From Dönme to Biennale: The "New Mosque" in Thessaloniki

[1] Gal Weinstein's installation Fire Tire (2010) for the Thessaloniki Biennale. 
The piece to the right is over 4 meters tall. Exhibited in the Yeni Camii (New Mosque), 
constructed 1902 in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo by author.

[2] Yeni Camii. Early 20th-century postcard.
Whether it's Sydney or Singapore, it seems like almost every major city in the world is now staging its own biennale, and Greece is no exception. This autumn, Thessaloniki celebrates its 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, and, besides featuring the work of a wide group of international artists, the Biennale committee has also opened the doors of several historical monuments in the city that are not always accessible to visitors. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I recently headed out to the Yeni Camii (English: New Mosque,  Greek: Γενί Τζαμί), one of the main exhibition spaces for the festival and also one of the most interesting monuments in Ottoman Thessaloniki, a bustling port city with a long past of Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities living together. [1, 2] In this post, we take you on a tour of the building, and explain how the Yeni Camii remains a place where the politics of these different communities continues to play out until the present.

[3] The Yeni Camii under construction, with scaffolding
 around the minaret that was eventually torn
down. 1902. Photo from the site of Baki Sarısakal.
The Yeni Camii (New Mosque) was built in 1902--hardly "new" by today's standards--one of the last major additions to the urban fabric before Thessaloniki was incorporated into the Greek state in 1912. [3] Scholars claim that the mosque was specifically built for the so-called Dönme community of Thessaloniki, Muslims of Sephardic Jewish origin that had converted to Islam by the 17th-18th centuries (Baer 157).  According to the Ottoman newspaper Sabah, on a fine autumn morning early in September 1902--at 8:30 am sharp--a crowd of thousands gathered to watch the opening ceremony for the mosque, a grand affair complete with a military band playing the "Hamidiye March" and speeches from the governor of the province and one Haci Mehmed Hayri Pasha, a field marshal in the Third Army who is named as the mosque's primary patron in the original foundation inscription.

[4] Maps illustrating the expansion of Ottoman Thessaloniki beyond the walled city, from 1850 to 1809. The Yeni Camii lies at the center of the new Hamidiye neighborhood, which appears in the right-hand map as the large area south-east of the city center, next to the shore of the bay. The Salname (Yearbook) of Thessaloniki in 1907 CE (1325 H) refers to the Yeni Camii as the "recently constructed Hamidiye Mosque." [p.565, available through ISAM]

[5] Yeni Camii (New Mosque). Photo from
the Vakıf Genel 
Müdürlüğü (Ankara),
Defter No. 2219. Courtesy of Sotiris Dimitriadis. 
The mosque was not constructed in the city center, but rather in a new neighborhood--the Hamidiye district--which, in the 1880s, was the first major suburb to develop beyond the ancient city walls. [4]  Photographs of the building under construction [3] or early postcards reveal how the mosque--which is today completely hemmed in by apartment buildings--once stood isolated in an airy square, surrounded by trees. The Hamidiye neighborhood was located south-east of the city along the shore of the bay. There many of Salonica’s wealthiest families built themselves magnificent homes with names like Chateau Mon Bonheur, or Villa Bianca, featuring views over the water to Mt. Olympos. Indeed, an old photograph from an album dated 1924, now in the Pious Endowment Directorate in Ankara, labels the building as the "Mosque of the Villas" (Yalilar Cami Şerifi). [5] Such a well-heeled community would naturally clamor for their own congregational mosque, designed in line with the latest architectural trends and fashions.

[5] Plaque located on the facade of the Yeni Camii, naming
Vitaliano Poselli as the architect in both Ottoman Turkish
and Italian, with the year 1319 AH (1902 CE). Author's Photo.
According to a plaque fixed to the outer facade, the architect of the mosque was Vitaliano Poselli, a Sicilian trained in Istanbul. [5] Poselli had been working in Thessaloniki since 1885, successful in his own private practice as well as in public contracts. He seems to have been responsible for the majority of the large fin-di-siecle behemoths that punctuate Thessaloniki's urban landscape: the Banque de Salonique (1906-8), the local Ottoman administration building (Hükümet Konağı, 1891), the Church of the Virgin Mary (1902-3) and the Villa Alatini (the residence of Sultan Abdülhamid II when he was in exile to Salonica 1909-12). Following the trend of the period, Poselli designed the mosque in what could be called an "eclectic" style, mixing together different structural elements that could be identified as Gothic (pointed arches), Renaissance/Neo-Classical (rounded arches, Corinthian capitals) and what at the time would be called "Moorish" or "Turkish" (horse-shoe arches, muqarnas, arabesque pattern-work). [6]

[6] Facade of the Yeni Camii. Photo by Author.
There is no question that at the turn of the century the Dönme of Thessaloniki promoted a vibrant culture with cosmopolitan tastes, as evidenced in the several literary and scientific journals being published by members of this community. However, the same scholars who have worked to document the role of this community in late Ottoman Salonica have, in my opinion, tended to over-stress the history of the Dönme to explain the eclectic style of the Yeni Camii. Marc Baer writes: "[The mosque's] Corinthian columns, referring to the Greco-Byzantine locality, hold up Alhambric-style Andalusian arches, referencing Islam, above which prominent bands of six-pointed stars in marble wrapping are inscribed on the building's interior and exterior, which conjures comparisons with Italian synagogues. Above the entrance, a large six-pointed star is embedded within an ornate arabesque...Because it is a fascinating melange, the distinctive mosque serves as a metaphor for the cosmopolitanism promoted by the Dönme." Looking at the Yeni Camii from the stand-point of a modern aesthetic, its combination of historical styles may strike a 21st-century viewer as unusual, or even unique. Yet the fact is that, within the context of the late 19th century, this mosque was hardly extraordinary. Eclecticism was the style of the day, and it took hold in almost every continent and translated to many different kinds of buildings: museums (PAFA, Philadelphia), churches (Immaculate Conception, New Orleans), synagogues (New Synagogue, Berlin), theaters, and yes, mosques as well. The Yeni Camii in Thessaloniki actually bears an uncanny resemblance to the Yıldız Mosque in Istanbul, the imperial foundation of Sultan Abdülhamid II. [7]

[7] Close-up view of the facade of the Yıldız Mosque in Istanbul (1884-86),
 the imperial mosque of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Photo by author.

[8] Original mechanism for the double-clock
towers. Photo by author.

A brief glance at the facade shows that the Yıldız Mosque also features a six-pointed star embedded in the center of the upper decorative crest, as well as on the marble bands wrapping around the building (to the right of the crest)--this all suggests that the same craft specialists who worked on the mosque at Yıldız may very well have been brought in to decorate the facade of the Yeni Camii in Thessaloniki. In short, if stars of David prominently feature on the imperial mosque in Istanbul (as well as in many mosques throughout the world), it becomes tricky to ascribe their appearance in the Yeni Camii to the mosque's particular relationship with the Dönme community. Suffice to say that the wealthy and influential residents of the new Hamidiye neighborhood preferred to construct their new mosque in an eclectic style because they wanted to access the latest fashions in architecture. The Yeni Camii also reflected in many ways the aggressive push toward modernization that at the time affected almost every aspect of urban life in Thessaloniki. The mosque not only included a sundial fixed to the outside of the building with Ottoman Turkish instructions on setting personal pocket-watches according to the markings ("Saatlerinizi on dakika'ya geri olarak dönleriniz," "Turn back your watch 10 minutes [from the indicated time on the dial]"), but also a double-clock tower that was operated by a complex mechanism that is still in situ, and, even in a state of disrepair, still a work of fine craftsmanship. [8]

[9] One of the double-clock towers of the
Yeni Camii, with Greek soldiers
billeted on the top of the roof, 1915.
The Yeni Camii was only in service as a mosque for a decade before the city became part of Greece in 1912. After this, the building has gone on to serve a wide variety of functions: a lookout post for Greek soldiers in 1915 [9], then for a short while a place to house refugees from the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in 1922, and from 1925 to 1963 home to Thessaloniki's archaeological museum (hence the "Archaeological Museum" sign in Greek above the doorway [6]). Today, the courtyard of the Yeni Camii still belongs to the museum, with ancient tombstones and columns littering the garden surrounding the building, while the structure itself belongs to the municipal government, a complicated bureaucratic arrangement that I am sure is a constant source of amusement to both parties. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, although the Yeni Camii is not always open to the public, it is today frequently being used as an exhibition space for art festivals as well as avant-garde theater productions. In a country that has often struggled to come to terms with its Ottoman past, it is gratifying to see such a prominent historical monument from that time period being preserved and serving a role in the city's growing art scene. What's more, under the initiative of Thessaloniki's new--and very popular--mayor Yiannis Boutaris, the Yeni Camii was opened for prayer as a mosque for the first time in 90 years in March of this year (you can watch it on youtube). Turkish diplomats commended this step, but stated that they were waiting for Athens to be next, a veiled reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan's assertion that he would only consider re-instituting the Greek Orthodox seminary in Istanbul if the Greek government consented to opening a mosque in Athens to prayer.

If you get the chance to visit Thessaloniki, don't miss the Yeni Camii--a fin-de-siecle gem that speaks to the urban transformation of the late Ottoman port city, and continues to play center stage as an arts venue as well as a bargaining chip in international relations. 

The 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art is on view until January 31, 2014. 

BAER, Marc. "Globalization, Cosmopolitanism, and the Dönme in Ottoman Salonica and Turkish Istanbul." Journal of World History 18/2 (June 2007): pp 141-170.
MAZOWER, Mark. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950. London: HarperCollins, 2004.
Sabah 4616 (7 Eylül 1902). Found in SAKAL, Baki Sarı, "Selanik'te Yaptırılan Son Cami Hamidiye Camisi (Yeni Cami)."

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