Salonica, City of Ghosts; Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950. By Mark Mazower. Vintage, Paper 2004.

Salonica is the second largest city in modern Greece. A port city on the Aegean Sea, it was an important center for the woolen industry, known for its carpets and embroideries. It is primarily known today for its tourism. Sadly for its tourist business, the old city was destroyed by fire in 1917. It was rebuilt in many styles: Renaissance, neo-Venetian, Morris, and toward the end Art Deco and Bauhaus. Fire and plague; Salonica suffered from the plague on three different occasions in the eighteenth century –1713, 1724, and 1762.

An older name, Thessalonika, is associated with the Christian apostle, Paul of Tarsus. Hence the Biblical texts, First and Second Thessalonians. Classical and Biblical. Like other cities where Paul preached, it had a large population of Jews.

Mark Mazower is most interested in the Medieval and Renaissance City. He does, however, describe the more recent centuries when its commercial life was dominated by Jews, coming from disrupted Jewish communities in Spain (the Marranos) and Italy. Jews were artisans, workmen, hamals (porters), fishermen, and peddlers, among other trades. They managed the popular sports halls, which were a source of accommodation between Greeks and Jews. Like Jews in many other cities, Salonica Jews participated in the rag-trade. Mazower sums up this varied immigrant population as ruled by Moslems, dominated by Jews, and surrounded by Christians.

A remarkable population exchange occurred over several years, 1933 to 1939, some voluntary some forced, a disaster fueled by a panic. It began when 40,000 Greeks fled Bulgaria. The Turks then expelled the remaining ethnic minorities. Maybe 30,000 Greeks and Armenians fled Asia Minor, harassed by Kemalist (Ataturk’s) forces. Another 200,000, responding to a panic fled Greece and other regions in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite a carefully negotiated agreement. The Greek refugees landed in poorly provisioned refugee camps. Typhus and cholera killed many of the refugees. One observer tells of a column 20 miles long, carts pulled by water buffaloes. A ship carrying 7,000 on board remained docked at the Salonica quay, “the Porte” as it was called. There was nowhere to go except to these camps.

It was raining.

Many of these refugees had left their homes in a rush and failed to grab the necessary papers. And without those papers, they could not be part of the formal exchange of Greeks and Turks.  Vacant houses were looted. As were many of Salonica’s churches. Moslem populations were fairly well protected by the Kemalists; Jews would soon suffer a different fate.

For many centuries Salonica had been a major trading and manufacturing city in the Ottoman Empire. It was connected by railroad with Istanbul in 1890. Salonica began receiving populations of Turks, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians (Starving Armenians), and various other national and religious minorities in Macedonia. In addition to the various mosques and minarets that shared the early twentieth-century city, there were several grand churches. Being a port city, its quay was lined with handsome warehouses and other testimonies to its industriousness. The Ottoman Empire kept a good census; in 1831 the city had 150,000 souls. By 1913, 180,000.

In a first-year course in European History, you learned about “the sick man of Europe.” About the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. One of the features was the declining livelihood of the Jews. But Jewish livelihoods recovered and Jews, mostly Sephardic Jews, came to dominate the life of the rebuilt central city.

Jews resisted assimilation. They were slow to learn Greek. They continued to maintain their support for the Zionists and a Jewish “homeland” within the Ottoman lands.

The Ottoman Empire had fought beside the Allies in the Great War, but joined Germany in World War II. The Germans occupied Salonica in 1941. Hence the Jews of Salonica. They were one of the largest remaining Jewish populations in the eastern Mediterrranean. In 1943 Adolf Eichmann sent in his henchmen and in January 1943 the “final solution” began. Jews were deported to labor and extermination camps. The Jews of Salonica met much the same fate as the Polish Jews. And thus ended centuries of Jewish life in Salonica.


Spying on Whales; The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson. Viking, 2018.

Whales are truly the most awe-inspiring animals of our Anthropocene age. Hunted as a source of oil for lighting, whales  have, more or less, recovered from the whaling industry of the last several centuries.

Many whale species have gone extinct over the millennia. Those that have survived, Nick Pyenson argues, have evolved various characteristics that favor their survival. They have proven to be the right size to survive, neither too big nor too small. They have survived because they are one of the ocean’s greatest predators, and not picky eater. They have accommodated themselves to feeding on krill, zooplankton found on the water column. They occupy the first rung  of the ocean’s food chain. Whales have stayed global – adopting migratory behavior that provides insurance against regional calamities. And whales have acquired a resiliency by evolving a “culture” within their pod.

Whales are hardly ever seen, remaining at the bottom of the ocean for long periods of time. They are able to dive to impressive depths because they can reduce the amount of oxygen in their blood by holding their breath and thereby reducing their buoyancy.  Pyenson has obtained measurements of over 135 minutes without gulping any intake of oxygen.

Rather than teeth, many whale species have a substance called baleen, plates of bone on the upper jaw. Baleen is commonly found in land animals as well, forming hooves, feathers, claws, and finger nails. The fossil remains of whales suggest, however, that some of these species, at least, once had teeth.

Whales, like large land animals, elephants, for example, are characterized by what paleontologists call gigantism, greater size resulting from their global presence. This gigantism operates in much the same way that island environments have led to dwarfism.

Part of the reason that we don’t see a lot of the whales is because they were harvested for decades from the North Atlantic. Many of the whalers were from the Basque country of Spain and France. They mined right whales, bowhead whales, and other whale species they found along the Labrador Coast. The Basque whalers dominated the industry for five centuries. Remnants of that economy can still be seen in the abandoned warehouses in the Antarctic and lining the shore of salt-water habitats in the cold regions of the European continent.

There is good evidence from archeological sites that indigenous peoples have hunted these giant mammals for thousands of years. Fragments from New Zealand suggest a very old date for a whaling industry, one of the earliest industries known to humans. DNA bone fragments suggest that many different whale species were hunted.

The Anthropocene has, generally, not been kind to whales and whale populations. They were hunted down for their oil (blubber) that, when refined, was used for illumination. In the twentieth century alone some 325,000 blue whales were processed in whaling stations that lined Norwegian and other northern European shores. Fleets of factory ships once roamed the oceans in search of whales and whale-oil. Diesel-powered whalers have replaced the sailing ships of old. And they are much more efficient. The International Whaling Commission has attempted to regulate the industry with some success in reducing the numbers of whales that are harvested. But tourists can still view the remnants of this whaling industry on South Georgia and Antarctica.

Like horses, whales have grown larger and then smaller, at one time the size of a large domestic dog. Judging from their fossilized remains some extinct whale species once had four legs. During their sojourns on land, the whale’s closest relatives were the descendants of African hippos. Some whale species have transitioned from the sea and saltwater to fresh water habitats over the millennia.

Nick Pyenson explains that there are two hundred bones in a single whale skeleton, often scattered over the ocean floor, hence difficult to reconstruct. The best hunting for the fossil remains of these earlier whales is in Egypt.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of whale life is the whale song. Some whales use echolocation for hunting and navigation. The whale song consists of a repertoire of clicks and high-pitched sounds. The songs seem to be a unique pattern shared by “families’, or as Nick Pyenson calls them “acoustic clans.”

Whale evolution provides a fascinating example of the phenomenon of animal evolution. And the adversity caused by human interventions.


London’s Triumph; Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City by Stephen Alford. Penguin, 2018 paper.

            Tudor England became a major player in the expansion of European trade, but it had some catching up to do. In the early seventeenth century, it was behind in its trade with the rest of the world, behind the great port city of Antwerp and other Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish cities. (But not the French!)  In the course of the sixteenth century, London began its expansion into new opportunities in the Mediterranean and Central Asia. That expansion then merged with London’s growing trade in the Indian Ocean.

            Antwerp was the great medieval commercial city of Western Europe, located fifty-miles inland from the North Sea. It was Dutch speaking with a substantial Jewish community. Like other cities in northern Europe, its entry into international trade began with a well-established medieval fair. And these fairs created trading patterns that eventually became international.

            As a major trade center, London also became a focus for the mapping and charting of the globe. It’s rivalry with other trading countries encouraged it to seek out alternative sea routes to these other opportunities. That led to encounters with Muscovy – Russia, and through Russia on to Persia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and then to the fabled Cathay – China. Medieval Danzig became a stopping off place between Russia and London’s trading community.

These English and Belgian merchants maintained the first contacts with the various indigenous Central Asian groups that Russia had long sought to over-power.  Information was traded amongst London’s mercantile elite. These “international” traders then became important financial sources for English merchants. Several large English banking houses also furnished capital.

            London was nearly destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1666.  The commercial area was rebuilt thanks to the presence of rich benefactors, including wealthy merchants but also landed gentry. However there remained a shortage of housing. London was being flooded by immigrants from the prosperous countryside north of the River Thames. A disproportionate number of those immigrants were younger sons of the English landed class. The mercantile elite were drawn from knights, esquires, royal customers, officers, and other classes who had initially flocked to the neighborhood abutting the Thames to serve in the Tudor bureaucracy. Privy councilors, earls, countesses, barons evolved into this mercantile elite that soon dominated the private sector and took on the flavor of the existing class structure.  

Like all medieval British towns and cities, London also suffered from outbreaks of the plague and from food scarcities. In the last years of the sixteenth century, England experienced four failed harvests. Destitute vagabonds and ex-soldiers crowded into the merchant quarter. Stephen Alford quotes figures – 0.87 baptisms for every burial. There needed to be an influx of population, especially young males, to keep the population from shrinking.

One item always in short supply, capital to finance London’s trade. That essential investment to keep the trade going could be borrowed from the crown’s wealth. But that gave the Tudor monarchs leverage over the mercantile interests. The church was also a source of capital, but here a long-running difficulty kept the financial sector from tapping the church’s wealth; there was a ban on usury, though it was possible to raise funds by allowing the repayment to include interest owed on loans extended by the church.

The leading exports from the Thames basin were English cotton cloth, tin, and other natural resources. London merchants also acted as distributors for a variety of imports: cordage, yarn, silk cloth, calf and other skins used in expensive leather products. Rhubarb and spices of all kinds. Brits also processed silver ore, from which the precious metal was obtained. Its merchant networks developed the trade with powerful Indian states, Fatehpur Sikri, Bijapur, Agra, and others.  Another important result of this English trade was the discovery and exploration of the New World and colonies in Virginia and New England.   

Stephen Alford has used a dozen or so Englishmen to illuminate the lives and deaths of both the rich and the poor in Tudor London. This network of trade and processing along the banks of the Thames was an early version of what later became the British Empire.