Blog | February 2017

Post-Imperial Peregrinations (On the Origins of Empires of Memory)

by Jeremy F. Walton


Memories, their absence, and the political landscapes that both remembrance and amnesia inhabit are not merely the guiding concerns of our Max Planck research group, “Empires of Memory.” These themes constantly occupy me in quotidian ways, and have been sharpened by my various wanderings across the dense historical terrain of Southeast Europe. One particular voyage from Zagreb to Thessaloniki, in August 2014, was a direct inspiration for “Empires of Memory.” These recollections from that journey are therefore a fitting inaugural entry for our research group’s blog—they are part of the prehistory and a sort of “ur-text” for the project as a whole.


After departing from Zagreb’s Glavni Kolovdor—a former stop on the Oriental Express—my wife Karin and I spent two nights and one day in Belgrade, where tee shirts proclaiming pan-Slavic and pan-Orthodox fealty to Vladimir Putin sell briskly on Kalemegdan, the hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, itself a former frontier of both the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empires. Our main destination in Belgrade was Tito’s mausoleum, the Kuća Cveća or House of Flowers. With characteristic optimism, we decided to journey by foot from our hotel in central Belgrade despite the ascending mercury. As we walked down the broad boulevard of Kneza Milo ša , we passed a massive, ruined complex of state offices, their shelled-out façades and warped pylons open to the street. NATO bombed these state offices during the Kosovo War of 1999; at the time, the Milošević regime left the partially devastated buildings to stand unrepaired as a testament to the West’s aggression, and they remain so today. In Belgrade, commemoration of this recent past entails a refusal to intervene in the cityscape, a demand that ruination narrate the war in a particular way, and emblematize Serbian grievances.

From Belgrade, Karin and I took a train at near snail’s pace to Skopje, where history and memory now occupy urban space in a far more spectacular manner. Pausing in our exploration of the city, we took shelter from the punishing midday sun in the shadow of a gargantuan statue of Alexander the Great, which now overwhelms Skopje’s central square on the west bank of the Vardar River. Several hundred meters to the east, on the opposite bank, a slightly smaller, still massive statue of Phillip of Macedon marks the entrance to the čaršija, the warren of cobblestone streets that constitutes Skopje’s Ottoman core. When I first visited Skopje in the summer of 2003, the center city was a drowsy, seductive place, where an intimate idleness was the order of the day; now, it is a circus of neo-classical façades and disproportionate monuments, the bequest of an ill-conceived urban renovation project titled Skopje 2014. While Belgrade preserves ruins as a testament to national indignation, Skopje specializes in public memory as an exercise in monumental exaggeration.

Departing Skopje, Karin and I took a brief bus ride across the Greek border to Thessaloniki. En route, we passed through the dusty town of Gevgelija, which seized international headlines in 2015 due to the belligerence of Macedonian border guards in response to the chaotic influx of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees, among others, seeking transit from Greece through the Balkans and onward to Germany and other central and western European destinations. Gevgelija is a small, anonymous city, and it is difficult for me to imagine the drama that occurred there in the summer of 2015 (and continues still in fits and starts). Yet unremarkable places are increasingly the settings for remarkable events of strife and violence. Not only Gevgelija, but the border towns of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary, not to mention the devastated conurbations on the Turkey-Syria border or the now-evacuated Calais Jungle, are flashpoints for conflicts and tragedies that vastly exceed their modest scale. Nor is it a coincidence that libertarian utopians such as the Czech founder of Liberland, a self-proclaimed independent mini-state located on a disputed, soggy patch of the Danubian border between Croatia and Serbia, frequently imagine similar locales as spaces of “freedom” and profit.

In Thessaloniki—a place that historian Mark Mazower has memorably called the “city of ghosts”—the relationship between past and present is as likely to take the form of erasure as commemoration. The Ottoman history of Salonika, which stretched from 1430 to 1913 CE, is now largely mute and only sporadically visible, though there are signs in recent years that this has begun to change. During our sojourn in the city, Karin and I visited an elegant former mosque, the Yeni Camii, which was designed by Sicilian architect Vitaliano Poselli and constructed in 1902, a mere decade prior to the First Balkan War and the consequent end of five centuries of Ottoman rule in the city. The New Mosque housed a unique religious community that is now little more than a memory itself: the dönme, Jewish converts to Islam who revered the 17th century figure Sabbatai Zevi as the messiah. After the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 following the war in western Anatolia that resulted in the establishment of Republican Turkey, the dönme were relocated en masse to Istanbul and other Turkish cities, where the remainder of the twentieth century witnessed the absorption of their distinctiveness in the solvent of various national narratives. The Yeni Camii became the city’s Archeological Museum; now, it occasionally functions as an exhibition space. The premises were mostly empty when Karin and I visited, save for the large creep of tortoises that patrols the garden and cemetery surrounding the beautiful Neo-Moorish building. After milling about the Yeni Camii for half an hour, Karin and I walked toward the center city, where we encountered the preeminent symbol of Thessaloniki, the White Tower or Leukos Purgos. A plaque at the base of this stout structure engages in a dramatic historical erasure. It reads, in English: “The White Tower, which came to be the symbol of Thessaloniki by coincidence, was built in the late 15th century on the site of an older Byzantine tower.” The fact that Ottomans erected the tower is effectively silenced.

Later that afternoon, in retreat from the Aegean swelter, Karin and I sat in the shade of a plane tree in the garden of a café opposite the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The late Ottoman villa remains a site of secular pilgrimage for many Turks, in addition to its function as the local Turkish consulate. She drank lemonade, I drank mineral water and Turkish coffee (or was it Greek coffee? In this context, especially, it was difficult to say.). After we reviewed the itinerary of the past few days, Karin casually asked me what my “dream” project—a scholarly endeavor not subject to the stringencies of funding, career trajectories, institutional imperatives, and even disciplinary and linguistic expertise—would be. I responded: “Well…this trip has been inspirational in many ways. It would be absolutely fascinating to trace the subdued, post-imperial continuities among these cities, and others. A comparative perspective on imperial legacies and memories in Vienna, Istanbul, Budapest, Sarajevo, Thessaloniki, Trieste, maybe Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje too…” It was merely an idle afternoon conversation; several months later, I submitted a hastily-prepared application to the Max Planck Society. The rest, as they say, is history.

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