You can eat better in Thessaloniki than anywhere else in modern Greece. On my first visit, after I’d enjoyed the bracingly spiced peppers, the cumin-filled lamb sausages, the deep-textured fruit-and-meat stews, the creamy pastries, one of my guides began to explain why. ‘It’s very political food,’ he said as we drove through the – fairly humdrum – suburbs of a largely modern city that seldom discloses the many layers of its past to the casual eye. His English was well-nigh perfect, but this little, inadvertent Hellenicism told a story in itself.
To Greeks everywhere, for centuries, the magnetic metropolis of Constantinople was simply ‘the city’, I póli. So exalted was its position that it hardly needed another name. Indeed, when Atatürk brought its official moniker in line with the linguistic norms of his new Turkish republic in 1930, it didn’t get one. ‘Istanbul’ is merely a vernacular truncation of the Greek phrase for ‘to the city’. Remade in the early twentieth century by waves of forced migration from ‘the city’ and other places in Asia Minor and European Turkey, Thessaloniki in its daily life – from tongue to table – carries memories of lost homelands and displaced communities. So, yes, that well-spiced, Eastern-tinged cuisine is ‘political’ in several senses – although Smyrna, another origin of its modern citizenry, flavours the local dishes as deeply as Constantinople/Istanbul.
In Thessaloniki, you can easily taste at least some of the sedimented past. You can hear it too in the ‘oriental’ strains of rebetiko, which flourished here among exiled musicians who had fled Smyrna or Istanbul. But you need to make more of an effort to see it. All around the Mediterranean basin, and far beyond, urban centres with a history of hosting people of different faiths, cultures and languages have learned how to put their hybrid pasts on display for tourists, for investors, for the international image-makers who can boost, or dampen, a city’s prospects. Ancient ports in Morocco will celebrate (and restore) their synagogues; even some towns in Poland now cherish historic mosques. The commemoration of the multi-faith convivencia of medieval Spain helped quicken the modern revival of Andalusia and added to the new lustre of Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla. Sites in Israel and Egypt, in Turkey, Tunisia or Sicily, blithely invite visitors to ignore the embarrassment of contemporary politics and enjoy the curated traces of a time when – so the tale runs – clearly-defined ‘communities’ lived in an Edenic state of ‘harmony’, undisturbed by ethnic or confessional strife. Should, in the near future, Syria wake from its long nightmare into something like peace, the rhetoric of its reconstruction will no doubt draw on these well-worn tropes. And these invocations of paradise lost are far from accidental. Behind them lies the dream, or hope, of a friction-free comity of peoples that may unite the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. After all, all agree (more or less) on Eden – and the Fall.