Thessaloniki's ill-defined heritage: a different anthropological account

Let me forward this by saying that I am not working in an anthropological institution. These reflections were generated from a dual native and academic stand point. I share them with you in my capacity as a traveler and a scholar - and do of course, welcome comments.

Cross-posted from the Identity & Tourism website


Memory, urbanity and ethnographic positionality

This epilogue to a British Academy project (“Reciprocal Orientalisms: Understanding Thessaloniki’s Ottoman Past through Multiple Narrations”, December 2009-January 2011) highlights how manipulations of national memory enable its official custodians to produce the city’s globally plausible tourist image. As someone born in Thessaloniki’s urban periphery and first educated in one of the city’s Universities I too emerged from those structures of memory. Returning to my early student haunts to “do work” as an ethnographic tourist or flâneuse is responsible for any unprocessed empathy I might unwittingly display with my studied subject (Eade 1992; Dann 2002; Herzfeld 2005: 223). For Benjamin (1973: 91; Laing 1978: 55-68) the transformative potential of art is not illuminated solely through study of changes in artistic mentality but by developing a critical-reflexive stance towards the specific techniques and styles we employ to do such work. My cinematic and photographic encapsulation of the city structurally reproduced the conundrums of an urban spectacle associated with utopian visions of social and ethnic marginality post-colonial theory and tourism studies view with suspicion (Patke 2000; Crouch & Desforges 2003). Hopefully reflexivity allowed me to critically examine rather than celebrate these native cosmological themes I unfold (Peirce 1998). The note, which stands at the heart of the paper’s epistemological inquiry, has policy implications, because it cautions against naive equations of immediate knowledge with “truths” – a lapse some realist analysis might gladly adopt to ratify its marriage with policy-making institutions. I remain a pilgrim and a researcher in Thessaloniki’s context, subverting superficial associations of knowledge with absolute truth so as to inflect some social realities through theory. I am a critical realist in some respects who now communicates her previous naivety to a wider audience.

I want to explain why Thessaloniki, a city marginalized in Greek national self-presentations, partakes in definitions of heritage contrived by global systemic centers and why this attitude is reproduced by those groups it seeks to erase (Herzfeld 2006). The formulas of heritage proposed by UNESCO take into account what national centers consider worthy for conservation and global display (Harrison 2005: 3-4), but the European Urtext on which this seemingly democratic model is predicated can be manipulated by those who monopolize power (Delanty 1995: 5). Thus, politically insignificant nation-states such as Greece willingly destroy internal reciprocities with those who have little symbolic capital to contribute to a globally reputable national image (Tzanelli 2008: chapter 3). This unleashes emotional demons in localities that policy-makers can conveniently accuse of sabotaging national prestige, discarding the emotions’ etiological trajectory. Following the Berkeley-Frankfurt School model of the “scapegoat” (McLaughlin 2007: 1805-6), I argue that such emotional reproductions of authoritarian styles stem from European value hierarchies individual nation-states support in search of political prestige, examining how they are implemented in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki in particular.

The iconic, spectacular dimensions of national heritage partake in such manipulations, enhancing reproductions of tradition in urban peripheries (Gabriel 2004: 149). Heritage is a Eurocentric construct and sustains narrative nodes that thrive on the usual themes of whiteness, Christianity and respectability (Herzfeld 2002). Dikötter’s suggestion that the world has become more racialized and Du Bois’ (1899/1903) identification of the development of individual and communal “double consciousness” must be taken seriously here, as they reveal how national cultures and their members learn to think and act according to internal sentiment and global hegemonic scripts at the same time. Ironically, all three themes I presented above reflect the conservative Islamic rationale of “honor” and “shame” Greece shares with its former colonizer (Turkey) (Campbell 1964). Thessalonikiote heritage narratives draw upon this culturally entrenched vision of the world we are brought up to uphold. The failure to secure recognition from global systems overdetermines a national heritage hermeneutics (as in Giddens’ (1987) “double hermeneutics”), which selectively retrieves those pasts that fit in global value hierarchies while simultaneously synchronizing internal formulas of national belonging with these hierarchies (Peristiany 1965; Herzfeld 1980; Blok 1981; Delanty and O’Mahony 2002: 61).

Following the European cosmological superscript of suffering, which conforms to official Christian texts on the life, sacrifice and martyrdom of Christ, Greek narratives of disaster and pain are glorified for internal and external consumption, becoming thus embedded in global capitalist structures (Lash and Urry 1987). Racism beyond color and capitalism are not equated but placed in conditional and shifting alliance in so far as economic capital communicates with status and race is intersectionally produced through class, education, gender and age disparities (Skeggs 1997). Structurally inferior identities appear in such civilizing narratives in need of management and protection: feminine, working-class and ethnic contributions to Thessaloniki’s memory archive have become both its pillars of primordial being and its trafficked goods abroad, where they can have a voice in the confines of Western neoliberal markets. Freezing the past for global self-display “monumentalizes” (Nietzsche, 1980, pp. 17–18) national history, assisting the state to rearrange the nation’s internal limits, create ideal citizenries and project desired types of governance abroad (Tzanelli 2008: 49). The practice found ample use in Greece in marginalized regions (Herzfeld 1991 on Crete) that compensated for lack of access to resources withheld for metropolitan “beautification”, by adopting a precarious performative stance theory associates with ethno-racial and gendered difference (Butler 1993: 225 & 1997: 16).

Notably, Greek kleronomiá (heritage) is a feminine term paying homage to Greece’s crypto-Islamic legacy, a form of intergenerational transaction controlled by heads of clans involving the strategic utilization of subaltern human resources (women). Legacy is “a gift of a chattel or an item of personal property by will” ( – a form of rationalized Maussian exchange between those who share in bloodline (Mauss 1954). Such mergers of legal and symbolic registers are noticed across the globe, embedding the Islamic code of honor and masculinity in nationalist contexts. Heritage begins to be presented as an ethnic and feminine property in need of protection from trespassers by the leaders of the national “kin” (state power) who choose how to display and advertize it in abroad. A professional migrant in yesteryear’s colonial West, I have to constantly police myself so that I neither replicate such conservative-romantic conceptions of Thessaloniki nor glorify my passage to Western markets and lose my critical ethnographic purpose.

My inability to be open about my precarious positionality would speak the language of “sexual propriety [that] parallels the defensive posture of the Greek state” (Herzfeld 2008: 149; Herzfeld 2005: 3-4), aligning my take on Thessalonikiote political marginality with those humanitarian narratives of suffering Western anthropology shares with Christian teachings (Sahlins 1996). Like du Bois’ split subject, I value transparency but am alert that is so easy lapse into disrespectful criticism of local stances as if I were alien to their resonance – because they do make sense in context. Suffice it to mention that I generated a series of sort videos/photographic narratives of the visited sites for my project that initially reproduced the Thessalonikiote cosmological script. Upon realization, I proceeded to add to these videos music that further enhanced the “script”, so as to use them in my teaching as examples to be avoided. The chosen music is a modern fusion of Western, Asia Minor and even South Asian trends, at once mocking and mimicking Greek national sensibilities of sorrow, grief and loss (see my You Tube channel under the nickname “pulakimu” for both versions of the videos). Photography became an alternative travel diary, the only way to perform a sort of political tourism that can be shared with wider audiences.

Is this emotional montage of mine meaningful and analytically relevant? Roseberry contends that a culture is an inchoate set of lived experiences, feelings and relationships within a political and economic system of domination (2002: 188-9), but he does not speak specifically of the potent role of emotions in forging cultural alliances and essentialist divisions such as those that I encountered in the field (and in my own conceptions). For me, “symbolic capital” fluidity and nationalist emotional fixity collude to create a cultural dialogics of nationhood that treats the past as a scarce resource (as it can be used in limited ways) (Appadurai 1981). For this reason I cannot defend Islamic or Jewish contributions to the city’s biography just because Christian Thessalonikiote discourse wants to erase them, as any heritage revisionism would continue to exclude while detracting attention from the city’s present problems. I wish instead to offer some reflections on the ways particular takes on materiality and spirituality re-arrange understandings of belonging through claims over authenticity and originality in this urban context (Williams 1974). I therefore explain how a dialogics of the “auratic” (as in Benjamin 1989) comes into being from the national margins, then staged in global tourist networks (MacCannell 1973) – and at what political cost. As symbolic capital, “tourism” ennobles communities but as a mobility device it threatens racial cohesion. As such global consumption of Thessaloniki’s specificity is both welcome and treated with suspicion by its people who are told that the things they should promote are bad for their identity. In the following three sections I explore how certain pasts became monumentalized for global consumption and in the penultimate section I examine the impact of this process on the city’s social matrix.

Monumentalized history: strategic selection in nodal narratives

With about half a million dwellers (386,627 in 2001), Thessaloniki remains today the second biggest city of Greece and one of the leading urban enclaves of the Balkans (Regional Policy, Inforegio 2004). Todorova drew attention to the political potency of constructs such as that of the Balkans in Euro-Atlantic policy-making: a buffer zone between “East” and “West” with an Ottoman legacy and a problem of ethno-national conflict, the Balkan Raum has been represented in Western political discourse as a dangerous terrain marked by successive Oriental (and later communist) “contaminations” (Todorova 1997: 113). Despite its strategic location in the commercial routes of the South-eastern Mediterranean, Thessaloniki was stigmatized by these legacies early on: it stayed under Ottoman rule until 1912-3, when it joined the Greek state, after serving for centuries as a meeting ground for various ethno-religious communities (Muslim, Jewish, Armenians and Slavs influenced the city’s cultural habits and material form). The cultural indeterminacy of Thessaloniki’s profile was stabilized when the Ottomans used Christian Orthodoxy as a definitional axis for its Greek communities (Sofos and Özkirimli 2008: 16-7), transforming Christianity into a solid European urban marker.

Christianity and an alliance with Western models of governance and civility were consolidated with the First World War Greece joined divided into two factions (1917), an expedition to the Ottoman empire and a military “catastrophe” (Greek-Turkish War, 1919-23) that coerced the self-professed Greek communities of Asia Minor to migrate into the country’s urban centers, including Thessaloniki (1923-). A material survival from this past is Elefterios Venizelos’ statue (the Cretan politician who pushed for Greece’s expansion eastwards), today visible from Aristotelous Square, one of Thessaloniki’s main commercial districts global visitors cross for a coffee, a meal, to book at a hotel, shop or to watch a movie. These tales of ethnic humiliation, suffering and redemption comply with the European Christian metanarrative, partaking in Greek self-narration in the classroom and the tourist trade (Fendler 1998; Osler 2009). I term this the “narrative node”, a centripetal process of self-narration policy makers sustain. Thessaloniki’s narrative node appeals to a European Urtext and involves the collection of “signs” legitimated as heritage, then also appropriated by transnational capitalist networks for commoditization purposes (Lash & Urry 1994; Tzanelli 2010).

The Thessalonikiote node increasingly presented local marginality as exotic, heroic and patriotic, an “underdog” of global geopolitics fixed in a cinematic image that projected selected histories to defend Greece’s primordial existence (Bhatt 2000: 30). It was defined by the same symbolic ambiguity we find in other cases of internal difference in post-colonial settings (Cafentzis 1995 and Mackenzie 1997 on Scotland). Geopolitical rearrangements induced by the Greek-Turkish war accentuated the node’s internal contradictions, supporting the destruction of Thessaloniki’s internal difference. The Ottoman past was excluded from official memory as alien, as did the Jewish, leaving a gap that was filled by Asia Minor refugee culture. Those migrants’ citizenry was also problematic: they belonged to coastal Turkish urbanity but claimed to be descendants of ancient Greek Ionian culture – and as middle-class merchants more “cosmopolitan” than the “primitive” Greeks who bred sheep and had no clear cultural connections to display with Hellenic antiquity.

The city struggled to verify its continuity with ancient Greek antiquity, unanimously recognized as Europe’s civilizational birthplace in the West. The Athens of the Acropolis monopolized this continuity, whereas Thessaloniki was cast as a zone of racial contamination. Jacob Philipp Fallmerayer, (1790-1861), an obscure classicist, claimed in the nineteenth century that sixth-century Slavic invasions from the North adulterated Thessaloniki’s Hellenic purity, condemning the city’s intelligentsia to object to his claims indefinitely. To the date, academic discourse fights against Fallmerayer’s confused theories to “recover” through textual relics of the Byzantine era “evidence” that he was wrong (Skopetea 1999). This hermeneutics treats Byzantium as Greek centuries before the emergence of modern Greek identity. The Slavic connection complemented the Ottoman early on: as mountainous peasants of the North, Thessalonikiotes kissed cheeks with the Albanian and Vlachs pastoral communities of the Balkan Raum. These nomads became incorporated in Greek Orientalist discourses as both heroic bandits of the Greek Independence War (1821) and ethnic contaminants.

It is significant that today Thessaloniki’s Folklore Museum that holds exhibits from such abject pasts opens irregularly to visitors, whereas the Byzantine and Greek Archaeological Museums open daily. The game of verifying and glorifying links with Hellenic antiquity via the Byzantine era is evident in the special place the city grants to its Archaeological Museum (est. 1962), which holds ancient Greek, Roman and Alexandrian exhibits. Exhibits from Vergina, where archaeologist Andronikos claimed to have found the tombs of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, were displayed in the museum until 1997. Amongst them are Philip’s “larnax”, a sun or star adopted as the symbol of Greek Macedonia, claimed in the early 1990s by the newly-founded FYROM for its flag and turned into an international controversy over Hellenistic and Hellenic heritage’s custodianship in the Balkans. Such depictions of the sun visually articulated a sort of Greek illumination of the world that occurred somewhere between East and West, a travel Enlightenment discourse of the Mediterranean of immense commercial value in today’s tourist trade (Sharpley 2004).

When the city became monocultural the Asia Minor refugees became nationalized as working-class subjects (see Hirschon 1999 on Athens), forming the basis for the city’s socialist legacy. In a post-Second World War climate of suspicion amplified by the Greek civil war (1994-49) and consolidated by the last junta’s (1967-74) suppression of communism, these workers became the city’s intimate face: as working-class migrants and left-wing dissidents they were persecuted, but their alleged “Ionian Greek” heritage encouraged their integration into populist narratives of ethnic purity (Mazower 2005: 375-80). My family mirrors these histories: whereas my father boasts for his wealthy Asia Minor cosmopolitan origins, he discusses my great-grandfather’s nickname (Albanian Zagor from the Zagorochoria of Epirus, a northern region with mixed Greek-Albanian populations) in phenotypal terms contradicting his claim that we are of pure Greek “stock”. Even when he speaks of ergatiá (working-classness) fondly, he omits to mention how my mother’s mixed working-class background (her natural mother was a nurse from Grevena, the Slavic Macedonia, and her adopted family from Ottoman Greek communities of craft) and socialist sentiment is also part of this “venerated” family tree of ours. I was educated into this symbolic capital display and my development into a scholar places me in an awkward position: his statements are meaningful not as individual boasting but as personal inflections of prescribed accounts of prestige “from above”. “Craft” complements such ethnographic self-descriptions based on felicitous inaccuracies, and as I proceed to explain below it also informs Thessaloniki’s ignoble “character” that looks to hegemonic types to valorize its “heritage”.

This convoluted overture might help one dance around the architectural markers I offer in the remainder of this section. I place this architectural collage next to its histories of human mobility not to merge and reify the discourse it forms but to examine the intricate ethno-racial matrix on which it was developed from inside out. An uncritical acceptance of national-regional “character”, including its architectural impingements, would de-historicize its pedagogical and performative trajectories, undoing thus my thick description. Bourdieu’s (1977; 1999) constructions of habitus as a collection of learned bodily and cultural attributes, skills of expression and articulation reflecting the cultural space in which they were produced is treated as a policy construct in this paper and not sanctioned as such. Habitus is not equated with urban architectural landscape which is produced by the manipulations of regional and national sentiment into a plausible façade for global consumption. Thessaloniki’s architectural landscape resembles that of Proyas’ Dark City (1998): it is controlled by a humanoid machine (technologies controlled by humans) that hides its calculative nature behind pretentions of protecting the core of human values. It is a machine with regional, national and transnational agendas working against each other or colluding. I contend that Thessaloniki’s current “cosmetic cosmopolitan” agenda (Nederveen Pieterse 2006: 1250) complies with narratives of high culture while preserving the foundations of Christian European cosmology. Below I look at what is strategically conserved and displayed and how its spectacular re-arrangement in the virtual spaces of late modernity endorses or clashes with European self-narrations.

Illuminations: Christianity and Heritage

The city has gained global recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its Paleochristian monuments, amongst which are the Church of Agios Demetrios, named after the city’s Patron-Saint, Agia Sofia and Panagia ton Chalkeon. Figuring in surviving accounts of the city’s heroic defense against the Slavic invasions, Agios Demetrios is proof of Thessaloniki’s European affiliations and still discussed today as such by Byzantinists who pay attention to Fallmerayer’s accusations. Agios Demetrios was listed as a heritage site under criteria supporting hegemonic definitions of “high art”: like Panagia Acheiropoieitos (unmade by mortal hands), another major early Christian shrine, Agios Demetrios shows how the city’s Greco-Roman culture was overwritten by Christian rituals to accommodate national and global pilgrimages to what is now considered a glorious Christian heritage (Mozower 2005: 21).

The religious significance of such survivals often clashes with their tourist potential (Graburn 1977) and heritage value. Rotonda, a Roman monument subsequently turned into a church, is one such example. In the 1990s it became implicated in a war the religious establishment declared against the city’s Antiquity Office (Ephorate) that closed down the site for restoration, with street battles and abusive priestly marches against the archaeologists who led the restoration project. The subtext of such ill-advised protest was that the “sanctity” of the building could be manipulated by apparatuses not fully controlled by the lawful custodians of Thessaloniki’s Christian heritage, if at all. Agia Sofia, another Roman-Byzantine survival in the city’s centre, was modeled after the original Agia Sofia of Constantinople (Istanbul), a nationalist lieu de memoire connected to twentieth century Greek expansionism in the Turkish East (Nora 1989). Panagia ton Chalkeon (Church of the Virgin of the Coppersmiths) was named after a proximate area that used to be occupied by the city’s coppersmiths, a mixed crowd of local and migrant artisans. With the conquest of the city in 1430 by the Ottoman Turks, it was turned into a mosque named Kazancilar Camii (“Mosque of the Cauldron-Merchants”) (Greek Ministry of Culture – Odysseus, 2010). Panagia guards the ‘soul’ (psychi) or ‘spirit’ (pneuma) of Thessaloniki as nation’s future vision of salvation and her iconography bridges representations of the community’s kinship with the idea of (home)land (Bryant 2002: 511; Herzfeld 2005: 108). As a sacred temple, its feminine and working class histories are guarded by political agents who can beautify and advertise it abroad. The essentialization of style is the marker of a divide between honor-custodianship and shame-vulnerability that informs Thessaloniki’s self-narration. Indicative of the strong hold such European cosmological scripts have on heritage policies is that all Thessaloniki’s listed Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments are recognized as heritage sites under the same criteria (See UNESCO Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonica, undated): they allegedly “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius”, while “exhibiting an important interchange of human values” and are “outstanding examples of a type of building, which illustrates a significant stage in human history” (UNESCO criteria i, ii, & iv).

The city’s insertion in digital extensions of capitalist nodes (Castells 1996), enables the global trafficking of such heritage markers. Significantly, Thessaloniki’s official website uses the White Tower in the city’s promenade, today a global tourist attraction and a museum, as an urban brand (Lury 2004). Nevertheless, the theme of ‘fortress Europe’ is preserved in the monument’s alleged Venetian origins and superimposed on its Ottoman history (Tracy 2000). Its whitewashing and renaming as “White Tower” when Thessaloniki became part of the Greek state complied with the European racial scripts. As other surviving Ottoman and Jewish buildings, the Tower did not enter the World Heritage list. Such exclusions propelled a different sort of mobility, and today most of the city’s Jewish and Ottoman architecture hosts art shops and market hubs. Losing their original religious character therefore generated global pilgrimage of the artistic-tourist type in these sites. The change did not occur in organized ways and some such sites were never restored. Some examples include Villa Allatini just off the centre, Alatza Imaret in the old town quarters and Kemal Atatürk’s (Turkey’s first President) house in Agiou Demetriou’s thoroughfare. The city’s ‘Sightseeing Bus’ passes through the Upper Town but also suggests visits to a selection of Byzantine and Ottoman buildings such as Alatza Imaret or Yeni Hamam (Thessaloniki Sightseeing 2010), providing questionable publicity to those alien sites that have been functionally modified or abandoned anyway.

Alatza Imaret was restored in the 1990s within the framework of restructuring in preparation for Thessaloniki’s inauguration as a European Cultural Capital (1997). Today the neighborhood complains that when it does not host art exhibitions it hosts drug addicts and homeless groups. The Ano Poli or Old Upper Town served as a relocation hub for Asia Minor refugees and thus partakes in local intimations of heritage. As house prices have soared in the area, its old inhabitants are dying and less well off Greeks cannot afford to buy or rent there the quarters have been nationalized and gentrified. Another antithesis is evident in the case of Kemal Atatürk’s (Turkey’s first President and political founder) house in Agiou Demetriou, only a few blocks away from the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios and on the fringes of the Upper Town. The house was given to Turkey as a present by the Greek government in 1933, and was subsequently restored by the adjacent Turkish consulate to reflect the way it must have been at Atatürk’s birth (Frommer’s 2010). The house’s public presence is currently sustained only because of the Turkish tourist pilgrimage the site receives annually.

Thus Thessaloniki’s racial Europeanization promotes strategic mourning for particular vanishing Volksgeistes (Ivy 1995) virtually and on site while simultaneously enabling their mobility in global markets (Huyssen 1995; Tzanelli 2007). A deeper investigation into this systemic complex begins when we consider the normative erosion such strategic uses of memory introduce in the sphere of everyday interaction. The whole northern region’s marginalization in hegemonic narratives of nationhood propels the mobility of its “heritage” in virtual domains and generates ample opportunities for the centralized production of populist discourses that valorize regionalism while also producing new forms of exclusion from Thessaloniki’s body politic.

Articulations of belonging

Thessaloniki’s Eurocentric Christian node endorses divides of “public” and “private” spheres to articulate a dominant national-cosmopolitan “type”. Articulation is an apt term: as a way of knowing it conveys transition points from one cosmology to another (Chowdry 2007: 103), but as an allegory of (Durkheimian) organic belonging, it highlights how parts connect to form a functional whole (Latin articulatio from artus). This produces hegemonic versions of nationhood (artus from arthosis=connection or joint, arthrõnõ=verbally articulate) in “high” representational registers (artus as art; see Said’s (1993) contrapuntalism). Articulation is an audiovisual manifestation of literacy: the term’s Indo-European roots (arta) speak of organization akin to that of Greek kosmos (=universe but also beauty), “an iconic expression for ‘good order’” (Sandywell 2011: 152). In the age of nations the paradox of literacy, in its print and audiovisual forms, was that it democratized knowledge while making it complicit to the emergence and preservation of political centers (McLuhan 1962, 1964; Anderson 1991).

Thessalonikiote articulations of heritage conform to patterns of knowledge that find expression through dominant artistic styles (Mannheim 2003; de la Fuente 2007, p. 413; Witkin 2005). Such styles produce a chain effect: the city’s Internet self-presentation is modeled after UNESCO’s electronic narrative of heritage – and this involves accommodating images of Roman and Byzantine sites into the city’s official website (see The city is systemically enmeshed in this game as chains of services are already tied to the techno-cultural narrative node, making it impossible for both regional and capitalist actors to operate outside it. Lest I am accused of externalizing agency to technology I stress once again that Internet narratives of Thessaloniki are man-made; although they might be designed by non-Greeks, they conform to marketable conceptions Thessalonikiote “cultural essence”. Currently, some travel operators draw upon UNESCO narratives to design visits to the city, complete with hotel bookings next to “heritage” churches and commercialized historic centers such as that of Aristotelous Square (see on combined flights and hotel bookings).

But the city’s virtual narrative also borrows from the spectacular cultures of the Orient to craft a European urban phantasmagoria (Patke 2000: 4-5) based on subaltern identities adhering to know-how cultures, bohemian styles and “folkish” types. Thessaloniki’s phantasmagoria is assisted by its International Film Festival that further valorizes its global profile (here, the virtual and the visual go hand in hand). As an urban spectacle of late modernity (Debord 1995), Thessalonikiote emphasis on the visual adheres to a tourist-like gaze that works from above and afar (Szerszynski and Urry 2006), entrapping human action (creative work) in museum-like simulacra (Edensor 2004).The image of Thessaloniki based on the know-how craft of the spectacle refracts ideal types of Ottoman cunning and Jewish mercenary attitudes Greeks invariably condemn in public but embrace in the post-colonial arena in which they are invited to make ends meet. Thessalonikiote style in trade is informed by this image because it opens up some global paths for the city, obstructed by bad national infrastructure. The professionalization of this habitus in arts and crafts produces the city’s tourist narratives, encoding memory in symbolic and material registers. Developmental obstruction is omnipresent: for its needs, the city does not have a big enough airport to connect to the world. Though significantly improved, the Intercity rail link to Athens takes about six hours to complete a journey though some magnificent mountainous areas – only partly responsible for the delays and problematic timetables. These developmental constraints (see Braudel 1972) coerce Thessaloniki look to the European North and West to stabilize its visitor inflow while maintaining its Mediterranean connections to the sea trade and tourism.

Because the northern Prefecture is aware of its disadvantaged position in the nation-state it capitalizes on its exotic marginality in virtual domains. Note for example the Prefecture’s advertising of Thessaloniki as an alternative tourist destination, “an open-air museum” with “unique Byzantine churches co-exist[ing] side by side the contemporary buildings, the modern shops and the numerous coffee shops”, promising that “you come as a stranger and leave as a good friend” (Alternative Greece, undated). The Simmelian image of the stranger (1923) recalls how the region provided shelter to various migrant communities over the centuries but updates this through desired travel and professional mobility. The image of the migrant-come-traveler conforms to European cosmologies: on the one hand it displays an internally plausible “structural nostalgia” (Herzfeld 2005) for the Edenic “biosphere” of the Thessalonikiote family that once included even migrants. On the other, it claims Thessaloniki’s inclusion to the global romantic gaze of the knowing traveler, rather than the vulgar gaze of the tourist. Offering visually rich tours to its idyllic multicultural “home” enacts a sort of digital utopia – a digitopia possible to be articulated only in a placeless virtual environment. This digitopia is centralized and de-centered at once, complying with the rules and needs of the market while often crafting a critical montage on fixed traditions (Papastergiadis 2005). Internet world guides tend to highlight the cultural plurality of the city, advertising it both as a shopping and culinary vacation and an opportunity to visit a series of historical sites/signs such as “the White Tower, Byzantine city walls, traditional Greek architecture, and its pretty waterfront, which is lined with cafes and shops” (World undated). Websites such as draw upon Greek iconic narratives of sun and sea without losing the cultural context of urban flânerie. Hence, Thessalonikiote digitopia is a centripetal and centrifugal force at once in Greek nation-building.

The summer stereotype of Greece certainly owes to the cosmopolitan-come-working-class Asia Minor cultures of belly-dancing (tsifteteli), bouzouki-playing and singing. But it is a stereotype managed by regional centers that observe what appeals to the masses. Traditionally a tourist destination, Greece incorporated such Orientalist themes into a practical Mediterraneanist discourse to enable the profitable mobility of its culture. Yet, even such Mediterranean stereotypes prey on nationalist commemorations of ethnic character, rife with mourning for the nation’s loss of primordial innocence (Connerton 1989). Consider for example how global creative industries narrate Zorbas the Greek’s (Anthony Quin) dance performance as “purely Greek” but discard that this “ethnic character’s’ dancing was expressing sorrow” (Cowan 1990: xi, 5; Karayanni 2007: 153). In Thessaloniki, as tourist trade appropriated these highly specific styles for global consumption popular culture, the ever-present node’s European umbilical cord was severed but the European travel gaze’s potency was multiplied. Such is the irony of virtual and actual mobility in the margins: increases capital fluidity while fixing identity.

But I would also claim – within the ambit of my native professional prejudice – that the actual damage to the city’s body politic remains half-articulated. The conspicuous production of a hybridized Asia Minor culture by Thessaloniki’s emergent entrepreneurial groups (restaurant owners, musicians, dancers and artists) continues to clash with the know-how reproductions of Asia Minor culture by those urban groups disorganized policies demoted to working-class citizens with no national currency to display (as artisans, market stall owners and craftsmen). The commoditization of such dissident styles accelerated after the political restoration of 1974 to eventually become part of a tavern ambiance tourists enjoy in the city (the Turkish-Greek concept of kéfi or joy encapsulates this oxymoron, ennobling “happy leisure” as tourist mobility). The survival of this style in a luminal kitsch-like zone of consumption is located in certain styles of Vlachodisko, the derogative “disco of the Vlachs” that involves a remix of romantic and Asia Minor proletarian styles with Western rhythms. (Adorno might have written a treatise on this genre). The same happened to the Asia Minor tsiftetéli, now danced in night clubs on the tables mainly by women – an embodied expression of a mixed gendered poetics adhering to the principles of Western individualism. Thessaloniki’s plural node (Asia Minor, Ottoman, Jewish and European) stands today at a crossroads negotiating with the twin devils of capitalism and nationalism.

Electronic manifestations of this secondary nodal narrative are striking in the case of Ladadika, a conserved Jewish quarter just off the city centre. Ladadika’s virtual presence is complete with trip advice on accommodation that does not always follow the Euro-Christian paths of the node (the city’s churches). The quarter’s businesses maintain instead individual virtual profiles, still nevertheless capitalizing on the conspicuous consumerist value of Asia Minor culture. Note for example how Kioupia, a restaurant in Ladadika, draws upon positive commentary by Yianna Angelopoulou-Daskalaki (former President of the Athens Olympic Organising Committee), Agapi Vardinoyianni and Vefa Alexiadou (culinary writer and TV presenter), amongst other famous Greeks to enhance its business (Kioupia, Undated), and contrast this with the virtual absence of Kapani Vlali (one of Thessaloniki’s old market towns populated Chinese and Eastern European migrant traders). Kapani does not have a website of its own and only independent websites such as Tripadvisor host a number of visitor reviews on the area (demoting it to a family vacation and hence reducing its mobility). Unlike its market towns, Ladadika occupies some space on Thessaloniki’s official website as a tourist attraction. An exclusive photo album on the quarter invites a virtual flânerie through time and space, encouraging this sort of aesthetic performativity that enhances the area’s virtual and actual mobility (the quarter is also advertised by – a major virtual tourist website for Greece).

Obscuring vs. illuminating

I have followed in this investigation the Greek style of disclosure and concealment for good reasons: what is consumed internally and from afar is what is widely displayed. Such virtual divides dance in the cosmological styles of honor (which has a global face) and shame (which does not), crafting categories of “human” and “citizen”. Consider how Aristotelous’ neoclassical facade today defines the virtual face of Thessaloniki, but the twin market towns behind it do not.

Concealed behind these beautiful buildings that host chain stores, big bookshops, cafes, eateries and banks (including the National Bank of Greece’s central offices), one finds a microcosm of consumption practices addressed to knowing Greek shoppers. On the one side one finds Modiano market (erected by the Serphadic Eli Modiano (1881-1968) whose house hosts the city’s Folklore Museum), Franginis Square and Yahoudi Hamam (a restored sixteenth-century Turkish bath). The area, which is full of shops selling cheap replicas of Christian icons, kitchen utensils, herbs, bric-a-brac, as well as groceries and fresh food, merges ideas of family reproduction with domestic consumption. Kinship utility defies professional mobility as dictated by urban tourist policies.  The other side is populated (between Egnatias thoroughfare and Avgerinou Street) by rows of tavernas that draw on marketable images of globally known Greek film stars such as Melina Mercouri, declaring thus their participation in conservative visions of the Greek nation-family. The willingness of these entrepreneurs to see their business scrutized by my lens and trafficked abroad also reveals their justified hunger for advertising (And here was I, the native stranger giving with one hand and taking with the other what I could not fully grant: unconditional recognition). A line of pantopoleίa (old-style corner-shops and mini-markets) and kareklopoieia (chair-making workshops) snuggle in Papamarkou Street alongside emerging modern cafes and pottery shops, speaking the language of a different cultural plurality that is both exclusive and self-exclusive.

By this I mean that the two sites have ended up hosting “behind closed doors” dying communities of craft – of cooking, shoe-mending, or chair-making. The craft of chair-making is part of nationalized and commoditized folklore that is “associated with the emergence of national consciousness and glorified as the repository of ancient skills” (Herzfeld 2004: 5). The bankruptcy of the Greek state has shoved these artisans in an even darker corner: the retiring generation cannot expect to receive a decent pension whereas the younger one is placed at the disadvantage of marginalization in a declining regional market.

Just as Komninon’s trade in cheap holy icons and Modiano’s in herbal concoctions, chair-making is emblematic of those crafts produced at home – hence it is regarded as the opposite of professional labor. As technίtes (artisans), the human capital of both sides partakes in the silent transformation of a long-standing Historikerstreit (exemplified by the Habermassian battle to rescue repressed pasts) into a Materiellestreit, a dispute over Thessalonikiote culture’s material mobility. Such craftsmen have to speak the language of reproductive art but their concealment from the global tourist gaze restricts their customer pool significantly. As is the case with other heritage markers, there is usually a “public discourse” that precedes and “frames” visits to places “repeatedly mark[ing] the boundaries of significance and value at tourist sites” (Neumann 1988: 24). Yet, not only are these sites obscured by Aristotelous’ neoclassical facade, the city’s administration did not grant them an Internet profile – the latest update in the Greek “poetics of manhood” (Herzfeld 1985). Old age and lack of interest or different priorities ensure that these groups are more prone to reproductions of tradition that serves the administrative machine’s agenda.

The lack of “public face” is overdetermined by changing definitions of craft that now place emphasis on the electronic mastery of goods (Internet). Ubiquitous lack of knowledge and/or learning resources encloses these communities in an entropic heritage discourse, making them less mobile or more inclined to strike out on their own in search for self-growth. Electronic communications involve the complex mastery interpretive skills that can be both linguistic and interpretive, including standardized professional codes even the educated struggle to display in foreign cultural environments. Even artistic achievement does not guarantee change of mentality: in Modiano market I was intimated by two herb sellers how a decade ago the mayor did not pursue an American invitation to restore the arcades. Yet, at the same time in Papamarkou an educated pottery artisan also declared her loyalty to the city’s “pure Greek” Byzantine tradition to show solidarity with the Byzantine Museum’s cultural initiatives. “Culture” allows these subjects to claim a spiritual citizenship in the Greek nation whereas complain and accusations of administrative abandonment play the card of secular theodicy – a tactic accommodating the style of Thessaloniki’s politicians who support individual responsibility and disorganized capitalism in practice. The absence of migrant presence in these spaces (save that of all-sale tradesmen from African zones of exception) is also indicative of the reproductive exclusion and introversion in these areas: black and Slavic faces are signs of symbolic boundary pollution (never mind that Southern and Eastern European “Slavs” have manned Thessalonikiote plumbing or engineering) and have to be removed. As is the case with the rest of Greece, Thessaloniki is becoming multicultural in ethnic profile but not multiculturalist in political mentality (Parekh 2000).

The past tends to be a foreign topos (Lowenthal 1985) we can make enticing to external viewers with a lick of shiny paint. The shine protects the front regions, leaving the backstage filled with garbage and dustbins Thessaloniki’s city council collects irregularly. Its heritage underbelly remained largely inaccessible to the global tourist gaze, until a wave of popular protests against the state’s wrongdoings removed the protective panel and the back regions of nation-building were brutally exposed. The fact that such protests were organized in 2010-11 against rising unemployment close to the waterfront and in Aristotelous Square issued a vengeful return of tradition: within the framework of urban restructuring in preparation for 1997, the awarded project proposals focused on enhancing the city’s European narrative axis that runs almost perpendicular from Agios Demetrios to the waterfront, while “showcasing” the city’s commercial and cultural connection to the sea. The Japanese prize in particular endorsed an auratic model of “restructuring”, viewing the city as a replica of the human body with multiple minds that “prescribe a separation from nature and are equipped by independent egos” (Restructuring the City 1997: 29). This Herder-like vision of Thessaloniki was sanctioned by Costas Loizos’ (Managing Director, Thessaloniki 97), Costas Lialiotis’ (Minister of the Environment) and Konstantinos Cosmopoulos’ (Mayor of Thessaloniki) determination to materially “recover” Thessaloniki’s multiple pasts at the expense of its living communities.

The shift from collective to factional “good” is a corollary of the discourse of individualism that defines Greek attachments to reputable self-presentation (Herzfeld 1987: 160; Herzfeld 2009: 240). It masks the corruption defining Thessaloniki’s own brand of “big society” that supports its politicians’ mimicking of folk styles with a view to gaining more votes. Although the 1997 project beautified the city, a change in power (from the Socialists to the Conservatives) and the prioritization of Athens 2004 preparations in the south shifted the gravity of funds, ensuring that the project would benefit architectural restoration but not human development in areas such as those I visited in 2010. The conservative government’s involvement in a scandal involving property in Mount Athos, the center of Greek Christianity since Ottoman rule, just a few kilometers off Thessaloniki, was complemented by irregularities in the fincancial dealings of Panagiotis Psomiadis, the nomarch of the region. Psomiadis, who declares a common human being in his Facebook profile (therefore, presumably free to “err” on his financial transactions) is the archetypal example of Greek populist self-styling. Narratives of “being human” have apparently been enmeshed in neo-conservative theologizing by those politicians who use the story of the “Fall from Eden” to build their own secessionist clans (on this one may note that Psomiadis’ new project is to make his own Lega Nord party) (GR Reporter, 12 April 2011). Likewise,  the decade-long tenure of conservative mayor Vasilios Papageorgopoulos (1999-2010) concluded with allegations that the former Olympic champion too had swam the dark waters of embezzlement the very moment he was pushing towards a reconstructive urban agenda in preparation for Athens 2004 (Aggelioforos, 13 March 2010).

Development is a thorny issue and impositions from above (by administration or even ethnographers) can be unproductive. Yet, my visits to those exempted zones suggested that its people do feel left out of the electronic revolution due to lack of coordination in electronic presentations of the city – an exclusion that brings to life colonial ghosts of illiteracy (“Who is going to do this [website development?] I have no clue,” jokingly explained a self-declared “illiterate” restaurateur in Franginis). The imagined “node” has populated Aristotelous Square’s backstage with anthropological-historical ghosts, brewing resentment amongst the city’s workers who tend to reify themselves as ergatia instead, a (populist) labor mass that politicians can mobilize during elections but chastise during strikes and protests. Striving to shake off its “Oriental” garments to embrace the cosmopolis of late modernity (another utopian construct of European theory) is impossible under such circumstances. The old crypto-religious image of Ottoman cunning and Jewish betrayal is thus projected onto those who claim to do their outmost in Thessaloniki’s battle for “professional” civility. It is understandable then why my second fieldwork trip (April 2010) opened with demonstrations and strikes in Aristotelous Square against job losses political corruption tied to enterprises such as those of 2004.

“Undoing” heritage through political touring

My overview explained how a distinctive Eurocentric heritage discourse (of Christian recovery, Hellenic civilization but also working-class sacrifice) is “learned”, superimposed by institutions on the ailing social fabric. The “learning” does long-lasting damage when it transmogrifies into intangible heritage of an emotional type – a “national character” that strives to take back what has been stolen from “hard-working folk” by a shadowy “system” governed by those who diminish or widen their social distance from the electorate as they please to safeguard their own prestige. Today, Greece’s encounters with hegemonic European registers of art are mediated through technological changes. In Thessaloniki’s case a prioritization of Christianity and Hellenic antiquity coupled with aestheticized consumption of place through arts has in practice consolidated divides between lowbrow and highbrow culture but the developmental programme of the political right which appears to steadily govern the region for over a decade now obscures this divide. The fact that such corruption finds ardent support amongst the electorate can be considered a consequence of Thessaloniki’s marginalization in Greek topographies of identity, which generated a niche for political opportunism to consolidate Christian neo-conservatism.

This is amply manifested in the domain of culture by those the Greek populist (“big society”) machine addresses as its primary audience. This project uses histories of migration and displacement as a platform on which it can develop the profile of the region. The tourist project is inflected through domestic self-narrations of historical injustices and dislocation but looks to Western consumption demands for growth. As a result, Thessaloniki continues to reside in the interstices of laiki koultoura (folk culture) and popular (Western) culture, today also espoused by a younger generation that increasingly cares less about the city’s troubled ethnic pasts. Perhaps then, eating less of traditional dishes and listening less of folk music alone does not solve the problem. It is the institutional apparatuses of memory (school narratives, national media and adjacent “ethnic” industries) and those who control them to further their own interests one should critique. This essay performed an acrobatics of remembrance to “undo” the structures of such memories, hopefully exposing the dangers of its uncritical embracement.


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Comment by Rodanthi Tzanelli on June 21, 2011 at 10:52am
Of course, as an update to the article I'd add that in light of Greece's bankruptcy and possible departure from the Eurozone, these histories have to take a back seat. My only fear would be that penury might incite racism and xenophobia - not directed exclusively towards Jews or Eastern Europeans or Muslims, but also towards Westerners. We have no idea where this situation will lead the country. Viva la corruption.
Comment by Rodanthi Tzanelli on June 21, 2011 at 10:48am

A good question -- it can mean a journey or visit to places of death (and therefore, also places of memory). It is tied to commemorative events that are used by authority (think Weber) to foster communal solidarity (my Durkheim never dies). But if you are thinking about the generation of tourism in these areas then you may also need to expand the visitor basis -- thus the place assumes an identity through multiple interpretations of thanatos by visitors (that's the interactionist dimension). Thanatotourism thrives in areas of war, destruction or genocide - esp. where collective traumas are shared by humanity (Germany is a good example with its surviving war camps).For all we know we will see some migration camps turning into similar tourist sites in the future...


I do not know how many people have to be killed to term mass murder a 'genocide'. I guess I was referring to the Jewish genocide when I wrote the previous post in Thessaloniki provided only an isolated event in a pool of global bloodbath. But to turn to the present: I read somewhere that the new mayor of Thessaloniki is actively trying to establish commercial relations with Jewish businessmen. I can't retrieve the article right now but I found it interesting - not sure what it means in terms of cultural attitudes, if anything. It certainly means that the Thessalonikiote admin is trying to foster a new commercial policy (whatever that means - Boutaris is still kissing cheeks with the Patriarch, I hear). 

Comment by Rodanthi Tzanelli on June 17, 2011 at 1:40pm

I see where you come from, John. The sense of victimisation is indeed a historical given in Greece's case - here I speak of Greece in general. But due to Thessaloniki's marginalisation in the nation-state this is further aggravated - I believe that as a reaction it makes sense, don't you think (whether it is a healthy response in the long term is another question)? When you look past the administrative fanfare and the reiteration of traditions you also see how the same tropes inform everyday political discourse...but that's an issue that merits extensive discussion in a paper or book chapter. The view from the margins of the margins (Thessaloniki's periphery) can be even worse, as people feel doubly isolated and compensate for this by using selections of histories (of their ancestors migrations from Turkey, for example) to reinforce ideas of suffering. In short, in addition to the evil Westerners, the national or regional center is represented as 'evil' or indifferent (a claim that is sadly true in most cases and certainly more accurate than the idea that Western agents inflict or have inflected in the past with all sorts of political maladies).


I am not refuting the argument that there are systemic powers at work that historically disadvantaged Greece or Thessaloniki in particular. But the etiological connections between past and present are not as tight as my compatriots would like to claim (here I'll include myself, as I've written about all these things in the past, uncritically adopting the native viewpoint). In Thessaloniki's case, John (and Nikos), we should also think about the ways native groups reproduced this systemic crime - think about the mini Jewish genocide/expulsion in the past. I won't talk about the present, which is equally muddled.


Comment by John McCreery on June 17, 2011 at 1:01am

Dear Rodanthi & Nikos,

It is not so much the analogies between Japan and Greece (or, more precisely, Yokohama and Thessaloniki, but the differences that intrigue me. An important element in the Japanese version of Japanese history is that Japan has never been colonized. With the exception of the brief post-WWII occupation, Japan has successfully resisted would-be invaders.  Its official histories also celebrate the county's ability to selectively domesticate foreign cultural influence, Buddhism and Chinese writing during the Heian Period, French legal, German army, and British navy traditions during the Meiji Restoration, digital technology, global pop culture and fashion since the rapid economic growth during the postwar period. Treated in this way, Japan's response to the foreign becomes a point of national pride. Cultural amnesia coupled with a sense of victimization is largely confined to the early "dark" half of Showa, the Asia-Pacific War years.

Comment by Rodanthi Tzanelli on June 12, 2011 at 1:25pm

Dear John & Nikos

there are many similarities with Japan -- not least this ambivalent stance towards both the Ottoman/Turkish and the Jewish past. They both have immense commercial value after all -- how can they just be erased altogether? As for the trauma of the second world war -- again yes, the war contributed to the endorsement of conservatism and regionalism (if not localism) at the expense of internal difference. Introversion and suspicion is part of the current politics too, only better concealed, probably because there are more immediate issues to address. The Greek bankruptcy -- we can partly attribute to mismanagement of funds over the decades --- certainly screwed things up in terms of urban self-presentation. I've just come back from Thessaloniki: aboard the plane, foreigners planned their holidays elsewhere, nearby or on sail. There is need for careful planning here if the city wants to attract tourist attention. Even history can be better and more fairly presented -- perverse, but a good thanatotourist policy might revive the tourist sector, for example.

I guess the article packs just too much in such a short space. It was intended as an overview anyway -- there are at least 5-6 chapters in it, some of which I wouldn't touch at all. I'm confused when it comes to pursuing this project as a book because I am more interested in the places that have tourist traffic. Thessaloniki is really struggling at the moment (esp. because of the Athenian monopoly on capital/resources), and this aggravates backward-looking attachments to Christian 'heritage'. The past is a scarce resource, Appadurai argues....

Comment by John McCreery on June 5, 2011 at 5:48pm

Rodanthi, if I read you correctly, you are describing a case of selective "official" historical memory. You point out that emphasis on Thessaloniki's Hellenistic and Christian heritage and focus on "art" obscures working class contributions to the popular/anthropological culture of the city. As I read, I also notice the effacement of the city's Ottoman heritage, which is, of course, very much of a piece with modern antagonism between Greek and Turk. This stimulates me to reflect on how differently imperial or colonial heritage is treated in other parts of the world. In Japan, where I live, both Nagasaki and Yokohama (my adopted home town) celebrate the foreign encounter as an element in local identity. In Nagasaki the focus is Dejima, the island to which Dutch traders, the only non-Asian traders allowed to trade with Japan, were confined during the Tokugawa Era. In Yokohama, the city recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the port under pressure from the "black ships" of Commodore Matthew Perry. Yokohama's history is a major gateway for the importation and domestication of Western culture to Japan is a recurrent theme in publicity aimed at promoting tourism and other forms of trade. What strikes me is the way in which, in both cases, the Japanese were able to contain and, at least, temporarily, isolate the foreign intrusion, then selectively domesticate its influence, a situation very different from that of a place "restored" to a nation after protracted imperial rule by the other has been overthrown. For the latter, the imperial legacy may be a trauma to be repressed, especially if the antagonisms that drove the struggle for return to national independence stay hot. In the Japanese case, the encounter, while not without antagonism, has become, instead, a memory in which even the most nationalist chauvinists can take justifiable pride.


Just brainstorming here. Any thoughts?


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