of venues, hoping to have something to protect. Could they stop the [financial] crisis from entering the Biennial? Should they? In the end they too become logos, fortification as signage just like the white tower itself.

A plan detailing the outdoor exhibition space by Aladja Imaret

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The interior design of Aladja Imaret's gallery space

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Photograph taken by me of the current gallery setup

It will be interesting to see what result these gallery spaces produce. It’s obvious that these sites are being redefined and recreated in very interesting ways, and one should appreciate the attention people are directing towards both the old and the new in these spaces, especially since in cities such as Salonica/Thessaloniki we are dealing not only with a separation of spaces of a separation of histories and identities.

There is (without a doubt) a Ottoman past in this city that remains complicated even today. But one notices a void that resides in all of these old mosques and hamams that remain–a void that will remain unless these spaces are juxtaposed with both past and present. And as for the buildings that no longer exist–yes, it is true that many sites of the Ottomans have either been demolished or burned in 1917–but their disappearance should make us try even harder to connect the dots of this mysterious city, a city that has fallen into many different sets of hands over the centuries. Recognizing the signification or “logofication” that comes with both space and history as power shifts from empire to empire is thus necessary for Thessaloniki to come to terms with its forgotten past.

The inner designs of Aladja's dome, or what's left of it, at least.

Above the entrance to the Aladja Imaret

Read the rest of the article on white-wall spaces in Thessaloniki here.

Read more Nazim Hikmet poems (in English) here.

Further Reading

Mazower, Mark. Salonica: City of Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

This entry was published on January 7, 2012 at 19:28. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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