Salonika, you are on my mind

My paternal grandparents were forced to immigrate to Turkey from a village near Salonika. This happened in 1923 as part of the “mübadele”  (population exchange between Greece and Turkey). They were traumatized by this experience all their lives. When they arrived in Anatolia the local people rejected them wherever they went. I met someone in New York City whose grandparents were forced to immigrate to Greece from central Anatolia. He mentioned that his grandparents suffered the same fate in Greece. The locals never liked the refugees.

The 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey was based on religious identity, and involved the Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey and the Muslim citizens of Greece. Some islands were exempted from the exchange. It was the first compulsory large-scale population exchange of the 20th century. It involved approximately 2 million people. Significant refugee displacement and population movements had already occurred following the Balkan Wars, World War I, and the Turkish War of Independence. In total about 500,000 Muslims from Greece and about 1,500,000 Christians from Anatolia had to leave their homelands. Most of the Muslim refugees were from Salonika and surroundings. It is interesting that neither Muslims nor Christians were the majority in the city. Salonika was the majority-Jewish city in Ottoman Greece. Salonika was very much like New York City today in the sense that there was a very important Jewish presence in the city. This is relevant to the story I am telling in this article.

I always felt a special connection to Salonika. This great city played an important historical role in the life of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Reformist ideas that Young Turks introduced to the Ottoman Empire and the revolutionary social ideas implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the early days of the Turkish Republic originated in Salonika.

Collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire sided with Germany during World War I and the consequences were disastrous. Germany lost the war and paid dearly in the following years. The cost of war for the Ottoman Empire was equally great. During and after the war until 1924 Anatolia was in total chaos. Ottoman Empire surrendered and British forces occupied Istanbul. Many towns in Anatolia were occupied by Greek and French forces. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led an independence struggle and expelled the Allied forces from Anatolia in 1923. Mübadele (population exchange) was the result of the hostilities between Turkish Republic and Greece.

1430: Ottomans Capture the City

Salonika has a long history going back to Alexander the Great but I will limit my attention to the Ottoman period. Ottoman commander Hayrettin Çandarlı Pasha captured the major cities in Macedonia and after a four year siege captured the city of Salonika in 1387. The Ottoman Empire was in disarray between 1402 and 1413 after Sultan Beyazit I’s defeat in the battle of Ankara. The Turcoman emirates in Anatolia regained their independence from Ottomans during this time. Ottomans lost control of Salonika and other cities in the Balkans as well. The second capture of Salonika happened in 1430 during Murat II’s reign.

1492: Sephardic Jews arrive in Salonika

Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Ottoman Empire granted protection to Jews and most of them settled in Salonika. Later, Jews from Portugal sought refuge in Salonika in 1540 and 1560. By 1613 Salonika became a majority-Jewish city and remained that way until 1923.

Sabbatai Zevi (Sabetay Sevi) and Dönme of Salonika

Sabbatai Zevi was born in Izmir (Smyrna) in 1626. At age of 22 in 1648, he started declaring to his followers in Izmir that he was the true Messianic redeemer. In 1651 the rabbis banished him and his disciples from Izmir. In those days Salonika was the center of Kabbalah, so he moved to Salonika and he quickly gained many followers there.

In 1663 he moved to Jerusalem then to Gaza where he met Nathan of Gaza who was very impressed with his spirituality and started his messianic movement. Nathan of Gaza became Zevi’s right-hand man and claimed to be Elijah, the precursor of the Messiah. When Zevi became powerful he returned to Izmir. In 1666 he was forced to move to Istanbul (Constantinople) by the Ottoman authorities.

The messianic movement was very popular among Sephardic Jews even before their expulsion from Spain but after the expulsion the movement grew stronger. The messianic movement among the Sephardic Jews who were Ottoman citizens at that time alarmed the Ottoman authorities. The Grand Vezir Ahmet Köprülü ordered the arrest of Zevi. He was given a choice of apostasy or death. He chose to convert to Islam under pressure. This was in appearance only. His followers did the same thing. They converted to Islam but continued their Kaballah practice. They became known as Dönme.

In the next 300 years Dönme were assimilated into the Muslim culture. They preferred the Mevlevi, Bektashi and Alevi interpretations of Islam, however.

Dönme in the Young Turks Movement

“By the 19th century, the Dönme had become prominent in the tobacco and textile trades. They established progressive schools and some members became politically active. Some joined the Committee on Union and Progress (CUP), the revolutionary party known as the Young Turks. With independence, in the 1910s, Greece expelled the Muslims from its territory, including the Dönme. Most migrated to Turkey, where by mid-century they were becoming highly assimilated.” [1] [2]

“Most important, several Dönme were leading members of the Committee for Union and Progress, the revolutionary party known as the Young Turks, who in 1908 forced the Sultan to grant a constitution. The Dönme, like Jews and Freemasons, sympathized with the CUP’s scientific, reformist program, though Baer emphasizes that the CUP was not a Dönme party—any more than the Russian Bolsheviks, though they included many Jews, were a Jewish party. Even so, some prominent Young Turks were Dönme, including the editor of the Party’s newspaper and the finance minister in the new CUP government.” [1][2]

1908 :  Ittihat & Terakki Takes Over

The Young Turks were a coalition of various groups demanding reforms in the administration of the Ottoman Empire. The movement was against the monarchy. The term Young Turks referred to the members of the Ottoman society who were progressive, modernist and opposed to the status quo. Many Young Turks were not only active in the political arena, but were also artists, administrators, or scientists. Their political movement was known as “Ittihat & Terakki” (Committee for Union and Progress).

The 1908 revolution was organized by the Ittihat & Terakki committee in Salonika. They recruited the officers of the 3rd army and forced the Sultan to re-open the parliament in 1908. The first parliament was opened in 1876 only to be suspended by Abdulhamit II in 1878.

In 1909 there was a counter-revolution organized by Sultan Abdulhamit II. The 3rd army of Salonika moved to Istanbul and crushed the counter-revolution of the monarchists on April 24 (it is known as the March 31 incident because Ottomans were using the Rumi calendar which is based on the Julian calendar). They removed Abdulhamit II from the throne and replaced him with Mehmet V.

After 1909 Ittihat & Terakki (Committee for Union and Progress) party ruled the Ottoman Empire. Even though they instituted many reforms, in the final analysis, their administration failed miserably. The Ottoman Empire collapsed under their watch.

Dönme in the early leadership of the Turkish Republic

After the collapse of the empire most of the Ittihat & Terakki members, many Dönme among them, gave support to Mustafa Kemal in his struggle to establish the Turkish Republic. In the early days of the Turkish Republic the Dönme were the most enthusiastic supporters of the secular reforms. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was not a Dönme but he had an interesting relationship with them.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Salonika

The founder of Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born in Salonika. He went to elementary school and military middle school there. During “mübadele” founders of that elementary school took refuge in Turkey like many others. They started the “Feyziye Mektepleri” in Istanbul which became known as “Şişli Terakki” and “Işık” high schools. “Feyziye Mektepleri” founded the Işık University in 1996. The Turkish word “Işık” or the Arabic word “Feyz” means light and the word usually refers to enlightenment.

The owners of the “Feyziye Mektepleri” were Dönme. Because of this the fundamentalists in Turkey have been running a gossip campaign accusing Mustafa Kemal to be a Dönme which in their mind is no different than Jewish. This shows the level of hatred fundamentalists feel towards Mustafa Kemal for modernizing Turkey and for loosening the strong grip of dogmatism in Anatolia. As I mentioned in my “Spiritual Undercurrents of Anatolia” article, a significant portion of the Anatolian population converted from Christianity and Judaism to Islam during the Ottoman times. That is a taboo subject, never discussed but not denied either. Then,why would the Dönme be singled out? They converted to Islam after all.

Fundamentalists attack them because of their large historical role in the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Islamic fundamentalists were against all the reforms that Mustafa Kemal and his supporters brought to Anatolian society. Even after 87 years the fundamentalists are still trying to eradicate the legacy of Mustafa Kemal and they see Dönme as an easy target representing the secular reformist mentality.

In a strange twist of history, the “Ulusalcı” (secular nationalist) movement in Turkey joined the hate campaigns against Dönme in recent years. The “Ulusalcı” movement is very secular like Dönme. They strongly believe in the reforms of the Turkish Republic. I never understood why they would join this ugly campaign. It seems to me that there was a power struggle among the secular elite of Turkey. This power struggle weakened their position and led to the recent takeover of all institutions by the Islamic fundamentalists.

Why am I defending the Dönme? I do not come from a Dönme family. My paternal ancestors were forced to move to Salonika from Karaman (Central Anatolia) by Sultan Mehmet II. After 500 years their grandchildren were forced to move back to Anatolia. Interesting Karma! My maternal grandparents were from Ardahan bordering Azerbaijan.

I defend Dönme for the same reason I defend Alevis even though my family is Sunni. The Turkish Republic would not be the only secular democracy among Muslim nations without the leadership of Alevis and Donme. Their leadership was heroic as long as it lasted. I thank them for their great contributions to the Turkish society.

Salonika the Great City

Salonika was the capital of Macedonia in Alexander’s day. Salonika was the co-capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Salonika (Thessaloniki) is the co-capital of modern Greece today. The world should know more about Salonika.


[1] Marc David Baer, “The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks”, Stanford University Press

[2] Adam Kirsch, “The Other Secret Jews”, The New Republic, 15 Feb 2010, accessed 20 Feb 2010.


Mark Mazower, “Salonica, City of Ghosts”, Knopf 2005

About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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